Flip, Flap, Flop: Thoughts From the NERALLT 2013 Conference

As a person at the intersection of applied linguistics and instructional technology, I was very excited about attending the NERALLT Conference that took place at Saint Anselm College on October 24-25, 2013. As Dave Malinowski and I were driving through the picturesque countryside towards Manchester, New Hampshire, and beholding the bucolic beauty of New England’s frondescence in the midst of the fall season, my thoughts were occupied with the topic of the conference: “Flip, but Don’t Flop: Managing the Mix of In-Class and Online Language Learning.” The concept of a flipped classroom was relatively new for me, although my familiarity with the topic grew exponentially over the past month while Dave and I were getting ready for our first conference presentation as staff members of the Yale Center for Language Study. Although there seems to be no unanimously accepted definition of this concept, overall the idea of flipping a classroom suggests that students learn new content at home (for instance, via video lectures) and then apply and expand their newly acquired knowledge in the classroom by working on various types of activities and tasks moderated by the instructor. While this concept appears to be revolutionary for many disciplines (i.e., the ones in which face-to-face meetings have traditionally been utilized for lecturing and presenting new information to students, and homework reserved for projects and assignments), in language classrooms the elements of flipped learning have been used for many decades.

Although overall the conference exceeded my expectations in terms of the amount of new information that I had been hoping to glean from it, I was particularly stirred by Barbara Sawhill’s keynote speech. Her presentation titled “Flipping Your Assessment Practices” was both engaging and thought-provoking. Having a background in language assessment, I was fascinated by her idea of flipping the assessment practices in a language classroom. It is true that even though the assessment of students’ learning has traditionally been within the instructors’ purview, students’ self-evaluations, peer evaluations, and reflections on one’s own learning have not been unprecedented. Nonetheless, the idea of involving students in setting up their own learning goals for the class and giving them effectively free rein to evaluate their progress throughout the semester (while still requiring them to justify their own grades) seemed quite radical and avant-garde. Such student-centered assessment also appears to go hand-in-hand with the concept of student-centered learning.

Even though I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in Barbara’s Spanish classes that she teaches at Oberlin College students’ self-assigned grades mostly matched the instructor’s grades, I kept wondering about the few outliers. It is possible that some students might have viewed the construct (i.e., what is being assessed) differently from the way it was viewed by their instructor. In other words, those students whose self-evaluation of their own learning diverged considerably from how the instructor evaluated their progress might have had a different understanding of what constitutes learning, how learning occurs, and what learning goals should be achieved by the end of the semester. Providing students with rubrics and setting up clear assessment criteria might help alleviate this problem. Furthermore, the surprisingly small number of outliers also made me wonder whether this would apply to other institutions. Taking into account that Oberlin is a “highly selective liberal arts college” (http://new.oberlin.edu/about/), it is possible that many of its students are highly motivated and take their education and language learning very seriously. In the meantime, it seems reasonable to assume that in some other institutions motivation can be more of an issue for some students who might use flipped assessment as an opportunity to inflate their own grades without caring much about actual learning. In such a scenario, flipping assessment would result in a flop.

Having finished watching the last presentation at the NERALLT Conference, I was still cogitating about the question that had been raised by multiple presenters throughout the conference: “Haven’t we already been teaching our language classrooms in a ‘flipped’ format all these years?” Indeed, to me “flipping” presupposes some radical change along the lines of turning things upside down. While ideas such as the ones proposed by Barbara Sawhill did sound quite innovative for language classes, overall I feel that “flipping” does not seem to be as unique of a concept for language classes as it is for classes, in which other disciplines are taught. Rather than talking about “flipping” our language classrooms, should we resort to a more apposite term—such as “flapping”—when discussing those ideas from the “flipped learning” movement that have not yet made their way into language classes and can produce at least some ripple effect leading to meaningful pedagogical innovations?

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