Flipped Classrooms Can Earn an A+ for Multiculturalism

May 29, 2013

There has been a lot of discussion—and controversy—about “flipped classrooms” lately. For the uninitiated, the idea behind the flip teaching approach is that students do their course work—watching the professor deliver a lecture via video, doing research, writing, etc.—away from school, then come to the classroom for in-person discussion with teachers and classmates.

The benefit, proponents say, is that classroom time is spent discussing, challenging and exploring rather than passively listening.

One key benefit to this teaching model, as I’ve found out for myself after trying it, is that it opens the door to a whole new type of learning that takes advantage of—and derives the most benefit from—our increasingly multicultural classrooms.

When I first became a “lecturer”—taking a position as adjunct faculty teaching project management at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS)—I took my title very literally and lectured my students. As a long-time victim of corporate “death by PowerPoint” sessions, I’m somewhat ashamed that I did this, but I did.

No matter how entertaining I tried to make lectures, no matter what clever device I used—voice modulation, funny stories, tragic examples from my corporate life, operatic versions of the text readings—nothing fully engaged all of my graduate students, who were a multicultural mix of young and old, experienced and inexperienced, full-time and part-time. Soliciting questions and expecting a response from any living creature beyond the cricket in the back right corner of the room could be a tortuous experience.

My multicultural students who were not native English speakers, in particular, had a difficult time processing lecture material and responding to questions in this environment. I knew that if I developed a course in a way that reached these students without simplifying the coursework too much for English-speaking students then I would have a course that fostered the full development of everyone in my classroom.

When I was tasked with creating a Capstone course for our project management students I kept this in mind, and tried to create an environment that was nearer to what they would experience as project managers in the real world.

So I designed the course as a flipped classroom, where our time together was used to give each team a chance to report on its activities over the preceding two weeks.

Project teams were assigned randomly to avoid cliques, to foster intercultural and cross-experience dialog and, well, because that is how the world works: You don’t get to pick your team.

The first evening’s time was devoted to presentations, discussion, open question sessions with guest project managers and other activities designed to fully engage the students. I also had each student do a typical icebreaker, which is uncomfortable to most people but ends up being something that develops a key competency of a project manager: the ability to speak extemporaneously about something that they know.

The results of this model were phenomenal. I could see students grow during the 12-week session from individuals who were sometimes timid, had a loose grasp on project management concepts and who did not have confidence in their ability to manage a project, into people who understood enough to be valuable contributors to a project team and confident in their own abilities. Anonymously conducted reports from the students indicate that, while they view the course was very challenging, they value the experience and would not change anything.

The benefits of a flipped classroom model are striking in this international student population setting. My U.S. students report that they prize being able to work through communication and cultural differences in class because that’s what they’ll face in the real world. My multicultural, non-English-speaking students benefited by being able to review and process materials as many times as necessary before being asked to talk about them in class. For them, the process was nurturing because they could see that all students—English speaking and non-English speaking alike—have trouble addressing groups of people and understanding project management jargon. But it was also challenging in that they had to work to overcome their reticence to question (and to offer their opinion to) their peers.

Our students embody the best of what internationalism and multiculturalism can look like in higher education. The 26th Annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education meets this week. It addresses the need to create learning spaces that foster interaction (rather than just “being with” others) as a means to develop greater understanding.

The class I developed, by virtue of the space created by the flipped classroom model and the random nature of group assignments, allows me to create this kind of space—where students learn to think on their feet and work together across cultural, age, and experience boundaries (in addition to learning project management jargon such as “going down a rat hole”).

If someone had told me, back when I started teaching, that the future of education included students “attending” lectures at home and doing “homework” in class, I’d have given them a funny look and asked for the check. But here we are, in the midst of some of the most profound upheavals in education since the one-room schoolhouse got a blackboard—and I’m finding myself more than ready to flip my curriculum into the future.

For more on the flipped classroom model and its pros and cons, check out this nifty infographic, which comes courtesy of Daniel Grafton and visual.ly. Also check out this article, which similarly features an infographic.