By Doug Ward

Alma Clayton-Pedersen offers this vision for higher education:

“Imagine what a nation we would be if students really took away everything we wanted them to have,” she said at last week’s Teaching Summit at KU.

Alma Clayton-Pedersen
Alma Clayton-Pedersen at the KU Teaching Summit

Problem is, they don’t. Much of the reason for that, she said, has to do with their background, the quality of the education they received before college, the way they are treated in college, and the connections they feel – or don’t feel – to their peers, their instructors and their campus.

We talk about college readiness as students being ready for college, she said, but “what about our colleges being ready for the students we have?”

Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a former administrator at Vanderbilt University and the chief executive of Emeritus Consulting Group. In her keynote address at the Teaching Summit, she spoke to more than 300 faculty members, staff members and administrators about the importance of combining excellence and inclusivity into a single goal.

“There is a disconnect between how we think about diversity and how we think about educational excellence,” Clayton-Pedersen said.

In fact, she said, faculty, staff and administrators too often see students’ diverse backgrounds as something that needs to be overcome rather than something that could serve as a frame for learning. Even students take that mindset, she said, explaining that well-meaning students often volunteer in disadvantaged areas with a mindset of “saving” people from their circumstances rather than recognizing that they are part of a living community.

That same disconnect shows up in universities in such forms as weed-out classes; an unwillingness to adapt teaching to the ways that students learn best; low expectations based on the types of students enrolled; and even preconceptions about students that lead to anger and frustrations among faculty and students.

“We need to be focused on all of our students,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “and we are not doing as well as we’d like – in all categories.”

Most of the enrollment growth in higher education is coming from students that colleges and universities haven’t served well, she said. When universities lose those students, they lose both money and reputation, she said.

Disparities in graduation rates between white students and underrepresented minorities “not only is it a travesty for those students, but it goes to the heart and vitality of your institution,” she said.

“You lose dollars every time one of those students walks out of your door,” Clayton-Pedersen said. “You lose reputation every time one of those students walks out of your door. Remember, they go back to their homes and say, ‘I had a bad experience.’ ”

She followed with a provocative question – “What does that do to you in the long run?” – and a sobering answer:

“If we don’t attend to this now, and do so rapidly, our institutions are at peril.”

Alma Clayton-Pedersen on the steps in Budig Hall, speaking with KU faculty members
Alma Clayton-Pedersen speaks with faculty during her keynote address in Budig Hall

A way forward

Even as she sounded alarm bells, Clayton-Pedersen offered suggestions for how to make the university learning environment more inclusive. Her suggestions drew heavily on research-based strategies and high-impact practices for teaching and learning that increasing numbers of faculty have been embracing. Among them:

  • Help students make connections. This involves creating meaningful, relevant curricula that allow students to see a clear path toward learning, that allow them to apply the knowledge they acquire, and that allow them to see connections among discrete ideas and concepts.
  • Encourage interaction. Students need meaningful interactions with instructors who accept their differences, mentor them, help them gain a deeper understanding of the world and the many cultures it offers. They also need instructors who see them more than just marks on a page. “Take a moment before handing that paper back and tell that student that I believe in you and will help you succeed,” Clayton-Pedersen said.
  • Create safe havens. Students need safe places “where they can go and relish in their identity,” Clayton-Pedersen said. They also need opportunities to move beyond those safe environments and interact with people different from themselves. Providing support systems and places where students feel like they belong, though, “matter as much as what you are teaching in a class because if they feel like they belong, they will listen differently.”
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and courses that explore world cultures. They emphasize active learning, group work and similar practices that allow students to work hands-on with course material rather than have it recited to them in lectures. That is, the best courses work at application of information rather than the transfer of information.
  • Make learning relevant. Encourage students to propose solutions to social problems, take on open-ended questions, integrate ideas from disparate courses, and reflect on their own learning. This helps them learn to learn on their own, and to understand that learning is never a static process. It also helps students see the relevance in their coursework.

An emphasis on equity

In her keynote address and in her later sessions with faculty, Clayton-Pedersen stressed the importance of equity. She challenged the faculty to define both equity and equality, saying that we often misunderstand the terms.

Equality, she said, is the outcome of equity. If we give people what they need to succeed, she said, we can move toward equality.

“Everyone is part of diversity,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “but not everyone is treated equitably.”

Providing more opportunities for people to learn will only grow in the future, she said. Already, the number of jobs that requires people to work with information and to solve unstructured problems dwarfs those that require routine tasks and minimal training. If we are going to be a country that employs all our people, we need to make sure that all have at least some college, she said.

“How many times do we need to have to belabor the point that all students need to learn in an economy that is going to require a lot more skills?” she said.

“Money isn’t the issue,” she added. “It’s the expectation that every student can learn and succeed.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

WASHINGTON — To understand the priorities of the Association of American Universities, you need to look no further than its criteria for membership: volume of federally funded research; number of memberships in the National Academies; faculty awards and fellowships; citations that reflect research volume and quality.

That is, research, research, research, and more research.

So it was refreshing – and hopeful – to hear Tobin Smith, the AAU’s vice president for policy, speak this week about the importance of high-quality teaching of undergraduates.

“We have been seen as the organization that only cares about research,” Smith said. “Now we are saying that teaching is really important.”

The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members
The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members

Smith spoke at the semiannnual meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward improving teaching and learning. The organization met this week at the AAU’s offices in Washington.

Actually, the AAU’s interest in undergraduate education isn’t new. The organization began an initiative to improve STEM education in 2011, when, Smith said, the timing seemed right and the evidence about teaching and learning began to mount. Around that time, states started pushing for more evidence about the effectiveness of universities, he said, and many faculty members and administrators saw a potential threat from massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Those many pieces came together and created an opportunity to effect change.

Before then, Smith said, “I don’t think our campuses were ready.”

Then, as now, faculty members in many early undergraduate STEM courses saw their role as gatekeepers, as guardians  there to keep out those who couldn’t measure up. Learning wasn’t really part of the equation.

“We’ve allowed that to be acceptable in the STEM fields,” Tobin said. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore.”

That weed-out culture and inattention to teaching has made it especially difficult for female and minority students to succeed. Many people Tobin meets share their horror stories of undergraduate science courses. Many of them hold up as a badge of honor their failure in STEM and subsequent success in other fields.

That, Tobin said, needs to stop.

“We need to teach in ways that our own research shows is effective,” he said.

The Bay View Alliance, of which KU is a member, has been working to change teaching culture at its nine member institutions in the United States and Canada. At KU, for example, that involves a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to hire teaching specialists and to create a community of partners across campuses. Indiana, another alliance member, is leading an effort to help faculty members use data to improve their teaching.

Those are just two projects that have grown from the BVA. The AAU has created a framework for change in undergraduate STEM education and has worked with eight member campuses to make individual changes based on that framework. It has also mapped examples of innovative efforts at member campuses. And through meetings with faculty and administrators, AAU administrators have been spreading the word about the need to improve undergraduate education.

“When I go on site visits, I see things changing,” Tobin said. “Slowly, but they are changing.”

That change seems glacial, at least to those of us who care deeply about teaching and learning. And all the efforts have still failed to remove the biggest barrier to improving teaching: lack of an incentive system that rewards high-quality, innovative teaching at research universities.

That lack of an incentive system for innovative teaching came up again and again during two days of BVA meetings this week. It’s a long-term goal, one that will require continued work. The bigger goal, though, is to provide a much richer, more effective means of teaching and learning.

Tobin offered a great synopsis of that goal.

“Everyone who takes a course at our universities should be taught in the best ways we know how,” he said.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The Kansas Legislature and governor often treat colleges and universities like deadbeat relatives they wish would just go away rather than partners in navigating the future.

That wasn’t always the case, but budget decisions over the past 15 years show waning support for higher education. Inflation-adjusted state dollars spent by the six Kansas Regents universities have fallen 22.2 percent since the 2002 fiscal year. State money for universities peaked that year at an inflation-adjusted amount of $559.6 million. By fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, that amount had fallen to $435.5 million (in 2002 dollars).

Those amounts represent the actual spending of state dollars that the universities report and that the regents post each year. (You can see more details in the interactive chart below.)

Actual appropriations for all of Kansas public higher education fell by 8.6 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2017, according to the regents. That was after a $30 million budget cut imposed by the Kansas Legislature and the governor. Those cuts were announced last week.

State universities have borne these cuts as enrollment has risen by 6.5 percent since the fall of 2004.

Making matters worse, the most recent state budget cuts $875,664 from student financial aid. By my estimates, that means that more than 400 fewer Kansas students will receive financial aid from the state in the coming year. I based that estimate on calculations using the average award in the 2015 fiscal year. (Most of the awards range from $1,000 to $3,500, and the average for the largest grant program was $2,026 per student.)  

That’s just my estimate. Breeze Richardson, the regents director of communications, said via email that the regents hadn’t decided which areas of financial aid would be cut.

The state provided more than $22 million in financial aid to nearly 12,000 Kansas students in the 2015 fiscal year. The regents oversee distribution of that money through 16 programs, including the Career Technical Workforce Grant, the Kansas State Scholarship Program, and the Kansas Ethnic Minority Scholarship. The money goes to students who attend both public and private institutions in the state.

The Kansas Comprehensive Grant accounts for the vast majority of state financial aid, and more than 10,000 students received that grant in fiscal 2015. Students at Kansas State ($1.93 million) received the most from that grant program that year, followed by students at KU ($1.3 million), Baker ($1.2 million), Friends ($1.1 million), and Wichita State ($1.1 million).

Like many other states, Kansas has slashed money for higher education since the 2008 recession. As a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences puts it, “public higher education is perceived as a relatively flexible budget item.”

The problem with that mindset is that it darkens the future of the state and its residents. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require some sort of training beyond high school, according to a recent report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Colleges and universities will play an important role in that training.

Those institutions desperately need to change the way they think, act, and operate – a common theme in my posts on this blog – but to have any chance of success, they need stable operating budgets.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The future of teaching went on display Friday afternoon in Spooner Hall.

By display, I mean the 30-plus posters that hung from the walls of The Commons, documenting the changes that KU faculty members and post-doctoral teaching fellows made to courses this academic year.

Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little
Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The poster session was the culmination of this year’s C21 Course Redesign Consortium, but it included work from participants in last year’s Best Practices Institute and those involved in a project known as Trestle, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the posters explained efforts to incorporate active learning into classes.

Abbey Dvorak, an assistant professor of music therapy, captured the spirit of the poster session with a question she used to guide her course redesign:

“How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning?”

 

That’s a simple question, but don’t let it fool you. It can be difficult to answer. Most of us who teach struggle with that question semester to semester. The faculty members and teaching fellows at the poster session offered bursts of inspiration in their work, though, demonstrating how they have approached various problems in teaching and learning. For instance:    

  • Stefanie DeVito, Brad Williamson, and Trevor Rivers explained how making an introductory biology course more student-centered improved students’ attitudes toward biology.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Noah McLean, Greg Baker, and Andreas Moller explained how shifting an introductory geology course to an active learning model improved student grades, reduced the percentage of students who failed or withdrew, and greatly reduced performance gaps between men and women.
  • The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing explained how a series of faculty workshops helped it increase the number of online learning modules.
  • Susan Marshall from psychology explained her efforts to use a pre-class survey to better prepare students for an online course.

Not every poster showed success, but then success wasn’t the point. The point was to show how reflective teaching can lead to important changes in teaching and learning. (You’ll find more than 100 other examples at CTE’s online portfolio gallery.)

I called this session the future of teaching for three reasons:

  • It shows how instructors are using engaged and active learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning.
  • It shows how important reflection is in the teaching process.
  • It shows how building community around innovative, reflective teaching can provide support for faculty in a broad range of disciplines.

Teaching rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially in the promotion and tenure process at research universities like KU. That simply must change. Students and parents are demanding more from their education. Society is demanding evidence that higher education does what it says it does. And those of us in the academy must provide better explanations.

Groups like C21 help bridge the gap between research and teaching. The future involves better teaching, better documentation, and constant revision in our courses. Those who participated in Friday’s poster session helped show us the way forward.


Check out some scenes of active learning at KU in this video, which we showed during the C21 poster session. (There’s no sound, just images.)
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Three students in an upper-level physics class designed and built a tabletop lightboard for their final project this semester.

Lightboards are used in creating online videos for classes. They allow instructors to write on a glass pane as they would a whiteboard. A camera is positioned facing the instructor, capturing the writing on the glass as the instructor speaks. The image must then be flipped so that the writing can be read in the video. The approach is especially popular among STEM instructors.

conner brown and john rinnert inspect the new lighboard
John Rinnert of KU IT inspects the lightboard created by Conner Brown and other students in an engineering physics course.

The students – Conner Brown, Pranjali Pare and Kyri Barton – adapted a template from Duke University as they created the lightboard for Engineering Physics 601. KU IT and the Center for Online and Distance Learning financed the project, which cost between $600 and $700, Brown said.

Rows of cool white LEDs line the internal frame of the lighboard. Sheets of low-iron glass – the same kind used in aquariums – aid the illumination. Red, blue and green markers work best on the glass surface, creating a fluorescent image that is easy to see, Brown said. Black markers don’t reflect well.

The students, who worked with Professors Chris Fischer and Michael Murray during the semester, demonstrated the board on Tuesday in Malott Hall. They aren’t sure where it will be set up permanently, but the goal is to make it available to physics faculty for recording class videos.

KU IT is installing a similar but larger lightboard in Budig Hall. It should be ready for use this summer.

Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown with the lightboard
Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown created the lightboard in Engineering Physics 601 this semester.

Briefly …

Tennessee is the latest state to foolishly allow guns on college campuses. (Kansas will jump into that quagmire next year.) The exclusions in Tennessee’s new law caught my eye. Guns will be prohibited at sporting events and other large gatherings, and at tenure meetings. Yes, tenure meetings. … In a column in the Hechinger Report, Stephen Burd says that public research universities and land-grant colleges give a third of their financial aid to non-needy students. Unfortunately, Burd never explains what he means by “non-needy.” … Sixty-eight percent of 13- to 24-year-olds say they listen to audio on their smartphones every day, Amplifi Media reports. That’s not surprising, but it is worth thinking about as we create online course material for students. …. Far more than their predecessors, today’s college students see higher education as a consumer transaction and a means to high-paying jobs, EAB reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The ASU GSV Summit bills itself as a gathering of entrepreneurs, policymakers, business leaders and educators who want “to create partnerships, explore solutions, and shape the future of learning.”

That sort of described the event, which was held last week in San Diego. Yes, it was possible to find a few real discussions about education, but only a few. Doug Lederman of Inside HigherEd estimated that 10 percent of the 3,500 attendees came from colleges and universities, though many of those came from Arizona State, which is the “ASU” in the summit name. (GSV is a Silicon Valley investment firm.)

Many of the sessions that addressed higher education took a critical, if not condescending, tone toward colleges and universities. Many speakers criticized educators for being slow to adopt technology (I agree) and failing to prepare students for high-paying jobs in technology (as if that is the only path). One session on the future of higher education had no educators. (If you figure that one out, let me know.)

A robot roamed the floor during the ASU GSV Summit

That shouldn’t have surprised me. Far too many technology vendors emphasize the magic of technology without having any real understanding of the educational process. They make their pitch to school and university technology departments, which too often buy the technology and present it gleefully to educators, only to find that the educators have no use for it.

Thankfully, many educational technology entrepreneurs do have an understanding of education, and many of their products evolve from experiences with family members or friends. And educators and IT departments are learning to speak with one another. At KU, we have created collaborations among IT, instructors and administrators. The process isn’t perfect, but we all feel that we are making much better decisions about technology through a shared vetting process.

I saw some of that sort of thinking at the conference, with entrepreneurs explaining partnerships with school districts and universities to test products, gather feedback, and revise the technology. One speaker even urged educators to demand evidence that products work as promised, something he said few schools and colleges did.

Bill Gates, in his keynote, made an excellent observation: Much of educational technology lacks any connection to the educational system. We need to figure out ways of working together to create a process of continuous improvement, he said.

I agree. Higher education needs desperately to change, as I’ve written about many times. But simply throwing technology at the problems won’t do anything but raise costs. Too often, vendors want to sell their products but don’t want to listen – really listen – to how those products are or are not used, and how feedback from educators could help improve those products. They also fail to do their homework about existing technologies that colleges and universities use, and explain how their products work with or improve upon existing platforms.

I love to explore new digital tools, but when it comes to technology for my students or for the university, I approach purchases with these questions in mind:

  • How will this help student engagement and student learning?
  • How steep is the learning curve?
  • Is it truly better than something we already have?
  • Will it integrate into the technology we have?
  • Is the cost justified?
  • Could we do this cheaper and better ourselves?

Until educators and tech entrepreneurs can talk frankly about those sorts of questions, we will be stuck in a cycle of finger-pointing and distrust.

Themes from the summit

Several themes emerged from the sessions I sat in on and the products I saw at the summit. Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out two: mentorship tools and programs that help students connect to jobs. I agree, but as I wrote earlier this week in highlighting some promising digital tools, I’m looking at this through my lens as a professor.

Personalized and adaptive learning. These are in some ways the holy grail of education and certainly of educational technology. Entrepreneurs and educators have tried for a century to create technology that adapts to students’ learning needs, as Bill Ferster writes in his book Teaching Machines. Digital technology has reinvigorated that push, even as truly reliable adaptive, individualized learning remains elusive.

Data, data, data. We’ve been hearing about data in education (and everything else) for years, and tech vendors have taken note. Nearly every new product contains some element of data gathering and display.

Virtual reality. An exhibit room called Tomorrowland contained several tools for engaging students with virtual environments. Some used technology-enabled headsets; others used smartphones inside cardboard goggles. Again, this is no surprise, though it seems more of a stepping stone than a long-term direction for education.

Tools to help students write. This reflects a general decline in reading and writing skills that many of us in higher education have seen. Whether these tools, which provide structure and advice, can truly improve writing remains to be seen. I see potential in some, though I don’t want students to become overly reliant on technology for writing and thinking.

Tools to help students learn coding. Again, no surprise here, especially amid a widespread call for students to tap into the potential of digital technology and move into technology-related jobs.

Tools for developing online course material. Understandable given the spread of online and hybrid courses.

Social connection and peer evaluation. These run the gamut from platforms for reaching out to students through text messaging to apps for peer tutoring and goal tracking.

None of these themes is revolutionary, and many have been evolving for years. They do represent a cross-section of where entrepreneurs see opportunity in education.

A final thought

Tim Renick of Georgia State said higher education did a poor job of gathering evidence about what works and what doesn’t work in our own institutions. We have almost no research on academic advising, he said. Nor do faculty members base their own curriculums on evidence. Rather, he said, “we go to faculty meetings and make stuff up.” In a note of hope, though, he added: “We are becoming more data literate, and as that data falls into the hands of faculty, it is leading to change.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Hundreds of start-ups and established companies promoted their ideas and educational technology products at the ASU GSV Summit last week in San Diego. Many were quite good, even if they didn’t live up to the magic that some of them promised.

I’ll write more later about some of the ideas that emerged from the summit, a gathering of technology companies, investors, and educators. For now, though, I’d like to highlight some of the technologies that stood out as having the most potential. This is anything but a comprehensive list. Rather, it reflects my interests as a university professor, as someone who works to improve teaching and learning, as someone who thinks and writes about the future of higher education.

I have not tried any of these products extensively, and I am not endorsing any of them. Rather, they stood out as addressing real issues in education or seemed to have the potential to influence higher education in some way.

Mursionscreenshot of mursion website

What it does

Mursion is a training simulator that allows people to interact with on-screen characters. The interactions are realistic and can be tailored to many different scenarios. It works through algorithms but also through a person who acts a bit like a virtual puppeteer, adding real-life touches to the interactions.

Why it’s worth a look

This has great potential for things like diversity training (confronting racially charged scenarios) and teacher training (helping instructors learn to deal with controversial topics in the classroom). The company says that people who have used it engage with the characters much more frankly than they would real-life actors. I believe that based on the demo I saw. The cost is $125 an hour.

Versalscreenshot of versal website

What it does

Versal is a platform for creating visually attractive and easy-to-follow online lessons. It has a drag-and-drop interface, and it ties in to Blackboard, OneDrive and many other popular learning management systems and online tools, including Google. Widgets within the platform allow easy integration of material from about any online site.

