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The Flipped Academic

The Flipped Academic

The role of the academic won’t stay the same forever. It can’t. From The New York Times to Wired magazine, professors are challenged daily by the headlines. Is higher education relevant? Is it being disrupted? Can the ivory tower reinvent itself? How does your institution differentiate itself? Do professors strike the right balance between research and teaching?

Despite and in response to these calls for change, I propose that a growing group of youthful academics is questioning their roles and leading change from the bottom up.

They’re breaking the pervasive do-nothing-but-lecture-from-the-textbook-and-PowerPoints-for-an-hour stereotype, working within and excelling despite the publish-or-perish mindset, and having impact like never before in their communities and in their classrooms.

THE IDEA IN A NUTSHELL

The Flipped Academic is someone who:

  1. Informs first and publishes later
  2. Works within the research-teaching-service paradigm but adopts criteria to maximize impact
  3. Seeks “the truth” and “usefulness” together
  4. Views funding received as an input, not an output
  5. Builds learning environments, not lectures
  6. Works where they need to work
They might be one of our best hopes for the future of higher education.

I was going to publish this post a few months from now but recently read the Globe and Mail’s special report called Our Time to Lead Re:Education in which its authors and contributors take on topics such as these and a host of other thought-provoking ideas ranging from seeking the optimal class size to building online open learning platforms. They invite us “to join the debate and come up with solutions that ensure that the universities and colleges students entering today can serve the needs of tomorrow.”

So here are my two bits, posed as a question: What if we did more to encourage the ‘Flipped Academic’?

(Oh, and no need to remind me about the ideal length of a blog post. I know. I’d love your feedback but my blog posts are for me to help get my ideas rolling. If you’re in a hurry then just read the quoted text!)

An analogy

Before diving in, let me share a concept that’s somewhat analogous to that of the Flipped Academic – not so much because of what it means as because of the impact it had after it was given a catchy name. If you’re a teacher or even if you’ve only been skimming the education section of your local paper over the last few years, you may have heard of the so-called flipped classroom. Also known as flipping the classroom, the backwards classroom, reverse instruction, and reverse teaching, the term is usually used to refer to the use of modern technology to “leverage the learning in a classroom so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.[1]

No matter how you happen feel about it, it’d be hard to argue that the rise of the name flipped classroom and the conversations it’s sparked haven’t been a good thing for students, teachers and teaching in general. If nothing else, they’ve promoted reflection by casting a healthy approach to teaching against the all too pervasive do-nothing-but-lecture-from-the-textbook-and-PowerPoints-for-an-hour stereotype.

The most common example is that your daughter (or son) takes a class in which she’s asked to study the course material ahead of time (often by watching a video-taped lecture before class) and the lecture hour is then used to build a stronger understanding and apply the knowledge being gained. In my view that’s a flipped classroom at its most basic – the homework comes before the class, not after it. Some people hail this as absolutely revolutionary and believe it’s on its way to changing the future of education. There are others (who’d likely been doing it for years before the name caught on) who can’t help thinking of the flipped classroom as nothing more than good curricular design, prudent use of class time and a welcome return to the proper use of homework.

No matter how you happen feel about it, it’s easy to argue that the rise of the name flipped classroom and the conversations it’s sparked have been a good thing for students, teachers and teaching in general. If nothing else, they’ve promoted reflection by casting a healthy approach to teaching against the all too pervasive do-nothing-but-lecture-from-the-textbook-and-PowerPoints-for-an-hour stereotype.

That’s just the outcome I’m going for with the notion of a Flipped Academic – to promote reflection and stimulate a healthy conversation about the nature and role of the academic’s job in today’s higher education context.

The stereotype

Just as the flipped classroom loves to be compared to the stereotypical lecture, the Flipped Academic finds her antithesis in the stereotypical professor … Sure he likes teaching and hopes for adoption and application of his ideas, but he’s found he gets rewarded if he can get enough published to earn a grant or two, thrilled if he can get a chair or professorship to support his work, and over the moon when he gets tenure.

