This new tool makes the flipped classroom more social

Watching videos at home is a rather solitary affair. Can a new tool change that?

Flipping your class by having students watch lecture videos for their homework can lead to richer discussions about the content, but only if students come to class prepared. And having them watch a video lecture at home “simply takes a technique that didn’t work in person and puts in online,” said Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur.

During the 2016 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference organized by education thought leader Alan November, Mazur unveiled a free tool that he and a team of colleagues developed to solve this problem.

Called Perusall, it’s a social learning platform that will “essentially make sure every student is prepared for class,” Mazur said. It also makes sure teachers are prepared to address students’ key questions and areas of confusion—without creating more work for the instructor.

Mazur spent the first part of his opening keynote recalling how he realized long ago that teaching must be more than simply transferring knowledge.

Early in his career, he would spent countless hours before every class preparing lecture notes from a different textbook than students were using. He even found a textbook that was out of print, so there would be no danger that his students would own a copy—and therefore his notes wouldn’t mirror what they were reading. He also prepared copies of his lecture notes for students to take with them at the end of class, so they’d stay throughout his lecture first. But in describing this strategy, he noted: “Isn’t that already admitting there’s a problem?”

Mazur found that taking an inquiry-based approach to teaching was far more effective for his students. His technique was to introduce his students to a concept by having them read about it or watch a video for homework, and then in class he would ask a question that applied the concept in a whole new context. He would have his students think about their response, then find peers who disagreed with their answer and discuss the problem together.

It’s a technique he calls peer instruction, and he has found that it’s quite effective for students to learn how to reason from each other. He demonstrated the concept with conference attendees, asking a question about buoyancy that challenged attendees to apply what they knew about water displacement to a challenging scenario and discuss their answer with a neighbor.

“Look at this: You all got fired up,” he said when the demonstration was over. By using an inquiry-based approach to instruction, “isn’t it amazing how you can reawaken the creativity of the human mind?”

Next page: Fixing the big problems with the flipped model

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