Why it’s worth a look

As we create more hybrid and online courses, we need a way to provide visually appealing, interactive content. Versal looks as if it can do that through an easy-to-use interface. Its ability to embed content in learning management systems makes it especially appealing. A $50 faculty account allows a single user to create and embed course material. A school- or university-wide account starts at $7 per user.

SignalVinescreenshot of signalvine website

What it does

SignalVine provides a two-way text messaging system for students. University staff members work through a computer dashboard to send personalized messages to students. Students can respond as well as ask questions and ask for help. The system provides data on students and messages.

Why it’s worth a look

Universities need to do a better job of reaching students on mobile devices. Students respond to and act on text messages far more than they do to email. (I’ve found that in my use of Remind in my classes.) The company founder made a compelling case that students tune out blanket text messages, as well. This could become a valuable tool for reaching all students but primarily for connecting with students we are concerned about losing. The cost is 50 cents to $1 per student per year. The company was a finalist for the Lumina Foundation Social Innovation Prize at ASU GSV.

Citelighterscreenshot of citelighter website

What it does

Citelighter is an online environment that provides a scaffolded approach to writing. Instructors drag and drop elements onto a board that students then use it to move step-by-step through writing assignments. It has built-in rubrics that provide data about each student.

Why it’s worth a look

Weak student writing is one of the biggest challenges many instructors face. Citelighter allows instructors to create structural guides for writing assignments, provide feedback quickly and easily through rubrics, and gather data about student performance. It is one of many companies with similar products aimed at helping students improve their writing and arguments, including Rationale, NoRedInk, Peerceptive, and EssayBuilder.

LTG Exam Prepscreenshot from ltg prep presentation

What it does

The company creates mobile apps that allow students to study for the SAT, GMAT and other exams.

Why it’s worth a look

The company is using data from its apps to match students with universities, and allowing universities to reach out to students through the app. I don’t see this as a university teaching app but rather something that administrators need to pay attention to as students make their college choices. The company was one of three winners of the Venture Award at ASU GSV.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The spread of evidence-based teaching practices highlights a growing paradox: Even as instructors work to evaluate student learning in creative, multidimensional ways, they themselves are generally judged only through student evaluations.

Students should have a voice. As Stephen Benton and William Cashin write in a broad review of research, student evaluations can help faculty members improve their courses and help administrators spot potential problems in the classroom.optical illusion box

The drawback is that too many departments use only student evaluations to judge the effectiveness of instructors, even as they submit faculty research through a multilayered evaluation process internally and externally. Student evaluations are the only university-mandated form of gauging instructors’ teaching, and many departments measure faculty members against a department mean. Those above the mean are generally viewed favorably and those below the mean are seen as a problem. That approach fails to account for the weaknesses in evaluations. For instance, Benton and Cashin and others have found:

  • Students tend to give higher scores to instructors in classes they are motivated to take, and in which they do well.
  • Instructors who teach large courses and entry-level courses tend to receive lower evaluations than those who teach smaller numbers of students and upper-level courses.
  • Evaluation scores tend to be higher in some disciplines (especially humanities) than in others (like STEM).
  • Evaluation scores sometimes drop in the first few semesters of a course redesigned for active learning.
  • Students have little experience in judging their own learning. As the Stanford professor Carl Wieman writes: “It is impossible for a student (or anyone else) to judge the effectiveness of an instructional practice except by comparing it with others that they have already experienced.”
  • Overemphasis on student evaluations often generates cynicism among faculty members about administrators’ belief in the importance of high-quality teaching.

Looked at through that lens, we have not only a need but an obligation to move beyond student evaluations in gauging the effectiveness of teaching. We simply must add dimension and nuance to the process, much as we already do with evaluation of research.

So how do we do that?

At CTE, we have developed a rubric to help departments integrate information from faculty members, peers, and students. Student evaluations are a part of the mix, but only a part. Rather, we have tried to help departments draw on the many facets of teaching into a format that provides a richer, fairer evaluation of instructor effectiveness without adding onerous time burdens to evaluators.

For the most part, this approach uses the types of materials that faculty members already submit and that departments gather independently: syllabi and course schedules; teaching statements; readings, worksheets and other course materials; assignments, projects, test results and other evidence of student learning; faculty reflections on student learning; peer evaluations from team teaching and class visits; and formal discussions about the faculty member’s approach to teaching.

Departments then use the rubric to evaluate that body of work, rewarding faculty members who engage in such approaches as:

  • experimenting with innovative teaching techniques
  • aligning course content with learning goals
  • making effective use of class time
  • using research-based teaching practices
  • engaging students in hands-on learning rather than simply delivering information to them
  • revising course content and design based on evidence and reflection
  • mentoring students, and providing evidence of student learning
  • sharing their work through presentations, scholarship, committee work and other venues

Departments can easily adapt the rubric to fit particular disciplinary expectations and to weight areas most meaningful to their discipline. We have already received feedback from many faculty members around the university. We’ve also asked a few departments to test the rubric as they evaluate faculty members for promotion and tenure, third-year review, and post-tenure review, and we plan to test it more broadly in the fall.

We will continue to refine the rubric based on the feedback we receive. Like teaching itself, it will be a constant work in progress. We see it as an important step toward making innovative teaching more visible, though, and toward making teaching a more credible and meaningful part of the promotion and tenure process. If you’d like to be part of that, let us know.

****

This article also appears in Teaching Matters, a publication of the Center for Teaching Excellence.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Innovation, meet frustration.

I’ve written frequently about how the lack of a reward system hampers (if not quashes) attempts to improve teaching and learning, especially at research universities.  A new survey only reinforces that short-sighted approach.

The survey was conducted by the consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R and involved a random sample of faculty members at U.S. universities in 2015. Ithaka has conducted the survey every three years since 2000.

The survey did offer reason for optimism: More than 60 percent of faculty members said they would like to use digital technology and new pedagogies to improve their teaching. The problem: Only 35 percent said their universities recognized or rewarded faculty for innovations in teaching.

The upshot: Most courses at most universities will remain mired in the past, failing to move beyond a curricular approach that emphasizes delivery and regurgitation of information over critical thinking, application, and adaptability. Only a small number of faculty members will be willing to risk the challenge of pedagogical innovation.

That’s especially unfortunate given another of the survey’s findings: More than 60 percent of faculty members in the humanities say that undergraduates do a poor job of finding and evaluating scholarly information. Those in the social sciences, sciences and medical fields are slightly more positive, but overall 54 percent of faculty members find students’ research skills lacking.

The United States has a larger number of colleges and universities relative to overall population than any other country. That provides more opportunities for more students, but it has also made it difficult for universities to distinguish themselves from one another. Research universities, especially, could do that by elevating the importance of teaching. Not only could students learn from top researchers and professionals, but they could learn in creative and innovative ways that would benefit them in the long run.

Or they could continue along the current path where teaching is treated as an afterthought, where one university pretty much looks like all universities, and where pedagogical innovation continually meets frustration.

Other findings from the survey:

  • Nearly 40 percent of faculty said open access materials were important to their teaching, but 25 percent said those types of resources were hard to find.
  • The percentage of faculty members looking to libraries to help undergraduates improve their research skills grew by 15 to 20 points between 2012 and 2015. The jump was largest among scientists.
  • The percentage of faculty who start their research at a physical library has dropped to nearly zero, though humanists are more likely than other disciplines to start at a library. Most start with either a general search engine or a specific database. A slightly smaller percentage start with a library catalog.

Financial challenges and hard questions

Recent statistics cast stark relief on the financial challenges that public colleges and universities face.

Between 1991 and 2008, enrollment at public colleges and universities grew 23 percent, although state support for those institutions rose only 13 percent. By 2010, enrollment rose an additional 8 percent while state support fell by 7 percent.

bar chart showing where research universities get their money
From ‘Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century’ https://www.amacad.org/content/Research/researchproject.aspx?d=929

The statistics come from an analysis of federal data by Steven Brint and Charles Clotfelter. Their article “U.S. Higher Education Effectiveness” was published this month in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

That declining state support has led to a growing reliance on part-time instructors. Non-tenure-track faculty now make up 37 percent of college and university faculty, up from 19 percent in 1970. Just as disturbing, the growth in spending on instruction has lagged that on student services and research. Actually, “lagged” isn’t quite the right word. Colleges and universities devoted two and a half times as much additional money to research (2.6 percent growth) as they did to teaching (1.1 percent), and nearly twice as much (2.2 percent) to student services.

That’s not bad on its own, but it is symbolic of how far too many universities view teaching. (See above.)

Another study, from an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says that public flagship universities must adopt new financial models given the declining support from states. It called for states to increase their financing of public universities but said universities must reduce costs, seek out additional forms of revenue, and form new public-private partnerships.

In reviewing the state of public higher education, it asks some hard questions: “Is public higher education truly open to the public? Can high school graduates afford to attend their state’s postsecondary institutions?”

Those are pertinent questions given that the number of Americans with high-quality postsecondary credentials lags the needs of a digital-age economy.

One last question from the American Academy study should burn in the minds of all of us in academia: If students can afford to attend college, “what kind of education can they expect to receive?”

The future of higher education depends on how we answer that.

Briefly …

Faculty Focus offers a useful list of ways to deepen student learning. … A study of Chicago high schools found that students did considerably better in face-to-face courses than in similar courses online, NPR reports. … Schools that increasingly rely on digital resources also open themselves to risks of data breaches, PBS reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Among academics, online education inspires about as much enthusiasm as a raft sale on a cruise ship.

That’s unfortunate, given that higher education’s cruise ship has a hull full of leaks and has been taking on water for years.

The latest evidence of academic disdain for online education comes from the Online Report Card, which is sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium and other organizations, and has been published yearly since 2003. It is based on surveys conducted by Babson Survey Research Group in Fall 2015.

In that survey, only 29.1 percent of chief academic officers said their faculty viewed online education as valuable and legitimate. That’s a slight increase from the year before but a slight decrease from 2004. Granted the drop was only about a point and a half, but I was still surprised that faculty support for online education had declined over the past decade.

chart showing where students are taking online courses
From Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States

Less than two-thirds of those administrators say online education is crucial to their institutions’ long-term strategies. That is a drop from 2014, though considerably above 2002, when less than 50 percent of administrators saw online as an important option.

The report said that 28 percent of students were taking at least one online course, and the vast majority of those students were at public universities. The report’s authors write: “It appears that many traditional universities are using online courses to meet demand from residential students, address classroom space shortages, provide for flexible scheduling, and/or provide extra sections.”

Those are all logical, important reasons to pursue online education, yet some universities see their future as solely an in-person enterprise. That may make sense at some level, but failure to experiment with online learning now will only make it more difficult later.

Online learning isn’t a salvation for higher education. In fact, many of us who create and teach online courses see in-person learning as a better option for most students in most courses. Universities need online courses in their repertoire, though. Online courses provide flexible learning options to students, especially during summers and breaks. That flexibility offers a means for keeping students on track toward graduation, and gives them the option of pursuing jobs, internships, and study abroad. Online courses also help faculty and staff members develop expertise in creating materials for hybrid and flipped classes. And perhaps most important, they provide a means for exploring news ways to help students learn.

That’s one reason that the continued resistance to online education is so troubling. It is symptomatic of a recalcitrant attitude toward change. We can deny the holes in the hull all we want, but denial won’t stop the leaks.

What department chairs should say

Maryellen Weimer offers a wonderful wish list of things she wishes department chairs would say about teaching. It includes areas like introducing new faculty to teaching, overusing summative evaluation of teaching, and developing a reward system for innovative teaching.

Here’s one of the favorite wanna-be conversation starters she offers:

“We need to be having more substantive conversations about teaching and learning in our department meetings. We talk about course content, schedules, and what we’re offering next semester but rarely about our teaching and its impact on student learning. What do you think about circulating a short article or article excerpt before some of our meetings and then spending 30 minutes talking about it? Could you recommend some readings?”

Briefly …

The Scout Report, a newsletter of curated web resources, recently released an excellent special issue on copyright and intellectual property. … The Hechinger Report looks into the 12-hours-as-full-time culture that keeps many students from graduating from college in four years. … Karin Forssell of Stanford suggests that talking about integrating tools rather than technology into teaching “frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that ‘technology’ can bring.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like RateMyProfessor.com. They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Asked to describe the things that help them learn, students provide a remarkably consistent list:

  • Engagement
  • Interaction
  • Clarity
  • Openness
  • Accessibility
  • A sense of belonging

That’s hardly a complete list, but those ideas came up again and again during a focus group at KU’s recent Student Learning Symposium. Not surprisingly, those same components come up again and again in research on learning.

sara rosen, holly storkel and stuart day at the Student Learning Symposium
Holly Storkel accepted the university’s Degree-Level Assessment award on behalf of the Speech-Language Pathology program. She was joined at the Student Learning Symposium by Sara Rosen, acting provost, and Stuart Day, acting senior vice provost for academic affairs.

The focus group at the learning symposium consisted of three undergraduate and three graduate students who had agreed to share their experiences at a round-table discussion. They were open and candid in their assessment of their own learning and of the learning they see in classes they help with. These categories overlap, but they provide a good sense of what students say is important.

Engagement

One of the undergraduates, who also works as a TA for a biology class, described students’ mindset about their classes like this: “Is there a reason for being there?” That is, will attending class help them do better on quizzes, exams, papers, and other assignments? Or will the instructor just read from slides that are later posted online? When in-class work engages students and clearly makes a difference in their performance, “now there’s a reason to be there,” students said.

Openness

Many students are anxious and apprehensive at the beginning of a term, and a sullen or seemingly angry professor will push them away with just a look. Professors who do nothing except lecture can seem standoffish, students said, and students don’t know how those professors will react if students try to talk with them.

On the other hand, instructors who are approachable make a big difference in classes, students say. Even in big classes, some instructors walk around the room, talk with students and answer questions. It’s impossible to get to know students well in big classes, but setting a positive tone can make students feel that they belong and want to be involved in a class, students said.

Clarity

Too many instructors teach as if students are experts rather than beginners, students said. Instructors need to think more from students’ perspective and try to remember what it’s like to work with new material for the first time. Professors simply must get better at explaining, students said.

Relatedly, students say are willing to go along with experimentation in format, assignments, and other elements of a class. The key is communication. “As long as instructors explain, students will be up for that,” one undergraduate said.

Both undergraduate and graduate students said that disciplinary programs needed to do a better job of helping students see the bigger picture of a program or a degree. Students need to “understand that there’s a future to all this information,” one student said. Graduate students said departments also needed to do a better job of integrating coursework with research.

Sense of belonging

The first semester at a new university can be painful, and successfully negotiating the freshman jitters makes a huge difference in whether students will stay the year or eventually graduate. Universities have recognized that and use programs like First-Year Experience to reach out to freshmen and help them maneuver through the educational maze.

Graduate students said they experienced much the same pain, loneliness, and disorientation as undergraduates. Unfortunately, they said, the university doesn’t do much to help them get situated. They recommended orientation sessions for graduate students, a better means of acquiring coping and learning strategies from peers, and better communication from departments. Graduate school is “so much more rigorous and so much harder,” one student said, and the university needs to do a better job of helping students cope.

Interaction

Interaction among students, and between instructor and students makes class much more meaningful, students said, lamenting about classes where they are simply “talked at.” One undergraduate said, “Lecture makes me wonder why I am coming to class to have you read slides to me.”

A Ph.D. student in the sciences echoed that sentiment. Too many graduate courses in STEM fields involve little but lecture, he said. He came to graduate school expecting to delve into critical analysis of problems and pursuit of new ideas. Instead, he found a frustrating emphasis on delivery of information. Graduate students in STEM fields are discouraged from discussion, he said, even though “interaction makes or breaks a class.”

Training for TAs

Graduate students at the learning symposium said the university needed to do a better job of helping them learn to teach effectively, and to provide incentives for graduate assistants to teach well. Many teaching assistants, especially those in the sciences, are told to spend as little time as possible on teaching, students said. (We’ve heard the same lament from students at CTE events for years.)

Gradate programs should be designed so that doctoral students learn to be well-rounded faculty members, not just research machines, students said. They called for more teaching workshops and other training for TAs. “A lot of grad students are doing only research,” one student said. “Once they graduate, they will be thrown into teaching with no experience.” He added, “This narrow focus is hurting many grad students.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Financing public higher education has grown increasingly challenging, with state funding for research universities declining by an average of 28 percent since 2003. What were once state-supported institutions have in many cases become quasi-private institutions to which states provide some money but still want full control.

To shore up their budgets, state colleges and universities have increased the proportion of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher rates of tuition. In fact, 43 state flagship universities had fewer in-state students in their freshman class in 2014 than they did in 2004. And out-of-state students made up more than half of the freshman class at 10 of those institutions, the Washington Post reports.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Alabama reported the biggest swing from in-state to out-of-state recruits, with out-of-state students now making up 64 percent of the freshman class. The Post says the percentage of in-state students in the freshman class has dropped by more than 20 points at Missouri, South Carolina, Oregon, Arkansas, University of California-Berkeley, Idaho State, and UCLA. Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Washington reported declines of more than 15 percentage points.

The University of Kansas had a slight increase in the percentage of out-of-state freshman between 2004 and 2014. In 2004, 29 percent of incoming freshmen were from out of state, according to university statistics. By 2014, that was about 33 percent. I say “about” because the Post’s analysis says that out-of-state students made of 37 percent of the freshman class of 2014, and federal data (which is based on university reports) says that 34 percent were from out of state.

10 ways to fail when creating an online program

Joshua Kim of Dartmouth offers an excellent list of potential pitfalls in the development of online programs.  All are worth a look, but two stood out to me, largely because they apply to all courses and degrees, online or not.

  • If You Don’t Put Student Learning At the Heart of Your Online Program, You Will Fail
  • If You Don’t View the Creation Of Your Online Program As A Disciplined Experiment, You Will Fail

You’ll find the full list of 10 at Inside Higher Ed.

What is the future of higher education?

The Atlantic asked seven leaders from various areas of higher education to list reasons for hope and reasons for despair in 2016. Their responses run the gamut from the challenges of technology to the rising cost of college to the growing importance of creativity and ingenuity. A response from the author William Deresiewicz struck me as particularly timely and cogent.

Asked about his biggest concern in higher education, he replied:

The continued dominance of a narrowly “practical” approach at all levels. This is the attitude that says that the exclusive purpose of education is to prepare workers for the labor force. It shows up, among other places, in the overwhelming focus on math and reading in K-12 and the fetishization of STEM fields and universal disparagement of the liberal arts in college. It also underlies the continuing privatization of public education through the promotion of charter schools and other aspects of the “reform” agenda as well as the ongoing defunding of state universities—the idea being that if education serves the purposes of the market, it should be under the control of the market.

Deresiewicz said he saw “a gathering resistance to this mentality,” though, adding: “Students (and their parents) are getting tired of being treated like revenue streams and exploitable resources. But whether we will gather sufficient political strength to oust the entrenched interests on the other side is still a very open question.”

KU’s chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, was among the leaders who provided responses to The Atlantic. She offered measured, thoughtful responses, saying:

While I don’t find much that causes me to despair, I do have concerns about the way we invest in our future. If public funding for universities continues to decline, we will need to find different ways to support the way we educate our future leaders and the way we discover new things in our country. So many of our great societal and technological advances happen because of universities, and we need to make sure to protect these efforts from harm.

Asked about a reason for hope, she replied:

I am inspired by the enthusiasm and intellectual capacity of our next generation of leaders. I interact with students each day, which is a great joy. Our students are intellectually curious, and they pursue interesting goals. They’re building faster race cars and more sustainable buildings. They’re looking for cures to the latest diseases. They’re already finding ways to do all these things better than their elders. And they’re also ensuring that we stay focused on issues like economic disparity and racial inequity. The problems of our society will not be getting any easier during the next 50 years, but I’m glad we will have the young people I engage with today to help try to solve them.

Briefly …

Kenneth Bernstein, a recently retired high school teacher, warns college instructors that even advanced placement classes have done little to help the critical thinking of college-bound students. … The Chronicle of Higher Education and Education Week have both make successful and profitable shifts to digital as their print subscriptions have declined, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute writes. … The entertainment industry has entered the MOOC business in the form of MasterClass, which sells online courses with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman (acting), Serena Williams (tennis) and Usher (performing) for $90 each. The creator of MasterClass, New Enterprise Associates, recently raised $15 million in capital from, among others, Robert Downey Jr. and Usher, the Wall Street Journal reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Two recent education conferences I attended raised similar questions about developing and sustaining high-quality teaching. Things like:

  • How do we measure the success of course transformation?
  • How can we get buy-in from colleagues?
  • How do we gain the support of department chairs and administrators?
  • How do we share ideas among campuses?
  • How do we sustain and grow communities around the idea of improving teaching?

