It’s time Europe caught up to flipped learning

The relative lack of flipped learning across Europe compared with the rest of the world could be the result of misconceptions around what it is, say Caroline Fell Kurban and Muhammed Şahin

December 3, 2018
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In the article “Flipped classroom struggles to catch on in Europe”, Ellie Bothwell reports that in a recent European University Association survey of 303 European universities and 43 higher education systems, the flipped classroom was ranked as the least useful model for enhancing student learning. 

The article says that the results revealed that “fewer than one in seven European universities are strong advocates of the flipped classroom as a model for enhancing student learning”. 

From this, the report concludes that the flipped classroom model is still perceived as “relatively new” in European higher education. Having analysed the report, we believe that misconceptions regarding the main tenets of flipped learning have influenced the construction of the report’s survey. Furthermore, we believe that these misconceptions render the report and its findings invalid and confuse the whole debate. 

As educational leaders at MEF University in Istanbul, which was established as a fully flipped university in 2012, we have seen evidence of the effectiveness of flipped learning. In our first two years of running flipped courses, 89.7 per cent of students said that they were satisfied with flipped learning, and the same percentage said that they would recommend it to their friends. Thus, with our belief in the effectiveness of flipped learning based on our own experiences, we would like to address the misconceptions in the report with the aim of enabling this important research area to be pursued with better insight.

In support of her article, Bothwell quotes James Conroy, vice-principal for internationalisation at the University of Glasgow. “There is much talk of e-learning, and no doubt it has its place, but on the evidence to date it is hardly a substitute for that intellectual encounter that more traditional forms of educational practice entail,” he said.  

He went on to say that varied forms of pedagogy “continue…for good reason – they all perform differently if [they are used as] complementary functions in the complex ecology of higher education”.

We couldn’t agree more with vice-principal Conroy, as we believe that his description encompasses the central tenets of the flipped learning approach. Flipped learning, in its essence, is not solely an online or digital mode of learning, nor is it divorced from the bricks and mortar of our institutions and the face-to-face interactions and debates with faculty and fellow students. It is so much more.

In spring 2018, the Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences (AALAS) redefined flipped learning as “a framework that enables educators to reach every student. The flipped approach inverts the traditional classroom model by introducing course concepts before class, allowing educators to use class time to guide each student through active, practical, innovative applications of the course principles.”

Thus, while there is a significant digital online component, active learning remains the grand meta-principle, with the educator being freed from simply being a purveyor of knowledge to being a guide and mentor in the classroom, seminar sessions or lecture theatres accordingly. Flipped learning is not a euphemism for online learning, but rather an approach that provides a framework for all modes and aspects of learning. However, this is not what is represented in the EUA report.

We believe that misconceptions and/or a lack of knowledge regarding flipped learning being a framework or an approach are clearly revealed in the survey in the following question: “Which of the following approaches has your institution found useful for enhancing student learning: teaching in small groups; problem-based learning; peer learning; community projects; flipped classroom?” 

First, we believe that this question reveals a lack of general understanding from the authors of the survey regarding, most notably, the terms “methods” and “approaches”.

There is a vast difference between a “flipped classroom” and the “flipped learning approach”. The Flipped Learning Global Initiative makes this clear: “These terms are not interchangeable. Flipping a class can, but does not necessarily, lead to Flipped Learning.” 

AALAS, meanwhile, highlights that flipped learning “is a framework” that enables educators to “guide each student through active, practical, innovative applications of the course principles”. 

Thus, within this definition, teaching in small groups is considered to be part of flipped learning. Peer learning is considered to be part of flipped learning. And problem-based learning is considered to be part of flipped learning. Furthermore, semester-long community projects often form the heart of authentic, ongoing assessment, which is inherent in flipped learning.

Based on the misconception of flipped learning at the core of the report, we question the validity of the result that found the “flipped classroom” the least effective “approach” for enhancing student learning. 

However, we do agree with both the results of the report and Bothwell’s article that, despite the fact that flipped learning is being used as an institutional strategy in higher education in North and South America, Australia, India, Turkey and China, to date, it has struggled to take off in Europe.

We therefore believe this reveals that a better understanding of flipped learning is required by European national policymakers, institutional leaders and instructors in order to implement this proven, effective approach. 

Caroline Fell Kurban is director of the Center for Research and Best Practices in Learning and Teaching at MEF University and Muhammed Şahin is rector at MEF University.

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