Just as the flipped classroom loves to be compared to the stereotypical lecture, the Flipped Academic finds her antithesis in the stereotypical professor. I’m sure you know him (or her) from your college or university days but let’s pretend his name is Dr. Rodgers. Imagine that Dr. Rodgers tells you in one of his first lectures that he can get away with pretty much any level of teaching performance as long as he manages to land a number of articles a year in top ranked journals. [2] Dr. Rodgers does good research and seeks to publish it in conference proceedings. Then he works incredibly hard to get it into journals. Sure he likes teaching and hopes for adoption and application of his ideas, but he’s found he gets rewarded if he can get enough published to earn a grant or two, thrilled if he can get a chair or professorship to support his work, and over the moon when he gets tenure. Dr. Rodgers does like teaching (or used to anyway) and he does genuinely care about his students (or wants to anyway), but he’s on a performance treadmill moving so fast that he can’t do much more than jump through the basic hoops in the classroom. In fact, he finds it’s all he can do to deliver his pretty standard lectures to 200 students as they’re videotaped and shown live to 200 students sitting in the next room.

He’s worked like mad since finishing grad school but deep down he’s not entirely sure if, where, or how he’s having an impact.

The Flipped Academic

So what’s a Flipped Academic? Although they’re fewer and farther between there’s a good chance you’ve met her (or him) before, or at least some people dying to exhibit just a few more of her traits. She’s just as much a conveniently illustrative figment as Dr. Rodgers is an unfortunate stereotype, but let’s see if we can’t better understand what makes her tick.

Here’s how she’s different:

1. She informs first and publishes later.[3] Like the teacher implementing a flipped classroom (who might choose to flip the homework so it comes before the lecture hour rather than after it), a true Flipped Academic seeks to inform (her students, her discipline and society) before seeking to publish. In other words, her goal in publishing isn’t to have an impact. It’s to report on the impact.

She informs society first … a true Flipped Academic seeks to have impact with her ideas and get feedback on them before publishing about the impact she’s had.

She’s out there quite deeply integrated into the community and approaches things in a very nontraditional order: 1) co-developing her ideas along with members of her industry or ecosystem; 2) sharing them openly in the early stages of development through her own websites and blogs (individually or with colleagues); 3) supporting their adoption, testing and validation in practice; and finally, 4) publishing when she’s ready to report on the impact she’s already had and based on the feedback she’s already received about her ideas. For her, the formal academic dissemination and peer review processes are incredibly important but come after the broader process of informing.

A beautiful outcome of this is that she minimizes the so-called academic-practice gap; there’s nothing like being out there to make sure your work is relevant. She finds collaborators and kindred spirits like she never has before and finds herself part of high-performing, cross-disciplinary, practical teams. She gets great feedback on her ideas. And she knows whether they’re going to work long before most of her academic peers – or peer reviewers – might.

On the other hand, this is not an easy thing for her to pull off. She’s not rewarded by the system for much of the work done before publishing. She has to find ways to pay for work that doesn’t feed the publishing funnel in the near term. She opens her ideas up to criticism early and risks not being able to publish at all if elements of the work have already been made available openly. Depending on the nature of her work and the philosophy of her institution, she may find herself dealing with the intellectual property office that might want a piece of things even in their half-baked state. And some of her academic colleagues don’t understand what she’s doing or that she simply doesn’t have time for administrivia because she’s got a different focus.

Nevertheless, she finds she has an inherent and very critical need to get out there and make things work and to have an impact by informing the community as a first step. She finds ways to make it happen and, in the long run, enjoys the rewards of increased relevance and greater impact of her work. In balance over time she finds she still writes as many or more research papers as her colleagues but that she comes to them in a different way than most of them.

2. She lives by criteria that maximize impact rather than by the blessed trinity of academe.[4] Not only does the Flipped Academic seek to inform before seeking to publish, she also goes about her work in quite a different way from most of her colleagues to ensure she can have as much impact as possible.

