What’s a Flipped MBA Classroom?

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Recently here at BSchools we pointed out that online MBA programs carry extraordinarily large startup costs, in part because online curricula require sizable investments in production facilities and equipment. These programs also carry high ongoing upgrade costs, especially at highly-ranked business schools that exploit competitive advantages from new technology. However, at one top program, a different and surprising objective behind these investments has also emerged.

With more than 60 percent of online MBA courses offered live, for many years, the top-ranked Kelley School of Business at Indiana University has offered one of the highest proportions of synchronous video instruction within the industry. Despite that track record, the school nevertheless decided to upgrade its live broadcasting capability to such an extent that in 2020, it needed to raise $10 million to build new state-of-the-art studio facilities at its Bloomington campus.

Now, why in the world would a school that already offers much more live instruction than most competing online programs suddenly need such a substantial investment? It might be ostensibly true that the school wants to expand live instruction beyond its online MBA program to new online executive MBA and specialized business master’s degree programs. Nevertheless, that fact doesn’t explain the whole story.

Apparently, Kelley wants to enable such a high degree of online interactivity that its new “virtual classrooms” will accurately simulate the experience of actually sitting with peers in a live class discussion. At first, that might seem like academic overkill—but only until one understands the real motivation that’s driving this initiative. Buried deep within the press release announcing Kelley’s gift from the Jellison Family Foundation appears this clue:

The studios will benefit all programs as instructors create new course content and utilize advanced pedagogical techniques such as “flipped classroom learning,” making classroom time even more valuable and dynamic.

Wait, what?

What is this “flipped” classroom learning the press release speaks of? And what makes this technique so valuable that it would justify a $10 million investment by Kelley?

Flipped Instruction’s Long, Obscure History

Actually, although many people today talk about “flipped classrooms” or “flipped learning,” it turns out that this innovation’s less widely used technical term of art is inverted instruction, and it’s a pedagogical approach that’s actually been around in various forms for many years.

The instructional design literature shows that Russian educators first proposed this teaching model during the mid-1980s. As described by this Duke University report, their model generally required students to learn concepts by completing textbook reading assignments in advance to engage in class discussions instead of watching their professor’s lectures. Although that might not seem at first like a significant departure, this approach is radically different from how most college and many graduate courses have traditionally been taught.

In the United States, most university instruction is still organized around the lecture/discussion model, and this is especially the case in the undergraduate divisions at major research universities. For example, in a typical Economics 101 Principles course at a university like Ohio State, many BSchools readers probably shared an auditorium with hundreds of undergraduates taking notes while a professor lectured for three hours each week.

Typically, smaller groups of about 30 students from that lecture then attended a Friday discussion section with a PhD graduate teaching assistant, who would answer questions, proctor quizzes and hourly examinations, and assign grades.

Here’s how the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California differentiates this older model from newer flipped classrooms:

In a traditional classroom, students come to class to listen to a lecture, and then go home and try to apply the concepts by doing homework. In a flipped classroom, students listen to a pre-recorded lecture. Then when they come to class, they work with their classmates and professor in applying the concepts. The benefit of a flipped classroom is that students tend to come to class much better prepared, and then they have the expertise of the professor to assist with what is the more difficult but important part—being able to apply the concepts learned.

Flipped, but Without the Name

Although they didn’t call it “flipped” instruction, some business schools have applied such instructional techniques for decades.

For example, the case method pioneered by the Harvard Business School 100 years ago fits the flipped instruction model. Moreover, until 2004, in its introductory core course in management and organizational behavior, the University of Illinois Gies College of Business had reserved most class sessions for experiential small group exercises that applied concepts within a range of social psychology, group performance, and leadership dynamics. One of the more popular activities among students in this earlier version of the school’s Business Administration 310 course was “Circles, Squares and Triangles”—a role-playing exercise demonstrating the hidden influences of factors like budgets and social status on workplace alliances and productivity.

But the first time that a business school studied the inverted classroom model under that name occurred in 2000 in Oxford, Ohio. That’s when Maureen Lage and Glenn Platt—two economics professors at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business—published their groundbreaking research in the Journal of Economic Education.

Entitled “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment,” their paper compared students’ learning outcomes among sections of their microeconomics principles course taught with the flipped approach with outcomes in other sections taught in the traditional large lecture/small discussion format.

