A Blended & Flipped Classroom Approach to Teaching Historic Preservation

Course: UST 476/576: Historic Preservation

Department: Urban Studies

Institution: Cleveland State University, Levin College of Urban Affairs

Instructor: Dr. Stephanie Ryberg-Webster

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: around 15 students, a mix upper-division undergraduates and graduate students

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Blackboard LMS (Learning Management System)

Author Bio: Stephanie Ryberg-Webster is an Associate Professor at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. Her research addresses the intersections of historic preservation and urban development, with current work exploring the 1970s-era history of historic preservation in Cleveland. She has previously published research on preservation and community development, African American heritage, and historic rehabilitation tax credits. Dr. Ryberg-Webster is the co-editor of Legacy Cities: Continuity and Change amid Decline and Revival (with J. Rosie Tighe). She teaches courses in historic preservation, the history of Cleveland’s architecture and urban form, and civic engagement, among others.


Historic preservation is a profession focused on applied approaches to saving and conserving the built environment. Typically, post-secondary introductory courses in historic preservation utilize a lecture or seminar format as there is a need to convey a large amount of historical, theoretical, technical, and conceptual information to students who come to this subject with little pre-existing knowledge or experience. Most students who take a specialized course, such as historic preservation, are drawn to it due to interest, and often a passion, for the material – in this case, the historic built environment. Teaching historic preservation through traditional, in-class lectures, though, can leave students feeling disconnected from the built environment they are there to study.

This case study reflects upon my experience converting an introductory historic preservation course from a typical lecture/seminar format into a blended, flipped classroom approach. The case study uses UST 476/576: Historic Preservation, offered every fall out of the Department of Urban Studies in Cleveland State’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. The course content remained the same in the former and current approach, addressing the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the profession; federal, state, and local policy in the U.S. context; researching the historic built environment; advocacy and nonprofit organizations; equity, diversity, and inclusion within the field; economics and revitalization implications; synergies and tensions with environmental and sustainability goals; preservation in the context of urban decline; and a brief introduction to preservation on a global scale.

Redesigning the course using a blended, flipped classroom approach has drastically improved student’s engagement with the subject matter, increased their applied understanding of course materials, and spurred many of them to pursue advanced coursework and professional opportunities in historic preservation.

The Traditional Approach

For many years, I taught an introductory course in historic preservation as a traditional lecture/seminar. Students were assigned a set of readings to complete before each class. Our classes consisted primarily of lectures, through which I attempted to impart knowledge about various course topics. Engaged participation on the part of students was often sporadic. They may have asked clarifying questions or for examples of some given situation, but they struggled to engage in deep discussion or debate about the course material. Over the course of the semester, students were assigned a few homework assignments that were built upon material discussed in class. They also completed a semester-long research project on a historic site of their choosing, which culminated in one class of student presentations at the end of the semester. Overall, this approach produced sufficient outcomes. Students learned the material and were able to demonstrate their application of the course content through the assignments. Yet, it always seemed that the course failed to spark their passion.

While the historic preservation profession has established policies and practices, there are also rich debates about who makes preservation-related decisions, how those decisions are made, whether preservation strategies reflect contemporary societal values and needs, and many others. Through the traditional approach, there was little evidence that students were achieving two of the courses’ five learning outcomes: debating the pros and cons of preservation and developing informed ideas about the future of preservation practice.

Flipping the Classroom

In 2018, I experimented with redesigning the course using a blended, flipped classroom model to activate student learning and improve student learning outcomes. My inspiration for how to flip the classroom came both from informal conversations with colleagues at Cleveland State and beyond and the Flipping Kit created by the Kennedy School at Harvard University. In this approach, the course meets in-person every other week with asynchronous, online work on the alternate weeks. Over the course of the fifteen-week semester, we meet in-person eight times and have seven asynchronous sessions. Students are assigned a mix of readings and multimedia materials such as YouTube videos and podcasts for every class session (both in-person and online). During the online weeks, students also watch recorded lectures. I use Panopto, linked through the Blackboard LMS for the voice-over PowerPoint recorded lectures. Each of the lectures is no more than twenty minutes and students have between one and four of these during the asynchronous weeks. In converting the lectures into a recorded format, I found natural breaks in the material that generally equated to about twenty-minute segments, which also aligned with recommendations from the Kennedy School’s Flipping Kit. As I refined the online portion of the class, I streamlined the material as much as possible and wrote scripts for the lectures to keep my narrative clear, focused, and succinct.

The online and in-person sessions are typically grouped in two-week blocks. For instance, weeks two (online) and three (in-person) focus on preservation theory, weeks four (online) and five (in-person) focus on federal and state policy, weeks six (online) and seven (in-person) focus on preservation at the local level, and so forth. This format provides students with an online course using recorded lectures, readings, and multimedia material that provides the foundation for a subsequent in-person class that is entirely discussion-based. Additionally, students complete a moderately intensive homework assignment between each class. Rather than the homework following an in-person lecture, the homework assignments follow the material from the online sessions. The assignments are then due the day of our in-person classes and serve as the basis for either a full-class discussion or small group activity. In this regard, the homework assignments are a part of students’ active learning and engagement with their peers, rather than simply a follow-up assessment of their comprehension of course materials.

