MOOC Matters: Examining 'Flipped' Classrooms

Bonnie Ferri is searching for an answer. The question? What is the best way to structure MOOCs for dual use — for the off-campus audience and also as a platform to enhance on-campus learning?

Ferri, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is the “champion” of one of seven mini-innovation hubs studying questions regarding MOOCs. 

One method of structuring MOOCs for dual use that is proving to have merit is the “flipped classroom” model that takes a regular class, such as ECE 3710: Circuits and Electronics, and removes all of the lecture material and puts it on the MOOC, then use the classroom time for recitation, active learning, problem solving, and hands-on experiences.

“With in-class hands-on experiences, the students have their laptops and measurement devices, and they’re doing mini-experiments at their desks,” Ferri said. “They’re active. They’re engaged with each other, and they’re engaged with the instructor.” 

As part of her group’s research, Ferri recently attended a conference on online education and talked with a number of instructors who are using MOOCs in their classrooms.

“They were using MOOCs as extra resources for the class; it was not replacing the lecture because it was all optional,” she said.

Another method is to remove all of the lecture material and put it on the MOOC, then use the classroom time for recitation, active learning, problem solving and hands-on experiences.

“The consensus, from talking to a number of people, is if you’re going to do this — especially the second method — take all of the higher level learning and do that in class,” she said. “Make the most of the time with the professor. [Consider] what do you want the students to be able to do? Have them do the high-level work — synthesis work, evaluation, problem solving — in class. And have them do lower level things, like studying facts they need to memorize, online.” 

Ferri and her colleagues had some case studies on campus where instructors are replacing lectures in class with the MOOC. One case study was ECE 4555: Embedded and Hybrid Control, taught last spring by Professor Magnus Egerstedt in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The MOOC was on “Control of Mobile Robots,” and Egerstedt worked with a 4000-level class. 

“This is unusual because it’s a mathematical class taken by graduate students as well as seniors,” Ferri said. “It’s very high level and not your typical MOOC because of the level of depth, and it was rigorous.” 

In this case, all of the lecture material was online, allowing students to review the material in advance.

“It is a lot more efficient to get through the material in the online format,” Ferri said. “It takes less time to cover the material in this format than in class.  Students can go at their own pace; some will watch the videos at 1.5 times the speed while others will pause often and also re-watch videos.”

Egerstedt replaced the in-classroom time with quizzes on the lecture material (to make sure the students actually listened to the lectures) and with project time, a new element he added to the class. During project time he brought mobile robots into the class and did experiments with them.

Grading was one of the greatest challenges because of the difficulty in accounting for the student’s successful completion of the Coursera course. Another challenge is, now that the instructor has wiped the slate clean of lectures, how should the in-class time be used? What are the activities that make sense?

Egerstedt questioned the student workload because he believes with this approach he required more from the students than he normally does because of the projects and hands-on experiments.

Ferri also spoke with Professor Mike Schatz in the School of Physics, who did the same thing with Physics 2211: Introduction to Physics. Schatz agrees there is “perceived increase in student workload” because students think the MOOC format is more work than they normally would have for the class. Schatz added a communications component to the class in which students present a lab report.

One of the biggest challenges is assessment. Is this method working better than the traditional approach? How effective is this as an educational model?

Ferri and her mini innovation hub colleagues are working with the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) to come up with a plan for assessing MOOCs, so that instructors will not have to create an assessment plan on their own from the ground up.

“By using a pilot study, we can take this information and feed it back to improve the class,” Ferri said.