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What happens in distributed flips? Investigating students’ interactions with MOOC videos and forums (re-post from VPOL blog)

This article was originally written for and posted on the Stanford Online Signal blog 

Last month, Mike Caulfield and I introduced the term “distributed flip”, in an attempt to call attention to the emerging trend of flipping a course by making use of MOOC content (often “live” MOOC content) and activities. We both believe pretty firmly that MOOCs (both xMOOCs and cMOOCs) “can be integrated deeply into a traditional campus-based education, providing the economic and pedagogical benefits of networked learning while preserving the desirable attributes of traditional face-to-face, place-based education” (from a submitted, but yet-to-be-published paper)

In our research on distributed flips (executed w/ the assistance of the always excellent Helen Chen), we centered much of our attention on a course offered by Patti Ordonez-Rozo, assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico, who had her students enroll in Jennifer Widom’s Introduction to Databases MOOC on Stanford’s Class2Go platform. Following the structure of Jennifer’s course, Patti’s students watched videos and completed assignments (online quizzes, programming workbenches) before coming to class. By using Jennifer’s sequenced materials, Patti was able to focus on planning meaningful in-class activities, projects, and assessments.

In that research, we found

1) professors doing this appreciated the affordances of the public course materials in the MOOCs, which allowed them to focus more on the design of class time, feedback, and class projects;

2) that students did not make much use of the community elements of the MOOC (e.g., discussion forums, chats) but seemed to be motivated by the “live” nature of the course and the opportunity to receive a statement of completion from Stanford; and

3) professors using the distributed flip model “felt that they would have benefitted from participating in a community of practice around the materials of the MOOC, where they could chat with other professors who had experience with the flipped-class model, and perhaps co-develop materials that would leverage their individual specialties.”

That’s about where our previous paper stopped. Since then, however, we’ve been busy investigating whether the data tells the same story as we heard from practitioners.

Patti herself expressed doubts to us in follow-up conversations that her students had sufficiently used the MOOC resources. She heard rumblings from the students that the videos were not as exciting as they had hoped and she feared her students had moved away from content in the videos (similar to the concerns professors express about students’ reading the textbook for a course). The course forums, often presented as key to MOOC support, had also seemed to go unused.

With Patti’s permission, we analyzed aggregate data from her students’ interactions in the MOOC. We wanted to know what her students did, where they spent most of their time, and what resources they tapped the most.  The data confirmed some suspicions, but overturned others (Note: to avoid a Reinhardt/Rogoff situation, we should note we are still ironing out a couple issues with the data — these numbers are preliminary, and should be taken as such). In the confirmation category, Patti’s intuition that the students were not making use of the forums turns out to have been completely correct.  Patti’s students made little use of the discussion forums in the course, with a median of 2 visits per student to the discussion forums. (Because the forums in Class2Go were hosted by Piazza, we don’t have access to data about what students did once they clicked into the forums). Though the median visits were low for Patti’s students, they are not radically lower than the median for other course completers (6). This largely supports our finding in our previous paper that students in distributed flips make use of local community more than the global community of the MOOC when looking for answers.

What we found in video use, however, surprised us. Patti’s twenty-six students viewed the MOOC videos a total of 3,445 times, with a median of 120 views per student, for 54 total videos. Patti’s students’ views far exceeded typical compliance with textbook, which on any given day may be 20-30% of students in a class (Hobson, 2004). Compared to other course completers (n=2908), her students’ median views also exceeded the completers’ median by 22 views. A third of Patti’s students viewed the majority of the videos in their entirety (median percentage view = 100) and more than three-quarters of the class viewed more than half of the length of the videos (median percentage view of 50% or more).

While it is difficult to generalize patterns of online conversation and resource use to other courses based on delivery modality (see, for example Catherine Brooks and Amy Bippus’ article on posts in blended vs. online contexts), these video numbers indicate that the distributed flip, thoughtfully structured,  might increase student time with material over what one would get in a traditional classroom setting. Hopefully that translates into increased impact, although we haven’t delved into that quagmire yet.

We are grateful to Patti for working with us to explore what we can learn from her distributed flip. We will have more data soon (Patti is doing a survey of her students and Mike and I will keep crunching numbers) and we will keep sharing with you via our blogs and our upcoming workshop at the Sloan-C Blended Conference.

Thanks also to Sherif Halawa, a wonderful doctoral student at Stanford, who helped us query and chart data from Class2Go.

Written by Amy Collier, director for technology and teaching in VPOL, and Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.


Brooks, C. & Bippus, A. M. (2012). Underscoring the social nature of classrooms by examining the amount of virtual talk across online and blended college courses. European Journal of Open, Distance, and E-Learning. Available:

Hobson, E. H. (2004). Getting students to read: Fourteen Tips. IDEA Paper #40. Available:

distributed flipMOOCsonline learning

Amy Collier • May 2, 2013

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  1. Rolin Moe May 6, 2013 - 8:55 pm Reply

    Great read, Amy & Mike. It’s a great case study and lends credence to what you all call the distributed flip. Ideas/speculationon how it might fly in non-STEM courses, especially in light of the open letter from SJSU philosophy to edX?

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