Dr. Paul Kim: “It’s time to flip the classroom”

Access and Inclusion January 22, 2014
Dr Paul Kim, Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean for Stanford University School of Education, has long laid emphasis on creating learning tools that are simple and can be used in highly challenging conditions. This belief led him to focus on the use of mobile phones as a learning tool, given their low power consumption, low cost, ubiquitous availability and increasing capabilities. Dr.Kim developed the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE) – his version of the flipped classroom. 

Read on to find out more about SMILE.

By: Dr.Paul Kim

SMILE (Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment) is a social network and media-integrated mobile learning management system. We created SMILE because we believe it is necessary to transform pedagogical models to be more appropriate for the 21st century children. Currently, instructionism is pretty much the model in most learning settings around the world. In other words, teachers transmit information for students to memorize and students’ competencies are assessed by answering teacher-created questions. We want to flip that model so that students create questions for themselves and teachers verify student questions. This way, students are in the center of their own learning and also active agents while teachers are facilitators.

In SMILE, students freely explore world phenomena and topics that are most interesting to them. They generate multiple-choice questions based on their own curiosities and share with their peers to solve them and rank the questions based on the perceived level of question quality and insightfulness. If they believe their peers’ questions are not mere simple recall questions, they give a higher rating. In fact, if they find their peers’ questions profound and trigger critical thinking, they give the highest rating. One might ask why students are asked to generate multiple choice questions. When students make multiple-choice questions, they need to do thorough research to find the right answer and distractors. For example, if a student is asked to make a multiple choice question on photosynthesis. One cannot make a good question unless she understands enough about photosynthesis. Also, students must verify that distractors cannot be possibly answers. The process of researching more about a topic, deciding an answer, and verifying distractors is a form of learning. When students are solving peer-generated questions, they get to cover many topics in numerous forms and shapes that they usually do not experience otherwise.

Now, in SMILE, students use mobile devices to generate questions. They capture images or graphs from textbooks or take pictures of wild flowers, tiny bugs, or rocks around their school to make science questions.  They can also record audios or videos and incorporate them in their questions. This means, students are incorporating any media of their choice appropriate to the type of questions they are generating. Also, because they are using mobile, the SMILE management system aggregates all questions coming from students and redistribute them for students to solve and evaluate. Teachers can monitor all these activities and also see which questions are being accurately solved by who and how they are ranking each and every question. The highly ranked questions are often the best questions teachers can use as learning objects for further discussions. After solving all questions, students are asked to present their questions and explain the rationale behind their question logic, background, critical components, etc. When students present their questions, teachers get to see if students are presenting any deficiency in the grammatical structure of the question, word spelling, relevance of the question to the topic of interest, appropriate use of the media for their questions, etc. Certainly, one student’s mistake is often a learning opportunity for the rest of the students.

SMILE has been implemented in over 20 countries and mostly in underserved regions. Since SMILE is employing mobile technology, teachers do not find them too hard to learn. In fact, students pick up the mobile phone and participate in SMILE activities within 10 minutes while teachers engage in facilitating the activity within 2 rounds of SMILE sessions. That’s how easy it is to adopt and less threatening technology is to teachers who may not have an email address or never have used a search engine on Internet. In today’s classrooms, students are not usually asked to generate questions. When they are asked, you are actually triggering critical thinking and problem solving while promoting creativity. When they generate questions in teams, there is an ample room for collaboration. When they are ranking each team’s questions, the activity turns in to a competition game atmosphere. Learning becomes fun, research-oriented. When they have to defend their question in front of their peers, they are honing on their presentation skills.

How much does it cost? Android phones range from $30 to several hundred dollars today. If you have 20 phones in your school, a team of 3 students can share one phone. That means 60 students can participate in a SMILE activity at once. If one class is done with a SMILE activity, the teacher can pass the phones to another class. The bottom line is that this powerful educational program can be implemented at a comparably low cost. The entire SMILE program can fit in a $300 notebook computer or SMILE plug.

However, we have a problem in our schools. Many people do not like mobile phones to be around schools. In some extreme cases, they don’t want technology to be integrated in school curriculum. They want students to spend more time with the nature and read paper-copy books instead of using technology. In that case, I wonder how we will prepare our future leaders to be proficient with the media of the 21st century. There are many jobs that do not exist anymore. At the same time, we have many new jobs emerging because of technological advancement. If we don’t prepare our children with new competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, research and presentation skills coupled with 21st century media and communication tools, they will be looking for jobs of the past.

It’s time to flip the classroom. Let’s ask students to SMILE.