Active, Peer-to-Peer Learning

A fundamental premise in the blended, flipped-classroom approach is that students engage in more active and peer-to-peer learning. The in-class sessions include only discussions and small group activities. Classes typically begin and end with a full-class discussion about the assigned topic. Because this particular class includes both upper-division undergraduates and graduate students, the latter are required to lead a portion of the full-class discussion each session. The remainder of the class consists of small group activities wherein groups of two to four students discuss some topic (e.g. comparing and contrasting findings from their homework assignments), develop a response to a given case study (e.g. how would different preservation approaches lead to different outcomes for historic buildings), or create a strategy for various scenarios (e.g. how should decisions be made regarding preserving housing in a shrinking city). The small group activities prioritize peer-to-peer learning, with the instructor serving as a facilitator.

The redesigned format of UST 476/576: Historic Preservation has six applied homework assignments that serve as the basis for in-class activities and peer-to-peer learning. These include visiting and evaluating a historic site, exploring local preservation regulations across U.S. cities, conducting an architectural scavenger hunt, developing an advocacy plan for a hypothetical preservation scenario, researching historic rehabilitation tax credit and Main Street revitalization programs, and developing their own manifesto for the future of historic preservation.

For example, the local preservation regulation homework assignment requires students to each explore the structure and function of historic preservation practice in an assigned city. The related online session provides them with information about the typical structure of local preservation practice and a detailed review of how preservation works in Cleveland. Students then bring their knowledge to the related in-person session and compare/contrast approaches across different cities with their peers.

For the architectural scavenger hunt, students first review materials about typical architectural styles and identifying characteristics. Then, they go into the field and find at least five (for undergraduate students) or ten (for graduate students) buildings that represent different architectural styles, noting the key characteristics of buildings and classifying them by their style (Figures 1 and 2). This then serves as the basis for an in-person discussion about the difficulty of categorizing most buildings, blended architectural styles, local vernacular styles, and what the architecture of the built environment can teach us about local history, development, culture, and so forth.

Figure 1: Excerpt from the Architecture Scavenger Hunt Homework Assignment (reproduced with permission from Nathaniel Lull, 2021)
Figure 2: Excerpt from the Architecture Scavenger Hunt Homework Assignment (reproduced with permission from Nathaniel Lull, 2021)

In addition to the use of homework assignments as the basis for in-class discussions, students also engage in a range of applied small group or full-class activities. A few examples include small group discussions about the preservation or removal of Civil War monuments, a mock landmarks commission, developing scenarios about how to preserve a range of historic sites, debating the preferred approach to improving the sustainability of historic buildings, and creating a decision-making framework for preservation within the context of shrinking cities. All of these activities require students to apply the information required during the online weeks and in preparation for the in-person sessions.

Lessons Learned

The blended, flipped-classroom approach to teaching historic preservation has elevated student engagement with the course material, increased their understanding and ability to apply knowledge, and improved student learning outcomes. Rather than assessing the latter purely through assignments or tests/quizzes, I am more easily able to gauge their grasp of the material through the quality of the full-class and small group discussions that take place during our in-person sessions. The new approach has resulted in class sessions that are 100% discussion and activity based. During the in-person meetings, students do the majority of talking, while I serve as a facilitator and moderator of discussions.

Transitioning the course to this new approach was not without hurdles, some of which I continually work to overcome. First and foremost, it requires a substantial amount of time and effort to develop homework assignments that translate into small group discussions and to create robust in-class activities that engage students. I have used the blended, flipped-classroom model for four years and every year I continue to modify and/or develop new activities. This requires me to identify real-world case studies that can serve as the basis for small group debates, present those cases in a way that students can easily comprehend, and develop framing questions or scenarios that students can easily respond to during class.

Second, a fully discussion-based course runs the risk of having some student voices dominate the room. I have found that small group discussions help alleviate this situation. After just one or two classes, it is possible to pre-assign groups to ensure that quieter voices also contribute to the discussion. In this approach, I find that assigning students to groups or to specific roles ensures that all students participate.

Third, it can take time for students to understand the format and expectations of the course. Particularly for students who are accustomed to traditional, fully in-person lecture or seminar courses, the level of preparation and engagement can be an adjustment. I tend to start off slow and increase the expectation of engagement over time. To do this, the first few in-person sessions rely more on me giving students case studies to respond to or relying on homework assignments as the basis for discussion. By the end of the semester, the students tend to be more prepared and better able to engage in debates and dialogue about the material without me providing a narrowly construed structure or parameters.

Overall, the blended and flipped-classroom approach to historic preservation has improved student learning outcomes and has, in my anecdotal opinion, increased students’ passion for the subject matter. Knowing that their homework assignments are the basis for in-class activities elevates the quality of their work. By the end of the semester students enthusiastically engage in discussions and debates that demonstrate not only their grasp of the course content, but also their understanding that preservation practice is contextual and evolving. While this case study has focused on using a blended and flipped classroom approach for historic preservation, the strategies and lessons learned can apply to many other areas of study, particularly in the social sciences or applied humanities.

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