That last question was central to both conferences, one at KU and one at the University of California, Davis.

Participants in the Trestle launch meeting work in a brainstorming session
Participants in the Trestle launch meeting work in a brainstorming session at the KU Alumni Association. From left are Marsha McCartney (psychology), Chris Fischer (physics and astronomy), Dave Benson (chemistry), Natalie Caporale (University of California, Davis), and Sarah Bean (University of British Columbia).

The KU conference in late January helped launch a new CTE-led initiative called Trestle, or Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence. CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, leads the project, which is financed by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal is to spread the use of evidence-based teaching methods in science, engineering, technology, and math courses across several participating universities.

The conference at UC Davis was called TEA, or Tools for Evidence-based Action. Its focus was on documenting teaching, learning, and curricula, specifically through digital tools that provide data visualizations of student performance and classroom activities.

At both conferences, faculty members shared successes and failures in teaching, and talked candidly about the challenges we face in bringing more people into the fold. By building a community of engaged teachers, we hope to share our experiences in and out of the classroom, improve our approaches to teaching, emphasize the importance of learning, and shape our classes with evidence-based, learner-centered approaches.

Those are buzzwords, yes, but in essence they mean we need to reflect on our teaching and approach it in measured, meaningful ways. By building community, we can all find ways of doing that.

Submit a proposal for our first Teaching Slam

As a way to expand our community of engaged teachers, we are putting on a Teaching Slam.

A Teaching Slam is a fast-paced session in which speakers from many disciplines around KU share their best teaching tips, assessment ideas, or class activities. Instructors in all disciplines are welcome to submit proposals, and we’ll choose the best for presentation on Friday, March 25 from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

We are looking for proposals for two types of presentations:

  • Six + Six. You will have six minutes and six slides to share a useful class activity, an assessment idea, or a teaching tip.
  • Class Demo. You will have 10 to 15 minutes to lead your colleagues (who will act as your class) through a hands-on classroom activity. These sessions must be interactive.

Both types of presenters must provide a handout to help others use the activity immediately.

Deadline for proposals is noon Friday, March 4. We’ll choose the best and let everyone know the results by early the following week.

Interested? Submit a proposal and join our community.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Women teach a sizable majority of online courses at KU, even though men make up a sizable majority of the university’s faculty.

Data provided by Laura Diede, the associate director at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, shows that of 171 online courses that CODL worked with in the 2014-15 school year, 60 percent were taught by women.

That’s especially interesting when you consider that of 1,649 faculty members on the Lawrence campus that fiscal year, only 42 percent were women.

I’ve not been able to find comparable data for online courses nationally, so I have no way to know whether the dominance of women in online teaching is unusual or not. In general, faculty members have been highly skeptical of online courses. In a recent survey by Inside HigherEd, more than half of faculty members said they didn’t think online courses could achieve the same level of learning as in-person classes. That attitude makes many long-time faculty members resistant to, if not hostile toward, online teaching.

Still, Diede and I still puzzled over the high percentage of women teaching online courses at KU. We came up with three possibilities:

  • Women are more willing than men to try new approaches to teaching.
  • Women prefer the flexibility that online teaching provides.
  • Men, who are more likely to have tenure, are more likely to refuse to teach online courses.

That last possibility seems the most likely, although there may be factors we hadn’t thought about. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see whether this trend grows as the number of online courses grows.

Female instructors score slightly higher in online course evaluationsbar chart comparing course evaluations for men and women in online courses

The data that Diede provided about online courses also showed another interesting facet of online teaching at KU: Female instructors score slightly higher than their male counterparts on student evaluations.

This runs counter to a widely publicized recent study (and widespread perceptions) that argued that student evaluations are inherently biased against female instructors. I’m not going to wade into that debate here other than to say that student evaluations of teaching are problematic on many levels. The reliance on them as the sole measure of teaching quality benefits no one.

Fear and loathing about good teachers

The observation below is from Richard M. Felder, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. It was reprinted this week on Tomorrow’s Professor. It’s something I wonder about frequently and have talked about repeatedly with colleagues who value high-quality teaching:

“Some departments I know, including mine, have in the past hired faculty members who were exciting and innovative teachers and who didn’t do research. Some departments I know, again including mine, have hired former professionals with decades of practical experience who also didn’t do research. Both groups of faculty members did beautifully, teaching core courses brilliantly and serving as supportive advisors, mentors, and role models to the undergraduates who planned to go into business or industry after graduation. Professors like that are the ones students remember fondly years later, and endow scholarships and student lounges and sometimes buildings in honor of. And yet the thought of bringing one or two of them into a 20-person department faculty instead of hiring yet another research scholar who looks pretty much like the other 18 or 19 already there is unthinkable to many administrators and professors. Why is that?”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.

The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.

Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)

In the most recent issue of Change magazine, Carol Twigg of the National Center for Academic Transformation lists seven strategies that she says are “essential to improving the quality of student learning.” These strategies have emerged from the center’s work over the past 15 years and mesh well with what we have found at CTE. They are:

Brad Osborne with a group of students in a music theory class
Brad Osborne works with students in a music theory course he redesigned to provide more interaction and active learning.
  • Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
  • Focusing on active learning.
  • Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
  • Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
  • Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
  • Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.

As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.

College enrollment and completion rates decline

Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.

In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.

Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.

The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.

In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.

The need for a college education

Those graduation rates loom large as the skills needed for jobs grow. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.

High school graduation rates rise

Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.

It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.

College rankings that follow the money

I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.

The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.

By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.

Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.

Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.

Briefly …

Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …

Douglas Anderson of Southern Illinois University vents about university administrative bloat and suggests that higher education could solve many academic problems by slashing administrative staff and hiring “an army of good teachers.” …

Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Nearly all college faculty members want to teach well but few have both the pedagogical background to make their classes more student-centered and the incentive to do so, the Nobel laureate Carl Wieman said Monday.

Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)
Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)

Wieman, a physics professor at Stanford, has been a leader in promoting effective teaching practices in the sciences, primarily through his Science Education Initiative. He spoke Monday at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward much the same goal.

The Science Education Initiative has led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, and Wieman drew on those experiences as he explained some of the successes and failures of his efforts.

The idea of “transformation” is elastic, but it generally means moving instructors and courses toward student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices that involve clear, measurable course goals, and effective means of assessment and reflection. Wieman said his work had also led to more interaction in the classroom as faculty members moved away from lecture; inspired more meaningful discussions of teaching within departments, and generated demands from students to change more courses.

“The dominant barrier to change is the incentive system,” Wieman said, adding that most faculty see anything that takes away from research time as penalizing their ability to succeed.

He and his colleagues countered that barrier primarily with what Wieman called an “artificial incentive system.” This involved spending $1 million to $2 million per department in two forms:

  • Department-centered teaching grants. These were grants to individual faculty members to use for summer salaries, to buy out classes, to hire research and teaching assistants, and to buy materials for class development.
  • Education specialists. These were mostly post-doctoral teaching fellows who had Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines and were willing to learn effective teaching practices. The initiative found almost no one who came in with the necessary expertise, so it created workshops to help the specialists learn about effective teaching. The specialists, in turn, provided guidance to faculty members, helped create course materials, and provided non-threatening coaching. That combination of disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge was critical in gaining the trust of faculty members and making the process work, Wieman said.

Wieman has found success with his model, but he has also run into barriers. For instance, all the faculty members in the targeted departments he worked with had the opportunity to change their approach to teaching, but many didn’t. Some tenure-track faculty members backed out because they said they were afraid that time spent on teaching would detract from their research and, ultimately, their ability to gain tenure. Others started but eventually gave up once they were left on their own. Math faculty were especially resistant to change, and only a small percentage joined the course redesign efforts.

Other snippets from Monday’s discussions with Wieman:

  • Supportive chairs and deans are among the most important factors in effecting change, and leaders who wouldn’t support the initiative all but scuttled some departmental efforts.
  • Faculty members who are considered “star” teachers in their departments are among the most resistant to change. These are often charismatic instructors who are popular among students and receive high teaching evaluations and even teaching awards as they give engaging performances in lecture but focus little on student learning. This group saw no reason to change and became passive resistors, Wieman said.
  • One of the most common pitfalls in course redesign, he said, is a focus on what to teach rather than how to teach.
  • Another problem is overreliance on student evaluations to gauge faculty effectiveness, something he elaborates on in an article in Change magazine. These evaluations aren’t related to learning or to best practices, he said, and evaluations tend to go down when faculty move toward new techniques.

One of Wieman’s initial goals was to see whether an infusion of money into the teaching process would lead to use of more effective teaching practices and to long-term change in department teaching cultures. In the short term, the answer is yes, but certainly not universally. It’s too early to tell whether the efforts will lead to long-term change, he said.

One thing that Wieman avoided addressing was the lack of effort in changing the incentive system, which he said was the largest barrier to change. That lack of an incentive system came up again and again during discussions at BVA meetings this week. There was broad agreement that universities must reward high-quality teaching in the promotion and tenure system to improve student learning, reduce failure rates, improve graduation rates, and to improve their long-term credibility and viability.

That won’t be easy, but like Wieman, the BVA has achieved meaningful steps in remaking courses, attracting faculty to student-centered practices, helping show meaningful ways of using class time, reducing failure rates in courses, and spreading a culture that values high-quality, innovative teaching.

As Wieman said, most faculty do see the value of high-quality teaching, and those who have shifted toward active learning and building teaching expertise within departments have found teaching much more personally satisfying, Wieman said.

“That’s the thing that keeps faculty members doing this,” he said.

KU continues to expand course transformation

KU began its own course transformation project in 2013 with a two-prong approach: creation of program for post-doctoral teaching fellows to help departments transform large undergraduate courses, and development of the C21 Course Redesign Consortium. Bob Goldstein, associate dean for the natural sciences and mathematics, was instrumental in development of the teaching fellows program after seeing the influence Wieman’s program had at the University of British Columbia.

But KU is testing an approach that requires a much smaller “artificial incentive system” (i.e., funds, and teaching specialists) than the UBC and CU programs, by building community around course transformation to amplify the catalyzing effects of the teaching specialists. To this end, Andrea Greenhoot, now CTE’s director, began C21, which has helped create a community among faculty and staff members, GTAs, and post-doctoral teaching fellows working to expand and improve student-centered teaching. The teaching fellows program, C21, and CTE’s Best Practices Institute have led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the university.

Greenhoot followed up on those successes in creating a seven-university network aimed at expanding the adoption of empirically validated teaching practices. That project, known as Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence, or TRESTLE , received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Each campus will hire teaching specialists to work with faculty members on transforming courses and build a community to share information across campuses. The project builds on the lessons learned in the Wieman Science Education Initiative but tests a model that could more feasibly promote sustained change at a wide range of institutions.

Virtual workshops on campus racism

The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania is conducting a series of virtual sessions called Responding to Racism on College and University Campuses.

Two of the sessions have already taken place, but the next one, on Monday, looks especially relevant to faculty members. It is called “Race-Consciousness in Classrooms and Curricula: Strategies for College Faculty.”

Each session costs $25 and requires pre-registration.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.


By Doug Ward

In this month’s Teaching Matters, Mike Vitevitch writes about his experiences in having honors students give group presentations in lieu of a final exam.

Vitevitch, a professor of psychology, says he was “bowled over” by the quality of the students’ work at the end of the spring semester. As he explains in the accompanying video, honors students in Introduction to Psychology tend to do very well on exams. They know the material, and Vitevitch wanted to push their learning further.

So he divided up the main concepts from the semester – areas like methods, the brain, learning, memory, and emotion – and assigned groups of four to five students to lead 15-minute sessions during the final exam period.

You can see for yourself the types of things they came up with. And you can hear students explain their experiences. They make a compelling case not only for active learning but for relatable learning material.

Introduction to Psychology was a flipped course, and many of the students said they had had previous experiences with flipped courses. Some said they thought the flipped approach worked best with conceptual classes like psychology and less so with math and science. They said they had never taken a flipped math or science course, though.

When I asked them what advice they would give to other students taking a similar course, they were nearly unanimous: do the readings, complete the work ahead of time, and come to class prepared to learn.

They also offered advice to instructors who plan to flip their classes:

  • Choose high-quality online material, and follow up on that material effectively in class.
  • Look for good models in other classes to emulate.
  • Make learning hands-on and concrete.
  • Encourage students to make projects accessible.

It’s good advice from a top-notch group of students.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

We have all felt like “the other” at some point in our lives.

“The other” is an outsider, someone who feels vastly different from those where they live and work. Being “the other” is uncomfortable and unsettling. It generates self-consciousness and suspicion. It drains energy.

Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152.
Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152.

Recent events on campuses around the country have made it clear that far too many of our students feel like “the other.” For some, it’s the color of their skin. For others, their ethnicity, their sexual identity, or even their political views. They feel as if they have been forced to suppress parts of themselves to just survive day by day.

As one of my students, Joshua Robinson, wrote before a recent campus forum:

“We have had to accommodate racism and ignorance to make our white peers feel good about themselves. We have to accommodate being second-class students at a university we all pay money to attend, and — the worst — black students have to accommodate the administration and faculty not advocating for black students in the classroom and the residence halls.”

As instructors, we can’t solve all of those problems, but we can make sure that all of our students feel welcome in our classes, that our courses help all our students learn in the best ways possible, and that we provide a safe atmosphere for taking on gnarly, emotional issues that fester inside our students.

To help with these issues, the Center for Teaching Excellence has created several pages of resources on inclusive teaching.

As Andrea Greenhoot, the director of CTE, writes in the introduction to the resources page, “promoting success for all learners requires us to reflect on our own practices and engage in deliberate, intentional efforts to model and promote an equitable teaching and learning environment.”

The resources page is broken into three main sections, each with a separate page:

Within those areas you will find additional readings, videos, handouts, exercises, and other materials intended to promote inclusive teaching. Make sure to check out a separate page of tips, syllabus statements, and resources from Meagan Patterson, an associate professor of educational psychology and a faculty fellow at CTE.

We see this as a starting point for many types of discussions, and we welcome ideas and materials we might make available.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

In one of my favorite poems, Taylor Mali mocks sloppy writing, juvenile articulation, and the general inability to put together words in a meaningful way. That poem, “Totally like whatever, you know?,” was brought to life by Ronnie Bruce’s  animation (below), providing even more punch to Mali’s magnificent ending:

Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,

it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.

You have to speak with it, too.

Mali is a former teacher who often weaves the importance of education into his work. Sadly, education suffers from the same obfuscatory jargon that pervades most disciplines. Talking edu-babble among colleagues isn’t a bad thing on its own. The problem is that too many educators talk nothing but edu-babble – what Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report calls “argle bargle” – and impede their ability to persuade audiences that don’t.

To have any hope of improving education, Willen argues, we must learn to speak in clear, accessible language. And by “we,” she means not only educators and administrators but government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and anyone who advocates for education. 

“I’m more convinced than ever that we can’t improve U.S. education until we figure out how to talk and write clearly about it,” Willen writes. “I despair each time I get yet another impossible-to-decipher research report or press release, and cringe when educators use phrases like ‘human capital’ and ‘value propositions,’ not to mention those endless acronyms: RTI, PLC, SLT, IEP, PD and LMS.”

This isn’t a new problem (see “Generate! Blah, Blah,” for example), but Willen is right. If we want communicate – truly communicate – with those outside our small circle, we must be able to speak with clarity and conviction.

I’ve advocated that approach for years as an editor and blogger. More and more, though, I see my worlds of editing and education intersect. Education needs an editor’s sensibilities and articulation, and journalism needs educators’ demands for depth and context. We may be, as Mali says, “the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since … you know, a long, long time ago!” But someone still has to make sense of that inarticulation.

The perfect technology for escaping reality

A colleague shared this wonderful piece of satire: A faux ad for Alternative Viewpoint-Canceling Headphones, perfect for overly sensitive students, politicians of all stripes, and anyone who is simply tired of thinking. The video doesn’t provide a price, but I’m sure these marvels are expensive. Oh, and don’t miss the add-on bubble wrap.


Briefly …

The Learning Network blog of The New York Times recently published an excellent resource guide on plagiarism, including examples and ideas for class discussion. … The University of York in the U.K. received a barrage of criticism for a press release marking International Men’s Day, Times Higher Education reports. The university apologized in a post on its website. … NPR reports that a University of Colorado professor has found a way to get students to turn off their phones in class: give them participation points for doing so.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

By Doug Ward

David McConnell sees both benefit and paradox in active learning.

McConnell, a professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University, spoke to members of the geology department at KU last week about his research into active learning and his work in helping others adopt active learning techniques in their classes.

David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile
David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile

Decades of research has provided ample evidence about the benefits of active learning, McConnell said. Failure rates decline when instructors move away from lecture and use hands-on problem solving, group work, and similar techniques in their classes. Students in active learning classes do better on tests than their peers who have received traditional instruction through lecture. Performance gaps diminish. And all students learn better when they actively monitor their understanding through a variety of activities, a process known as metacognition.

Paradoxically, though, only a small proportion of college instructors have embraced active learning, McConnell said. That proportion is growing, he said, albeit slowly.

McConnell is part of an organization called On the Cutting Edge, which has been working to expand the adoption of active learning in geoscience courses. The organization sponsors workshops, provides course materials, visits classes, and conducts research aimed at improving geoscience education.

noah mcclean working with students in Geology 101
Noah McClean works with students in Geology 101, a class that uses active learning techniques and hands-on engagement with course material.

The biggest challenge in expanding active learning is time, McConnell said. That often means giving instructors a semester away from teaching duties to create activities, videos, and lesson plans that will allow them to take a more hands-on approach in the classroom.

Even then, active learning can be a tough sell. At research universities, professors get little credit for their teaching even though it generally accounts for a similar proportion of their time as research. Until universities reward teaching in the promotion and tenure process, McConnell said, only the truly motivated will adopt active learning.

Here are some other areas McConnell touched on:

Think of learning as you would a workout. To make gains, you must push yourself beyond your comfort level. Set goals and work steadily toward those goals. Work with others who will push you, but realize that you will often fail. That’s an important part of the process. “My job is to get you to fail because only then will you know your limits,” McConnell tells his students.

We are not our students. Instructors who have Ph.D.s were not average students when they were in college. They learned how to learn on their own and excelled at many levels of college work. McConnell urged instructors to avoid the trap of assuming their students have the same skills and learn in the same way. Most students need help in learning how to learn and in learning how to succeed in our classes and at our universities. “We have to adapt to the students we have,” McConnell said.

Make learning relevant. One reason students dismiss various disciplines is that they don’t see the application of the material. Instructors must make that relevance readily apparent and help students make connections to their lives. In doing so, though, instructors should hold students to high standards. “We don’t think enough of our students,” he said. “They will rise to the challenge.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

All too often, we pursue teaching as an individual activity. We look at our classes as our classes rather than as part of continuum of learning. And we are often ill-prepared to help other instructors engage in a course’s evolution when they take it over. We may pass along course material, but rarely do we pass along the background, context, and iterations of a course’s development.

In a recent portfolio for the Center for Teaching Excellence, Holly Storkel and Megan Blossom explain how they did exactly that, demonstrating the benefits of collaboration in improving learning and in keeping the momentum of improvement intact.

Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center
Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center

Storkel, a professor and chair of speech-language-hearing, added active learning activities to a 400-level class called Language Science, a required undergraduate class on the basic structure of the English language. The changes were intended to help students improve their critical thinking and their interpretation of research articles. Blossom, who was a graduate teaching assistant for the class, built on that approach when she later took over as an instructor.

Storkel had taught the class many times and had been mulling changes for several years to help students improve their ability to find and work with research.

“I decided they should start reading research articles and get more familiar with that: understand how to find a research article, understand how to get it from the library, have basic skills of how to read a research article,” Storkel said in an interview. “And this class is supposed to be kind of the sophomore-junior level so that then, as they move to the junior-senior level, they would have the skills to find a variety of papers and do the synthesis across the papers and where that sort of things is the next level up. But I figured, ‘You can’t synthesize information if you didn’t understand what it is to begin with.’ ”

Blossom, who is now an assistant professor at Castleton University in Vermont, taught the same class three semesters later, building on Storkel’s work but making several changes based on the problem areas that she and Storkel identified. She reduced the number of research articles that students read in an attempt to give them more time in class for discussion. She also added pre-class questions intended to help students better prepare for in-class discussions, worked to make those discussions more interactive, and provided structured questions to help students assess articles.

