When a Flipped-Classroom Pioneer Hands Off His Video Lectures, This Is What Happens

George Frey

A student watches a video of Norman Nemrow's accounting class. Mr. Nemrow started the video lectures nearly 15 years ago at Brigham Young U. He is now retired, but students still watch him on the screen.
January 07, 2015

In a way, there are two Norman Nemrows. There’s the real-life professor who spent much of his career teaching accounting students at Brigham Young University. And there’s the one I'll call Video Norm, the instructor immortalized in lectures on accounting that he began recording nearly 15 years ago.

For more than a decade, students at BYU learned from both Norms. About half of the class sessions for his introductory-accounting course were "software days," when students watched an hour or two of video lectures on their computers anywhere they wanted and then completed quizzes online. The other class periods were "enhancement lectures," in which students—as many as 800 at a time—gathered in a classroom and did group work led by the actual Mr. Nemrow.

Back when it started, in 2000, this method of reducing in-person classes and replacing them with videos and tutorials was an innovation, but today it is a buzzword: the flipped classroom.

A few years ago, the living, breathing Norman Nemrow retired from the university. And that’s when things got interesting, or at least more complicated, because students at BYU still learn from Video Norm.

In fact, every student taking introductory accounting at the university watches the video lectures, some 3,000 students each year. And the in-person sessions? They’re now led by another accounting professor, Melissa Larson, who has been thrust into the novel role of doing everything a traditional professor does except the lecturing. The tough question—and one of the biggest for the future of the flipped model—is whether other professors will be willing or able to become sidekicks to slick video productions.

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Ms. Larson gets high marks on student evaluations for leading group work in the large classroom sessions and answering questions by email. But Video Norm remains the star.

That was clear when Mr. Nemrow showed up, in person, at the end of the fall semester to give a guest lecture for the introductory course. You’d think a Hollywood actor had come to campus. Students showed up early to take selfies with the professor they had spent so many hours watching on video.

"We got front-row seats," said Celeste Harris, a junior in the course. "We said, we have to see what this guy is like in real life."

How did Mr. Nemrow compare with the digital version? "He’s a little older than when he recorded the videos," Ms. Harris noted, "but it was actually one of the best lectures I’ve heard." It was inspirational, she said, because Mr. Nemrow recounted the story of this unusual accounting course, which has become a kind of legend on the campus.

From Business to Teaching

Mr. Nemrow started out as a businessman. He worked at a consulting firm in California, then helped start a real-estate-investment firm. But he was drawn to the classroom. For years he taught accounting on the side, first as an adjunct at California State University at Fullerton, then full time at Pepperdine University.

Around the time he turned 30, he sold his business and decided to retire early. He didn’t want to do nothing, but he no longer had to work for money, he says, even with a wife and five small children.

"I didn’t really have a burning desire to create another business," he says. He took some art classes. He played a lot of golf. "For a couple of years I was trying to kind of find myself," he recalls. "I decided what I really wanted to do is probably teach."

So he called up the dean of the business school at his alma mater, Brigham Young, and asked if there was a teaching spot for him. He had a master’s degree but not a Ph.D., and at first the answer was no. "When I told him I was willing to do it as a volunteer, his attitude changed," Mr. Nemrow recounts, with a laugh. "He let me teach the intro course for a year."

BYU hired Mr. Nemrow as a full-time professor. He donated his salary to the university, he says. A devout Mormon, he saw the work as a way to give back to the church. In his mind, that left his teaching in the category of volunteer work. "I wanted to have complete and total freedom, and I didn’t want to make a commitment to how long I’d be there."

After several years of teaching the introductory course, he says, he began to get tired of repeating himself and answering the same questions. He considered writing a textbook and even drafted a couple of chapters. "But I thought to myself, this isn’t as effective as when I’m explaining it in person."

So, in 1998, he approached the university’s fledgling instructional-technology group and pitched his idea to reformat his course around a series of videos and computerized homework assignments. "They were worried about getting funding, so I just put up the money myself," about $50,000, he says.

After two years of development and some lobbying to persuade the accounting faculty to let him try his flipped experiment, Video Norm was born.

Mr. Nemrow says the software increased the number of students he could teach at one time, while reducing the time it took him to do it. And he says his surveys showed that 93 percent of his students reported learning more effectively from the flipped format than from a traditional one. Both his inner businessman and his inner philanthropist thought: This is going to be big.

Hitting the Road

Mr. Nemrow believed that his system was simply better than the old way, and he thought that once other accounting professors saw it, they’d immediately adopt his videos and software rather than the textbook-and-lecture method.

He started a company, Business Learning Software Inc., to manage and update the videos and the delivery technology. True to his desire to keep his teaching like volunteer work, he says, he donates any profits to charities. Because the software and videos were developed at BYU, the university owns them and gets a portion of any revenue from their sale. And he made all of the videos for his intro course available free online.

Mr. Nemrow traveled to accounting departments and academic conferences around the country, evangelizing his teaching approach and his software. But, to his surprise, he found few takers.

"When I talked to faculty, their eyeballs got big, but it wasn’t excitement—they were scared to death," he says. Only a handful of professors tried it, but "all the rest of them saw it as threatening to their careers, and to the way they were teaching."

Mark H. Taylor was one of the few professors immediately excited by the idea. And his experience shows that professors were right to worry about their roles’ changing. At the time, Mr. Taylor was at Creighton University, and he tried the flipped approach in a course with 40 introductory-accounting students.

"The students at Creighton did not bond to me, they bonded to him," he says, meaning to Video Norm. "I wasn’t really doing the instructing."

The experiment itself was a success, Mr. Taylor says. The students benefited from being able to rewind the lectures and review anything they didn’t initially understand. They also liked that they could play the lectures at double speed (something students at BYU typically do as well).

But he says he missed the feeling of connection with his students: "It was more of a pride thing on my part than any real problem with using these videos. I think some professors, including myself, love that lecture time." And in the flipped model, he felt, students were less willing to come to his office and ask questions.

‘It’s a Bit Tricky’

That was in 2007. Today Mr. Taylor is chairman of the accounting department at Case Western Reserve University, and he’s thinking of trying the flipped approach again, believing that the flexibility the videos give students outweighs his own feelings.

The chair of the School of Accountancy at BYU, Jeff Wilks, agrees that flipping a classroom with someone else’s materials isn’t for everyone: "It takes a certain kind of professor to be in front of this big of a class and not be bugged by the fact that a lot of the teaching is going on outside the class by someone who isn’t you."

Ms. Larson, the classroom professor at BYU, says her changed role has taken some getting used to, and requires her to maintain a deep familiarity with Video Norm. "It is a bit tricky, because you have to watch Norm’s stuff and you have to bridge it" in classroom demonstrations.

But if Ms. Larson feels like a supporting cast member at times, she says she may soon move into a starring role, if a planned update of the lectures goes forward: "I’ll be the face on the new ones." Already she is recording what she refers to as "pencasts," short videos of her working through each homework problem, which students can watch if they get stuck.

"Some people say they feel like they had two professors," Ms. Larson says.

But Mr. Nemrow is the figure who has become larger than life. One year BYU students designed T-shirts emblazoned with his face and the words "Norm is Watching." "I rarely go anywhere in Utah where I am not recognized by former students," he says. "They usually want to thank me for the software and talk about the course and life in general."

He understands the concerns of professors who prefer teaching the basic concepts themselves. "To be perfectly honest," he admits, "I probably would have had trouble turning my students over to a product like mine made by someone else."

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