High costs and ineffectiveness in public education are chronic problems, but a change is underway that promises better results for consumers.  “Flipped classroom” is a K-12 teaching approach used in some K-12 schools.  It mimics the mentor-supplemented “Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC)” available at some colleges.  Both could improve educational effectiveness.

Flipped classroom is an approach where “homework” consists of viewing the teacher’s videos of coursework, and “classroom” time is devoted to individualized mentoring and checking student mastery of the course material.  This scheduling inversion leaves time for the teacher to assure that each student has mastered the current coursework before being allowed to proceed to the next unit of coursework.  A mastery requirement was part of “mastery learning,” a technique that requires more time for individual mentoring than classroom teachers typically had before “flipped classroom.”  

While substantial time may be needed to create videos of coursework, flipped classroom teachers avoid most grading work since grading is completed during classroom time, usually with the student listening to the teacher’s comments.  Teachers who embrace this approach say it produces better learning progress by their students.  That’s plausible due to the hike in individualized attention, but great care must be used in measuring improvement – a lot rides on the estimates of gain and whether flipped classroom can be applied generally.

MOOCs were at first just videos of academic subjects enjoying an astounding volume of viewers – about 5 million worldwide.  But popularity did not deliver effectiveness, as shown by abysmal course completion rates of about 10%.  MOOCs needed to address their dropout issue.

To boost effectiveness, MOOCs now usually schedule “tutorial time” for mentoring individual students on the coursework.  These “MOOC plus mentoring” variants are available at universities such as MIT, Stanford and Georgia Tech.  Georgia Tech is readying a master’s degree in computer science using a MOOC with mentor approach.  The academic enrollment standards are identical to the on-campus master’s program, but course fees are just $7,000, about 8% – 33% of on-campus fees.  Georgia Tech is bracing for a tsunami of master’s candidates eager to do work hard and save big.  In fact, Georgia Tech’s accreditation backing for its master degrees makes its MOOC program a bargain.

It is premature for consumers to know if “flipped classroom” can be replicated successfully across a broad swath of K-12 education.  If progress is made, it will be at K-12’s customary glacial pace, stunted by a few legitimate issues,  but more by issues created to protect vested interests.  What happens if a child has no internet access or no laptop/tablet?  Who “owns” the video course wares?  How much retraining is needed for K-12 teachers?  Who underwrites that cost?  How many extra administrators will be needed?  Should local schools create math courseware or is math so geographically and culturally invariant that national math course wares might suffice?  In K-12 there are endless opportunities for delay and featherbedding.

“MOOCs with mentors” is an almost identical approach to flipped classroom, but college teachers and administrators are probably more flexible than those in K-12.  With strong financial incentives for students and political attention on student loans, “MOOCs with mentors” will likely succeed and spread quickly.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who lives in Florida and who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research