With the opportunity to once again teach "Biotechnology," I decided to move towards a flipped classroom model. Having previously taught this course in 2012 and having given guest lectures for it in 2013 and 2014, I was very familiar with the content and objectives/outcomes of the course.
Wikipedia defines a flipped classroom as, "an instructional strategy and a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom. ... In a flipped classroom, students watch online lectures, collaborate in online discussions, or carry out research at home and engage in concepts in the classroom with the guidance of a mentor." The purpose is to shift to a learner-centred model, which promotes higher-order thinking while increasing interest and retention.
"Biotechnology" is a third year undergrad course at the University of Toronto (HMB301) created by Dr. Leigh Revers and based loosely on Gary Pisano's 2006 book "Science Business." As our tagline "The Science of The Business and The Business of The Science" implies, the course examines various aspects of the commercialization of biologicals (medicines based on biochemistry which involves DNA technology and usually protein-based products).
My partially flipped classroom involves seven components as outlined below:
The course has been redesigned in a modular format. There are 10 modules spanning 21 class hours, and two catch-up sessions that, with the midterm test, cover the 12 week course (see the attached syllabus). A week before each module, a list of pre-read articles and videos are announced and web links provided.
2) Pre- and Post- Lecture Slides
A set of Powerpoint slides covering the upcoming module are posted the day before the class (i.e. pre-lecture slides). These are not required reading, although many students do browse through them to cement their pre-read understanding. These slides are provided to allow students to follow along during class and make additional notes as desired, while alleviating the need to write down everything. More time can be thus be spent listening, thinking and discussing. In order to facilitate instructor-led questions and discussion, the content of some of the slides is blanked-out. As soon as the module is complete, a set of post-lecture slides without any blanked-out content is made available, as is an audio tape of the module.
3) Class Participation
Encouraging in-class dialogue and discussion is a key aspect of a flipped classroom. Challenging the students through socratic questioning (aided in part by the blanked out pre-read slides), taking questions and even asking students to shout out, "What's the point," are all part of the lecture style. In addition, an excellent online student response/clicker-like tool called GoSoapBox has been incorporated so that students can ask questions, indicate confusion and take part in polls. Unfortunately, time constraints have limited the amount of class participation despite best efforts, hence my term "partially flipped." There is no question that a flipped classroom model needs more time, perhaps 1 1/2 times a standard chalk-and-talk lecture or a equivalent reduction in material covered. In future, I plan to increase the lectures to three hours per week and per module.
In order to supplement class participation, in person office hours, an online discussion board and e-mail are available so that students can ask questions or continue the discussions. Indeed, 10% of the final grade is assigned based on participation.
4) Individual Rolling Assignment
A key component of this learner-centred course is the major assignment that is worth 35% of the course grade. Since the course focuses on the commercialization of biologics, each student selects a different publicly-traded biotech company to assess, as if they were in the role of a stock analyst. Over the term, each student is required to complete seven reports. Each 2-page report relates to a specific aspect of commercializing a biologic (the technology, the market, the plans and management, the intellectual property, the competition, the financials, and the overall strategy). Each report is due a week after the matching module has been covered in class. Each of these reports requires extensive research and more importantly significant analysis of the findings. This all goes towards each student's overall decision as to whether they recommend their company's stock as a buy or sell. By having the students select different companies, collaboration on the means to research and analyze the material is encouraged as ultimately every company is, and every report will be, unique.
(N.B. The one issue with this assignment is the amount of time required to read, comment and mark each section, however the feedback to the students serves as a valuable teaching tool).
A Twitter feed (#HMB301) has also been established where relevant articles from e-zines, websites, and news feeds are re-tweeted (about 1/day). Students are encourage to follow this feed to see in real time, how the industry is evolving and what the current issues are (biosimilars, biologic pricing and immune-oncology are the current hot topics).
In addition to class participation (10%) and the rolling assignment (35%), each student grade arises from the mid-term test (20%), the final exam (35%). I focus on short answer questions as I believe they allow the best combination of testing a knowledge and understanding of the material, while providing students the flexibility to display at least a degree of individual analysis and opinion. In my experience, multiple choice questions risk being too factual and too tricky, whereas with long answers students can sometimes get too far off track. I also design the test questions around Bloom's taxonomy, providing a balanced mix of questions that cover knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (in order of increased complexity and abstraction), so as to evaluate higher-order thinking.
Still on my to do list, is to hold small group discussions on the course material as an additional form of assessment. Time and scheduling is what makes this difficult, but office hours are at least a start.
7) Technology Support
A single online tool greatly simplifies the whole process. This course is supported by the popular web-based server software Blackboard. This provides a one-stop spot where all the pre-read material and lecture slides can be posted. In addition, it is provides homework notification, discussion board, assignment posting and grading capabilities.
Although not perfect, the student feedback on the course and the flipped classroom methodology has been extremely positive and hence very encouraging. An interesting question to explore is whether this methodology makes studying the business and commercial aspects of science a little less intimidating for science students.
Running a flipped classroom does not require much additional work relative to standard methods, however it does require significant planning. The early development of a detailed syllabus, based on this modular design, has been a critical success factor (see the attached syllabus). The true measure of success will come from surveying these students a year or more after the course is over, to assess their perception of their level of retention and the value of that knowledge to them. Something I will endeavour to do and report on.
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