In later discussions, Blossom let students guide the conversations more, having them work in pairs to interpret a particularly challenging article. To gain a better understanding of methods, students also created experimental models like those used in the article. Blossom pooled their results and had students compare the differences in their findings.

In their course portfolio, Storkel and Blossom said the changes improved class discussions about research and helped instructors devote more one-on-one attention to students in class. That was especially helpful for students who struggled with concepts. They also said the process itself provided benefits for students.

The benefits of collaboration

In a recent interview, Storkel said that collaboration was crucial in gaining a shared understanding of what students were learning from the class and where they were struggling. Rather than telling Blossom what to do, they talked through how they might make it better. She suggested that others use the same approach to improving classes.

“I think one thing that I would say to that is sort of sharing what you know so that you can get on the same page,” Storkel said. “Look at some student work and say, ‘Here’s how I taught the class. Here’s what the performance on this assignment looked like. They were doing pretty well with this but there were some struggles here, and so that might be something you want to think about if you’re going to keep some of these activities, or even if you’re doing different activities this seems to be a hard concept for them to learn or this process seems to be the part that’s really a stumbling block.’ ”

Storkel suggested that faculty engage in more conversations about the courses they teach and use course portfolios to make shared information more visible.

Portfolios provide a means to look at a class “and say, ‘What skills are people taking away from this? Where am I having a challenge?’ ” Storkel said, adding: “It’s already in a format then that is shareable and that’s more than just, ‘Here are my lecture notes’ or ‘Here are my slides. Here’s the syllabus.’ Here’s what actually happened. I think having rich records that can be easily handed off is good.”

Assessment also provides opportunities for increased sharing of experiences in courses, Storkel said.

“That might be another place where you can have a conversation around teaching, and then it might not even be attached to a particular class but more, ‘Here’s a particular skill. Students aren’t always getting it.’ So as I approach this class where that skill needs to be incorporated or we expect that to happen, now I’ve some idea of what might be challenging or not.”

It all starts with a willingness to share experiences, to put defensiveness aside, and to focus on what’s best for students.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Microsoft’s Office software has long been the standard in business and education.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Education Dashboard
The website for Microsoft’s Class Dashboard.

In a webinar this week, though, Microsoft showcased an online amalgamation of its software that looks very much like a learning management system.

Blackboard it isn’t, and that’s the point. Microsoft is drawing on the familiarity and ubiquity of its Office software to create an environment for class materials that is spare, visually appealing, and easy to use – all things that Blackboard isn’t.

The new software, called Class Dashboard, isn’t all that new to many school systems. It has been in beta testing for more than a year, along with data integration software called School Information Sync, but will be made available free to users of Office 365 Education.

Dashboard integrates the company’s Office 365 platform into a portal for displaying class materials, announcements and grades; integrating Office apps; giving feedback to students; managing class rosters and calendars; and integrating discussion boards into assignments.

Facebook's education dashboard
A screenshot of Facebook’s Personalized Learning Plan.

All of this is aimed at K-12 education, but it could easily fit into higher education. KU, for instance, has adopted Sharepoint (along with Office 365) for creating internal web portals, and Skype for Business for communication. It will eventually provide OneDrive access across the university.

Most universities aren’t likely to shift to Class Dashboard for a learning management system, but it could provide a useful alternative for many faculty members.

Facebook also joined the push toward education with an announcement last week about a school-oriented software project.

The company has been working with Summit Public Schools in California on technology it calls Personalized Learning Plan. Facebook was vague about the specifics of the technology, saying that “content and assessments are delivered online through teacher-created materials.” What it displayed on its blog, though, was a dashboard that allows students to visualize goals, create plans to reach those goals, provide a log of accomplishments, and provide a space for reflection.

The technology is independent of Facebook and doesn’t require a Facebook login. Facebook has been testing the software at Summit since last year, it said, and plans to make it freely available in the future.

Finding your “bliss zone” at the office

If you are feeling miserable at work, it could be that you’ve overshot your “bliss zone,” Arthur C. Brooks writes in The New York Times.

That often happens to ambitious professionals who, he says, keep taking on more responsibility until they suddenly realize that by chasing prestige and responsibility they have given up the work that inspired them in the first place.

Brooks points to academics as one group prone to this phenomenon.

Dan Bernstein, the former director of CTE, passed along a link to Brooks’s article and offered this interpretation from his brother:

“If you can, stay in positions that include activities you find satisfying and valuable. If you need to get into a less enjoyable position to get important things done, then use the mindset of service to get yourself through it.”

Excellent advice.

Strange fact of the week

This has little to do with education and everything to do with marketing and with blind adoption of technology. Fortune reports that in a recent survey, nearly half of Apple Watch owners said that they used their watches more than they expected to – are you ready for this? – check the time.

Briefly …

Most young adults age 18 to 34 reject the label “millennial,” Pew reports, though a large majority of those 51 to 69 embrace the term “baby boomers.” … Few teachers are using social media in their classrooms, The Journal reports, saying teachers worry about a lack of training, and problems that might arise with students’ use of social media. … The New York Times reports that companies are redesigning backpacks to better fit the lifestyle of today’s students, who carry more technology and fewer books than students of past decades. Research for the designs included students, yes, but also mountaineers and homeless people, many of whom have developed methods to keep their belongings portability and dry.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I interrupted two students in a small room at Spahr Engineering Library at KU.

Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow doing dynamics homework in new room in engineering library (8)
Tom Ellison, left, and Nathan Marlow at Spahr Engineering Library.

The students, Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow, were working on problems for a dynamics class. Each had tablet computers and used styluses to work problems by hand in OneNote. Ellison’s computer was connected wirelessly to a large monitor on a wall, via an adaptor he checked out from the library, and the two of them conversed and shared ideas as they worked.

It was an impressive scene of collaboration in a space that makes collaboration easy. The room has a table for up to six people and easy access to outlets. A wall-mounted monitor is large enough for everyone at the tables to see, yet it doesn’t get in the way if students don’t need it.

Informal spaces like these are important to student life and student learning. KU Libraries, like libraries around the country, has created more of these spaces, some with tables and chairs, some with whiteboards, others with cushioned chairs and a view of campus. They are constantly in use. The new engineering building has ample numbers of these types of spaces, everything from the small rooms in the Spahr Library to booths in a food court to soft chairs in a bright atrium. Small alcoves with chairs and tables are sprinkled through the building, and students made ample use of all the spaces when I visited the building earlier this week.

These informal spaces make buildings more inviting, but they also reflect a shift toward mobile technology, a shift that is moving ever more rapidly. Within two years, smartphones will provide all the computing power you need at home or at work, Wired reports. It cites predictions from the chipmaker ARM, which recently released a new generation of processors, and a consumer trends researcher. That doesn’t mean the world will change in two years. Adoption of any new technology takes time. It does suggest a tipping point that most universities are ill-equipped to handle.

The size of computer hardware has been shrinking for decades, and if this latest prediction plays out, it will have substantial ramifications for all levels of education. Teenagers have adopted the online world as an important social sphere, with mobile phones an important connection point. Many primary and secondary schools have shifted to a bring-your-own-device model, one that incorporates students’ phones, tablets and laptops into their learning inside and outside the classroom. Pew reports that 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds rely predominately on their phones for Internet access, and that non-White Americans are more likely to have web access only on their phones.

A change by U.S. wireless phone carriers over the summer could add to the pressure to make mobile computing more accessible to students. The carriers began shifting the upfront costs of mobile phones to consumers, rather than building in a sort of installment plan that required two-year contracts. Those higher upfront costs could lead even more people to look at their phones as a primary device for computing and connecting to the Internet, especially if the phones have the power of laptops.

Higher education has generally been slow to adapt to these changes, and indeed there are many challenges in security, compatibility, and capacity of wi-fi networks. It has been even slower in adapting to a mobile web. Everything from university websites to scheduling systems to learning management systems lack basic functionality and usability on mobile.

That has to change, and soon, although the financial challenges are steep. IT departments constantly balance innovation with accessibility, but more than anything else, struggle with the financial demands to stay on top of quickly changing technology. Schools and departments face the same challenges, not only with providing technological access but with modernizing classrooms and other learning spaces to accommodate new technology, collaborative learning, and the flexibility that learning environments so desperately need. Those challenges aren’t likely to change anytime soon, given the hostile attitudes toward higher education in many state legislatures. Institutions simply must address those challenges, though, if they hope to remain relevant in which technology and physical environments can aid or hinder student engagement and learning.

A recent comment by Jay Bhatt, president and CEO of Blackboard, cuts to the heart of the mobile challenge in higher education. Blackboard is hardly a leader in adapting to mobile, though it has made progress of late. Bhatt’s comments are worth taking to heart:

“There is a critical disconnect between what today’s learners want, and how the educational system is serving them. The industry hasn’t changed in years. Today’s learners have a drastically different set of wants, needs and consumer preferences. Learners of all ages and at all points in their learning lifecycle today require something different. They want and expect technology to play a major role in their education. And they want education technology that is as convenient as what they’ve become accustomed to from companies like Apple and Amazon. They want mobile. They want to be able to connect with their peers. They want fast, simple, and intuitive.”

Test-optional application process plays well in university rankings

Colleges and universities that make the SAT or ACT optional may have less-than-altruistic goals in mind.

Stephen Burd of The Hechinger Report says that a test-optional application process is often portrayed as a way of diversifying the student body. The argument sounds good, he says, as standardized test scores often create barriers for minority and non-affluent students.

It usually doesn’t work that way, though.

By making standardized tests optional, Burd says, colleges and universities often draw more applicants, thus increasing the percentage of rejected applications and making themselves seem more exclusive. Students who do submit their scores on the SAT and ACT under such a system generally do so because their scores are higher than average, raising the institution’s overall average and again making the school seem more exclusive.

Those exclusivity figures play especially well in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, providing a boost to test-optional institutions and essentially punishing those that either require the ACT or SAT, or don’t.

As for the diversity argument, Burd says there is little evidence that a test-optional approach leads to a more diverse student body. Rather, it simply allows institutions to pander to the types of rankings that affluent families embrace in making college choices. Others say the test-optional approach simply needs more time to work. It’s definitely worth watching.

Briefly …

A short lecture helps students put readings into better context, Illysa Izenberg argues in an article for Faculty Focus. By short, she means 8 to 10 minutes, with the rest of class time devoted to activities, discussion and reflection. … University Business says competency-based education is “poised for explosive growth,” and it provides advice for creating such programs from institutions that have already moved in that direction. … Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey Arnett says companies should tap into millennials’ desire to find engaging work that allows them to make positive contributions to society. I’d argue that college instructors should do the same.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

After a session at the KU Teaching Summit last week, I spoke with a faculty member whose question I wasn’t able to get to during a discussion.

panorama of new classroom in Anschutz Library
A new classroom in Anschutz Library will offer a flexible approach to active learning. It will force faculty members and students to think differently, as there is no front of the room.

The session, Classrooms and the Future of Education, focused on how KU is working to create and renovate classrooms for active learning. Universities around the country are doing the same, putting in movable tables and chairs, and adding nontraditional furniture, whiteboards, monitors, and various digital accoutrements to make collaboration and hands-on learning easier, and learning environments more inviting.

The faculty member at my session said rooms alone would accomplish nothing unless instructors changed their approach to teaching. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Effective pedagogy must come first, and many faculty members have created active learning environments in classrooms build solely for lecture. The redesigned classrooms are simply a means of providing flexibility in the environment and of allowing students to work together more easily.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford, made much the same point about technology earlier this month.

Technology, Cuban said, is simply a tool, and its power to effect change is only as great as the person using it. Its ability to enhance thinking, engagement, learning or a host of other things depends largely on how it is used.

He drove that point home by explaining how technology companies have starting using “engagement” as a code word for student achievement. In pushing schools to buy new digital tools, companies rarely promise that technology alone will lead to improved learning. Rather, they say that digital devices and software will improve student engagement, as if engagement alone were a magic elixir.

It’s not.

Engagement matters, Cuban says, but it works alongside elements like classroom structure, student-instructor relationships, varied teaching techniques, and student grit. To those I’d add instructor and student preparedness; informed pedagogy; students’ willingness to learn about and engage with challenging ideas; and meaningful assignments, among other things.

“Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil,” Cuban writes, citing a litany of studies rejecting the idea that more technology leads to improved learning.

We need to help students learn to use technology to search for and analyze information; to solve problems, and to convey ideas. We need to provide more flexibility in the physical spaces of our classrooms to inspire collaboration and creativity.

None of those things matter, though, if instructors ignore the needs of their students, fail to engage them with challenging questions and course material, focus on information delivery rather than learning, and disregard the pedagogical lessons we have learned about a new generation of students.

Learning requires hard work from instructors and their students. Classrooms matter. Technology matters. But neither provides a magical solution.

Another take on classrooms

Edutopia recently published three articles that offer additional perspectives on remaking classrooms. All focus on K-12 education, but they offer valuable perspectives on the types of classrooms our future students will be used to using.

At Albemarle Public Schools in Virginia, students can sit at a table, on a couch or on the floor. They can stand if they prefer or even lie down. Teachers often furnish their classrooms with inexpensive furniture they buy from Goodwill or from college students moving out of town. Parents donate furniture, and some teachers have even used crowdfunding to raise money for furniture. (I’ve never seen those approaches used in higher ed, but I like the idea.)

Heather Wolpert-Gowran, a middle school teacher in California, writes about her switch to a new classroom, saying she moved everything except the tables and chairs. She plans to experiment with various types of seating, and she writes about her journey toward finding the right mix.

Finally, Todd Finley, a regular contributor to Edutopia, writes about concepts and research on classroom design. He also provides links to many examples of redesigned classrooms at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

At workshops for graduate teaching assistants on Monday, I shared one of my favorite quotes about education.

It’s from Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab. In a TED Talk on innovation last year, he said: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself.”

Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.
Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.

He added, “What you need to learn is how to learn.”

Several students took issue with Ito’s premise of “education” as something imposed on students. They should. It’s a generalization that pulls in all the negative perceptions people have about schools and higher education. It draws on imagery of education as a factory where students are slathered with information as they move along a conveyor belt and tested for uniformity before they emerge at the end of the line wrapped in a generic diploma that guarantees they will provide the “right” answer on cue.

And yet that’s Ito’s point. Learning is individual. It’s something you take on because you see value in it for yourself. Ito dropped out of college twice and is largely self-taught, experiences that most certainly shape his perspective on education but should also inform ours. As educators, we need to stress the importance learning rather than information. We must provide approaches to learning that are as rich and varied as our students, and create opportunities for students to find their own meaning and relevance in our curricula.

In my classes, I tell students that I can’t make them learn. I provide material to help them learn. I try to create a classroom environment where they feel welcome, and lead discussions that I hope will inspire them to learn – and keep learning. But I can do only so much. Students have to meet me halfway. They must complete the work I assign, share their ideas, and participate in discussions. They must invest in the process of learning. Only then will they truly learn.

Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.
Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.

Most GTAs understand that, I think. After all, by making their way to graduate school they have learned to work within – and thrive in – the current educational system. As they shift from students to instructors, they must unravel the concept of learning and help their own students put it back together. That’s a challenging mission, one they will spend the rest of their careers trying to perfect.

The GTAs in my sessions had a good sense of how to begin that mission. When I asked them to consider how we can help students learn how to learn, the group discussions were robust and enlightening. Here are some of the responses:

    • Ask good open-ended questions and provide concrete examples that lead to meaty discussions.
    • Provide a variety of examples that allow students to approach ideas from many angles.
    • Provide a variety of ways for students to demonstrate understanding.
    • Vary the method of instruction to help students learn in different ways.
    • Model the behavior you want students to follow.
    • Draw on your own experiences with learning and use those as relatable examples.
    • Help students make connections between academic topics and life.
    • Scaffold class material so that students work in increments toward mastery of a subject.
    • Humanize yourself as an instructor, make yourself available, and provide consistency throughout the semester.

The students’ suggestions provide an excellent framework for classes of all types. I hope they left the sessions feeling as energized as I did about the possibilities not just of education, but of learning.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Learning matters.

That may seem like a truism in the world of education – at least it should be – but it isn’t.

All too often, schools and teachers, colleges and professors worry more about covering the right material than helping students learn. They put information above application. They emphasize the what rather than the why and the how.

In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Stephen Crew of Samford University makes an excellent case for the importance of learning. He does so with an anecdote about why instructors win teaching awards. For instance, the award-winners may have made sacrificed to pursue their teaching. They may have inspired students or made classes engaging. Perhaps their student evaluations were stellar.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Crew doesn’t dismiss those aspects of teaching. Rather, he says they are simply too shallow.

“The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us,” Crew writes. “Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges.”

He asks – rightly – whether those instructors have really helped students learn.

Crew makes an important distinction between learning-driven teaching and information-driven teaching.

Learning-driven teachers help students challenge their thinking, including their metacognitive skills, and demonstrate the importance of deeper understanding. They provide meaningful opportunities for students to apply skills, and then assess students’ understanding and nudge them toward a goal.

Information-driven teaching, on the other hand, is a relatively straightforward affair than nearly anyone can do. It emphasizes accurate, up-to-date content; presentation style; and perhaps the newest technology. “In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information,” Crew writes.

Instructors may be popular and passionate and engaging, Crew says, but if they simply deliver information to students, they haven’t really taught anything.

Angelique Kobler of the Lawrence Public Schools made much the same point last year, saying that if instructors don’t embrace the idea that today’s students learn differently from those even a few years ago, “we will become irrelevant.”

A question that Kobler asked when she spoke with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign still resonates:

Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Related: What does a learner-centered syllabus look like? (Via Faculty Focus.)

* * * * * * *

Follow-up: The ups and downs of Blackboard

It will be interesting to see how a sale of Blackboard might affect the positive changes I wrote about earlier this week.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Providence Equity Partners, which owns Blackboard, is looking to sell the company for more than $3 billion. Blackboard, which was created in 1998, had been a public company until Providence bought it and took it private in 2011, paying $1.64 billion and assuming $130 million in debt.blackboard logo

To put the Blackboard price into perspective, here are a couple of comparisons: Forbes estimates the value of the New York Yankees at more than $3 billion. After an initial public offering, the online marketplace Etsy is worth more than $3 billion. So is Donald Trump.

A sale wouldn’t be surprising. Companies like Providence buy lagging companies, revamp them and try to sell them for a profit. Blackboard has become more responsive to customers since Providence took over and hired Jay Bhatt as president and CEO. And news of a possible sale comes just after the completion of Bb World, Blackboard’s annual conference, and the announcement of a slew of changes that would finally pull Blackboard’s design and functionality out of the dial-up web era.

My colleagues in IT say, though, that Blackboard’s promised design changes probably won’t be practical for most schools to adopt for two to three years. That’s because Blackboard is building a new platform for Learn, its learning management system. That new platform lacks many of the integration capabilities the current system has, including grading for discussion boards, integration with SafeAssign, and integration with university enrollment systems.

So adopting the new platform, called Ultra, may depend on how much schools are willing to give up in terms of integration to gain a system that looks and acts like the modern web. Adoption will become even trickier for schools as the company pursues a pricing strategy that resembles that of the automobile industry. A college or university pays one price for the basic Blackboard Learn platform, and then must decide on an array of add-ons that drive up expenses but that contain the most sought-after functions and tools.

For instance, a school has to pay extra for access to the new student app and for the updated instructor grading app. (I wrote on Tuesday that I couldn’t get those apps to work. That’s why.) Blackboard Collaborate requires an extra fee, as does the assessment tool and a host of other digital goodies.

So even as Blackboard promises many positive changes, it is still acting very much like the behemoth it is.

We interrupt this post to report on the teacher draft

That’s right. I said the teacher draft. The comedy team Key and Peele take an ESPN-like look at what the world of teaching might look like if it were elevated to the status of sports: the $80 million salaries, the No. 1 draft pick whose father “lived from paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player,” and the “teacher-of-the-year play” in the day’s highlights. If only.

Briefly …

A participant on the E-Learning Heroes discussion board set off a flurry of responses with this question: “Do learners really care about learning objectives?” Trina Rimmer offers a useful overview of the discussions that followed. … First-time smartphone users said their devices distracted from their learning even though they initially thought they would help, The Journal reports, citing a study from Rice University and the U.S. Air Force. … Personalized learning, which allows students to choose the direction and the pace of their learning, provides a critical means to engage at-risk students, Rebecca Wolfe tells The Hechinger Report. Wolfe is the director of the Students at the Center project, which is part of the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future.

