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Board 31: Work in Progress: Flipping Synchronous Online Courses to Increase Engagement and Enhance Learning

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Biomedical Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Biomedical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Karen R. Thickman University of Washington

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Karen R. Thickman is a lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington. She received an A.B. in biophysical chemistry from Dartmouth College, and a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She was an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the Computational Biology Department for five years before transitioning to the University of Washington. Thickman’s teaching interests include developing and teaching courses for an online professional masters program, courses in genomics and genomic technologies, and laboratory experiences. Thickman performs educational research and continuous improvement activities toward the goal of improving student outcomes. Thickman also engages in online education and research in this area to improve access to bioengineering education for students at various points in their careers.

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Throughout the country, many universities and other organizations are increasing the number of educational opportunities available through online learning platforms. Despite the clear value of increasing access to a variety of students, there is strong evidence that many students find succeeding in online courses challenging. In the Department of Bioengineering at the University of X, we have recently moved our professional program to a fully online format. Here, I present the structure being used for two fully online courses in the Master in Pharmaceutical Bioengineering program that encourages the success of our students.

Many online programs rely entirely on recorded material, assignments, and discussion boards. This delivery method can be effective, and allows students to progress through the courses at individual paces. However, this format does not provide a strong learning community. Research has shown that student learning increases with peer teaching, and that strong learning communities often lead to greater understanding and engagement. Building community is especially challenging when students are not physically in the same classroom. To develop a sense of community between the faculty and students and among the students, we chose to have a synchronous online meeting each week in the courses in this program.

Many of the challenges faced in online education are similar to those experienced in lecture-based courses, but magnified, including low student engagement, lack of interactivity, and loss of focus. To address these concerns, many classroom-based courses have moved toward active learning and flipped classroom models. Online courses with a synchronous component are an ideal setting for a flipped classroom. As recorded material is expected in online courses, there is little pushback against delivering content through pre-recorded lectures. Therefore, the synchronous online meetings can be spent in small-group active learning activities and full-class discussions.

In the synchronous sessions, most of the time was spent in small-group discussions. In one of the courses, the students read a number of scientific papers, and were assigned to a paper discussion group that stayed the same throughout the course. This was intended to enable students to form strong connections with two to three other students. For discussions of problems related to the course material, students were assigned randomly to different groups each week. This enabled the students get to know all of their peers.

In focus group-like course assessment discussions conducted by a third party, students indicated this course format allowed them to build a learning community. Based on surveys and reviews, students found this combination of recorded lectures and “in-class” discussion and problem solving to be useful. Some students even indicated that this format is more effective than traditional, in-person course formats. Additional assessments of the effectiveness of this course structure are ongoing. These preliminary results indicate that challenges in online education can be addressed by techniques that have been shown effective in traditional formats, such as flipped classrooms that focus on peer teaching and problem-based discussions.

Thickman, K. R. (2018, June), Board 31: Work in Progress: Flipping Synchronous Online Courses to Increase Engagement and Enhance Learning Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah.

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