When David and Libby Savner donated $1 million to Northwestern University School of Law, professor Emerson Tiller knew immediately how he wanted to see the money used — a flipped classroom.
It’s an education model where students watch filmed lectures at home prior to class and spend class time reviewing the lectures and doing their homework. Rather than spending class time listening to teachers talk, students have the benefit of absorbing lectures at their own pace.
“This is typically done with visual technology that they can watch on the Internet,” Tiller said. “So (students) come into class not to take notes on the professor’s lecture but to put that knowledge into action with group problem-solving and other interactive activities in the classroom.”
Rather than completing assignments at home on their own, he said, students increase their comprehension of material by being with the professor as they review their notes and complete their homework assignments.
The flipped classroom model also rearranges the physical classroom design.
“A typical law school classroom has tiered seating and embedded or stationary desks and a podium,” Tiller said. “That’s not conducive to students getting together and working in groups during the class time. It’s too difficult for students to communicate as a group.”
The typical flipped classroom, Tiller said, is flat with moveable furniture. Instead of individual seating, tables are used to create groups of students.
In front of each group of students is a screen that students use for class work.
“They can use technology together to make presentations or visualize as a group solutions to a problem,” Tiller said.
Thus the guiding principles of the flipped classroom model are threefold: Classroom time is for responding to material, not learning it; learning is best done through group activity, not individual reading and note-taking; and professors are for student-learning facilitation, not lecture.
“Students would be able to collaborate and interact with each other outside the classroom center through the Internet,” said donor David A. Savner, a partner at Jenner & Block LLP. “(Students) use the classroom time as much more of a problem-solving activity rather than sitting and listening to a lecture which is what I did 40-some years ago in law school.”
Tiller considers experiential learning and technology-enhanced learning to be “the new model for legal education and the evolving model for Northwestern law.”
Using the flipped classroom model at Northwestern is something that Tiller, in his role as senior associate dean of academic initiatives, has discussed regularly with Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez.
When the Savners expressed interest last year in making a donation to the school, Rodriguez invited professors to submit proposals for how the Savner donation would be used. The flipped classroom model won out.
In order to put these classrooms into action, the Savners’ $1 million will be used for three improvements.
The first is classroom infrastructure. Though costs are still being determined, the donation will outfit one classroom in the flipped model. Rooms need to be completely transformed with new floors, walls, desks and technology.
The second is creating an endowment for new technology and software as they develop, while the third is professor training.
“This is a new pedagogical style,” Tiller said. “So we will need to spend some money on workshops and specialized training for professors who want to use this pedagogy and format for teaching in the flipped classroom.”
Being part of this future of education is something that excited the Savners.
“We were interested in making a donation on an absolute basis probably about a year ago,” said Savner, who earned his J.D. at Northwestern in 1968.
“After talking to Dean Rodriguez, he presented several different possibilities of different kinds of contributions one could make. And the one that I got most excited about, as did my wife, was the one that would put technology into a new kind of classroom.”
One of the Savners’ concerns was the possibility of the flipped classroom causing students to underprepare for class. Rodriguez, Tiller and professor Leslie Oster assuaged those fears immediately.
“The experience they’ve had is that students come more prepared and more ready to work collaboratively with other students and with the professor,” Savner said.
It’s a setup that has Northwestern looking to the future.
“I think in this setting the professor takes on the added role of being a facilitator for learning and not just the center for knowledge distribution,” Tiller said. “I think it stretches our conception of what a teacher does in a classroom.”