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Turn tech laggards into learners -- adopt the flipped classroom model

What if you could improve tech training and save money at the same time? The flipped classroom model can do that, and more, for tech education, Joseph Flahiff says.

I've been called the "Organizational Alchemist" and it is time today for some alchemy. We are going to mix two streams of knowledge and come up with gold.  Are you ready?

First, take a trip with me in the time machine of your mind back to your high school days. You are in algebra and the teacher is about to explain quadratic equations. (Remember? Can you smell the pencil sharpener shavings in the air?) The teacher walks up to the chalkboard; here comes the squeak of the chalk. After 55 minutes of solid lecture on the infamous equation -- with you taking crazy notes as fast as you can -- the assignment is given and you're shuffled off to the next class.

That evening at home you pull out your book and notes and attempt to slog through the assignment. But your notes are unclear and the examples in the book don't all make sense. You get some of it but not all of it. You get to bed, late, tired and frustrated. The next day when you get to class, the assignments are collected. Maybe a couple minutes are spent answering questions. Then the teacher moves on to the next topic. Were your questions answered? Maybe, but probably not.

Traditional vs. flipped classroom model

That is the traditional classroom model and it has been around for decades.

My wife is an educator and introduced me to a radical reformation of the classroom, known in educational circles as the flipped classroom.

The flipped classroom model looks like this.

In addition to providing better learning, the flipped tech class will cost less. Classes can be shorter because the instructor is spared the time of repeating the same lecture of basic, common principles.

The teacher has content that needs to be communicated to the students. Nothing new there. But we have technology, so why not use it? The instructor records the lessons, in our case, on quadratic equations and posts it to YouTube or some platform like it.

In the flipped classroom model, your assignment is to go home, watch the video, take notes, and maybe try a few practice problems. That's it. Since you are watching this video at home on your own time, you aren't embarrassed if you don't get part of it. You just replay the video. If there is a question the video doesn't cover, you write it down for the next day in class.

When you come to class you are given the assignment to do -- in class. When you have a question about a problem in the assignment, the flipped classroom model comes with ready resources: You are surrounded by other students and your teacher is right there too. If the teacher gets enough questions about one topic, maybe he or she does a spontaneous lesson on that part. 

Flipped classroom model applied to tech training

This is a super-simplified version of what the flipped classroom model looks like. For more information, take a look at this guide from the University of Washington and this infographic on the flipped classroom from the University of Texas at Austin.

So, why am I writing about this for

Simple. The flipped classroom is a great tool to bring to technology training. Look at how most tech training goes down today.

  1. A hired trainer comes to your company or you go to a classroom for one to five days of training.
  2. In class, content is delivered to you and you do some exercises to try and make it more permanent.
  3. The better classes allocate part of the last day for questions.
  4. Then you are sent home with a binder of PowerPoint slides from class and a certificate.

What if we flipped this classroom? Whether it is learning Java or learning Scrum, there is some basic content to be delivered, principles to understand and techniques to learn. These can all be put into video format -- videos that you watch either on company time or on your own time. Then you go to a class – and, yes, there is still in-class training. Time used for in-class training is used for clarification and adaptation of those principles to your organization.

Let's imagine you are a company that is going to adopt Scrum. The basic training material about the history of Agile, the principles of Scrum, the artifacts and ceremonies can all be recorded. You learn the theory around story cards, and how to estimate points. Concepts about self-organizing teams and supportive leadership can all be put into videos that are accessible by students for the time they're in the class -- and after. Then the time in class is spent on interactive learning that helps apply the principles to real life in your organization. 

In addition to making much better use of the time in class, having access to a comprehensive video library of good Agile principles and practice helps ensure that everyone is hearing the same thing. It also allows people to go back and relearn. 

Preparation, monitoring are key

This all takes careful preparation because the time in class needs to be used differently. Indeed, flipping the classroom sounds simple, but it isn't as easy as it sounds and it is easy to get it wrong.

At first glance, it may seem that it is enough to just have the videos and so why pay for an Agile consultant (or Java trainer, etc.) to do the in-class training part? This would be OK, if it weren't for the fact that you still need to apply the principles to your specific context. There is still a very strong need for in-class work.

Another drawback is that you need to ensure that people are actually watching the videos and come prepared for class. If people come to class expecting to be spoon-fed the basics, as they are in traditional lectures, they will slow the whole class down, causing frustration and delaying what is an accelerated process.

In addition to providing better learning, the flipped tech class will cost less. Classes can be shorter because the instructor is spared the time of repeating the same lecture of basic, common principles: Thus, the same value is delivered in less time for both the trainer and the trainee. The other alternative is that the class remains the same length, but more value is delivered in class because there's more attention on the application of principles and on addressing specific questions. Either way it is a win.

The flipped classroom model is a powerful change in educational pedagogy. By the way, my middle daughter had a flipped classroom for math and she loved it. 

The technology world should embrace this new method of teaching to increase the speed of adoption of new technologies and reduce the costs of training.

About the author:

Joseph Flahiff has more than two decades of experience executing, coaching, consulting and training in traditional and agile delivery across large-scale complex enterprise IT organizations, as well as smaller boutique agencies. Email him at [email protected] or text Joseph at (206) 276-1386.

Next Steps

Recent advice columns from Joseph Flahiff:

It's time to move beyond Agile

Four letter words that will transform your workforce

Hierarchy versus power grabs in the workplace 

Dig Deeper on IT staff development and retention