In prescient language, the team wrote that “new learning technologies make it possible for events such as lectures, which have traditionally taken place inside the classroom, to occur outside the classroom, and events which possibly occurred outside the classroom to occur inside the classroom under the guidance of the instructor.” The professors also reported that students generally preferred the flipped approach and that the inverted model might additionally help attract female students who were traditionally underrepresented in the field of economics.

Salman Khan Ignites an Educational Phenomenon

However, it wasn’t until 2011 that flipped classroom instruction caught fire, largely because of the solo efforts of a Harvard MBA and an interesting personality who deserves a spot on the radar of BSchools readers.

As the story goes, in 2004, Salman Khan had graduated from the Harvard Business School and was working at a new job in Boston as a hedge fund analyst when his cousins asked if he could tutor them in solving calculus problems. Because they were in New Orleans, he volunteered to help them remotely over the internet—an unusual offer during an era when 5 Mbps DSL broadband connections were considered lightning-quick.

At first, Kahn tutored his cousin Nadia over Yahoo’s Doodle notepad platform. When other family members also asked him for help, he started making videos for them on the ten-month-old YouTube platform, just after Google bought that startup for $1.65 billion in October 2006.

That’s when surprising things started happening. First, his cousins told him that they preferred him on YouTube over working with him in person. Kahn stopped feeling offended once he realized that they could pause, rewind, and repeat his videos as often as needed and that they sometimes studied his videos in the middle of the night. What’s more, learning from videos meant that they were less likely to feel stupid or ashamed about needing to ask him to repeat lessons they didn’t understand the first time.

Second, Kahn said he saw no reason to make his videos private. But when YouTube started pushing his tutorials out to thousands of new viewers who stumbled on them, comments and letters started flooding his email inbox from all over the world. One such message was from the overjoyed mother of an autistic child unable to master fractions and decimals until he finally studied Kahn’s videos.

“So you can imagine,” quipped Kahn, “here I was, an analyst at a hedge fund. It was very strange for me to do something of social value.”

That’s when he also started hearing from teachers:

. . .the teachers would write, saying, “We’ve used your videos to flip the classroom. You’ve given the lectures, so now what we do is I assign the lectures for homework, and what used to be homework, I now have the students doing in the classroom. . .”

. . .by removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home, and then when you go to the classroom, letting them do work, having the teacher walk around, having the peers actually be able to interact with each other, these teachers have used technology to humanize the classroom. They took a fundamentally dehumanizing experience—30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other. A teacher, no matter how good, has to give this one-size-fits-all lecture to 30 students—blank faces, slightly antagonistic—and now it’s a human experience. Now they’re actually interacting with each other.

His March 2011 TED Talk containing those insights entitled “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education” made flipped classrooms into an education phenomenon—and made Kahn into an overnight sensation. That video quickly went viral, and as of September 2022, it had surpassed 11 million views combined on both YouTube and TED’s platforms.

Then in December 2011, the national edition of the Sunday New York Times ran a feature article on Kahn on the front page of the paper’s Technology section, and a few months later in 2012, his new book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined became a bestseller. That summer at a Wall Street Journal conference, he even shared the stage with Stanford University President John Hennessy. Meanwhile, Kahn’s expanded YouTube channel, newly branded as “Kahn Academy,” won funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists John and Ann Doerr. By mid-2022, the channel’s videos had been viewed more than 1.9 billion times.

Examples of Flipped MBA Courses

In a 2021 survey of graduate management professors, the MBA Roundtable reported that the aggregate class time business schools were devoting to in-person lectures was 32 percent lower than the levels an earlier survey found in 2019. Considering the excitement surrounding the flipped classroom approach and business schools’ conversion of in-person courses to online education during the Covid crisis, that’s no surprise.

By applying the sort of modern online framework pioneered by Kahn, professors now have much more flexibility regarding how they can organize their instruction. These days, students can routinely watch a professor’s lectures outside of class using online video. And instead of showing up at a small-group discussion section once or twice weekly, students can now get their questions answered quickly—and often around the clock in real time—by participating in discussion forums and messaging channels in their online learning management system (LMS).

Alternatives like these free up tremendous amounts of class time for interactive and experiential applications of concepts that would have been considered educational luxuries only a few short years ago. Here are a few examples of how business schools have recently incorporated flipped instructional approaches into their curricula.

