Chris and Laurie Spielvogel are both tenured university professors and thought leaders in education and technology. They’ve been in the classroom for 12 years and, as Chris puts it, “We have the experience to see the problems in the classroom and the desire to correct them.” Indeed, they’ve been witness to the difficulty in engaging students through what they call the “hypodermic needle” format of education: “top-down lectures, passive memorization, and regurgitation,” says Laurie. “We know that students need to be challenged through active engagement,” says Chris, “so we each created original role-playing simulations in our own fields of rhetoric and cultural anthropology to better involve students and to allow them to be active participants in applying what they read in a fictional or imaginative setting.” Here, Chris and Laurie demonstrate just how they arrived at a way to Flip Learning.
Victor: Alright, so what else can you say about why you created Flip Learning?
Laurie: Out of the over 1,000 students who have used our two simulations to date, nearly 93 percent said that they would play again and 91 percent would recommend it to their friends. Many said that it was their best experience in college. Chris also has conducted surveys following half-day workshops with groups of 25-30 middle school teachers with 90-100 percent interest in classroom adoption rates.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Chris: Flip Learning is a reference to a trend in education that refers to “inverting” traditional teaching and learning processes, and this notion accurately reflects both the learning philosophy behind our products (bottom up instead of top down, student-centered instead of teacher-driven, active instead of passive, and crowdsourced instead of author contracted) and how students use our technology (flipping between role playing or in character view and debriefing or out of character view).
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Chris: Flip Learning is a publishing and distribution platform that allows instructors, authors, and publishers to gameify their educational content and resources. We have created a wizard (think Ning) that guides authors through the process of creating their own web-based, multiplayer simulations and tying it to content.
Laurie: Chris and I created the concept of the company together. Post-tenure, we coordinated a year-long sabbatical at the U of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA to create the initial prototype for the Valley Sim (valleysim.com). This required a high degree of upheaval through securing housing, moving children to different schools, driving U-Hauls across country, and living in a new setting. It was entirely worth it for Chris to be able to work with the tremendous faculty and staff at the University of Virginia, many of whom are still interested and involved in the project. The ValleySim project, funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, involved intensive research, coordination amongst programmers, historians, digital humanities scholars, outreach experts, designers, and students, and culminated in a four-week pilot at Penn State and a nationally televised talk that Chris gave on C-SPAN2.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Chris: Flip Learning (fliplearning.com) can be thought of as the “Smashwords of educational publishing.” We’re building a platform to crowdsource and curate hundreds of digital textbooks and multiplayer role-playing simulations for K-16 ed. Educational publishers are trending towards digitization and are looking for ideas that can help them remain the key players in the current $10 billion ed publishing space. Ed tech publishing is strongly trending towards product modularization and interactivity, yet currently publishers and their digital distributors are retrofitting existing 700-1000 page print textbooks, and building new textbook products that take 2-5 years to develop. This antiquated product and business model is ripe for disruption. We’re “flipping” this traditional model on its head by building from the bottom up. Each simulation can be sold or licensed as a stand-alone product, or aggregated with supporting content to form completed textbooks.
Laurie: For example, our first prototype is ValleySim, a multiplayer simulation on the Civil War in which students reenact the war’s pivotal events and issues from the perspective of one of 25 characters based on the lives of former wartime residents who fought on opposing sides of the conflict.
Chris: Our second prototype, A Marriage of Cultures, was developed by Laurie, a cultural anthropologist of Japan. Created around the narrative framework of an imaginary wedding between a Japanese bride and an Italian-American groom, students learn about cross-cultural interpretations of love, family, marriage, and obligation through playing one of 25 characters in the cast of the wedding party. This simulation engages students of anthropology, women’s studies, and Asian studies.
Laurie: The ValleySim has been featured in national press stories in Education Week, Campus Technology Magazine, and CSPAN2, which has led to 100 inquiries from K-16 teachers and technologists to purchase the product. We’re selling this sim as a stand-alone product, and negotiating right now with textbook publishers to bundle it with their existing American history textbooks. We’ve published articles on role-playing sims and the future of textbooks in national refereed journals from MIT Press and others.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services?
