Flipping the Workshop

I think it is time to start holding “flipshops.” I have been a big fan of flipping the classroom because it makes better use of teacher’s time, and the students benefit.  The same thing can be brought to conferences and workshops.

How many conferences have you been to where the you saw an interesting talk, but only in later, in the evening you came up with the perfect question to ask?  How many times have you attempted to seek out a particular speaker the next day, but failed to find them to ask that question?  How many times have you read the title and description of a talk, only to find it was on a completely unexpected (and disappointing) topic?

1. The first point about having a flipshop is to allow people to come prepared for a good discussion.  The presentation is recorded a week earlier, so while it is still timely, relevant, and interesting, you still have some time to not only prepare reasonable questions, but to do a bit of research and make sure that there are not obvious answers.   You can verify a few facts, and maybe uncover some competing ideas that need discussion.  When everyone comes prepared, there is a much more interesting discussion.

2. The second point is that much more of the time is dedicated to interactive discussion.  If you have seen the presentation before, it can be painful siting through 45 minutes just waiting for the 10 minutes of discussion at the end.  I can see lectures anytime, but the only real reason to get together is to be interactive.  A flipshop dedicates almost all the time to relevant discussion.

Basic Plan

  • Submissions are called for, received, reviewed, and accepted in the normal way.
  • A week before the workshop, presentations are recorded and placed on YouTube. Depending on the event, these might be anywhere from 10 minutes to 60 minutes (but all presentations for a given event must be the same length)
  • Attendees watch all the presentations before coming to the workshop, and they have time to prepare meaningful questions.
  • Questions can be submitted to the workshop on line.   A superior system might allow people to vote/promote questions from others.
  • The day of the event starts with a fast round of all speakers who get 5 minutes to introduce themselves and remind the audience of the subject to be covered, answering some of the more basic questions there.
  • Then you transition to longer sessions for each speaker which consist entirely of questions / answer discussions with the presenter.  Questions can be selected from the audience or the pre-submitted ones.
  • A wrap up summary at the end.

There now, doesn’t that feel better already?  I like the idea of watching the lectures at home (maybe even fast-forward through some parts, yet replaying some other parts) and coming ready to discuss the topic.


I have recently been in discussion of putting on a 2 or 3 hour evening workshop.  Generally this consists of 3 to 5 speakers with about 20 minutes to speak, and some time for discussion.  Generally these affairs are primarily about networking and socializing, but having presentations on current, relevant topics drives the discussion.  A flipshop might still drive the discussions on current, relevant topics, and leave more time for discussion.

I can see this idea working on a couple of levels:

  • 2-3 hour:  With 3-5 presentation topics, 10 minute recorded lectures, and 15-20 minutes discussion on each topic.
  • 1-day, single track: 5-8 presentations, 20 minutes each, and 40 minutes given to discussion of each topic
  • 1-day multi-track: 8-12 (two tracks) or up to 18 (three tracks) record 20 minute lectures, and 40 minutes given to each discussion.  All the times have to be well scheduled to leave time to change tracks.
  • multiple day: clearly this scales up to more speakers, more subjects.  In some cases 1 week before will not be enough time, and the recorded lectures should be available increasingly long time before the conference.
  • working group meetings: in the case of a group that has been working closely together over time, it will make sense to record longer lectures, maybe one hour, to cover a subject in more depth

Are there any disadvantages to this approach?  I can’t think of many.  The speaker has to be prepared a week in advance — bad for those who like to write their talk on the plane going to the conference, but not really a problem for those who plan ahead.  Speakers can’t really incorporate thoughts from other speakers in their lecture, but the quick round introduction and discussion does allow for reflecting and positioning relative to other presentations.  If a speaker makes a major omission, there is no audience to catch it at that moment, but even in live-lecture those are often not caught until the end.  There is, however, a chance for a speaker to re-record the lecture if something is really wrong.  From the speaker point of view, the discussion will be less of the minor clarification “what did you say?” questions, and more of the meaty idea exchanges.  It seems like a win-win all around.

How do we transition?  There will be those who show up and did not watch the lectures, so one should have a room set aside where the lectures play continuously one after another starting a suitable amount of time before the actual meeting.  Those who can’t see them in advance should at least show up early and see them at that time.  But keep this away from the mainstream discussion area.

Future directions? Collaborative techniques could be used to schedule tracks to avoid interest overlap, or to schedule more or less time to topics.  There are even possibilities to schedule discussions on sub-topic or branch topics ahead of time, and let others know they can join — something that simply would not be possible in a standard workshop format.

As it gets more and more expensive to travel (or at least harder to justify) it will be important to make our time at these meeting more effective.


4 thoughts on “Flipping the Workshop

  1. One challenge could be enforcing that people actually watch the prerecorded sessions, and not just come to the Q&A — someone who didn’t watch the presentations (due to time constraints, best intentions gone awry, or just laziness) and then asks questions that were answered in the presentation itself would be a distraction to those who participated fully, if not handled properly.

    • I don’t know, but I am guessing that this problem will be less than a normal conference. There certainly will be those who, for good reasons or bad, show up without being prepared. Some might even ignore the videos running in a continual loop somewhere off to the side. Showing up ill prepared is humbling for most and harmless unless that person is brash enough to try and dominate the discussion. It seems to me, that given copious opportunity to prepare, it will be pretty easy shut off such a distraction as soon as it become obvious (to everyone) that they did not watch the lecture. Because you have the opportunity to view the video more than once, the presenter/moderator can insist on a much higher level of coherence than a normal conference. The prerecorded videos do not have the PA audio problems and “talking neighbor” problems that can make live presentations less than ideal. Assuming that a majority of the attendees did prepare, I would anticipate a strong peer pressure to stay on track.

  2. Hi Keith, a fantastic idea. I truly believe that our current education system is on the wrong track. Students can read the course material or watch a recorded one and then the classroom or interactive video session should be for the student to ask.

    The question is who well it would be used for conferences. Since the 80s we have at the ISIS Papyrus OpenHouse at the end of the day a ‘Ask the expert’ session, which was meant to allow attendees to ask the things that they had not thought of during the day or presentations. Even with 200 attendees, we would only have 5-10 people at these sessions and mostly existing customers asking questions unrelated to the presentations.

    So I am all for it but too many people simply are not that interactive or meybe even interested. They are ok to watch and they might take along one or the other item from each presentation. If they did not get anything they won’t bother to ask.

    Would still be interesting to try, but I would not want to be the one to put the money into an event as many people won’t even show if they can have all the presentations upfront by video. And then a great live speaker in front of an audience beats a video anytime.

    • Yes, there are different types of meetings. I was focusing on conferences and workshop where the primary activity is participative learning. There are other types of meetings which are much more like a “show” and have the main purpose not of interaction, but of presenting. People show up not to work and discuss, but as a simple way to receive a load of information. Others attend because of the exotic location (e.g. Las Vegas). There are clearly events that do not benefit from being flipped. Many of those events are going to a purely online format (e.g. ACM Live events http://acmlive.tv/) exactly what you said: if all they want is to watch the presentations they can do that at home. What is left then for events that people actually travel to and visit? Seems to me it has to be more than just watching the presentations.

      I don’t know anything about your Open House, but if 95% are traveling a long ways just to see the presentations, then maybe you should find a way to get this to them without the bother and expense of travel?

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