Three reasons why I blend but don’t completely flip

A review provided via video as a homework assignment
A review provided via video as a homework assignment

After having spent a couple of years reading numerous blogs on “flipped” learning, seeing posts all over social media espousing the benefits of flipped learning, and watching a few videos of how other teachers in all subjects are flipping their instruction, I decided to at least start experimenting.

But before I could flip or blend, I had to give some serious thought to the concept. I had some very basic questions first:

  • What does it mean to “flip” instruction?
  • How does “flipping” compare to “blending”

After having a bit read more, I came up with definitions that worked for me (but may not be the “official” definitions…if there are official definitions).

  • Flipped instruction means that instructors use technological tools, often videos on the Internet, for their direct instruction of content-specific concepts. Homework is now redefined as watching the videos (or completing other technologically designed lessons) and what used to be homework is now done in class, where the students can benefit from the help and interaction of teacher and peers. There may also be additional resources for extra practice, continued instruction, formative assessment, or enrichment provided online.
  • Blended learning means that instructors use technological tools, especially those available online, to provide a variety of resources to their students so that learning can continue and/or be reinforced beyond the school day. Some of these resources may include instructional videos, but not all instruction is delivered via video. Blended programs provide some instruction in class and some via video and supplement the in-class learning with extensive access to online resources for review, practice or enrichment.

For my own instruction, I came to the conclusion that blended would be more effective and more appropriate. Although I am naturally drawn to the concept of dedicating almost 100% of class time to rich, interactive application of concepts and vocabulary learned, I know my own limitations. I cannot truly flip my instruction. You may wonder why not. Especially if you know me. I’m certainly not afraid of the technology! So let me outline three reasons why I purposefully only deliver a small percentage of my lessons on video, but supplement their learning with extensive access to online practice, additional videos by other teachers on the topics we’re studying, and most importantly, numerous links to authentic documents addressing the topics about which we are speaking in class.

  1. True flipping requires that instructional content be delivered via video. To do all of my content this way goes against everything I believe about student-centered instruction: I don’t know how to do videos that aren’t basically teacher-centered “lectures” that students watch. Yes, they can watch at their own pace. Yes, they can stop, rewind, rewatch the video or even just a portion of the video that caused them difficulty. Yes, I can (and do) craft checks for understanding that are part of my video lessons so students know if they are understanding the material. But ultimately, my video lessons are still less student-centered than my in-person lessons.
  2. The ideal video lesson is short, preferably around five minutes. The material should be almost impossible for students to misunderstand. One of the main reasons  I don’t flip all of my instruction is because I am not convinced that I have the skill necessary to teach every one of my concepts in a way that is unmistakably clear and also concise enough to fit in five minutes of video. So I select only the topics that I know students will readily understand and that are easy to deliver quickly…although I still tend to take closer to 10 minutes per video. Definitely still have work to do here!
  3. Finally, we must address the issue that is unique to language classes: the content must be delivered entirely in the target language both in class and online.  When I look for related videos to add to my students’ resource pages, I am so frequently disappointed to find that the majority of videos posted online explain the language in English. This defeats the purpose of target language instruction and results in lower proficiency outcomes (research shows that students achieve higher proficiency when at least 90% of all instructional time is in the target language). For me, some topics are easier to do online in the target language than others. For year one students, thematic vocabulary works well. Most first-year courses feature vocabulary that is very concrete and for which one can find pictures that make it virtually impossible for students to misunderstand. As the students develop higher levels of proficiency, there are more options for teaching new material in the target language, but I still don’t find all topics suited to flipping. For some topics I prefer to see my students’ faces as I teach and during checks for understanding so I can modify instruction on the spot and ensure the lesson meets all of their needs. Other topics are not suited to flipped instruction because they are actually better taught in an interactive setting rather than via videos watched at home.

Ultimately, flipping (and blending) are like so many other approaches and materials available to educators: they are tools. We need to remember that no single approach is every going to be the most appropriate approach for every lesson or every class of students. We must choose from all of the tools at our disposal to craft the most engaging, productive and relevant lessons for our students. Sometimes, this means that delivering a lesson online will be the best method to address our students’ needs and our instructional goals. Other times, we know that our target objectives simply can’t be met by students viewing a video in isolation: they need to the contact and interaction with others in order to fully understand the concept and to be able to internalize it and make it part of their working language and cultural knowledge.

