My Amazing New Career

It being my son’s third birthday party, I was given a number of responsibilities: believe me, I am very much second lieutenant when it comes to children’s party planning chez Shepherd. Of these many duties was the making of balloon fish.

So, I turned to the glory of the Internet and carefully studied videos, made some notes (yes, really), and watched again. I consulted with my party-general as to the design of the fish, selected balloons and then had a go. A couple of false starts, and I was soon away. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I later had a go at an octopus and a dog. Clearly, I thought, when the axe falls on this ESOL stuff, this is what I shall do (along with running a bakery-cum-bookshop-cum-bike repair cooperative in somewhere like Hebden Bridge or Saltaire).

More seriously, I realised as well that this, basically, was flipped learning, in miniature. I watched a slightly over-serious American tell me stuff on YouTube, made some notes about types of twist and other technicalities (lock twist, fold twist, burping the balloon, a standard 260), then had a go myself. If you change some of the timings, that is basically how a flipped classroom is meant to look.

And I guess for something where you have a distinct theoretical/practical distinction a flipping situation could work well. I reckon you could do a lot of teacher ed that way, for example, go away, watch a video lecture on questioning techniques, interspersed with actual examples of teachers doing it, then come into class and discuss how it would be applied in the trainees’ contexts, practice it, role play, whatever.

I’m not convinced it would work entirely for English language teaching, perhaps. I don’t think there is that clear division between theoretical knowledge of language and its practical application, for one, but also there isn’t a (recent) history of lecturing as the main mode of teaching. It’s ironic really that ESOL teachers in FE colleges are called lecturers, because unless we are having a badly planned, lazy day, we are rarely that. If you used a very teacher led version of PPP perhaps the Presentation stage could be done literally as that, via VLE, the night before. But even then there is the checking of understanding, the clarification, the checking of pronunciation, and so on.

There is a case where you could save time and energy in a lesson using the idea of presenting grammar through text. The learners do a listening task as homework via VLE, up to and including a brief grammar focussed activity (“look at the transcript, underline the verbs, what do you notice?”) and then come into class and discuss the answers and then practice the grammar. I’ve certainly done this for reading in the past. Arguably, however, this is only flipping the grammar focus of the activity, not the development of the listening skill, which is not really developed in class here at all.

Flipped learning makes certain assumptions about what learning is. It suggests that learning is about knowledge transmission rather than construction. This is very much a question of taste, perhaps, but my inclination is that learning is more like building and repairing a wall than it is like filling a jug, and that the days of the one or two lecture are long past outside universities. (I wonder if universities deliver lectures in social constructivism..?) Certainly my own feeling is that while chalk and talk can work for the motivated and dedicated, I question whether it would work for those who are less so. There would be the temptation of the nasty application of social pressures (“everyone else in the class watched the video, Smyth, what’s your excuse?”). If someone isn’t motivated or interested, then aren’t they likely to upset and resentful by not being fully able to participate? And is embarrassment and shame (actual or implied) really going to get them to engage more? These are questions I’m not sure I know the answers to, but I’m tempted to say yes for the first one, and no for the second.

My other crucial question is that of access. A flipped learning idea assumes that all learners in a given class will have equal access to the necessary technology. It’s a perennial niggle of mine about technology generally that technology enthusiasts, lovely as you are, assume that all learners have access to and ability to use technology. The question of learner access is rarely discussed, in my experience, and again, in my experience, there are an awful lot of learners, from beginner ESOL to post graduate teacher training courses who have neither the confidence or the skill to engage with technology as a tool.

And supplying access to computers (so that learners can watch the lecture video) via libraries and learning centres isn’t necessarily an answer. Learners who have little access outside of the college environment (and yes, they do exist) will still be disadvantaged by flipped learning. Their classmates may have hours at their leisure to access a YouTube video, can do it on the bus to college if they are absolutely stuck, perhaps. But the learner who for whatever reason has to rely on college or public libraries for access to IT is limited by opening hours, access support, ability to listen if there are no headphones (in a public library…), and so on. If their own skills are limited then they are further disadvantaged.

The problem with flipped learning, and one of the issues with technology as a learning tool, is that technology is, for the time being, divisive, elitist and undemocratic. Yes, digital technology is cheapening, and the basic skill base of learners is higher overall, but these are averages. A computer and access to broadband Internet could cost about £400-£500 to get started, and then a further £100 a year just to access. These are low estimates, and potentially the cost of broadband access could be a lot higher. £2 a week may not sound like much, but that’s roughly 5% of Jobseeker’s Allowance for someone under 24. (It’s about 3% of JSA for someone over 25). Yes, they may have Internet access anyway, I get that, that is the one of the seven pillars of e-learning. However, there is a minority who won’t have access to these things at home. At best they will be disadvantaged by any technology-based learning at worst they will be excluded by it.

This isn’t a problem with the pedagogy of flipped learning (although there are some) or indeed any form of blended learning requiring home based Internet access. It is, however, a problem for colleges and other learning institutions wishing to use it, and a wider problem in society as a whole. As a majority become more technologically aware, even dependent, so a minority becomes disadvantaged. Never mind balloon animals, there is a real risk of developing an underclass of people who are not only unable to access learning, but also unable to access crucial services, information and support.



  1. Hi Sam
    Thanks for your really interesting post. I totally agree with you when it comes to access. It is a real struggle for some learners to gain access to technology and sometimes we are not mindful of this.
    As for institutions, it’s all very well encouraging flipped learning, but they also need to put their money where their mouths are. Our ESOL learners were doing FS ICT with no access to computers!
    Flipped learning is a great idea, especially developing transferable skills, but is not always inclusive.

  2. Hi Sam,
    Nice post, and very good points about accessibility to ICT. On that point, we’re going to start including ICT qualifications within our ESOL courses next year, in an attempt to develop these skills in learners who need them, and improve E-citizenship/employability overall. You may already be doing this.
    As I understand it, flipped learning is where you do the “boring” stuff – watch a lecture, do language focus activities, learn the meaning of new words etc – outside the classroom, and then you do the actual practice and use of the language in the classroom. When we’re talking about ESOL in the UK, does this make sense? I mean, outside the classroom is where all the opportunities exist for the students to actually use the language, to practise what they’ve learned, to be exposed to new things which they can then bring into the classroom and have clarified. I tend to see my ESOL classroom as a kind of lab where they can try stuff out, ask questions, make mistakes etc, but the actual practice happens in the students’ everyday lives. We don’t need to invent “real-world” tasks to do in the classroom because there’s a real world out there and they have to perform tasks in it. It seems strange to encourage students to spend their time outside the classroom sitting at home and watching a lecture on their computer, when they could be out there using English with real people and getting important things done.
    Or have I misunderstood flipped learning?

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