By Doug Ward

I’ll be blunt: Blackboard Learn has all the visual appeal of a 1950s warehouse.

In terms of usability, it’s like trying to navigate an aircraft carrier when you really need a speedboat.

To Blackboard’s credit, it’s not that different from other learning management systems, which emphasize security and consistency from class to class as selling points. The company has been listening to user complaints, though, as upstarts like Canvas, Desire2Learn, and Moodle (in which Blackboard owns a stake) have chipped away at its dominant market share over the last few years.

screenshot from blackboard student app
Screenshots, above and below, of pages that Blackboard supplied of its new Bb Student app.

Last week at BbWorld, the company’s annual conference, officials said that Blackboard Learn would get a much-needed facelift. It also announced changes in its Collaborate service and in its mobile apps.

Jim Chalex, a senior director for product management, said the changes in Blackboard Learn would focus not just on visual appeal but on ease of use both on PCs and mobile devices. (You can watch a recording of the session, as I did, but you’ll need to register. It’s free.)

Chalex said the company wanted Blackboard Learn to look more like social media sites and other websites that students and faculty used regularly.

“Those are modern designs that are constantly unfolding and evolving and staying on the bleeding edge,” he said. “We want to be right there and to stay on that edge and to actually drive it, to innovate along with those. We think that leads to a more engaged learner.”

Within the next year, it plans to offer layered navigation (think of the site breaking into several vertical strips for you to choose from), the ability to drag and drop material from a computer’s desktop, easier access to analytics, and easier access to often-used tools. Keep in mind that access to those features will depend on each university’s adoption time.

In the future, it plans redesigned discussion boards and rubrics, better integration of audio and video, easier organization and use of groups, ability to create customized pages, improved integration of plagiarism detection, and better integration of material from outside publishers.

The company is calling these changes the “Blackboard Learn Ultra Experience.” (I’d call it “Blackboard: Beyond the Warehouse,” but no one asked me.)

The company has devoted a section of its website to the design changes it plans, along with the philosophy behind them. It also has a page to sign up to try the technical preview of the coming changes.

Blackboard Collaborate

Blackboard says it has overhauled Collaborate, the software for interacting with students remotely, in both the look and technical framework.

The changes, it said, will allow for easier creation of virtual office hours, student study groups, and webinars. It will also allow for high-definition video and an ability to record sessions and publish them in .mp4 format for download.screenshot from blackboard student app

Rather than opening stand-alone software, the new version of Collaborate “starts in the browser and stays in the browser,” said David Hastie, senior director for product management for Collaborate.

The new version of Collaborate is also responsive, meaning it will adapt easily to any type of device. It also adapts to the type of content being displayed and will allow for real-time closed captioning of live sessions. (This requires someone to listen and type the content.)

In future iterations, Collaborate plans better integration with Blackboard Learn, an ability to zoom in on content, revamped polling and breakout rooms, integration of teleconferencing, and an ability for instructors to load content in one session and have it remain for future sessions. Blackboard has also established a partnership with VoiceThread to allow for easier integration of that tool.

Mobile apps for Blackboard

In June, Blackboard announced the availability of a new mobile app called Bb Student.

Dan Loury, senior project manager for mobile, said at BbWorld that the student app was one of three apps that Blackboard was creating or updating. (The other two are for instructors and parents.)

The student app, available for iOS, Android or Windows Phone, creates a streamlined view of critical information for students, he said. This includes an “activity stream,” which is a bit like a to-do list of assignments and due dates, along with updates on comments and announcements. The app also provides an outline and timeline for all courses, access to the gradebook, and an ability to create assignments and take tests on mobile,

Blackboard says that future versions of the app will provide integration with Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive; an ability to activate push notifications; an ability to search within courses; and group collaboration with mobile devices, including virtual meetings with instructors or other students.

A faculty app, called Bb Grader, has been available on iOS for some time. The last time I tried it, it lacked the ability to do the tasks I needed it to do. That has been some time, though. I downloaded it again this week but have not been able to get it or the student app to connect. Mobile versions of Blackboard Learn are also available, but I’ve found them dreadful, at least from an instructor standpoint.

All of the changes that Blackboard announced last week sound good, and I look forward to seeing them in action.

When I talk with faculty members about Blackboard Learn, I hear two common refrains: Make it easier to use, and make it more visually appealing. So despite my harsh comments about Blackboard, I applaud the company’s willingness to listen to faculty members and students, and to start modernizing the system. I just wish the changes hadn’t taken so long.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The online training site Lynda.com announced this week that it was canceling its lyndaClassroom program.

The classroom program allowed instructors to choose up to five online tutorials for students in a designated class to use during a semester. Students then signed up through Lynda.com and paid $10 a month, or about $35 for a semester.

It was an excellent, cost-effective way to help students gain technology skills. The cost was less than most textbooks, making it a useful tool for instructors in many fields.

Lynda offers nearly 4,000 training modules in everything from web development and design tools to photo, video, and audio creation. It began mostly as a site for technology training, and that training is still its mainstay. It has expanded its offerings over the last few years to include areas like business strategy, marketing, teacher training, and even grammar.

Lynda didn’t say why it was ending the program, although the company was acquired by LinkedIn earlier this year. Changes are inevitable after any acquisition.

In a brief email announcement, the company said the classroom program would end on July 17 “in order to focus our efforts on building even better experiences for educators and students.”

That sort of vapid corporate-speak usually means that prices will increase.

I had planned on using Lynda’s classroom program for a class this fall. I emailed Lynda’s customer support on Wednesday in hopes of finding out more about the changes. A representative emailed me back on Thursday saying that the company had been inundated with similar requests and would get back as soon as possible.

I certainly don’t begrudge Lynda’s desire to revamp its approach. I just wish the company had done a better job of communicating the changes and, ideally, had provided more time for educators to find other options.

Briefly …

A third of students in a recent poll said that anxiety about finances led them to neglect schoolwork, Money reports. About the same percentage said they had cut back on their class load because of financial worries. … A growing number of students see textbook purchases as optional even when professors say the books are required, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The School of Engineering at KU will open several new active learning classrooms this fall.

I’ve been involved in planning some of the summer training sessions for the rooms, so I’ve had a chance to explore them and see how they will work.

I’ve written before about the ways that room design can transform learning. Well-designed rooms reduce or eliminate the anonymity of a lecture hall. They promote discussions and learning by creating a sense of community. They make collaboration and sharing easy, and they allow instructors to move among students rather than just stand at the front and talk at them.

The new engineering rooms provide all of that. The 360-degree panorama above shows the largest of the rooms, which will hold 160 students. (Use the controls on the image to move around the room, or just press the “Ctrl” key on your computer and use the cursor to move around.) The new building also has a 120-seat classroom, a 90-seat classroom, and three 60-seat classrooms. You’ll find images of two of the smaller rooms below.

All the classrooms contain a key factor in active learning: tables that allow students to work in groups and that effectively shrink the room size. The tables in all of the rooms have wired connections so that individual students can project to their group or classroom screens with laptops, tablets or smartphones. They also have miniature Elmo document cameras.

The smaller classrooms have monitors at the ends of the tables; the 160-seat classroom has large-screen monitors on the walls, one for each table. The lecterns in all the rooms have large Wacom touch-screen tablets that will allow faculty members to draw on the screen, and most of the wall space consists of whiteboards.

Even the common spaces in the new building provide opportunities for learning. For instance, the atrium (see below) provides a marvelous gathering space for individual study but also for conversations that often lead to informal learning.

The creation of these rooms is a huge step forward in active learning. Six other classrooms in two other buildings will also open this fall. They won’t be as fancy as these rooms, but they reflect the reality that learning is changing and that learning spaces need to change, too.

New engineering building (resized) (31)
Staff members in one of the new classrooms.

 

New engineering building atrium (resized) (13)
The atrium for the new building.

 

New engineering building (resized) (1)


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Most Americans still see a four-year degree as important, but it is not at the top of the list of things that will help someone achieve a successful career, a recent Heartland Monitor poll suggests.

In the poll, respondents ranked technology skills, an ability to work with diverse groups of people, keeping skills current, and having family connections above a four-year college degree.Graph showing poll responses about the importance of college from 1978 through 2015. The percentage of Americans describing a college education as “very important” peaked in 2010 before declining substantially. The decline looks much less dramatic, though, when the two “important” categories are combined.

They certainly didn’t dismiss a college education. More than half said a college degree was very important and 87 percent said it was either very or somewhat important. Those between age 18 and 29 ranked the importance of a degree slightly higher than those 30 and over (55 percent vs. 53 percent). Blacks and Hispanics looked at a degree more favorably than did whites.

The poll was sponsored by National Journal, Allstate and The Atlantic. In interpreting the results, the organizations said the responses about college were “a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life.”

Maybe. In context, though, it doesn’t look so startling.

I pieced together data from the Heartland poll and several polls conducted by Gallup for the scholarly organization Phi Delta Kappa. (Most of those are available through the database JStore.) Polls in 1978, 1983, 1985, 2010, 2013, and 2014 asked a question about the importance of college very similar to the one asked in the Heartland poll.

Most certainly, the percentage of Americans saying that a degree is very important has declined substantially since a peak of 75 percent in 2010. If the categories for “very important” and “somewhat” or “fairly” important are combined, though, the decline isn’t nearly so steep.

Those combined totals rose from 82 percent in 1978 to a peak of 96 percent in 2010 before declining to 87 percent in 2015.

In 2014, Gallup said the decline in the percentage of people who view a college degree as very important was surprising.

It is.

Most people still see a college degree as an important factor in achieving success on the job, yet they have also begun to look at other options, especially as a growing percentage of potential students delay their entrance to college for financial reasons.

Rather than stirring a panic for higher education, though, the polls add one more reason for colleges and universities to clean up their tarnished reputation.

The tech connection

Let’s dig a little deeper into the importance of technology skills.

In April, I wrote about a report from the Educational Testing Service that raised concerns about American millennials’ poor skills when compared with their counterparts around the world.

A report by a group of CEOs offers its own evaluation of that and other data, saying that 58 percent of millennials lack the basic skills they need to solve problems with technology. This is even as millennials use digital media for 35 hours a week, on average, the report said.

The CEO group, which is called Change the Equation, says that this lack of technological know-how will diminish millennials’ job prospects, if it already hasn’t. Most millennials don’t seem to understand how their lack of skills is hurting them, the report said, although only 37 percent of employers say young workers are prepared to stay current with new technologies.

“We must make a point of incorporating technology into how students learn to tackle problems. This does not mean that every young person needs to become a computer scientist, though more certainly should. Instead, students must learn to realize the full potential of technology as a critical aid to human productivity and invention,” the report said.

I don’t dispute the importance of technological savviness. I push my students to use technology for problem-solving, and I emphasize the importance of digital literacy.

Technology isn’t magic, though. Yes, students need technological skills, but that means using hardware and software to solve problems, answer questions, test ideas, communicate solutions, build communities, and stretch our potential.

That all starts with critical thinking, which should be the primary focus of all education. We must incorporate technology into that process. Technology is simply a means to an end, though.

Briefly …

JStor, the online archive, has started a teaching newsletter aimed at helping instructors integrate JStor material into lesson plans. … Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, warns universities against pursuing easy scapegoats in the quest to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment. In an article for The Guardian, she says “we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

True learning has little to do with memorization.

Benjamin Bloom explained that with enduring clarity 60-plus years ago. His six-tiered taxonomy places rote recall of facts at the bottom of a hierarchical order, with real learning taking place on higher tiers when students apply, analyze, synthesize, and create.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Deep learning, project-based learning and a host of other high-impact approaches have provided evidence to back up Bloom’s thinking. A study from the Programme for International Student Assessment adds even more evidence. It found that students who memorized mathematics material performed worse than those who approached math as critical thinking, Jo Boaler writes for The Hechinger Report.

Boaler, a professor at Stanford, says the United States has among the highest percentage of students who approach math as memorization. That’s not surprising, she says, because the teaching of math in the U.S. stresses memorization and speed of calculation for standardized tests. That not only narrows thinking, she says, but creates barriers to students who don’t learn well with memorization. Approaching math as problem solving, modeling, and reasoning expands thinking and expands math’s appeal to students.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math,” Boaler writes. “We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.”

That’s good advice for all disciplines.

Need a professor to respond? Try a sticky note. Really.Yellow sticky note with Professor, please take care of this. The sticky note survey says you will.

Experiments by Randy Garner of Sam Houston University found that professors are twice as likely to respond when a request is accompanied by a personal message on a sticky note, Harvard Business Review reports.

Writing for the Review, Kevin Hogan speculates on the reasons this approach works: It’s hard to ignore. It’s personal. And it creates a bit of neon clutter that the brain wants taken care of.

I’ve always considered duct tape a magic solution to most problems. Looks as if I’ll have to expand my toolkit.

Looking at K-12 as the key to raising college graduate rates

Michael J. Petrilli makes a good case that college graduation rates aren’t likely to improve significantly until students come to college better prepared.

Writing for the Thomas B. Forham Institute, he cites statistics showing that the percentage of “college prepared” students (35 percent in 2005) nearly matched the graduation rate of those students eight years later. He says that indicates that most students who are well-prepared for college eventually graduate.

“But until we start making significant progress at the K12 level — and get many more students to the college-ready level before they land on campus — our dreams for significantly boosting the college completion numbers seem certain to be dashed,” Petrilli writes.

Briefly …

The percentage of students needing remedial math courses at Colorado colleges and universities has declined for three years in a row, Education News reports. Among students who started college in 2013, 34.2 percent needed remedial math, down from 40 percent in 2011. (Rates in other states vary widely.)  … Eduardo Porter of The New York Times asks whether the federal government shouldn’t get a share of profits from federally financed research ventures in academia. He cites Tesla, Google, GPS, and touch-screen technology as examples of projects that emerged from taxpayer-supported research. … Google has made recordings of its Education on Air event available for viewing. One caveat: All the sessions have separate links but are part of a single video file of more than five hours. That makes skipping among the sessions a challenge.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Higher education has an image problem. And a trust problem.

That should come as no surprise, given the drubbing that public colleges and universities have taken from state legislatures over the past few years. They have also taken criticism from federal policy makers – along with parents and students – about costs and transparency.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

The latest sign of flagging trust comes from a national poll from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute in Pittsburgh.

More than half of parents polled said colleges and universities weren’t staying current with the demands of the job market or maintaining strong relationships with employers. Jerry Lindsley, president of the Center for Research and Public Policy at Robert Morris, put that into some disturbing context. In a press release from the university, he said:

“Our corporate clients strive to attain overall satisfaction ratings in the high 80s. Even health insurance companies and most utilities receive positive ratings in the high 80s.”

Ouch!

Adding to the sting, the poll found that the number of Americans who rate the value of a bachelor’s degree in positive terms had dropped more than 23 points in the last 10 years, to 44.6 percent.

Not surprisingly, given the rising cost of college, Americans increasingly see a college degree in purely economic terms. An overwhelming 82 percent of those in the Robert Morris poll said job training and preparation at colleges and universities were more important than academic work.

Interestingly, students in the United Kingdom say much the same thing. In a recent poll there, students said that professional experience and training in teaching were more important in instructors than being an active researcher, The Guardian reports. Students who study more, have more contact hours with instructors, and take classes with 50 or fewer students are more satisfied with their education than other students are, the poll said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, points out the danger of a narrow, consumerist view of education. College isn’t a commodity, he argues in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. Rather, it’s an awakening. “It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”

You can’t just buy an education, walk off with it and plug it in. Students’ success depends in large part on the work they are willing to put into that education.

“The ultimate value of college,” Rawlings writes, “is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge.”

He’s right. I’ve made that case myself. And yet those of us in higher education face an enormous challenge in making that case to students, parents and legislators who increasingly see education as a means to a very specific end, not as a process of mental development.

We have our work cut out for us.

Sage advice about non-traditional students

Jeff Fanter, vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing management at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, offered this excellent insight during an interview with The Evolllution:

“I firmly believe many non-traditional students come into the door of higher education with one foot outside the door at all times. If you give them a reason to take their other foot back outside the door and walk away they will.”

Briefly …

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, will explore the influence digital text formatting has on reading abilities in middle school students, The Journal reports. … Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Reich argues that the United States needs to reinvent its entire education system. … Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will receive their full appropriation from the state legislature only if they meet several guidelines, including increasing graduation rates and job placement, Minnesota Public Radio reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers excellent advice about what she calls “the teaching trap.”

By that, she means putting so much of yourself into your teaching that you have no time or energy for research, writing or life outside the office. She writes:Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

“If you find yourself coming to campus early and staying late, if you’re spending every weekend grading and preparing for the next week’s classes, if you’re answering student’s text messages into the wee hours of the night, if you’re sacrificing sleep and/or pulling all-nighters in order to get ready for the next day’s class meeting, and – as a result – you haven’t spent any time moving your research agenda forward or investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the teaching trap.”

She provides several reasons this can happen but also offers ways of balancing academic life. Those include setting aside writing time every day, consulting with colleagues about how they handle their workloads, avoiding Ratemyprofessor.com (a perfectionist tendency), and seeking advice from your school’s teaching center.

I’ll add my own plug for her last suggestion. CTE offers many programs, workshops, discussions and publications to help faculty members improve their teaching (which includes finding a healthy balance). We also visit classes and consult with individual faculty members and departments about specific problems.

Teaching can sometimes feel like an all-encompassing, individual profession. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, all teachers are part of a broader community. Recognizing that and then joining the community helps make us all better.


Table showing bachelor's degree outcomes by region, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey
From First Destinations for the College Class of 2014, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers: https://www.naceweb.org/surveys/first-destination.aspx?mainindex-banner-first-dest-hom-06042015

Region makes a difference for recent grads

More than 65 percent of 2004 graduates from the Plains states and New England found full-time jobs within six months of leaving college, a new survey says.

Those percentages (Plains, 67.4 percent; New England, 66.1 percent) were the highest among all regions. Overall, 52.5 percent of 2004 graduates reported finding full-time jobs within six months of graduating.

More than 90 percent of students from colleges in those areas, along with those in the Great Lakes states, reported a positive “career outcome,” meaning they had found a job or were continuing their education six months after graduating, the survey said. That is far higher than other regions of the United States. Colleges from the Southeast reported the lowest percentage (67); the national average was 80 percent.

The survey found little difference among institutions in urban, suburban or rural areas. (It also broke down job status based on area of study, but that is too detailed to go into here.)

Graduates from private, nonprofit colleges and universities (58.5 percent) were far more likely to have found jobs than their counterparts in public institutions (48 percent), the survey said, and those with professional degrees were slightly more likely than those with liberal arts degrees to have found full-time jobs (58.7 percent vs. 53.8 percent). The survey’s authors say this is partly the result of student expectations: Those with professional degrees tend to focus on getting jobs; those with liberal arts degrees often go to graduate school.

What are we to make of the data? The report doesn’t really say, except to point out that more than 20 percent of graduates were “adrift” six months after they left college. I found the regional data especially interesting. I have ideas about that, but I won’t speculate without seeing further data.

The survey, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, contains data from more than 200 colleges and universities. Its creators say it is the first such survey to use a common methodology among all participants, and they told Inside Higher Ed that they hope it will create a baseline for future surveys of graduates.

Briefly …

In an article for Faculty Focus, Berlin Fang warns against becoming a “helicopter professor,” saying it is important to let students struggle with concepts and find answers on their own. … Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College, writes for Slate on what she calls Gov. Scott Walker’s new Wisconsin Experiment, putting it into the context of “eighty years of maligning universities as hotbeds of socialism in an attempt to undercut workers’ influence in government.” … Jill Barshay of the Hechinger Report says that student debt falls most heavily on three types of students: graduate students, students at for-profit colleges, and dropouts.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

No one disputes that college tuition has risen substantially over the past 20 years.

Ask why, though, and you’ll get vastly different answers.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado, dismisses the idea that declining state subsidies have led to rising tuition. Instead, he writes, “the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.”

That partly depends on when you start measuring.

chart showing college costs from the 1960s to 2010s
Vox provides this chart as part of a larger package on college costs.

Adjusted for inflation, funding for higher education is 10 times higher than it was in the 1960s, Campos says. Some of that increase has been driven by a larger percentage of Americans going to college, he says, although tuition has risen even faster than legislative financing. He attributes much of the rise to the “constant expansion of university administration.”

