My 40 Years in Flipped Learning, Part 2 of 5: 1,125 Flipped Learning Centers

--Originally published at Flipped Learning Network – POWER LEARNERS

In this post, I will share my experience with flipping 1,125 Army learning centers from 1973 to 1980. Here’s what happened.

Training Needs of the All-Volunteer Army

In 1972, with public sentiment running anti-war, the U.S. ended the military draft and switched to an “All-Volunteer” force. Partly because of the Viet Nam War and partly because of low pay and the danger of getting killed, joining the Army was not popular. The Army could not recruit college graduates. They were getting high school graduates and high school dropouts—about half and half. The Army needed these soldiers with weak academic records to learn to maintain and use computerized and electronic weapons on the battlefield. The Army knew their conventional classes weren’t working for this content with these soldiers. The Army had also tried videotaping their best instructors without improving results. So, they went looking for a better solution.

Introducing the Army to Self-Paced Mastery Learning

Among other activities, the Army hired Bob Mager, Bill Deterline and me to give their training task force a workshop about self-paced, mastery learning. Today, I call this flipped learning. As before, we had them experience flipped learning in the workshop. As they developed and tested lessons, we held them to mastery criteria at each step of the process. Then, we had them hold each other to mastery as they did watch-and-fix testing of their lessons. Thus, they experienced the emotional and learning impact of mastery as both a learner and an instructor.

Having experienced flipped learning, the task force decided it was the only thing they had seen or heard of that might meet their needs. So, they did some trials which worked very, very well. At that point, the Army decided to open 1,125 learning centers in every Combat Arms Battalion in the world. The “Combat Arms” are infantry, armor, artillery and air defense artillery.

Contracting for Training Results

In 1973, the Army solicited bids for the lessons to be used in their new learning centers. I made plans to expand my one-person company, bid on the work, and won. We became the lead curriculum development contractor for the project. The Army put our watch-and-fix testing approach into the contract. They also required that the lessons we delivered worked. Every lesson was tested on 30 soldiers. Then the soldiers were performance tested to see they could use a radar-controlled anti-craft gun, survey a battlefield, or other technical task. If 27 or more (90%) were competent, we got paid. Otherwise, we had to try again at our own expense.

Since the Army was paying for results, they gave us editorial control over the how. We could develop lessons as we thought best, subject only to review for accuracy. This was critical. Without editorial control, we would often have been required to include too much instruction and too little practice. Our lessons were used in the learning centers by about 500,000 soldiers. Many of those soldiers subsequently won the 1980 Gulf War against combat-veterans in the Iraqi army in one month.

Training Our Instructional Developers

Upon getting the contract to develop hundreds of hours of multimedia lessons for the Army, I hired 8 instructional developers with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in the field. As their lessons were tested for acceptance, I was horrified that the lessons didn’t work nearly well enough. Our developers were fully capable of turning existing lessons into multi-media. The problem was that too small a percentage of students reached competency.

The missing secret-sauce was enough practice exercises, building toward mastery. This is a key point. In my view, instruction of beginners largely prepares them to do the practice that produces learning. I think, at least for beginners, it is counterproductive to say that practice (or homework or engagement) reinforces learning. That implies that the teaching produces learning. I think a more useful view is, “Practice produces learning.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, I was compelled to try something different. My employees were bright and willing. Creating lessons was their training and interest. So, after some fact finding and conversations, I decided that I couldn’t hire better people. If I was to succeed with the contract and with my business, my staff needed to learn how to develop more effective lessons. Luckily, I was in the training business, so supposedly I could design their training. Also, I was convinced from my earlier experiences that my mentors and I could design effective lessons. So, I was both the subject matter expert and the instructional designer for our internal training program. Using mostly pieces I already had, I quickly pulled together a training program in the format of a flipped workshop. I stopped all work for the client and took my team through a three-week training workshop.

In the workshop, each of my development team learned to do these things:

  • Before starting development, learn to do whatever your audience is supposed to learn to do from your lessons. Learn by doing, with a tutor you control. We found that learner-control is at least ten times faster than tutor-control.
  • Write instructional objectives for every lesson.
  • Create a practical test that would determine whether a person has the expected competence, or not.
  • Design a sequence of exercises likely to lead to the expected competence.
  • Insert the minimum instruction likely to prepare the learners to do those exercises. This is “lean instruction.” If a first draft doesn’t work, you add what’s needed. If you put in too much, initially, you don’t know what to take out.
  • Draw well enough to create a storyboard for production of the final lesson. This included three skills: use cartoons for facial expressions, draw stick figures of people in action, and sketch objects in perspective. We used The Big Yellow Drawing Book for this. It is still in print.
  • Use the watch-and-fix approach with three learners—one at a time—before submitting products to the client for review and approval.

This workshop worked well enough that our team’s lessons began meeting the Army’s acceptance criteria. Over the next 7 years, 85% of our lessons met the 90% competence requirement on the first try. All but one of the rest, passed on the second try. We had one lesson on bandaging a scalp wound that took us four tries.

Managing Instructional Design and Development

Over the next 8 years, I hired and trained 160 instructional developers. As we perfected our process, we evolved these very useful procedures:

  • An individual writer-producer takes a lesson or set of lessons from beginning to end. Learn it, design it, storyboard it, check the production, test it and fix it.
  • Once a design was drafted, we held a design review meeting. The writer-producer explained the objective and the design to reach it. Four or five of us would ask questions and make suggestions so that we had the benefit of additional experience and creativity in every design. I think this was one of our strongest practices for both creating good product and for becoming skilled ourselves.

I was in the design reviews for my team of 40 developers for 7 years. I like to think that I now have 280 years of instructional design experience. In some later posts, I’ll share some examples of great and not-so-great designs—by me and by others. You’ll be able to judge for yourself whether I am any good at design.

  • Every script was edited by our script editor. We found this to be an art. Our script editor, Michael Brown, was simply faster and better at this than any of the rest of us.
  • Design the visual or video scene before writing the words into the script. This helps the writer get all the communication mileage possible from the visuals. Then the script need not unnecessarily duplicate that communication and is more streamlined. That makes the lessons shorter, cheaper and more effective.
  • The key design issue in a lesson is how will the learner practice and be tested. If the learner is a beginner, the lesson and test must involve doing. Experts can learn new content without practice because they already have so much relevant knowledge and experience.

After the first group of eight, our new hires went through our workshop when they started. Our developers found their own accomplishments and professional growth so satisfying that, for a period of four years, not one professional left the company. Almost all of them were launched into lifelong careers in instructional design and development.

Preview of Coming Posts

In my next post, I will tell the story of flipped learning at West Point Military Academy. I will use this case history to illustrate why good flipped learning works so well, and what key principles were missing in some of the big flops. The fourth post covers the twenty years I have spent using flipped learning to prepare students to succeed in conventional, lecture/discussion classes in high schools and colleges. Since students mostly face classes which are not flipped, I hope this idea intrigues you. In the final post, I’ll share what I consider the best example of the power of competency-based learning. I believe this example shows how we can use flipped learning to improve academic outcomes not by a few percentage points, but by doubling, tripling, even quadrupling the number of highly educated, lifelong learners in our society.


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