The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 17, 2013

Learning experiment will put focus on students, not instructor

From The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— I’ve flipped out.

Folks have suspected it for some time, but I’m making it official here. More accurately, my classroom will be flipped out.

A year ago, I wrote about a rural high school in Illinois that planned to flip its classrooms for the 2012-2013 school year. I thought the notion of letting students do the lectures via technology at home and the homework in the class setting was one whose time had come. I still think that.

In February, I embarked upon a monthlong seminar to teach me how to flip one of my courses, Introduction to Mass Communication. I have attended follow-up meetings with the instructors and given much mental chewing to how this notion will actually manifest itself in my classroom.

Two decades ago, when I entered the teaching profession the first time, the buzzword was collaborative learning. That term changed to peer tutoring. Now, it’s think-pair-share. All of them mean students talking and learning from one another as active participants in their own learning while the instructor guides and facilitates the sharing.

The trick is tricking them into doing it. The good news is technology is an able tool.

At first, I thought video lectures were the answer. As we progressed through the how-to course, I changed my idea. I enjoy meeting young people and learning from them in a face-to-face setting. They will still see me thrice weekly, so a video lecture didn’t seem all that valuable. Plus, I wouldn’t have to produce videos.

The drawing board took me to the idea of podcasts. Students can tune in via their smartphones without having to watch me stand there and yack. I’m trying to put myself out of the yacking business so I can become a master at the learning business.

But why do a podcast? I had to seriously consider the value I add to the course. The contextual and anecdotal information that goes beyond the PowerPoint is why students should tune in.

Hold on a minute, there. Yes, I realize that in a perfect world, students should read the book, make outlines, study and do what they’re told. When I taught this class a year ago, I discovered they did not and no amount of pop quizzes would change that.

So we have podcasts and PowerPoint presentations available online. What else?

The instructors said I should publish the podcast script so students have multimedia platforms from which to gather course material. Further, it would make the online course materials fully accessible for students with disabilities.

But I kept coming back to the textbook. If I provide everything online, students have no reason for buying the text. That means the author on whose material I rely to shape and direct the course does not get any financial benefit. As a writer myself, that stinks and smacks of being unethical.

So here’s the compromise. They will get podcast highlights with prompts to see the book for certain information and PowerPoint tips to find it.

I’m tired of looking into 65 sets of Bambi caught in headlights as I do my darnedest to wow them with an entertaining lecture. I’d rather spend that time with in-class activities that go beyond the scope of the book to give them a real-world taste of the media. Or, I’d like to transport them to the 1960s to show them examples and let them see how important media coverage was in changing American society.

I want them to feel Bull Connor’s fire hoses on their faces in Alabama. I want them to see the sweat on Joseph McCarthy’s upper lip as he led the charge to blacklist some of Hollywood’s most gifted and creative people. I want them to sit in the jail cell with John Peter Zenger while he awaited his fate in the libel case that helped establish a free American press.

The bottom line is I want to unleash their power for learning and get out of the way. I can’t do that from the front of the class while 65 sets of eyes watch the sweat on my upper lip.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2013 by Nerissa Young