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Daniel McCormack describes his typical weekday the same way many remote office workers do: He wakes up anywhere between 6 and 7 a.m. and eats breakfast quickly, relaxes for a bit before hopping on his first Zoom call of the day, at 8:15 a.m. His “office”—his words—is on the floor above his bedroom. Except Daniel isn’t an adult. He’s a seventh-grader at Francis Howell Middle School in Weldon Spring, Missouri, and the office he’s referring to is in his mother’s house. This semester, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, his schooling is 100 percent virtual.

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With the wisdom of someone much older than twelve, Daniel talks about how he likes working from the comfort of his own home, is happy to have ditched his daily commute, and enjoys saving money on dining out (“I don’t have to pay lunch money,” he says). Although the Wi-Fi sometimes lags, he largely loves virtual learning. A science class for Daniel might involve his teacher leading a lecture and then assigning students to breakout rooms for group activities. His Speech and Drama teacher posts videos for the class to watch on Canvas, a digital learning management platform that’s become nearly as ubiquitous as Zoom in 2020.

The flipped classroom, where students consume instructional content—largely videos—on their own at home and then use class time for discussion and activities, has been gaining traction in recent years. With many schools across the country offering virtual learning due to Covid-19, students are now using videos and other materials to enhance their learning experiences, regardless of whether their school employed the flipped classroom model before the pandemic. The flipped classroom model allows students to work at their own pace, and educators can use class time more creatively. But is it effective for everyone?

The research around flipped classrooms has been largely positive. “Flipping a College Calculus Course: A Case Study,” published in the July 2015 issue of Educational Technology & Society, looked at how a flipped classroom affected 96 college students’ achievements in math. Researchers concluded that participants preferred watching videos rather than reading from a textbook as preparation before class. They also found that there was a statistically significant difference in the students’ average quiz scores. Students scored higher during the flipped section of the course.

In a similar study, “The Impact of the Flipped Classroom on Mathematics Concept Learning in High School,” published in the July 2016 issue of Educational Technology & Society, researchers divided 82 high schoolers into two groups. One group was taught trigonometry using the flipped classroom model; the other learned the same lesson the traditional way. Researchers found a significant difference in achievement and motivation between the two groups, with flipped-classroom participants performing better.

Gracie Hedenberg, a 17-year-old senior at Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Missouri, had a similar experience with virtual learning last spring. “My math class was a recorded video that you could watch on your own time,” she said. “And then you just turned in your homework. So there was less direct interaction unless you wanted to watch that live, which was a possibility.” Hedenberg, who plans on attending college next year, enjoyed the flexibility. “I feel like it prepped me [for college],” she says. “It can be easy to go on Zoom and turn your camera off and turn your microphone off and check out. If you’re putting forth that effort to really check in, I think that’s a good skill [to learn].”

Modifications to the flipped classroom model also show promise. One study, “How to Flip the Classroom—‘Productive Failure or Traditional Flipped Classroom’ Pedagogical Design?” (also in Educational Technology & Society (January 2017)) looked at achievement in the flipped classroom and a “productive failure” design. The latter asked students, using mobile technology, to solve problems related to new concepts in class. They then watched videos about those concepts at home. Researchers found that both models showed improvement in knowledge, but those in the “productive failure” classroom performed better than those in the flipped classroom.

Finally, in the January 2020 issue of Educational Technology & Society, an article titled “The Effectiveness of the Flipped Classroom on Students’ Learning Achievement and Learning Motivation” provided a meta-analysis, looking at the findings of 95 different studies on the flipped classroom. The studies were pulled from three databases—Web of Science, Scopus, and Eric—published from 2013 to 2019, and included 15,386 participants.

In the meta-analysis, researchers found that the flipped classroom “had an overall positive effect on students’ learning achievement and learning motivation,” with a significant impact on learning motivation, and no significant difference among subjects. “This result might be explained by the fact that the appropriate use of flipped classroom would be effective in any learning domains that include real-world problems, design effective in-class learning activities, facilitate efficient interactions through information technologies, and integrate other pedagogical models according to the characteristics of different learning domains,” the researchers wrote. Researchers found that watching videos before class led to the largest effect size, and video, in contrast to consuming other resources before class, produced better outcomes.

The researchers cautioned that before educators implement a flipped classroom, students’ experiences, prior knowledge, information technology skills, and communication skills should be taken into consideration. Standardized test scores and grades, they note, could also be used in further studies.