Chris: a) We’re the first company to incorporate game-based learning into the $10 billion textbook market, which, according to Xplana research, is a market that is expected to grow at a 100-200% rate in each of the next four years.
b) There are no born digital textbook publishers in the ed tech space. Startups like Kno and Inkling are digitizing publishers’ retrofitted print content that reflects an antiquated model of “receive, memorize, and regurgitate” learning intrinsic to the world of print. In contrast, our products leverage the affordances of the digital medium to allow students to star in their own textbook experiences by playing characters in embedded multiplayer simulations within their texts.
c) In recent years publishers have devoted most of their resources to figuring out how to distribute digital versions of their existing products while largely neglecting ways to improve the front-end of product development in a digital context. We think we can become the “Smashwords of educational publishing” by creating an authoring platform to crowdsource the development of thousands of multiplayer simulations that can become the building blocks for digital textbooks or that can be sold or licensed out as stand-alone products.
d) Studies show that students don’t like digital textbooks because they’re forced to read 700-1000 page retrofitted print textbooks online. The large publishers have tried to emphasize cost savings and convenience of a paperless product as value props, and so students express preferences for these benefits without being able to conceive of textbook experiences like ours that could flip the textbook on its head. If students like gaming and communicating within social networks, then they will love our products.
Victor: What companies do you see as in the same market?
Chris: Our competitors are the Big 3 publishers (Cengage, McGraw Hill, and Pearson) and the startups (Kno, Inkling) who are helping this oligopoly retrofit their textbook content for digital distribution of textbooks. We don’t fear these competitors necessarily, partly because it is our hope that they will be our strategic partners. We’re in the process of negotiating a pilot licensing agreement with one publisher to bundle our multiplayer simulation prototype on the American Civil War with their American history survey textbooks for k-16 market.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Laurie: We created the ValleySim prototype in 2008 and the Marriage of Cultures prototype in 2009.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Laurie: Please contact us at fliplearning.com if you would like to use either of these finished prototypes in the classroom.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Chris: We are offering free use of our wizard so that anyone who wants to create a basic role-playing simulation or who wants to upload existing content into our gamified e-reader can do so for their own classroom use. We will then curate and customize mutually selected simulations to work with authors to market, license, host, and charge for sale to other instructors.
Laurie: B to C: Licensing agreements with K-12; per seat subscriptions in higher ed. B to B: Licensing agreements with publishers to bundle our sims with their textbooks or to license our platform to upload their content.
Chris: For the higher ed market, we charge $30/per student for stand-alone simulations and $70/per student for longer, integrated textbooks. For the high school market, we will charge for per school or district licenses. We are currently selling and licensing the stand-alone role-playing simulation ValleySim in the secondary and post-secondary markets for this fall. We are also selling the stand-alone role-play Marriage of Cultures for university classrooms or interested secondary teachers.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Laurie: We are currently in discussions with a textbook publisher to establish a beta licensing agreement to bundle ValleySim with their American History survey textbooks; we have attracted ten recognized university teacher-scholars to develop simulations using our wizard this summer; we are launching our ValleySim prototype nationally this fall with up to 100 schools; and we are working with 5 university faculty members to pilot Marriage of Cultures in the upcoming school year. As mentioned, ValleySim, has generated significant national publicity, as evidenced by news stories this past month in Campus Technology Magazine and Education Week. This has resulted in requests from nearly 100 K-16 educators to purchase Valley Sim for this fall, without any deliberate marketing or sales efforts on our part.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Laurie: We’re partnering with publishers to bundle their existing textbook content with our simulations, with instructors who are enthusiastically signing up to use our products this fall, and with professors and teachers who are taking advantage of our wizard to create original role-playing games. It is really intended for any organization, institution, or instructor who wants to add a layer of social interactivity and gamification to their existing content. It is not for those who prefer the top-down model of teaching and learning, for those who are satisfied with current pedagogical methods, or for those who resist using technology in the classroom. I will say though, that I (Laurie), until very recently was a self-professed Luddite and our technology is very intuitive and easy to use. Really.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days? What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Flip Learning?
Chris: As professor-founders, we think we have a strong chance for success. Ed tech companies typically lack the right balance. Developers and programmers often don’t have a strong understanding of educational standards and curricula, while academics often create educational resources that students find boring and irrelevant, and generally have not had the opportunity to independently commercialize their products. That gap has to be bridged in order to compete effectively in this space.
Victor: How does Flip Learning address some of your concerns about education?
Laurie: We have created a truly interactive learning resource that democratizes the learning process by positioning students alongside of their teachers as actors, collaborators, authors, and readers.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education? What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Flip Learning?
Chris: Flip Learning is inverting teaching and learning as we know it, by forcing the sage on the stage to share room with facilitators who empower peer-to-peer learning. Wouldn’t you rather play a starring role in your textbook instead of just reading it? We have provided instructors with the opportunity to provide their students with the invaluable experience of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes;’ experiencing life from a different historical, cultural, social, political, gendered, or generational perspective, through anonymous online role-play, is transformative.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com