Grand Rapids Community College Flips its Classrooms

In a state that plays host to some of the best research institutions in the country, it might surprise some to find out that the real hotbed of instructional innovation can actually be found in one of the state’s smaller community colleges. Yet, such is the case in Michigan — specifically at Grant Rapids Community [...]

In a state that plays host to some of the best research institutions in the country, it might surprise some to find out that the real hotbed of instructional innovation can actually be found in one of the state’s smaller community colleges. Yet, such is the case in Michigan — specifically at Grant Rapids Community College — which has adopted the “flipped classroom” concept to reinvent instruction on its campus.

“Flipping” the classroom involves putting all academic materials, including taped lectures that previously took up precious instructional time, online so students could absorb this material outside of class on their own schedule. Then, the time that used to be devoted to long monologues by the professors while the students served as passive information receptacles, could instead be spent in a much more interactive and engaging manner.

“It’s a new way to look at teaching, and I think that is what is so inspiring,” says Eric Kunnen, director of distance learning and instructional technologies at GRCC. “The idea is not new, but the technology gives more power, flexibility and opportunity to make use of the limited face-to-face time we have for true student engagement and interactive learning.”

Buzzwords like “flipped classroom” or “blended learning” have been thrown around conferences and education media for several years, and that is one reason why the technology team at the GRCC was initially reluctant to adopt the approach. But more research into the forces driving flipped classrooms proved them to be an exceptional way to integrate technology into education to improve student outcomes.

The best part of the new approach is that while technology makes it all possible, it doesn’t serve as the centerpiece of the whole process. It is still old fashioned teaching that produces the results, with the technology allowing the professors to adopt an approach that creates a closer relationship between them and their students.

GRCC’s approach is based on the idea that the classroom is everywhere — or rather, the classroom can be everywhere if the necessary elements are in place: content for mobile devices that are supported by a digital learning infrastructure; bring-your-own-device policies for the classroom that are embraced by the faculty; and long-term IT strategies that are funded by a supportive administration. This approach recognizes the value of hybrid learning. Without forcing any of its faculty to change their methods, GRCC provides the technology and training for anyone who is interested.

Not everyone at GRCC is as enamored of the approach as Kunnen is, but it helps that “flipped classrooms” are not about putting computer screens instead of professors in lecture halls. Some instructors have expressed skepticism that content delivered over the computer is absorbed as well as when it’s delivered face to face. Still, Kunnen expects them to come around to the possibilities offered by the flipped classroom in due course.

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