Which Ones Are Not Like the Others? Why Names Matter for Flipped, Blended, and Hybrid Instruction

The conversation about flipped, blended, and hybrid courses is trying to move beyond the conventional, but it’s stuck. Without common definitions for these basic terms, educators are like chemists without the periodic table or physicists without Newton’s Laws. We cannot effectively implement new instructional methods that will improve our students’ learning if we’re not all speaking the same language.

Take “flipped courses” as an example. Most people think of a flipped course as one in which students learn content before coming to class, and then use class time to work on activities while an instructor provides feedback. In this case, a flipped course could be a discussion-based Ethics class in which students read a book beforehand and discuss it during class. Some definitions, however, specify that the before-class content must be delivered electronically. Therefore, the course would only be considered “flipped” if the book is delivered electronically. Other definitions claim that flipped courses must include group-based, procedural problem solving.

The issue with these definitions of flipped is that people use one term to attempt to describe different dimensions of the learning environment. When the conversation includes blended and hybrid courses as well, things become even more muddled.

To tease apart these dimensions and create standard definitions for terms, our team of researchers in the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology has developed the Mixed Instructional eXperience (MIX) taxonomy. The MIX taxonomy categorizes and provides standard names for courses that are partially face-to-face and partially online, based on the type of instruction that they provide.

The taxonomy specifies two types of instruction: disseminating course content (e.g., in the form of a lecture) or providing feedback on applications of content (e.g., problem solving or discussion). It then identifies the two ways in which instruction might be delivered: via in-person instructor or via technology. After developing definitions based on these axes, we evaluated existing research in “blended,” “flipped,” and “hybrid” courses and utilized the new taxonomy to re-categorize them.

By re-categorizing pre-existing research with these definitions, we discovered previously unrecognized themes in the results. We found that changing the medium of instruction (e.g. posting a recorded lecture only instead of giving a live lecture in class) largely did not affect student learning. What does improve learning is adding instruction that provides feedback during application of content. Using software to give this feedback improved learning in some cases, but learning improved in almost all cases when instructors provided feedback, as they do in flipped courses. Recognizing these themes allows us to show that flipped courses improve learning and why. Understanding why an instructional method works enables educators to build upon that method.

These findings validate the categorizations of the MIX taxonomy. In turn, the MIX taxonomy helps educators understand the benefits or drawbacks of instructional methods. By implementing the definitions that are unpacked within the taxonomy, we are able to clearly connect themes from instructional design research to themes from studies of other educational dimensions. Being able to make these connections is crucial to furthering our knowledge about methods of instruction and building upon research in other dimensions of learning.

The definitions in the MIX taxonomy are not intended to be the end of the discussion. Rather, the definitions are intended to offer a common foundation that helps the academic community further the development and research of courses that mix face-to-face and online instruction. When creating the taxonomy, we included only dimensions of the course prescribed by the instructor and did not include other valuable dimensions like peer learning and differences among students. These dimensions and others can significantly impact students’ learning, and the effect of these interactions in flipped, blended and hybrid courses needs greater research attention.

We hope that the community will find the MIX taxonomy as helpful as we do for defining courses that are partially face-to-face and partially online. Using common definitions is mandatory to clear the way for a less-than-conventional discussion surrounding flipped, blended, and hybrid instruction.

By providing strong evidence that flipped courses improve learning outcomes, we want to re-energize research on teaching methods that include technology. The research around flipped, hybrid, and blended course has stagnated in the past year, and now that our research has identified why these classes are beneficial, resources can be used more effectively to improve teaching methods. Because we’ve demonstrated that providing feedback during initial content application is crucial to the success of students, universities can invest in interventions that aim to improve this feedback and further boost learning outcomes.


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