Kait Gentry is a learning and support coordinator for The Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. Teachers there adopted Google Classroom before Covid-19, but when the school went totally remote last spring, it was a chance to implement more of the flipped classroom model. Teachers ceased live lectures in favor of students consuming content independently, then meeting in small groups for discussion on the material.

“It was such a departure from the kind of traditional school, but there were a lot of awesome things that came out of it,” Gentry says. “One of my students, when he was asked what his favorite type of class was, said virtual classes, because he was able to take his time, digest the material before, and then go in with this foundational knowledge.”

Calvert School students are largely back on campus now, with Covid-19 precautions in place. But Gentry says that because educators saw how beneficial the model was, they wanted to keep some of it. She says it’s not just the school’s top performers who are excelling in the flipped classroom model. Children who are slower to process, like to think deeply, or feel better when they get to double-check their work are embracing the change.

Students’ backgrounds and learning styles, then, might be critical to their success with virtual learning. Joshua Kellogg is a sophomore at Colorado State University who is studying creative writing. He also has an ADHD diagnosis. Last spring, when the university pivoted to virtual learning, Kellogg faced some challenges.

“One of the things that helps me operate as somebody with ADHD is having different places to do things,” Kellogg says. “Not being able to do that anymore was one of the biggest struggles about transitioning to online learning,” he says.

Last semester’s physics class, for example, required students to watch videos of lectures, similar to the flipped classroom model. “I personally could not do that at all,” he remembers. “I can’t focus on a YouTube video that I want to watch, so how does anybody expect me to focus on a YouTube video that’s boring?” He recognizes that physics can be interesting, but if his diagnosis makes it difficult for him to pay attention to a video that was designed to be pure entertainment, a YouTube video of a professor talking at him stands little chance.

“There were supposed to be recitation [classes],” Kellogg says, “but I couldn’t even tell you when mine were. It’s something about not having a classroom to go to. It’s like, ‘Oh well, that class isn’t real.’”

Although online learning hasn’t worked as well as the traditional classroom model for Kellogg, he does recognize it might be helpful to some students with physical disabilities or chronic pain. “I think that it opens the door to people who otherwise would never have an opportunity if they had to show up to a classroom or multiple classrooms [daily],” he says.

Mary Stumpf has been an education liaison with Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in Maryland Heights, Missouri, for ten years. She coordinates education for any child who will be hospitalized longer than three weeks, either through their school district or the Special School District of St. Louis County. Educators typically visit the children in the hospital for five hours a week. Although it’s less instruction than a student would receive in school, it’s one-on-one attention. Now, because of the pandemic, educators aren’t allowed to visit the hospital, and patients have pivoted to virtual learning. “That’s instrumental because sometimes if it’s a new injury, their classmates have not seen them since they had the accident,” Stumpf says. “It’s not quite so awkward.”

Jane, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is a 17-year-old high school student who is hospitalized at Ranken Jordan. Before Covid-19, a teacher visited Jane—solo—to help her with homework. Now, Jane wakes up each school day at 8 a.m., goes into a conference room, and gets on a Zoom call with her teacher and classmates. Every 30 minutes or so, she switches classes, just like a normal school day. “It just makes it more interesting,” she says. She also likes the flexibility: “I can go at my own pace. I like to take my time while I’m doing quizzes and tests, to make sure I’m getting the answers right.”

Technology is also making it easier for students like Jane to learn. Jane has a visual impairment, and with online learning, she can use technology to make fonts larger. Before online learning, she needed enlarged-print versions of her hard-copy school materials. Stumpf showed another student, who has trouble writing, how to do speech-to-text.

Virtual learning, in these cases, is often a chance at a little bit of normalcy. But other students thrived on the old model, the more intimate, person-to-person teaching and tutoring. “For some kids, it’s a bad thing. Especially for some of our children with special needs,” Stumpf recognizes. Children who have Individualized Education Programs that involve physical or occupational therapy now have to do that virtually, which places a greater burden on parents to try to mimic what a therapist does. “Sometimes for kids with autism, or those who are visually impaired or hearing impaired, virtual learning can be a real challenge with that. In that case, we would probably try to see if we can have a volunteer or one of us be with that child to try to provide that one-on-one human interaction,” Stumpf said.

Back in Baltimore, Kait Gentry of The Calvert School reflects an enduring commitment to one-on-one connection, but her middle school only has 231 students total, which may be an important reason why educators found the flipped model so successful.

“The flipped classroom is effective because you can capitalize on the connection that you have between teachers and students,” she says. “Initially, you think a flipped classroom emphasizes technology, but I actually think it emphasizes relationships. I think our students have thrived because they can get the foundation, they feel good about it, but then they can come to class and really connect.”

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