Amazingly universally, the criteria that dominate tenure reviews at colleges and universities are: teaching; research; and service. The relative emphasis on each of these varies somewhat by institution and by the specific criteria within each of these buckets, but you can count on them setting the priorities for professors. (Naturally so since this is how they’re evaluated and promoted.) At the same time, it tends to be taken for granted that these represent the best way to have impact on today’s students and in today’s society.

Today’s Flipped Academic sees her role as being less about just doing teaching and research and service, and more about how much impact she has on both her students and her community by: 1) helping people learn to do; 2) helping people do; 3) fostering the doing by building a better understanding; and, 4) actually doing the doing herself.

While fully respecting the traditional system and finding ways to work with and excel within it, today’s Flipped Academic sees her role as being less about just doing teaching, research and service, and more about how much impact she has on both her students and her community by:

  1. helping people learn to do (informed teaching);
  2. helping people do (embedded informing);
  3. fostering the doing by building a better understanding (informed research and scholarly activities); and
  4. actually doing the doing one’s self (feedback from experience).

This is not to say that the teaching-research-service model doesn’t serve our students or our community; it has for a long time and probably will for some time to come. Rather, the point is that while that model drives action and defines performance there’s no reason to think that those three buckets will always result in maximum impact.

Today we assess professors with three questions at the end of each year: 1) How well did you teach? 2) How well did you disseminate your research? and 3) How much service did you do? Imagine how things would change if we asked them the following four questions instead: 1) How did you help people learn? 2) How did you help people do? 3) How did you foster the doing by building a better understanding? and 4) What did you learn when you did it yourself?

Pretend for a moment that the answers to the latter four questions made up a professor’s annual report. It might shift the emphasis from teaching to learning. It might broaden the notion of research to include other scholarly activities (and the outputs of those activities to include more than only academic papers). It might encourage professors to plant feet in the practicing environment more often. It might help bridge the academic-practice gap. It might also scale up the impact the professor and university end up having.

In the meantime, the Flipped Academic will probably continue thinking and working this way on her own.

3. She seeks usefulness as well as the truth. We’ve seen that the Flipped Academic goes about her job in order to inform others and that she strives to publish after having had an impact. It’s as important to understand that she often comes at her scholarly work from a different angle than most academics. Especially in complex environments – such as business, inovation, entrepreneurship, and design – the Flipped Academic seeks usefulness as well as the truth.

Rather than seeking the truth first and hoping it is found to be useful later, the Flipped Academic is very deliberate in her efforts to seek conceptual schemes that people find useful and adapting them so that they represent a generally applicable truth.

Consider the chart below.[5] Traditional research is all about finding and representing the truth. It’s about making findings generalizable, e.g. in the form of theories. Academics are trained (throughout their PhD programs) and rewarded (throughout their careers) for doing this kind of scholarly work because of its importance to the creation of new knowledge, to how we understand phenomena, and to how we can predict phenomena. We couldn’t put someone into space, design a cure for a disease or build a bridge without it, for example.

However, developing theories that represent an underlying truth isn’t the only possible goal of scholarly work. Rather than seeking the truth first, the Flipped Academic is very deliberate in her efforts to disseminate what people find useful. She develops frameworks and so-called conceptual schemes that are powerful, not necessarily because they are generalizable or predictive but because they are useful to someone specific. To her a good conceptual scheme: a) is interesting, meaning it conveys something novel to the person she’s trying to inform, b) is simple enough to be communicated effectively, and c) recognizes its own limitations.

Further, a Flipped Academic is skilled at carrying out scholarly work to try and ensure her conceptual schemes also fall in the overlapping area shown below. In other words, if the broad goal is for something to be useful and truthful then she is as comfortable approaching it from the useful side as from the truthful side.

Of course, there are some types of research and scholarly work where this is simply not possible (or necessary) given their very nature, such as the pure or physical sciences to name just two. Perhaps this notion lends itself better to academics in certain disciplines such as those named earlier.