Campos says an argument can be made for the increases in spending and the growth in administration, except for the skyrocketing salaries of top administrators. Ultimately, though, he argues, tuition increases aren’t tied to state cuts.

Tom Lindsay of Forbes cheers Campos’s argument, adding his own figures to back up those Campos provides. Lindsay says his own research about Texas shows “that a mild decrease in state funding … has been accompanied by a wild increase in university tuitions and fees.”

On the other side of the spending argument is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on how government policies affect low-income Americans. Its latest report shows that state spending on higher education has dropped more than 20 percent since 2007-08, with some states cutting more than 35 percent. Tuition has increased 29 percent during that time.

Some states have increased funding to higher education by an average of 3.9 percent over the past year, the center said, but 13 states have continued to cut.

So who’s right? All of the above, at least to an extent.

There’s no dispute that financing for public colleges and universities has risen considerably since the 1960s. Nor is there any dispute that education at all levels has taken substantial cuts in state financing since the 2008 recession.

Have tuition increases since 2008 been tied, at least in part, to declining state support? Of course they have. Do those state cuts fully explain the tuition increases? Definitely not. What about the longer term? That’s where Campos and Lindsay have a strong argument. Tuition rates grew enormously even as public spending on higher education rose from the 1960s to 2008.

Whatever your take on rising tuition and state cuts, those issues need to be framed in terms of bigger questions:

  • What type of public higher education system do we want?
  • How much are states and potential students willing to pay for the education those institutions deliver?
  • And how can we keep public education from becoming an elite-only opportunity? That is, how do we keep it truly public?

Those are the harder questions we have yet to answer satisfactorily.

That other big college expense

Discussions about rising tuition rates often overlook an even bigger expense for many families: room and board.

According to NPR, those costs are rising even faster than tuition rates.

It cites statistics from the College Board, saying that the cost of room and board at public universities has risen by more than 20 percent since 2009.

Among the drivers of cost, according to NPR: aging dorms that need to be replaced; student demand for gourmet menus and luxury rooms, along with universities trying to keep pace with one another in this area; use of higher-priced local food; and extended hours for dining halls.

It also points to another cause: As colleges and universities have been pressed to keep tuition increases down, some have pushed up the cost of student housing to help fill budget gaps.

Briefly …

U.S. college enrollment fell by about 200,000 between 2012-13 and 2013-14, The Hechinger Report says, and the proportion of students who moved immediately from high school to college dropped four percentage points between 2009 and 2013. More students are also enrolling part time, Hechinger says, and a slightly higher percentage of students are staying after their freshman year. … Penn State researchers will use Apple watches to interact with students in class, send notifications outside of class, and promote reflection on learning, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Award winners, Student Learning Symposium, by Lu Wang
Chris Brown and Bob Hagen accepted the university degree-level assessment award for work that they and others have done in the environmental studies program. Chris Fischer, right, accepted the Chris Haufler Core Innovation Award on behalf of the physics department. Joining them at the Student Learning Symposium on Saturday were Provost Jeff Vitter, left, and Haufler, second from right. (Photo by Lu Wang)

By Doug Ward

Chris Brown sees assessment as a way to build community.

It brings together faculty members for much-needed discussions about learning. It helps departments explain to colleagues, administrators, and accreditors the value of a degree. And it helps create a better learning environment for students as courses undergo constant evaluation and revision.

“Assessment is not a box to check off on a thing that says you’re done and now you can stop thinking about it,” said Brown, director of the environmental studies program at KU. “It’s about people who are engaged in an ongoing process of learning themselves about how to do their jobs better.”

Brown’s program received the university’s degree-level assessment award at Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium in Lawrence. He was joined by two colleagues, Bob Hagen and Paul Stock, in accepting the award, which comes with $5,000 the program can use in advancing teaching and assessment.

Brown said everyone at KU was “basically taking crash courses” in assessment, which he describes as a series of questions about student learning:

  • How do you document?
  • What do you document?
  • How do you decide what’s valuable to document and what’s not valuable to document?
  • What changes do you need to make based on the evidence you’ve gathered?

Moving from informal to formal

Instructors in all departments have been engaging in informal assessment for years, Brown said.

“It’s every time we talk to each other about one way we think we could have done things better for a particular course, or all the times we’ve looked at our curriculum and decided to make changes,” he said. “The degree-level assessment we’ve been doing has taken that to a formal level.”

Faculty members in environmental studies began focusing on that formal assessment process a few years ago when the program did a self-study as part of an external review, Brown said. That forced them to take a hard look at what students were learning and why they thought the degree was valuable.

“We’re an interdisciplinary major,” Brown said. “Our foundational course should cover all the divisions of the college – the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities – as it relates to environmental studies. So there were a bunch of different moments that came together and really piqued people’s interest across our faculty and really say, ‘What do we want with this degree?’”

As it created a formal assessment process, environmental studies looked first at core writing skills, largely because instructors weren’t happy with the final projects students were turning in for upper-level courses. It was clear students were struggling with collecting evidence, structuring arguments, and making those arguments clear in their written work, he said. So faculty members broke larger assignments into smaller segments and gave more feedback to students along the way as they moved toward their final projects. Doing so has led to a dramatic improvement in those projects.

It has also led to opportunities for instructors to share their successes and struggles in classes. They also freely share class material with colleagues. Brown says that openness allowed him to teach an environmental ethics course for the first time with meaningful and successful results.

“I could not have done that if I weren’t in conversations with colleagues,” Brown said. “That’s what this comes down to.”

Brown makes assessment sound easy.

“Once the formal process began, it really helped solidify that we do need to get together at specific faculty meetings as a whole group,” he said.  “When I call those faculty meetings, I don’t have to pull teeth. Everybody comes. It’s not difficult. Perhaps it’s the nature of the major. People seek out contact across these various fields because it’s an interesting and rewarding conversation. Assessment has given us one more reason to come together and talk about what we value.”

Finding colleagues to help

He urges others interested in moving assessment forward to seek out like-minded colleagues, those with whom you are already having discussions about teaching.

“It really doesn’t have to start with any greater number of people than two,” Brown said. “Start there if that’s all you have.”

Talk about goals for students and goals for your major. Determine how you know students and the major are meeting those goals. Then think about how you can gather meaningful information and use that information in ways that lead to greater success. Then carry that conversation forward with other colleagues, including those in other departments. Draw on the many workshops and discussions at CTE.

“That’s hundreds of colleagues from various fields who are eager to talk with you about what you do and to help you and others see that what we’re doing with teaching and learning is intellectual work,” Brown said.

Again, assessment loops back to the idea of building community.


The lighter side of assessment

A short film that helped lead off Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium showed that assessment isn’t always serious business.

By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Faculty often see the benefits of online education for students but not for themselves, Karen H. Sibley and Ren Whitaker write in Educause.

Development of online courses takes precious time away from other activities that generate greater rewards for faculty. The way to change that, Sibley and Whitaker argue, is to offer incentives to move into online education. They give these examples:

  • Providing compensation as salary, research funds, or time (e.g., a course buy-out)
  • Appealing to a sense of curiosity and a desire to develop new skills for those attracted to experimental work or invigorated by the chance to reimagine their courses
  • Delivering training and support to lower the barriers and to decrease the time and effort needed to develop or adapt new instructional approaches
  • Activating a sense of mission and loyalty to their students and the institution
  • Increasing a sense of relevance for those who want to remain current in the rapidly changing environment of higher education
  • Recognizing effective engagement in online learning in the institutional reward systems

    Outside of Spooner Hall at KU, with "wisdom" in brick
    Spooner Hall, University of Kansas (Photo by Doug Ward)

Online education is really just one example of a much larger problem in the way higher education values (or doesn’t value) innovative and reflective teaching and learning. Sibley and Whitaker offer good steps to promote change. Ultimately, though, two enormous cultural barriers stand in the way.

First, attitudes about the value of teaching must change. Many faculty members see teaching as a crucial part of their role and their identity, and most understand its importance at colleges and universities. Too often, though, teaching is seen as a bother, as something that gets in the way of far more important and more highly rewarded pursuits (research). High-quality teaching doesn’t magically appear with a Ph.D. Nor will it thrive until a critical mass of administrators and faculty members value it enough to create a truly meaningful rewards system.

Second, higher education is an inherently conservative profession, at least in terms of techniques. Professions promote conformity by passing on values, ideals, methods, and expectations to new generations, as Leonard Cassuto writes this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most instructors teach the way they were taught, and those with the Ph.D. learned in environments where teaching was generally an afterthought.

So to Sibley and Whitaker’s list, let me add these ideas for generating more interest in online courses:

  • Add instruction in course development and online instruction to graduate programs
  • Hire faculty members based not only on their research skills but on their ability and willingness to teach in innovative ways and to reflect on their work with students
  • Reward new faculty who are willing to develop their classes with active learning and take on development of online courses
  • Change the promotion and tenure standards to reflect the time and effort that innovative, reflective teaching deserves

In a recent issue of Change Magazine, Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate and a professor of education at Stanford, writes that faculty will indeed shift their attitudes and behaviors with the right incentive systems.

So if we want innovative teaching, we need to reward innovative teaching, just as we reward innovative research. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Briefly …

The Atlantic reports that proposed changes in 529 plans, the college savings accounts, would allow students to pay for such things as computers, software, and Internet access. … Poor technical production can inhibit good pedagogy in online courses, eCampus News says in one of its takeaways from the recent South by Southwest conference. NPR offered another list of education-related discussions from the conference, including the important role that online discussions are taking in teacher development. … Politico casts a skeptical eye on U.S. universities, saying that few have done anything to prepare for students who have completed the Common Core curriculum in high school.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

In a review essay for the Washington Post, Janet Napolitano takes on the idea that higher education is in crisis.

She brushes aside criticisms from Ryan Craig (College Disrupted) and Kevin Carey (The End of College) and says that instead of falling apart, colleges and universities are going through “an intense period of evolution driven by advances in technology and better understanding of cognitive learning.”

Higher education, she says, “is in motion, and it always has been.”

Doll head behind glass
West Bottoms, Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Doug Ward)

After brushing aside the idea of crisis, Napolitano nonetheless suggests that a crisis may be at hand. Universities are highly complex organizations that face many challenges, most notably the decade-long series of cuts from state legislatures, she says. They have also been asked to take on new roles in areas like prevention of sexual assault and a growing need for mental health services for students. Technology and online education also create challenges.

Napolitano, president of the University of California, raises some excellent questions about the future of higher education: What is the role of online learning? How do we help students become critical thinkers? How do we help them adapt to a changing job landscape?

Those are difficult but certainly not impossible questions. They require honest discussion about increasing the generally weak emphasis on high-quality, innovative teaching, and creating a genuine reward system for instructors who embrace reflective teaching.

Napolitano doesn’t address those crucial areas, but one of her comments could serve as a rallying cry:

“Universities are not factories; students are not widgets,” she writes.

Pushing the boundaries of higher education

A British university leader made a bold prediction earlier this month.

Depending on your perspective, though, perhaps it’s not so bold.

The university leader, Tim Blackman, the acting vice chancellor of the Open University in the U.K., told The Korea Herald: “We are seeing the end of 100 percent face-to-face teaching. In 10 years’ time, it won’t exist.”

Blackman is a proponent of flipped and hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face components. The Open University also relies on its extensive array of online courses, YouTube videos, iTunesU materials, open course materials and open research materials to reach students internationally.

Beyond the widespread adoption of online course components and open resources, Open University has made changes that no doubt make many traditionalists wince: courses that last only 15 to 20 minutes to match students’ attention span, badges for demonstrating mastery of subjects, and growing adoption of mobile technology to reach students.

That’s not surprising given that the cornerstone philosophies of the university are pedagogical innovation and flexible learning for part-time, mostly adult students.

Blackman also calls lectures a “crazy” way to try to educate students, saying, “I don’t understand why universities are still building lecture halls.”

I don’t either, not if we are truly interested in helping students learn.

Then again, I do. It’s about efficiency, not learning. The Open University runs a deficit of millions of pounds a year, financed by the British government. That makes its model easy to dismiss as unsustainable. Doing so would be a mistake, though. It is forging ahead with the kinds of experiments that all universities need to embrace if they hope to keep up with changing students and a changing world.

Few can afford to run deficits, but we all need to innovate.

A ‘wayfinder’ approach to education

Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy urges instructors to think of learning beyond the narrow bounds of a classroom, a syllabus and a reading list.

“The core demand of 21st-century education is that students learn to navigate an incredibly complex global society,” Hudson writes in an article for Hybrid Pedagogy.

Silhouette of trees against blue sky and puffy clouds
(Photo by Doug Ward)

To do that, he urges instructors to become “wayfinders,” a term he borrows from the invisible cues that architects build into airports to help travelers find their way.

“As teachers, we are no longer needed as the source of all content and knowledge in the classroom, but we are more necessary than ever when it comes to designing experiences that allow our students to find their own way,” he writes.

That means finding ways to “encourage collaboration and connection,” including use of technology to empower students to find, filter and produce information; creation of personal learning networks; use of experiential learning; and the ability to learn from one another.

None of those ideas are new, but Hudson provides a good reminder of the direction that educators need to head.

Briefly …

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released an interactive map showing how cuts to public universities have led to substantial increases in tuition. … Inside Higher Ed reports on the latest hybrid learning evaluation from the research firm S+R, saying that students are learning as well in hybrid courses as they are in traditional in-person courses. … The budget committee of the Kansas Senate approved a bill that would require all public colleges and universities to publish the cost of degrees and the expected earnings of graduates, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports. The bill provides no means for covering the millions of dollars in data collection costs.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Jen Roberts geology class
Jennifer Roberts walks through the lecture hall during her geology class, above and bottom, working with students on collaborative problem-solving. Several teaching assistants also help in the classroom.

By Doug Ward

Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.

The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.Teaching matters box2, spring 2015

Problem was, exam scores were dropping, she said, and as she interacted with students, she found that they had less understanding of the material than students had had just two or three years before.

So Roberts set out to transform the class, which is now called The Way the Earth Works, into an active learning format, with in-class group work, student presentations, clicker questions aimed at prompting discussions, and lots of interactions with students. With the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, she began moving away from what Bitting calls the “fire-hose approach” to teaching and concentrating on helping students learn core skills through hands-on activities.

Research has long cast doubt on the use of lecture in education. Donald Bligh, in his book What’s the Use of Lecture?, provides some of the most compelling evidence, reviewing more than 200 college-level courses in several disciplines. The biggest benefit of lecture is that it is an efficient means of reaching a large number of students in a single setting. Bligh argues that lectures can be useful in conveying information but that they do little to promote thought or problem-solving abilities, or to change behavior. Rather, they reinforce ideas, values, and habits that students have already accepted.

Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.
Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.

Despite the evidence about lecture’s weaknesses, two-thirds to three-quarters of faculty members continue to rely it, according to research summarized by Derek Bok of Harvard in his book Our Underachieving Colleges. As Bok argues, though, facts, theories, and concepts delivered in lecture have little value unless students can apply them to new situations, ask pertinent questions, make reasoned judgments, and arrive at meaningful conclusions.

Bitting urges instructors to think about it this way: “You may have a lecture that works to get students to take a multiple choice test really effectively,” she said. “But when you have a conversation with that student after your semester, they may not actually remember anything. Or they may not know how to make sense of it outside of the context of the little paragraph in the textbook where they read it the first time.”

Transforming a class, especially a large lecture class, isn’t easy. Roberts has essentially applied the scientific method to her teaching of Geology 101, experimenting with a variety of techniques. Some have failed; others have succeeded. “There has been a lot struggle but also self-reflection on my process and then on the learning process in general,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class
Roberts often sketches during class, having students create their own drawings, below right, and fill in areas that Roberts asks about.

Roberts said her experience with active learning in a large class had forced her to step away from the class material and recognize that students “are not me.”

“They don’t learn like I do,” she said. “And that’s OK. But my job is to have them learn, so I need to think about what’s the best to have everybody do the best they can and to learn.”Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (49) - Copy

The adjustments in an active learning class can be difficult for students, as well. As Catherine Sloan writes in Change magazine, millennials “have a deep fear of failure,” so getting them to take intellectual risks takes patience. Nor do they deal well with ambiguity. They like clear, firm solutions to academic problems, and pushing them to think beyond a single “right answer” also takes work from instructors.

Tradition has also made changing the format of classes more challenging. Students have grown accustomed to sitting passively in lectures, reviewing instructors’ notes or slides posted online, attending study sessions (again, passively), cramming for exams, and moving on. Many resent having to take an active role in class – isn’t that the professor’s job? – and in their learning in general.

Even so, many students find the expectations of their professors lower than they had anticipated. Sloan writes that “the most common complaint we hear from students is not that their professors are too demanding but that they don’t hold firmly to deadlines and expectations.”

Bitting also urges instructors to look more broadly at student learning.

“Even if your lecture is working really well for getting your students to take a multiple choice test, if they’re not excited about it and they don’t care about it when they leave, maybe you’re not doing the job you want to do,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (30)


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

In a discussion among faculty earlier this week, a conversation about online education quickly turned skeptical.

We were exploring the model of the Minerva Schools, which uses a combination of online and experiential learning with a small group of students. It aims to reduce the cost of college by using technology, rather than physical classrooms, and to create cohorts of students who live in and explore different international locations each year. Minerva’s first class of students started last fall.

One faculty member in our discussion at CTE said that her most memorable undergraduate experiences took place in hands-on labs or in field experiments where students explored the many facets of the natural universe. How is it possible to replicate that experience online? she asked.

smiley face drawn on snow-covered university seal outside Budig Hall at University of Kansas
Photo by Doug Ward

Another faculty member talked about the difficulty of having deep discussions online. Yes, students and instructors can share thoughts and debate gray areas on a virtual discussion board, but those discussions lack spontaneity. Even live discussions with webcams don’t provide the same interactions or visual cues as in-person discussions. They also lack the same verve of classroom interaction, he said.

Those doubts are understandable. They are also widely shared.

A report released earlier this month by Babson Survey Research Group and the Online Learning Consortium showed a tempering of enthusiasm for online undergraduate courses. Growth in online courses has slowed considerably from a few years ago, though it is still at 3.8 percent annually. The authors of the report write:

“While the number of students taking distance courses has grown by the millions over the past decade, it has not come without considerable concerns. Faculty acceptance has lagged, concerns about student retention linger, and leaders continue to worry that online courses require more faculty effort than face-to-face instruction.”

Babson’s survey of chief academic offers found that faculty acceptance of the “value and legitimacy of online education” declined over the last two years to 28 percent, nearly the same percentage as in 2003.

The report provides a central reason that faculty members have doubts about online courses: There is “no agreed upon measure of educational quality – either for face-to-face or for online education.”

We have no common, definitive way of comparing, so we go with our gut, and our gut tells us that in-person learning is better than online learning.

I understand faculty concerns about online courses. At the same time, I see great value in those courses and see a need to continue expanding them. I’ve been leading development of a mostly online master’s degree in Digital Content Strategy that will start this year. Online courses for undergraduates provide an important means for students to keep on track toward graduation, especially during the summer and intersession. We can also use online courses to reach out to students who stopped their education at some point, giving them the opportunity to complete their college education.

One reason online education raises such doubts at traditional universities, though, is that those universities fail to explain its role in undergraduate education. At one point, administrators pushed online courses because they saw them as a way to save faculty time and universities money. (They don’t, if done right.) Or they pursued them because everyone else was, and they didn’t want to get left behind.

Beyond that, though, they haven’t addressed some crucial questions: Are universities developing online courses for student convenience? For faculty convenience? Are they intended to help improve graduation rates? To provide new ways of learning? And if they expand their online offerings, how do those courses fit with on-campus instruction? Most important, are students learning what they need to learn in whatever format courses take?

Those are just a few of the challenging questions we have to consider. Those questions loom especially large at universities that have invested millions of dollars in a physical infrastructure, that have specialized in personal interaction and hands-on learning opportunities, and that have sold students on the idea of an on-campus “experience.”

Until faculty members see a strategy to online course development, until they buy in to the why behind online course offerings, and until they alleviate valid concerns about online courses’ ability to deliver deep, meaningful learning, they will continue to express skepticism. And rightfully so.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unlikelihood of competition and cultural forces pushing higher education to “unbundle” its degrees and services.