In spite my own limitations in terms of creating excellent learning via video, I am consistently working on increasing the number of my lessons that are available on video, adding a few videos a year across four levels of French. Why? In order to address the needs of students who were absent or who just find themselves in need of reviewing a topic. Throughout the year, I pick occasional topics for which I record additional lessons so that over the period of several years, I will have built a substantial bank of video lessons my students can consult online if they choose. Of course, this matches my definition of “blended” rather than “flipped” instruction. The videos are there as a resource, but they are not the sole source of content instruction in my classes. They also aren’t fancy. One area of improvement would be for me to include video of me talking in a window in the corner because research shows students have slightly higher outcomes if they can see the teacher in addition to hearing him/her. Another improvement would be for me to have fun with my videos. They are very straightforward and to the point right now. Almost to a fault.

I have found one more great use for blended learning: teacher absences. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect teachers to design flipped instruction when they are sick. But I am frequently absent for presentations, accreditation visits of other schools and other professional needs. Because I am absent significantly more than average, I need my students to be able to continue learning even if I am not in the room to teach them and even if they have a substitute who speaks no French. Bring on the flipped lessons. I don’t use them every time I’m absent, but I made great use of them on a recent two-day absence to film a promotional video for National Geographic’s Geo-Educator community. I was absent Friday and the following Tuesday for the flights to and from Washington D.C. (Monday was a holiday). For French 1, I designed a video lesson with built-in checks for understanding regarding personal possessions. My substitute is a retired teacher from my department and knows my technology, so she ran the lesson from my computer and LCD projector. That lesson was delivered on the first day of a two-day absence and it ensured that students were prepared to engage in even more practice activities the second day. Additionally, I purchased in-air wi-fi and I was available to answer students’ questions during my flight to Washington D.C. I only received one question, but I was so happy to be able to be in contact with the class even if I couldn’t be there physically. Students could reach me through the messaging portal of our class network on Schoology (a free tool similar to Edmoto). On the second day of my absence (which was the day of my flight home), I had a different type of flipped learning event ready for my French 4/AP students: I organized a series of authentic documents (video and print media) about important inventions into a folder in Schoology. Students started the lesson by viewing the documents and noting the different inventions as well as their opinions of the inventions. Once they had reviewed the documents, they were instructed to participate in an online discussion (like a forum) I had set up in Schoology. This proved to be very effective. I was online with them in real time for the entire lesson, interacting with them in the discussion from my seat on the plane. I could see how well they understood the documents and could also observe their facility or difficulties with French as they discussed the various inventions in French.

Blending or flipping…or neither. The approach is up to you as long as your decision is always grounded in the approach that will result in the best learning experiences and highest proficiency for your students. If you would like to get started, here are just some of the free tools you can use to record (Google any of these tools to find more information and even tutorials).

On computers

  • Jing by Techsmith. Limited to five minutes. Also does great screenshots.
  • MyBrainshark is an online tool that allows you to add narration to PowerPoints with a microphone or even a telephone. The result is then converted to a movie that anyone can watch on almost any device. This is great for teachers who already use PowerPoint to design lessons and therefore have a lot of material already in that format. Here is a sample for French 1 with the numbers 60-79 taught with photos of the numbers being used in authentic ways (such as highway signs) around the French-speaking world.

On tablets

  • Educreations (iPad) gives you a whiteboard with a voice record feature.
  • Touchcast (app and desktop versions)

You’ll also want to explore ways to check for understanding, especially ways that you can embed into your videos. One of the easiest is to create a quick formative assessment in Google Forms. Another option, is to use the quiz features in many learning platforms, including Edmodo and Schoology. Such a learning platform will probably become a necessity if you begin to flip or blend anyway because you will need a robust Web space to organize and share all of your content.

A third option for building in checks for understanding is to create a lesson series that includes your video and other content. You can then sequence all of the material in an online tool such as LessonPaths (formerly Mentormob) or BlendSpace (formerly EdCanvas), both of which allow you include quiz features and/or other activities. It should be noted that the conversion from Mentormob to LessonPaths is not complete yet and new users cannot use it yet. If you have an existing Mentormob account, you can still use that.

Blending provides our students with 24/7 access to instructional content, tutorials, extra practice and enrichment. It is not really an instructional strategy as much as it is a complex system of instructional resources organized for use in class or out of class, during the school day or after hours. Blending may (and often does) include some flipped lessons (meaning they were never delivered in class, only online). Students and parents have responded very favorably, particularly regarding the accessibility of resources. When students have been absent, they have always appreciated it when video lessons were available.

I’ve already crossed the bridge from delivering all content in class to delivering some content online. There really is no going back: over time, more and more of my lessons will be available online and some of those will only be delivered online. In addition, the bank of additional resources available to students will also become more diverse. Maybe I’ll see you occasionally appearing on the flip side as well.


2 thoughts on “Three reasons why I blend but don’t completely flip

  1. Hi Nicole!

    I’d love to invite you (and your readers) to Blended Teaching of World Languages (LTMOOC) that we’re hosting this April. We’d love to get your insight and expertise as we strive to facilitate and improve language teaching everywhere.


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