Flippin’ Tech!

It seems that the Khan Academy continues to get funded and promoted as the transformational answer to the future of education we’ve been waiting for all these years..


At one level I have no problem with students watching short video clips that support a broad-based learning experience, and maybe the Khan Academy will eventually get round to providing some that are actually inspiring and accessible. My main concern is that politicians, school managers, parents and even students themselves will come to accept that this is the apogee of what digital learning has to offer.

For example, one of this year’s new buzzphrases appears to be ‘Flip the Classroom‘, or ‘Flip-thinking‘. Essentially the idea is that instead of using classroom time to deliver fact-based learning, students watch knowledge-led video lectures for homework and spend their time in class applying what they have learnt, under the direction of their teacher. The suggestion is that “they can stop and review things when they want, do things at their own pace, do it when it’s convenient”, and that they need time out of class to “reflect, ponder, get to grips with the ideas“. That is of course assuming all children have access to the internet whenever they want or need it.

Flip the classroom every teacher should do this

Hopes that the internet can improve teaching may at last be bearing fruit


As a result the suggestion is that learning technologies – such as computers – should be removed from classrooms, which can then be transformed into more friendly ‘learning environments’. And of course that the Khan Academy continues to be hailed as the cutting edge of ICT for teaching and learning. Apparently Khan ‘gets it’. Well, I’m afraid I don’t. It’s still very much a case of ‘New Technology, Old Learning’. And the danger is that while Khan might say it is intended only as part of a wider learning experience, it may quickly become the only learning experience for some.

So is ‘flipping the classroom‘ really a revolution in teaching and learning? I think not. Because when I was at school we had primitive tech devices called ‘textbooks’ which were full of dull  ‘just in case’ facts and which we had to learn for homework for a memory test the next day. That never worked for me then, and it certainly won’t work now for the vast majority of today’s students. And the idea of watching short review or preparation video is hardly new either – I was producing similar resources for an educational publishers 20 years ago. The only difference is they were being delivered on CDs. And they contained a high proportion of images and short amounts of text.

Quite frankly, studying the most current ‘old-fashioned’ illustrated, activity-based textbooks is a lot more informative than watching a tedious lecturer in front of a blackboard droning on in a situation where you can’t ask any questions, and the presenter has no feedback about whether anyone is listening, let alone understanding what is being said.  And what happened to the idea of personalisation, in that factual content is made more accessible as it can be placed in the localised context of the learner? Or the need to learn how to ask questions and find the answers for oneself, or how to collaborate, communicate and be a flexible, creative problem-solver?

Now I’m a great fan of the appropriate use of educational technology, and while ‘flipping the classroom‘ might have value for a small academically-inclined minority, for the average learner it’s going to be a complete turn-off, particularly if it’s the Khan Academy we are relying on. Before we flip anything in that way we need to first create high quality digital learning resources that are truly inspirational, use familiar examples drawn from real-life applications, provide insightful analogies and a little bit of humour to make the complex seem simple. Based on what I’ve seen so far I’d much rather any students of mine spent their time watching finely-crafted, thought-provoking, inspirational TED talks than Khan videos.

And then there’s ‘Get ten in a row automated assessments right and you move on‘? Per-lease…! This is just old-fashioned academic fact-filling, teaching to the test and increasingly irrelevant grading and class position. Not to mention: ‘These videos will never go out of date” and “Learning is like riding a bicycle“. This isn’t reinvention. It’s automation of the past.


Meanwhile ‘Getting rid of technology in the classroom‘ entirely misses the point about the potential use of mobile digital learning, in which information is at hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – if you know where to look for it – and that hand-held devices provide highly sophisticated problem-solving modelling and communication apps alongside access to a global social network. Life is no longer based on received wisdom from the past, but on received wisdom of the present. What we really need to be doing is having the technology to hand, right there in every classroom so that teachers can be continually instructing students in how to use it appropriately, and increasingly independently.

The Industrial Revolution ‘flipped’ the way many people lived, worked and thought during the 18th and 19th centuries. We now live in the ‘Information age’, and there are already many examples of how it is causing things to completely turn previously accepted practices upside down and inside out, such as in the music, movie, book publishing and marketing industries. In education, what really needs to be flipped is the curriculum and teacher-led, knowledge-based learning, along with society’s attitude to vocationally-related learning.

And you don’t want to know what DH Lawrence used the word ‘flipping’ as a euphemism for back in 1911. Or do you?