Jeff Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education provides yet another take on that notion. Young says that providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have pledged to democratize education, allowing anyone to become an educator and a learner. He describes platforms like Udemy, edX and MOOC.org collectively as the “sharing economy meets education.”

In one example, a 25-year-old entrepreneur with no teaching experience has made tens of thousands of dollars through his app-building course on Udemy. An Iowa State professor makes $2,500 a month from a collection of online courses he calls the Critical Thinker Academy, and aspires to work on that full time.

abstract image of ceiling of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
Doug Ward

As Young explains, there’s a growing audience for learning among motivated people who have degrees (or not) and want to keep learning but don’t want to pursue another degree. These people aren’t afraid to step outside the traditional realm of education.

“The bigger, more immediate threat to colleges is indirect,” Young writes. “These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth.”

There are no surprises here. This is just part of a much longer conversation on the role and value of MOOCs and the future of higher education. It is yet another sign of the need for colleges and universities to change, though, and another reminder of the opportunities for those institutions that can effect that change.

More unconventional learning

While we’re on the topic of unconventional approaches to learning, I’d recommend reading Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic article “What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show.”

Lahey profiles Michael Stevens, host of a high-energy YouTube education channel called Vsauce. Stevens takes on such quirky topics as “Is Cereal Soup?” and “What If the Earth Stopped Spinning?” and (shudder) “What Does Human Taste Like?” She writes:

Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning.
Stevens’s ability to connect with audiences – his 10-minute videos get millions of views each – goes beyond great titles, pun-filled presentations and sharp visuals, though. Lahey writes:

You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what those of us in higher education need to take away from the popularity of Vsauce, Udemy and other unconventional forms of education: We have to make information matter. We have to make learning matter. We have to make education matter. We have to help students see the connections among the topics we teach, and among the topics our colleagues teach.

That ability to connect – with students and among topics – is a central component of the future of education.

Generate! Blah-blah-blah. Repeat! Blah-blah-blah.

In a post last month, I wrote about Audrey Watters’s list of vapid academic jargon and her prediction that the blah-blah-blah would continue unabated in 2015.

Since then, I’ve run across a wonderful tool called the Jargon Generator, which was created by Andy Allan, a high school teacher in California who maintains a site called ScienceGeek.net.

Allan says he was inspired to create the Jargon Generator after reading new guidelines for AP Chemistry. The generator was modeled on a similar tool on Dack.com.

The Jargon Generator is a must-see amusement for anyone who has slogged through a poorly edited academic journal, suffered through a grant application, endured an administrative meeting or survived a speech by an educational consultant. Just push the “Generate jargon!” button and see such amazing empty phrases as these:

  • We will visualize school-based pedagogy across content areas.
  • We will aggregate shared differentiated lessons within professional learning communities.
  • We will cultivate shared concept maps across cognitive and affective domains.

For even more fun, try an active learning experiment and string together some of the sentences on your own:

We will discern bottom-up paradoxes with a laser-like focus, ultimately integrating synergistic technologies within the new paradigm. We fully expect that to agendize college and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities and operationalize diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

My only complaint with the Jargon Generator is that all the sentences it creates are in active voice. True jargon is dipped from a cesspool of passive:

Bottom-up paradoxes will be discerned with a laser-like focus, and the new paradigm will ultimately be integrated with synergistic technologies. College and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities are expected to be fully agendized upon the operationalization by diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

If that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, you’ve no doubt been reading too much of the Journal of Cooperative Paradigm Processes for 21st-Century Learners. You have my sympathy.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Will students one day piece together their own degrees by assembling courses a la carte from a variety of colleges and universities?

Derek Newton of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, says no. Writing in The Atlantic, Newton argues that technology won’t force the “unbundling” of degrees and programs in higher education the way it has the music industry and cable TV.

The American Enterprise Institute, among others, contends that technology indeed will force higher education to change its existing model of “bundled services” like degrees, dorms, food services, recreation centers and the whole idea of a “college experience.” Rising costs already force most families to choose colleges based on price, making institutions vulnerable to outside competitors that can find ways of reducing costs while still providing the desired services, according to this reasoning.

The music industry and cable television have long relied on a bundling model. Songs are bundled into albums, which can be sold at higher prices; programs are bundled into expensive cable packages. Apple, among others, forced music companies to allow consumers to buy individual songs, and services like Hulu have given viewers control over when and how they watch TV programs and movies.

block windows with abstract patterns in reflection
Doug Ward

Newton agrees that higher education has not kept up with technology. He says, though, that a widespread breakup of higher education’s courses and services simply won’t happen. That’s because students and parents look at higher education in an entirely different way than they look at media, he says. “They shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

Newton offers a good counterargument to the idea of unbundling. What he overlooks, though, is that once students begin their education, they do indeed shop for professors. Word of mouth and sites like Rate My Professor point students toward some classes and instructors and away from others. Similarly, many students take online classes at other colleges and universities to save money or to avoid in-person classes they see as onerous. (University administrators refer to this as “leakage.”)

Students make choices about higher education based on the reputation of individual programs within a university, as well as a university’s overall reputation. They haven’t shown interest in abandoning college or university identity for a generic major, though, as in patching together a degree on their own from dozens of individual classes at dozens of universities.

Colleges and universities are indeed vulnerable, though, if they don’t prove their worth to students and parents. That must start by putting a greater emphasis on student learning and helping students see the value of courses, programs and degrees, and then move more quickly into a variety of areas:

  • Course options that break away from the three-hour, in-your-seat lecture.
  • An emphasis on critical thinking and adaptation of ideas instead of memorized facts.
  • Clear explanations about why individual courses and topics matter and how they fit into a degree.
  • Incentives for and recognition of innovative teaching.
  • Approaches in which universities unbundle – yes, unbundle – their own degrees and then rebundle them into smaller packages like certificates that recognize achievements in learning but that don’t require dozens or hundreds of hours of course time.

That’s just a start. Newton is right that a great unbundling is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Critics are right, too, in that universities must change – soon.

Steps in the right direction

Diana Stepner of the education services company Pearson has declared 2015 “the year of the learner,” arguing that “the future of education will be created by learners themselves.”

That’s great news if we can help make it happen. Writing in Wired magazine, Stepner describes a world in which engaged students take an active role in their learning, help shape educational programs, and delve into learning with gusto.

I’m not buying into the “year of the learner” hype, but Stepner makes good points about the future of education. I see no signs that we are on the cusp of a dramatic, immediate change, but education is – and must continue – taking incremental steps to make education more learner-centered. (See above.)

Briefly …

An analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education finds that enrollment of international students has soared at public colleges and universities in the U.S. but that those students are not taking spots that would have gone to in-state students. …. Writing in Educause, Holly E. Morris and Greg Warman offer ideas on how higher education might use design thinking. … Writing in Good magazine, Rosie Spinks says that “libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books.”


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The note cards I handed out to students in my hybrid class last week drew astonished looks.

Each contained a hand-written list of three things: events, people, animals, objects, locations, movies, songs, television shows. All were random, created one evening in a stream of consciousness. For instance:notecards showing groupings of items for the class exercise

“Eye of the Tiger”

Eye of a needle

Arctic Ocean

and

Fire alarms

Fairy tales

Calvin Klein

“Here’s the fun part,” I told students. “Find a connection among the three things.”

That’s where the astonishment came in.

The main goal of the exercise was to help students synthesize, to open their eyes to connections they might not otherwise see and to creative solutions they might not otherwise consider. They worked in pairs, and once they got beyond the initial “I can’t do this” shock, they generally came up with excellent answers.

After the exercise, one student asked a question that surprised me, even though it shouldn’t have.

“What’s the right answer?” she asked.

After wincing, I said there was no right answer to any of the postcard triads. Then I recited one of my educational mantras to all the students:

“There are no right answers in this class,” I said. “There are better answers. But there are no right answers.”

That’s a hard concept to grasp for students who focus far too much on a grade and a diploma rather than on learning. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable, and many have been taught that there are indeed right answers in their classes.

In some disciplines there are, of course, though even in those the understanding of the process is more important than any single answer.

I teach a class called Infomania, which is intended to help students become better researchers and to help them learn to solve problems with information and digital tools. I also try to help students work their way through ambiguity. Pushing them to find a link between fire alarms, fairy tales and Calvin Klein is part of that. So is working in groups, developing individual and group projects, and other approaches that emphasize active learning.

I thought about sharing some of the students’ creative responses to my nonsensical challenge but decided that wouldn’t be fair. You, dear reader, must work through that ambiguity on your own.

Remember, there are no right answers.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Teachers and administrators say they want to see more innovation in teaching but blame each other for creating obstacles to experimentation, The Hechinger Report writes.

In the article, Jordan Shapiro says that lack of a “dependable shared language” may contribute to the problem. Education buzzwords abound, but clear definitions of those buzzwords are in shorter supply (see Audrey Watters below). That makes it harder to gauge what administrators want or what teachers are doing, Shapiro says.

Colleges and universities have additional problems when it comes to innovative teaching. In some cases, neither administrators nor instructors see much value in pursuing changes in teaching, making it easy to point a finger at someone else while continuing on the same easy but ultimately directionless path. A lack of recognition of and rewards for innovative and effective teaching further hinders change. And I agree with Shapiro that we need to do a better job of explaining what we mean by innovation and effective teaching.

One way to bring about change is to reach out to faculty and administrators who do value teaching, creating a community that demonstrates ways to improve teaching and learning, and helps others take small but meaningful steps toward change. That approach has worked well at the Center for Teaching Excellence with such efforts as the Best Practices Institute and the C21 Consortium, along with our annual teaching summit and periodic workshops and discussions.

Those and other events have generated new ideas for improving student engagement and student learning, promoting reflective teaching, and spreading the word that change is indeed possible from within.

Predictions for 2015 and beyond

Predictions abound at the beginning of every year. Among the publications, organizations and blogs I follow, here are some of the predictions that stood out:

Briefly …

Tuition from students now accounts for more revenue than state financing at public colleges and universities in the United States, USA Today reports, citing a report from the Government Accountability Office. … The Chronicle of Higher Education has released A Guide to the Flipped Classroom, a downloadable booklet that includes seven articles from the Chronicle, along with a short list of resources. Download requires a name, title and email address.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

By Doug Ward

Despite declining enrollments (see below) and changes in student demographics, most colleges and universities have continued to divert resources into traditional areas related to rankings rather than to innovations that would help them reach and serve new audiences.

That’s the argument Michael R. Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, argues in an article in Educause.

Colleges and universities have pumped money into such things as technology, physical classrooms, faculty research, and dorms and dining facilities – what Weise calls “sustaining innovations.” That has increased the cost of education while ignoring the price sensitivity of what he calls “nonconsumers of higher education” and the increasing focus that most students have on careers. It also ignores the growing percentage of students age 25 and older and the declining confidence that many employers have in higher education.

cover of comic book on public domain issues from Duke University
Can a comic book help students and professionals deal with an onslaught of ignorance about copyright and public domain? The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke hopes to find out. (See below.)

Weise suggests that higher education create more online courses and emphasize competencies rather than credit hours. That means breaking apart traditional courses into modules that help students gain specific skills and that can be arranged into clusters of competencies that best fit individual students.

This approach isn’t easy either for institutions or students, Weise says, and must emphasize the rigor of learning. It also requires frequent assessment and use of data to monitor student performance and progress. He writes:

For students, this educational model is hard. They are not able to get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency.

Weise’s organization has been one of the biggest advocates for competency-based education over the last few years. Others, according to the education writer Audrey Watters, include the Gates Foundation, the Lumia Foundation and Western Governors University.

She also urges educators, administrators, legislators and students to take a closer look at programs labeled “competency-based,” largely because the term has become a buzzword used to suggest a forward-looking curriculum that may prove empty at its core. She suggests asking two critical questions: Who profits from this approach, and how? (In many cases, that has been commercial organizations like Pearson.) Watters writes:

“In theory, competency-based education changes the focus from how much time students spend in a class to what they have learned. But it does not really resolve the question of what it is we expect college students to learn or what’s the best way for them to demonstrate this.”

She’s right on all accounts, and competency-based education alone won’t solve the many challenges of higher education. It can help drive conversations about change, though.

A hybrid approach of traditional courses (ones that promote critical thinking, creativity and a broad understanding of the world) combined with competency modules (ones that provide specific, individualized skills) might allow us to pull along some of the naysayers while putting the emphasis where it belongs: on student learning.

Another drop in college enrollment nationwide

Kansas was one of only a handful of states to show an increase in enrollment at colleges and universities this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Total enrollment at the state’s colleges and universities rose 3.5 percent over the total in Fall 2013, the center reports. That follows two years of declines (1.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 0.3 percent from 2011 to 2012). Enrollment at KU grew less than 1 percent.

All other Midwestern states reported declines in enrollment. Among surrounding states, that ranged from 5.4 percent in Iowa to 1.7 percent in Colorado. The totals include both public and private, two-year and four-year institutions.

Overall, the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities fell by 1 percent this fall, according to The Hechinger Report. That was the sixth consecutive semester in which enrollment has dropped.

Two-year colleges had the largest declines, while enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities rose by 2.2 percent. Students over age 24 showed the largest decline in numbers.

Between 2011 and 2013, college enrollment fell by 930,000 students, or 2.3 percent, the education website Evolllution reports, although many of those drops have occurred at for-profit institutions. Declining enrollments have led to budget problems at some institutions and speculation of an “enrollment bubble.”

Elizabeth Yohn, a consultant at Hanover Research, writes:

“If it is not one big bubble, what we see in the market is a reflection of the honing of individual choices by both students and institutions―students running from risky for-profits or middle-grade professional programs, and colleges and universities acknowledging that growth is not a constant or perfect metric of success and ability.

Briefly …

3-D printing has enormous potential in the sciences and arts, Innovation Excellence writes, predicting that it will enhance curricula, creativity and research. … The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke has released a comic book (see the cover above) that explores copyright, fair use, Creative Commons and related issues. Appropriately, digital copies are available under a Creative Commons license.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Let’s peer into the future – the near future, as in next semester. Or maybe the semester after that.

You’ll be teaching the same course that is wrapping up this week, and you’ll want to make some changes to improve student engagement and learning. Maybe some assignments tanked. Maybe you need to rearrange some elements to improve the flow of the course. Maybe you need to give the course a full makeover. By the time the new semester rolls around, though, the previous one will be mostly a blur.

So why not take a few minutes now to reflect on the semester? While you’re at it, why not solicit feedback from students?

Six question marks of different colors
Clker.com

To help, here are 20 questions to ask yourself and your students. This isn’t an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s a way to think about what you’ve accomplished (or haven’t) and how you can do better.

Learning and assessment

Use of class time

Assignments

  • What assignments or discussion topics worked best?
  • Which ones flopped? Why?
  • How might you improve the way you use Blackboard or other online resources?

Some questions to ask your students

I also like to spend time talking with students about the class. Sometimes I do that as a full class discussion. Other times, I use small groups. Either way, I ask some general questions about the semester:

  • What worked or didn’t work in helping you learn?
  • What would help next time?
  • How has your perspective changed since the beginning of the class?
  • What will you take away from the course?
  • How did the format of the class affect your learning and your motivation?

Sometimes students don’t have answers right away, so I encourage them to provide feedback in the self-evaluations I ask them to write, or in their course evaluations.

I promised 20 questions, so I’ll end with one more: What questions would you add to the list?


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A new study suggests that all students gain when a lecture moves to an active learning format but that black students show even larger gains than white students, Ainissa Ramirez explains in an article for Edutopia.

Empty lecture hall
Photo by Doug Ward

The study examined results from a 400-person biology class at the University of North Carolina over six semesters. It found that black students scored better on tests after working in the active learning format. It also found that they were more likely to ask questions when a class used that format, which involved guided reading and pre-class exercises, team assignments in class, and discussion.

We’ve known for decades that lecture is the least effective means of helping students learn. The study’s authors suggest that lecture falls especially short for black students, saying that it is part of an educational system that has long catered to students who are primarily white and upper middle class. Edutopia goes as far as to ask, “Is Lecturing Culturally Biased?”

Drawing sweeping conclusions from a single study would be foolish. The North Carolina study, which you’ll find here, certainly raises intriguing questions, though, and offers yet another reason to move away from lecture.

Making online course materials easier to find

Well-designed courses are worthless if students can’t find the materials and information they need for learning.

That seems like a no-brainer, but far too many instructors don’t pay attention to how students will look for course material. As Karla Gutierrez of the Shift eLearning Blog explains, effective communication in a course makes all the difference in success or failure.

Gutierrez offers these tips for cutting down on confusion:

  • Keep things clear and simple. That applies to both the design and the instructions.
  • Make the technology invisible. That is, design course materials so that students can find them intuitively and don’t have to do lots of searching. Or, as Gutierrez puts it, “don’t make learners think.”
  • Focus attention. That can be done with images, color, text and other means. The key is to use course design to lead students to the proper material.

I’d add one important element to that list: Ask students. Their feedback can prove invaluable.

Briefly …

Edudemic offers 15 lesson plans intended to help students become better online researchers. … Educational Technology and Mobile Learning offers a list of operators for refining Twitter searches. … Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers offers a useful chart comparing 11 mindmapping tools.Time magazine writes about a survey in which college graduates said their biggest regret was not doing a better job of planning and managing debt. … The Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report write about the only two states that have increased per-student spending on higher education in the last few years: North Dakota and Alaska.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Two recent surveys help illustrate the barriers that block much-needed changes in teaching, learning and course design at colleges and universities.

In one, conducted by Gallup for Inside HigherEd, most full-time faculty members saw little value in online courses and took an even bleaker view of online courses at their own institutions. The survey found that only 24 percent of full-time faculty members agreed or strongly agreed that online courses could lead to the same level of learning as in-person courses. That fell to 13 percent for their own institutions.

WP_20141122_14_46_26_Pro
Photo by Doug Ward

Another recent survey, this one by the Higher Education Research Institute, found that adoption of online courses was growing, although only 17.4 percent of faculty members said they had taught an online course. At public universities, that number was nearly 10 points higher, though.

Online courses are simply one piece of a much larger structural change. Learning is shifting away from a mountaintop model in which students learn primarily from an instructor with rare information to a collaborative or multifaceted model in which students learn in many different ways, including in online environments. Ubiquitous access to information has made the how and the why of most subjects far more important than the what.

Rather than approaching change with a mindset of helping students, though, far too many instructors, especially those with tenure, simply dismiss calls for active learning as unworkable and unachievable. That, too, is reflected in the Gallup/Inside HigherEd poll, as 62 percent of respondents were age 50 or older. As the survey put it, the responses “may hint at generational effects,” as older faculty members are often slower to adopt new techniques and new technologies.

The HERI survey does show a heartening increase in student-centered teaching approaches like use of small groups, student-selected topics and group projects. Use of those approaches has risen nearly 20 percent over the last 25 years, the survey said. Use of extensive lecturing also showed a slight increase over the last three years, though, with half of faculty saying they use lecturing extensively in their classes.

The upshot of these surveys is that we still have a long way to go in persuading colleagues about the value of active learning and of trying new approaches (if online courses can really be considered new). That’s unfortunate, given the rising use of active learning in K-12 schools.

The most recent NMC Horizon report on K-12 education indicates that use of techniques like project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and other approaches that emphasize “learning by doing” and allow students to move deeper into topics is growing quickly. So is experimentation with technology and a shift of teachers’ primary role to that of mentor.

Students in those programs have many choices in where they go to college. Institutions that adapt will have a clear advantage in attracting students. Those that don’t will find themselves on the end of an uncomfortable question from prospective students and their parents: Why?


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Forget the technology. Instead, focus on the humanity.

That’s the advice of Kirstin Wilcox, a lecturer at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Wilcox isn’t anti-technology. Rather, she says, learning technology generally means something that helps deliver class material for large lecture classes, not something that helps students understand literary texts in small classes.

Once-novel technologies like wikis, blogs or online discussions have become passé among students, who see them as yet another form of rote learning, she says, adding: “It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts.”

Classroom blurred with robot
Photo: Doug Ward

I agree. Education works best when instructors make a human connection with students. Innovations in delivery systems shouldn’t be cast aside, though. They provide a means for shifting material outside of class and allowing instructors to spend precious class time on areas that need and deserve the most attention. If done right, it can allow for even more of the human connection that Wilcox espouses. Technology can also help students see texts in a new light by helping them find and visualize patterns. Multimedia tools also provide new vistas for allowing students to explain their thinking.