She views funding received as an input, not an output … she defines for herself and communicates measures of success that provide evidence of having informed and impacted others.

4. She views funding received as an input, not an output. This almost doesn’t merit being its own point but I’ve chosen to make it one because I can’t stand when academics[6] define the impact they’ve had by citing the money they raised or the number of papers they wrote. Sure, funds granted to an academic can be a key input to a successful scholarly or teaching process just as publications can be a key output. But neither defines success on its own. Neither is sufficient to prove the academic has informed anyone or will have any impact. To use the analogy of a business: an academic’s grants are like the expenses a business incurs; publications are analogous to its annual report; and neither is a very direct measure of value actually created in the community.

The Flipped Academic defines for herself and communicates measures of success that provide evidence of having informed and impacted others.

5. She builds authentic learning environments, not lectures. As implied earlier, it’s hard to go a day without hearing about the ongoing transformation of higher education. Whether or not you think flipped classrooms and so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) are signals of a pending disruption, there does seem to be a strong and growing consensus that the academic’s role in the classroom needs to change. Even since that increasingly-famous pilot project just under a year ago[7], the availability of free and easily accessible online courses has ballooned. EdX, Coursera, Udacity, and the Khan Academy are a few of the more often cited providers and they’re digging deep. Coursera alone says it has served nearly two million students in it’s bid to provide “higher education that overcomes the boundaries of geography, time and money”.

The Flipped Academic knows that her students can find good lectures online about pretty much anything … she responds to the changing landscape and to her students’ needs by building authentic learning environments instead of lectures.

The Flipped Academic knows that her students will be able to find good lectures online about pretty much anything, and she knows that she can’t add much value just by lecturing to them. She also knows that good lectures are not the same as a good education. So while watching the big guys battle it out, she responds to the changing landscape and to her students’ needs by building authentic learning environments instead of lectures.

She draws on her own experiences – gained through her own ongoing efforts to inform and have impact – to design learning experiences that focus on the mindsets, behaviours and tools that will best equip her students for their lives and careers. Experiential learning, service learning and problem-based learning are just a few of the regular tools in her toolkit. She selects, curates and complements the lectures and materials available elsewhere and she structures her assessments carefully so that students have no choice but to draw upon and master those resources in order to succeed in the class and as soon as they leave the building.

There are cases when the Flipped Academic creates her own lectures and learning materials. These are usually because of a leading expertise in an area or because she’s pioneering a new way of thinking, working or practicing. When she does this she shares her learning materials as widely and as openly as possible because she can inform others and she’s likely to get feedback that will make her a better Flipped Academic.

6. She’s not always employed at a university or college. You assumed up to this point that the Flipped Academic worked at a traditional institution, didn’t you? She might – and they usually do – but why should universities and colleges be the only place where academics do work that informs and impacts others in this way? If you look at the numbers today, a good many of a university’s classes are already being taught by people who have full time employment somewhere other than an academic institution. No doubt some of these people have incredible experience (on both sides of the academic fence) and the right philosophy, and make great Flipped Academics.

Finally, who’s to say this kind of work will always take place within the walls of a college or university?

What do you think?

My comments here don’t mean to imply any disrespect to my academic colleagues – or anyone else. Rather, my hope is to contribute to an already ongoing conversation and share ways in which we might think about our professional practice.

Like the flipped classroom, the concept of a Flipped Academic is not for every circumstance and we’d clearly be in trouble if every academic became one. It represents an extreme, the concept probably isn’t new, and there’s likely already a healthy number of Flipped Academics out there in colleges and universities. Also like the flipped classroom, though, if we don’t give them a name and shine the spotlight on them, we may not have the benefit of the conversations and the debate.