Stanford GSB: Entrepreneurship & Economic Statistics

Not long ago here at BSchools, we covered the new venture entrepreneurship courses taught by Silicon Valley billionaire Steve Blank at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the Columbia Business School, and the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. As profiled in that report, Professor Blank’s methods are watched by Washington policymakers who believe that the management skills he teaches MBAs are critical to bringing new innovations to the marketplace sooner, and to fortifying the global competitiveness of American companies in markets around the world.

Like the examples above at HBS, Illinois Gies, and Miami Farmer, all of Professor Blank’s Lean LaunchPad capstone entrepreneurship courses since 2011 appear to have incorporated the flipped classroom model. In fact, his courses are “hyper-inverted” in the sense that no substantive concepts appear to be taught during his class sessions at all; they only appear on his syllabus in the pre-class video lectures and the readings he assigns. All of those meetings appear to be devoted to analysis and critiques of his student startup teams’ lean canvas strategy and execution efforts.

Also, at Stanford, another application of the flipped classroom model recently appeared in the GSB’s course catalog. Accelerated Data and Decisions (OIT 276), an economic statistics course covering regression analysis and decision support applications, appears to have lately been redesigned to fit the flipped approach:

Accelerated Data and Decisions is a first-year MBA course in statistics and regression analysis. The course is taught using a flipped classroom model that combines extensive online materials with a more lab-based classroom approach. Traditional lecture content will be learned through online videos, simulations, and exercises, while time spent in the classroom will be discussions, problem-solving, or computer lab sessions. Content covered includes sampling techniques, hypothesis testing, t-tests, linear regression, and prediction models.

Iowa Tippie: Finance

When Dr. Jon Garfinkel of the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business saw the Wall Street Journal’s interview with Kahn and Stanford’s President Hennessy, he became concerned. With 18 years of experience teaching MBA students, Dr. Garfinkel worried about intensifying competition from websites like Coursera and Udemy. He also fretted about competition from educational resources offered online free of charge. Some of these free lectures were even provided by big-name faculty at Ivy League business schools like the Yale School of Management’s Dr. Robert Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics a few months after the WSJ’s interview.

How could Iowa Tippie continue to charge tuition in the face of such high-quality free alternatives?

Dr. Garfinkel’s response was to make the faculty member during class sessions into “a scarce and valuable resource.” Despite what they may ostensibly claim in their press releases, this is most likely the real strategy that’s driving schools like Indiana Kelley into spending tens of millions of dollars to enhance the interactivity of their online virtual classrooms.

But how specifically could Dr. Garfinkel do that? Why, by flipping the classroom, of course—as he described to colleagues in this secret 2017 video presentation unlisted in YouTube’s index but nevertheless obtained by BSchools.

By moving all lectures to video as required viewing before class, “that opens the door to spending class time on what students have told me is much harder,” he says. In other words, he wanted class time in his finance courses allocated instead to solving hard problems under the guidance of the faculty.

But Dr. Garfinkel didn’t stop with moving the lectures to video; he also moved all of his quizzes out of the class sections and into Tippie’s learning management system, which uses Instructure’s Canvas software platform. That move allowed him to enable students to take some of the quizzes as often as they wanted so that they earned the highest grade they wanted—no doubt a popular option.

Oxford Saïd: Mergers & Acquisitions

The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School also appears to have embraced the flipped classroom model. For example, under the direction of Saïd’s MBA Professors Tim Galpin and Liz Starbuck-Greer, its executive MBA finance course on mergers and acquisitions assigns students to select and study directed readings ahead of time so that they’re prepared to discuss the materials during synchronous live video class sessions.

This exercise aims to show students how to critically analyze relevant editorial content in the financial press, so that they understand the best ways to learn about and stay on top of the field’s most recent developments. Specifically, the professors assign the students to study four readings within a curated set of Financial Times special reports. The set is made available for students on Saïd’s LMS, which like Tippie’s, is also Instructure’s Canvas platform. The topic areas relate to merger and acquisition strategy, deal-making, legal and regulatory aspects, private equity, and the currently hot topic of special purpose acquisition companies (also known as SPACs).

The professors then direct students to be prepared to discuss their “three top takeaways” from the group of four readings. They also ask the students to explain their rationale for selecting those hallmark lessons, along with how they plan to apply those takeaways in the future to “the deal world.”

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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