Blended Learning at Harvard

Harvard Computer Science Professor and former Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, has written an article in this month’s Harvard Magazine about his experience blending a preliminary computer science course entitled, Discrete Mathematics. While reading his first person account of this pilot course, I kept nodding my head in agreement as he recounted both the challenges and the successes he experienced in this foray into 21st Century Learning.

After some preamble in his article entitled Reinventing the Classroom, Lewis puts into prose one of the major motivating factors behind the blended, hybrid, and flipped classroom paradigms..

“I believe that if the videos exist, then all my students should have them—and they should have my handouts too. In fact, I think I should share as much of these materials with the world as Harvard’s business interests permit. I could think of ways to force students to show up (not posting my slide decks, or administering unannounced quizzes, for example). But those would be tricks, devices to evade the truth: the digital explosion has changed higher education. In the digital world, there is no longer any reason to use class time to transfer the notes of the instructor to the notes of the student (without passing through the brain of either, as Mark Twain quipped). Instead, I should use the classroom differently.”

Many of us in k-12 feel the same way, and most of us in k-12 – more than 80% – do not have the private interests of any organization to be concerned with.

Lewis then goes on to describe what class time looks like..

“There would be a reading assignment for every class. But when they got to class, they would talk to each other instead of listening to me. In class, I would become a coach helping students practice rather than an oracle spouting truths. We would “flip the classroom,” as they say: students would prepare for class in their rooms, and would spend their classroom time doing what we usually call “homework”—solving problems.”

Adolescents, even many of those at Harvard, need adult structure and expert guidance in their studies. The classroom in a blended (or flipped) model can be the place where students come to do the difficult work of solving problems, collaborating on projects, and getting guidance from both peers and the trained expert in the room on the more elusive concepts.

One of the great promises of liberating the content from the brains and mouths of the sages, previously on the stage, is that we turn the focus from learning content into becoming learners of content. As Lewis describes it..

“A principal objective of the course would be not just to teach the material but to persuade these budding computer scientists that they could learn it.”

Lewis goes on to describe some of the logistical challenges of offering a blended or flipped course at Harvard. Harvard classrooms are designed as lecture halls, big and small. He had to request a room that was flat and open with whiteboards all around, tables with chairs, and a false floor with electrical wiring for student laptops to charge at any station. After some admitted “fits and starts” he settled into a blended model that included a 20-minute mini-lecture to kick off his class sessions. In my practice, those first twenty minutes set the tone of focus and work. I have tried letting the students get straight to work. For whatever reason, without a structured start, many students have a difficult time digging in.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Lewis’ account is the section on lessons learned. It is in these paragraphs where it becomes apparent that this college professor became more interested in the learning of his students than in the subject matter itself. He cautions that exam examples had better not be based on an understanding of playing cards because that is a sin in some parts of the world – so he learned from his international clientele. When the problem solving got so hard that many students reached their frustration point, he suggests that cupcakes and doughnut holes go a long way toward keeping students in the game. He even talked about how he wouldn’t let students choose their own seating in the future and he would switch it up halfway through the semester the next time he teaches the class. These are topics regularly discussed in high school teaching networks, if it takes a flipped model of instruction to reveal this in the higher ed space, then flip it all!

In college, and nowhere is this more true than at Harvard, students vote with their feet. To earn my way when I was there for grad school, I was a media specialist who recorded lectures. It was not uncommon for a lecture hall that could hold 500 to be overflowing on the first day of class only to witness two dozen or so regular attendees a few weeks later. Lewis claims that he started discrete mathematics with 40 students willing to try his flipped class, and that those intrepid few brought their friends back with them for the second class; it actually grew in size.

I applaud Lewis for his conviction and tenacity. Learners at Harvard may be among the highest academic achievers on the planet, but they are still learners. If it takes an edtech revolution to bring best practices in teaching and learning to Harvard classrooms, then bring on the revolution.

About Jack West

Writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

7 Responses

  1. throughout my years teaching esl, i have always preferred the flipped approach…
    …and with many great results…
    however, i do find that one of the biggest struggles can be getting students to buy into it, that is, getting them to actually do the required prep’ work at home in order to allow for a truly flipped experience in the classroom…
    …in a way, it seems that students too, must relearn the learning process…
    still, i have tried just about everything to ensure that students do said work at home but i have not been consistently successful…
    …any ideas???

  2. mrhart

    The idea of the flipped classroom is relatively new to me. While I am excited about the prospect of making class time more about authentic engaged learning, I remain skeptical about the model’s ability to succeed with unmotivated and low performing students. I am afraid that the flipped classroom will benefit those who always do well the most. Do you have any insights on this concern?

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