At a time when we grapple with concepts like teaching for the economy (free market strategies) and, increasingly, being taught by entrepreneurial startups (the free education market), I propose that it’s more important than ever that we reflect on our roles and brands as academics. The question of one’s role is probably relevant in different ways depending on whether one works in the pure sciences, engineering, or the humanities, but it is important nonetheless. And open contemplation of brand – the promise academics are perceived to be making to society – has got to be top of mind with all this talk of democratization, disruption and revolution, especially if one worries about things like the loss of opportunities to teach critical skills to students and the loss of funding to programs that don’t lead in the short term to jobs or commercialization.

So armed with only a strong gut feel and my own experiences, I ask whether we should do more to encourage and enable a few more Flipped Academics?

Update (December 9, 2012)

Since publishing this post I’ve been asked a number of times if I see myself as a Flipped Academic and, if so, whether I would provide examples of the various roles I outlined in part 2 of the post. While I’m still somewhat hesitant to call myself a Flipped Academic, the notion does influence me greatly and I do tend to look at my work through that lens. In fact, the concept came about for me because of my own experience transitioning to academia after a career in industry. I believe it has merit and I aspire to more fully explore the benefits through my work.

To the second part of the question I point people to my role as the Educator in Residence at the Trico Charitable Foundation, a group I work with that is dedicated to fostering social innovation in Canada. Because that role has me working directly with entrepreneurs and innovators in charities and nonprofits to help them learn how to innovate, I highlight it as an example of embedded informing.

As of a few weeks ago I also point people to the fact that I recently co-founded a social business. It’s been my 4:00-7:00 AM job for about a year now and provides me with a great opportunity to do the doing. It’s called Givyup! and can be found at givyup.org. I invite you to check out the story (so far) and to read one way in which it has informed my academic work.

Update (December 19, 2012)

I am pleased to share that the concept of the Flipped Academic was described in an article in the Guardian on December 11, 2012. There was some great discussion in the comments there.


13 Comments to The Flipped Academic

  1. Thiago

    Dear Alex, I´m writing from São Paulo, Brazil.
    Great article (on the Flipped Academic), you clearly summarized most of our concernings.
    If you don’t mind, I’ll add you to my linkedin network so we can maintain contact.
    Best Regards,

    Thiago de Carvalho

  2. Alex Bruton

    Thank you Thiago. And of course! I’ll connect on LinkedIn. Looking forward to it.

  3. Jennifer

    Hi Alex,

    This is great. My only comment would be that it is more than a “growing group of youthful academics” who is leading the way in bringing about these changes. In my experience, much of the impetus is coming from “seasoned” professors as well.

    • Alex Bruton

      Thanks Jennifer. I know what you mean and I agree. Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics (or my poor choice of word)? I like this definition of youthful: having the vitality or freshness of youth. With that in mind, the more “seasoned” professors I see leading change are no less youthful than anyone else. Alex.

  4. Hi Alex, great post, thanks a lot. In 2008 I initatied [campus]OrléoN (http://www.campusorleon.nl/en) as a site for these flipped academics. Most of use are self-employed because our academies are not (yet?) equipped to deal with academic who reverse their starting points. I’d love to stay in touch about this subject. All best, Floor Basten

  5. At last I found a defined tag for my professional identity I can easily identify with. Thank you so much for taking us out of the margins of public irrelevance. I think this may be an example of possible flipped academic teaching: http://humbox.ac.uk/3662/

  6. Great article, Alex, that articulates some of the tensions inherent in the traditional model of the academic where the drive to publish can subsume more fundamental questions about the utility of research or its impact. I’m committed to what I call ‘impact by design’ that requires the academic to support a community of practitioners to co-create and share professional knowledge from the bottom-up i.e. enabling demand-led research within a community of practice. However, issues of quality are important and ensuring that practitioners are equipped to design, develop and lead research that is robust is no small challenge. Quite rightly, as you say, it demands that the academic is more interesting in facilitating learning that just ‘teaching a session’ and it requires that impact is re-concpetulaised as something intentional and co-designed.

    • Alex Bruton

      Thank you Rosie for the feedback. I appreciate it. We’re in interesting times and I hope this contributes to the conversation.

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