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If you can flip a classroom, you can flip a district

The term flipped classroom is on the tip of many educators' tongues these days as more K-12 schools and districts embrace this blended form of learning and teaching. In the flipped classroom model, educators deliver their instruction online for students to access outside of class, and then use classroom time to deliver personalized, guided instruction as students complete assignments based on what they've learned. The flipped classroom model can transform the learning and teaching process and, when implemented properly, improve student outcomes.

Technology 101

When I became superintendent of New Braunfels Independent School District (ISD) in New Braunfels, Texas, four years ago, I asked our school board to designate $3 million to technology so we could integrate tools , such as projectors, iPads and other devices, throughout our district. Driving this request was my firm belief that education and learning is a 24/7 experience and that technology provides the tools teachers need to enhance instruction in the classroom. Convincing teachers to embrace technology in the classroom was the first step in the process of getting students to use technology at home for learning.  

To flip or not to flip

The flipped classroom model gives students an opportunity to apply what they learn using a problem-based approach. Watching prerecorded lectures or videos at their own pace is just one way this approach can transform homework into a more engaging teaching tool.

When we require students to take notes, which they are then expected to "memorize" for test purposes, we are not using class time effectively. Research indicates that problem-based learning, which is an approach to learning that focuses on students investigating problems rather than receiving direct instruction from teachers, has shown positive gains in cognitive outcomes when compared to traditional, lecture-based learning.

I believe that notes, if required for a lesson, should be posted online for students to download. This ensures that all students can access the material they are responsible for learning, no matter where they are. If you expand these materials with interactive media and post them to iTunes U or the web, you can use class time to support students' work with problem-based new material. This approach allows for collaborative learning rather than teacher-centered teaching.

Implementing technologies to enhance the flipped classroom approach

During the 2012-13 school year, our ninth grade center opened with a 1:1 initiative , and all 610 students received iPads to use at school and home. This year, we incorporated this iPad 1:1 initiative for grades 10-12, and next year we will follow suit with grades 5-8.

Students can now easily download a lesson from iTunes U — the portal our educators use to store content — during school hours and then view it at home. At least 40 percent of our students lack internet access at home, and putting iPads into our students' hands provides a way around the connectivity issue. Now that students have the option to view lessons prior to class, their homework is their introduction to the material and they spend class time exploring and applying the content.

Every classroom in our district has an Epson projector connected to the Epson iProjection app, so students can share content from their devices with the class. This allows them to collaborate and take part in robust problem-solving discussions. We've found that these hands-on resources have engaged and motivated students to participate in learning.

Where to start

I would be lying if I said our flipped classroom model was a seamless transition. During the first few weeks, several teachers and students became frustrated with the change involved in substituting iPads for whiteboards and asking the students to help design their learning.

Flipping instruction and moving from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction is a huge paradigm shift. There are many broad pedagogical changes that need to take place. To the beginner, it might seem that the answer is to provide a curriculum that includes 175 days of iPad-based instruction in a canned format to all teachers and to just allow them to follow the plan. In reality, through professional development and campus leadership, we must empower teachers to take risks and use the great subject knowledge base they already have to develop new methods and activities that foster student-centered and collaborative learning. Simply adding technology to the old methods of learning and teaching won't add any value to education.

Our iTunes U training helped ease the stresses, and teachers have learned to create introductory lessons to help students engage in problem-based learning at home. It did not take long for our teachers to start creating lessons in iTunes U or uploading content to YouTube channels.

Learn from others

I can't stress enough the importance of observing other districts before you begin planning. We were fortunate during our planning phase to visit a couple of districts, including Eanes Independent School District in Austin, Texas, and McAllen Independent School District in McAllen, Texas. We visited classrooms and saw the flipped classroom model in action. We also talked with administrators and the technology teams who were implementing it.

Collaboration with other districts was key to creating an effective flipped classroom model that used our multimedia technology tools. Questioning fellow education industry peers about what worked and what didn't helped us avoid unnecessary headaches. 

We also looked to great flipped classroom resources, such as the book Empowering Students with Technology (2010), which provides educators with practical strategies for using technology to better prepare students for success in the digital world. iTunes U also has several free podcasts on flipped instruction, including materials from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), 21st Century Learning, eLearning and The Center for Teaching and Learning.

Flipping in action

My goals were to ensure that this tech implementation would be cost efficient and sustainable and that it would make a positive impact on student learning. The reduction in paper alone led to great savings. And many teachers, like Audrey Alamo, have turned traditional instruction on its head.

Alamo, who teaches world geography, does a genius hour every Friday where students learn how to become problem solvers and learn strategies for becoming lifelong learners. Her students have worked on real-world projects involving photography, gardening, clothing design, podcasting, bullying, the stock exchange and more.

One particular student made his own set of golf clubs, video-recorded the process and posted the video on the Genius Hour section of Alamo's website, which students can access from any internet-enabled device. Another project involved a student making a Claymation video about bullying to teach others how to best handle this situation.

As students mature and progress, they'll have more of a say over how they learn and what they learn. My staff and I hope that once students see that they can be successful at one thing, they will believe that they can be successful in other things.

Today, technology is moving at an exciting and ever-so-rapid pace. As districts look to adopt these technologies and new learning and teaching initiatives, it is important to remember that implementation won't always come easy. However, an examination of best-practice examples, calculated planning and staff training will lead to a smoother process — and ultimately improved student outcomes.

Need help transforming your district into a digital age learning environment? Join ISTE's Lead & Transform movement. Start with our free diagnostic tool to find out where you are on the path to true tech integration.

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