So, yes, work at making classes more human. Work at making connections with students. Work at helping students learn in a deeper way. Those are essential components of good teaching. But don’t dismiss technology. It will never replace the thinking of a thoughtful instructor, but it can often enhance engagement and learning.

A bleak report on college enrollment

Nearly 40 percent of public universities and 45 percent of private colleges expect enrollment to drop next year, The Hechinger Report says. That means budget cuts lie ahead. A fourth of all universities expect their revenues to decline, Hechinger says, based on an analysis by Moody’s, the bond rating company. It expects those in the Midwest and Northeast to be the hardest hit. That doesn’t bode well for Kansas, where tax cuts have already drained state coffers and funding for higher education continues to slide.

Briefly …

Pete Burkholder writes about the challenges instructors encounter in trying to get students to look at sources of information more skeptically … Only a third of recent graduates say they had a college internship that allowed them to apply the skills they were learning in college, according to a new Gallup-Purdue poll. … Pete Smith, president of the Open College at Kaplan University, predicts that students’ ability to understand how learning has changed them will grow in importance.

Tech tools

A Google Sheets plugin called Flubaroo helps automate grading of multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests. The plugin, which is free, also makes for easy analysis of grades. … Tim Slade of Articulate shares three helpful tips for working with images in PowerPoint, including the program’s ability to remove backgrounds from photos.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Sylvia Manning offers an insightful characterization of a college education that summarizes the challenges all of us in higher education face today. In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, she writes:

The reality is that no one can guarantee the results of an educational process, if only because a key element is how the student engages in that process. The output or outcome measures that we have are crude and are likely to remain so for considerable time to come. For example, the percentage of students who graduate from an institution tells us next to nothing about the quality of the education those students received.

Poster that says "Just because kids know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instragram doesn't mean they how how to use technology to enhance their learning."
A good message about students and technology from Sean Junkins, via Twitter: http://bit.ly/1yFYfY5

Manning is right. In a piece for Inside HigherEd last year, I argued that students and administrators had become too caught up in the idea of education as a product. Far too many students see a diploma, rather than the learning that goes into it, as their primary goal. I tell students that I can’t make them learn. My job is to provide the environment and the guidance to help them learn. They have to decide for themselves whether they want to take advantage of the resources I provide – and to what degree. Only after they do that can learning take place.

Colleges and universities face a similar conundrum. They have come under increasing pressure to provide ways to measure their effectiveness. As Manning says, though, they have struggled to find effective ways to do that. Most focus on graduation rates and point to the jobs their graduates get. Many, like KU, are working at decreasing the number of students who drop or fail classes. Those are solid goals, but they still don’t tell us anything about what students have learned.

I’m not convinced that we can do that we can truly do that at a university level, at least not in the form of simplistic numeric data that administrators and legislators seem to want. There’s no meaningful way to show that student learning grew X percent this semester or that critical thinking increased at a rate of X over four years, although critics of higher education argue otherwise.

A portfolio system seems the best bet. It provides a way for students to show the work they have done during their time in college and allows them to make their own case for their learning. Portfolios also provide a means for students to demonstrate their potential to employers. By sampling those portfolios, institutions can then get a broad overview of learning. With rubrics, they can create a statistic, but the real proof is still qualitative rather than quantitative.

As an instructor, I see far more value in the nuances of portfolios, projects and assignments than I do in the rigid numerical data of tests and quizzes. Until that thinking gains a wider acceptance, though, we’ll be stuck chasing graduation rates and the like rather than elevating what really matters: learning.

A defense of liberal arts, along with a challenge

Without a backbone of liberal arts, science and technology lack the ability to create true breakthroughs. That’s what Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, argues in The Hechinger Report. Botstein makes a strong case, but he also issues a stinging rebuke to programs that refuse to innovate.

“Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline,” Botstein writes. “…What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense.”

Bravo!

He argues for fundamental changes in curricula and organization of faculty, but also in the way courses are taught. The only aspect of education “that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing,” he says. Instead, technology has expanded opportunities for learning but has done nothing to diminish the need for discussion, argument, close reading and speculation. He calls for renewed attention in helping students learn to use language and to use liberal arts to help students become literate in the sciences.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Botstein’s comparison of teaching and learning to sex, along with the slightly sensational but certainly eye-grabbing headline that accompanied his article: “Learning is like sex, and other reasons the liberal arts will remain relevant.”

Related: At Liberal Arts Colleges, Debate About Online Courses Is Really About Outsourcing (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Briefly …

College instructors are integrating more discussions and group projects into their teaching as they cut down on a lecture-only approach, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. … David Gooblar of PedagogyUnbound offers advice on handling the seemingly never-ending task of grading … Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institution suggests ways to “lower crazy high college costs.” They include providing better information to students, revamping accreditation, and allowing new models of education to compete with existing universities.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

The challenges, and meaning, of innovation

Innovation is generally difficult, but a new report says innovation in education is especially challenging because of a “high-stakes accountability culture that discourages risk-taking, rewards standardization and understandably eschews the notion of ‘experimenting’ on kids with unproven approaches.” As you can tell, the report was aimed at K-12 schools, but it easily applies to higher education. It was published by the Learning Accelerator, a not-for-profit group that promotes blended learning, and 2Revolutions, an organization that creates “future of learning models.” The report provides a framework for evaluating an organization and effecting change. It also says the term “innovation” is “overused and under-defined” and often means “something different depending on who you ask.” (That’s exactly right.) It provides a good working definition of the term:pi in numerals mirrored as pie spelled out

  •  leveraging new or unproven methods or tools to improve practice or solve persistent problems
  • identifying tools or practices from another field to be applied in a new context
  • often representing an entirely new way of thinking
  • having no rules; there is no “right” or “wrong ” way to innovate
  • always forcing important choices and trade-offs

One of the most important elements in that list is the idea that there are no right or wrong ways to innovate. That’s an important point for educators to keep in mind. To maintain good teaching, we must constantly innovate, reflect and revise. The list fails to mention another important element of innovation, though: risk of failure. All innovators take risks, fail and try again. Of course, if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to take that first step.

Questions about flipped courses

Maryellen Weimer raises good questions about colleges’ use of flipped courses. She applauds active learning, she says, but then asks: How do we know which students have the right study skills for flipped courses? Which students learn most in flipped courses? Do all courses work well in a flipped model? I’m a big proponent of flipped courses, but Weimer’s questions should linger in all our minds.

A bleak report on financing for higher education

Kansas’ funding per full-time equivalent college student dropped by nearly 13 percent, or $894, between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. That’s a 12.77 percent cut, placing Kansas in the middle of the pack for state financing of public colleges and universities during that period. Arizona ranked last, slashing financing by nearly 43 percent. North Dakota topped the list, increasing per-student financing by 19 percent. To make college more affordable, the report recommends a new federal formula that encourages states to invest more in higher education but also sets goals for improving graduation rates and making transfer among institutions easier. Relatedly, John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, says that dwindling state financing has some institutions considering going private.

Briefly …

In an article for Edutopia, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers offer ways to help students learn metacognition, or how to “drive their brains.” … In Educause Review, administrators from North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania write about the role that libraries can play in creating innovative teaching spaces. … A new report says that community colleges’ short-term certificates offer only small economic returns, especially when compared with degrees or other programs that require additional time to complete, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Those certificates, which require less than a year of coursework, are growing in popularity.

By Doug Ward

After third grade, elementary students spend little time on in-class writing assignments, even though research shows that additional time improves both the quality of writing and the comprehension of written work.

That’s the distressing news from the Hechinger Report, whose recent article explores research in K-12 writing instruction. In English classes, U.S. students write an average of 1.6 pages a week, and most assignments (in English and in other classes) usually require a single page or less. The main reason: Most teachers say they don’t have time to grade frequent assignments.

Research also shows that grammar instruction continues to diminish. Researchers say, though, that traditional grammar instruction – learning grammar rules and diagramming sentences – doesn’t help students in grades three through seven learn grammar and can actually hurt students’ writing ability.

“Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years,” Hechinger says. “But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.”

woman typing at computer keyboard
Death to the Stock Photo, Creative Community

Neither of those findings should surprise college instructors who work with student writing. My own school (journalism) is struggling with just that. More and more, we have to teach what would have once been considered remedial writing and grammar. We can no longer assume that students arrive at college knowing how to write clearly or read in depth. Those who can, excel.

Of course, curmudgeonly professors have for decades complained about students’ lack of excellence in writing, so it’s often hard to tell whether things are truly deteriorating or whether those of us who teach writing are just growing jaundiced with age.

One thing is certain, though: Most students need more practice – and instruction – in writing.

So how do we do that at the college level?

CTE offers several resources to help instructors use, evaluate and assess student writing. Nearly 40 faculty portfolios address use of student writing in some way. The annual publication Reflections from the Classroom frequently addresses writing, and CTE’s Essential Guide to Teaching at KU offers advice on such topics as developing and grading assignments, and engaging and mentoring students. I’ve included a few specific resources below.

Building Writing Skills, Critical Thinking and Teamwork through Technology and Revision

Megan Williams of American Studies explains use of reflections over readings, online discussion posts and a group reflection essay to help students explore American identity.

Incorporating Writing Into Mathematics Classes

Myunghyun Oh of math explains use of writing assignments in differential equations classes to help students communicate their understanding of course material.

Constructing Learning in the Online Environment

Kim Glover of libraries writes about her move to smaller, scaffolded assignments to help students progress toward a longer annotated bibliography that served as the final project for an online class.

Scaffolding Writing Assignments to Engage Graduate Students

Judy Postmus of social welfare explains her use of critical reflection of scholarly ideas, layering of concepts, and adaptive assignments to help a wide range of graduate students improve their writing and critical thinking.

Using Creative Writing to Engage Students in a General Education Course

Stephen Johnson of English explains how he used small writing assignments that helped students build up to longer essays in Introduction to Poetry.

On Design and Liberation

Sharon Bass of journalism explains a rethinking of her approach to teaching writing by focusing on high-quality writing assignments and feedback – things that helped students learn the most – rather than volume of assignments and volume of feedback.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Let’s imagine the university of the future. Actually, let’s write a mission statement for that university.

Our university would be “an international laboratory of creativity” built “on values and deep convictions which rest on a foundation of audacity, creativity, imagination and our people: the backbone of our success.”

It would place “creativity at the core of all its endeavors so as to ensure limitless possibilities” and give faculty, staff and students “the necessary freedom to imagine their most incredible dreams and bring them to life.”

Sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see a university like that anytime soon – something that should make us ask why – but we could bring that type of thinking into the classroom.

To do that, let’s go to Cirque du Soleil. That’s where the quoted material above comes from. I looked it up after listening to Bernard Petiot’s plenary session last week at the annual conference of the International Society of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Petiot, vice president for casting and performance at Cirque du Soleil, delivered what was easily the most entertaining session at ISSOTL, and perhaps the most useful.

Whiteboard of Cirque du Soleil presentation at ISSOTL 2014
Brianna Smrke’s “graphic recording” of Bernard Petiot’s speech at ISSOTL in Quebec City.

His speech had nothing to do with college teaching, and at the same time it had everything to do with college teaching. That’s because he talked about managing creative people. Cirque du Soleil prides itself on putting creative minds together and reimagining the possible. It expects tension, failures and lots of uncertainty. By learning from failures, though, using the tension as inspiration and pushing through the uncertainty, the organization’s performers and managers create something truly spectacular.

That’s what all teachers wish of their students – perhaps not immediately, but eventually.

A circus performance, like education, doesn’t come easily. Petiot offered these gems of wisdom about the process.

 

  • Creativity is not linear. It can sometimes be chaotic.
  • Creative results sometimes face periods of ambiguity and dissenting ideas.
  • If ideas are killed too soon you may miss an opportunity to really create.
  • A creation generates change. It defies established paradigms
  • Creativity generates tension by necessity. That tension allows new thinking and new solutions, so embrace the insecurity.
  • Creativity requires courage.

As Petiot spoke last week, Brianna Smrke stood at the back of the room, sketching the speech in what she called “graphic recording.”

Smrke never knows in advance what a speaker will say, she said. Indeed, that’s part of the artistic challenge: zeroing in on the key aspects, turning them into comprehensible material, pacing the drawing so as not to fill up the board too quickly or too slowly, and ultimately creating a lively narrative that reflects a speech but becomes a piece of art in itself.

Essentially, Smrke lived Petiot’s words as he spoke them, managing her own tension and embracing the uncertainty.

So look at the bullet points from Petiot’s speech again and substitute “innovative teaching” for “creativity.” That sounds like a university of the future to me.


 

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Council gives generally poor grades for core university requirements

In a scathing report on core liberal arts requirements, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives more than 60 percent of colleges and universities a grade of C or lower. “By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum,” the council says in its report, “What Will They Learn?”

The organization generally favors tradition over innovation in course offerings, and encourages a more active role by regents, trustees and alumni. The core curriculum by which it judged colleges and universities consists of writing that focuses on grammar, clarity and argument; a survey of literature; intermediate competency in a foreign language; U.S. government or history; basic economics; college-level algebra, logic, computer science or linguistics; and natural science courses that emphasize experimentation and observation. The council was especially dismayed by a dearth of requirements for a basic course in U.S. government and history, and for basic economics.

In Kansas, the only university to receive better than a C was Wichita State, which received a B. KU received a C. Some other Big 12 schools fared better. Baylor received an A; Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the University of Texas-Austin received B’s; Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Christian received C’s, and West Virginia received a D.

Like all such report cards, this one measures only what the creators want it to measure and tends to oversimplify complex issues. The report raises many good points, though, whether you agree with the criticism or not.

Making a case for blended learning

In the second part of an article on blended learning, the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter argues that blended learning needs to be “positioned as an institutional strategy that can result in organizational learning.” The article is based on a chapter in Kim VanDerLinden’s book Connecting Learning Across the Institution. Not surprisingly, it says that faculty members who have never taught an online course are more skeptical of online learning that those who have. The same applies to blended learning. It ends with excellent questions about employing blended learning.

Part 1 of the article provides a good overview of blended learning, including definitions. It argues: “The pressures on higher education in 2014 are perhaps greater than in any other time period.  The strategic adoption of blended learning is interconnected to all the issues that are front of mind for decision makers such as accessibility, affordability, limited resources, and competition, not to mention perhaps the greatest interconnected concern – student learning.”



Thumbs up for software that allows creation of animated whiteboard videos

I mentioned a new tool called VideoScribe in a previous post. I downloaded a trial and gave it a spin. (See above.) It’s definitely worth a look for anyone interested in creating animated whiteboard videos. The interface is mostly intuitive and I was generally happy with the video I produced for a session on threshold concepts. I did run into a few glitches that are worth noting:

First, the timeline is a bit clunky, especially as you build up a lot of images. All the images are placed on one continuous timeline at the bottom of the screen, and I struggled moving a few of them to the right place. They sometimes ended up in random spots. Ungrouping them (or the equivalent) before I moved them helped.

I liked the ability to import SVG files I pulled from Open Clip Art, but those imported images didn’t always render as well as I would have liked. The final image was fine, but the drawing of them on screen sometimes looked clunky. That said, I ended up buying access to VideoScribe for a year. After my trial ended, the company offered a 33 percent discount.

By Doug Ward

Assessment often elicits groans from faculty members.

It doesn’t have to if it’s done right. And by right, I mean using it to measure learning that faculty members see as important, and then using those results to revise courses and curricula to improve student learning.

In a white paper for the organization Jobs for the Future, David T. Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon, points out many flaws that have cast suspicion on the value of assessment. He provides a short but fascinating historical review of assessment methods, followed by an excellent argument for a drastic change in the ways students are assessed in K-12. He also raises important issues for higher education. The report is titled A New Era for Educational Assessment.

Conley says that the United States has long favored consistency in measuring something in education over the ability to measure the right things. Schools, he says, “have treated literacy and numeracy as a collection of distinct, discrete pieces to be mastered, with little attention to students’ ability to put those pieces together or to apply them to other subject areas or real-world problems.”cover of a new era for educational assessment

One reason standardized testing has recently come under scrutiny, he says, is that new research on the brain has challenged assumptions about fixed intelligence. Rather, he says, researchers have come to an “understanding that intellectual capacities are varied and multi-dimensional and can be developed over time, if the brain is stimulated to do so.” Relatedly, they have found that attitudes toward learning are as important as aptitude.

The Common Core has also put pressure on states to find alternatives to the typical standardized test. The Core’s standards for college readiness include such elements as the ability to research and synthesize information, to develop and evaluate claims, and to explain, justify and critique mathematical reasoning – complex abilities that defy measurement with multiple-choice questions. Schools have been experimenting with other means to better measure sophisticated reasoning include, Conley writes. They include these:

  • Performance tasks that require students to parse texts of varying lengths and that may last from 20 minutes to two weeks. (KU’s Center for Education Testing & Evaluation has been working on one such test.)
  • Project-centered assessment, which gives students complex, open-ended problems to solve.
  • Portfolios, which collect a wide range of student work to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of subjects.
  • Collaborative problem-solving, which sometimes involves students working through a series of online challenges with a digital avatar.
  • Metacognitive learning strategies, which Conley describes as ways “learners demonstrate awareness of their own thinking, then monitor and analyze their thinking and decision-making processes” and make adjustments when they are having trouble. Measuring these strategies often relies on self-reporting, something that has opened them to criticism.

Conley sees opportunities for states to combine several forms of assessment to provide a deeper, more nuanced portrait of learning. He calls this a “profile approach” and says it could be used not only by teachers and administrators but also colleges and potential employers. He asks, though, whether colleges and universities are ready to deal with these more complex measurements. Higher education has long relied on GPAs and test scores for deciding admissions, and more nuanced assessments would require more time to evaluate and compare. He says, though, that “the more innovative campuses and systems are already gearing up to make decisions more strategically and to learn how to use something more like a profile of readiness rather than just a cut score for eligibility.”

Conley raises another important issue for higher education. Over the past decade, high schools have focused on making students “college and career ready,” although definitions of those descriptions have been murky. Because of that, educators have “focused on students’ eligibility for college and not their readiness to succeed there.” Conley and others have identified key elements of college readiness, he says. Those include such things as hypothesizing and strategizing, analyzing and evaluating, linking ideas, organizing concepts, setting goals for learning, motivating oneself to learn, and managing time.

The takeaway? Assessment is moving in a more meaningful direction. That’s good news for both students and wary faculty members.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

How can we grade participation more effectively?

Maryellen Weimer argues that the way we usually grade participation in our classes doesn’t work. That is, many students still don’t join the conversations for fear of looking dumb. The typical grading approach also rewards quantity over quality. In an article in Faculty Focus, she writes about a colleague’s solution to this: using “extra-credit engagement tickets” students earn by completing assignments on time, joining online discussions, and submitting questions electronically. I agree with the logic, but the solution seems more complicated than I’m willing to attempt. This is definitely something that deserves more attention from most faculty members, though.

Chart for definitions of rigor
This pyramid shows one of several ways that the authors of “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor” describe students’ perception of rigor.

What does ‘rigor’ in a course mean?

Students tend to equate a course’s rigor with workload rather than higher-order thinking, according to a study in the latest issue of Innovative Higher Education. That is, if a course required students to read or write more than they were used to, they generally considered it rigorous. The same held true if a student thought the professor’s grading standards were higher or if the student had little or no previous experience with the course content. This differs from faculty members’ idea of rigor, which the authors described as “learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context.” The authors say that students and faculty need to understand these divergent views so that colleges and universities can better address the importance of academic standards. The study is called “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor.”

 

Study questions value of degrees from for-profit online institutions

Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research strongly suggests that employers value degrees from public institutions over those from for-profit online institutions. The authors of a white paper posted on the bureau’s website found that candidates with bachelor’s degrees from for-profit online institutions were 20 percent less likely to receive a request for an interview or for additional information from employers than those with degrees from public institutions. (A 2012 employer survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education found similar perceptions.) They say that given the high costs, degrees from those for-profit institutions “do not appear to be a sound investment.”

Briefly …

Meris Stansbury of eCampus News writes about the steps involved in a competency-based education program, and about the fluid definition of those types of programs. … An anonymous graduate student, writing in The Guardian, argues that colleges and universities need to more transparent about the time commitments of graduate teaching assistants. “Teaching is often regarded as something of an afterthought to doctoral completion, something fobbed off on those considered just competent enough,” the writer says.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Why a phone book isn’t a good learning tool

Daniel J. Klionsky of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan asks why so many instructors or programs continue to teach facts that students don’t need to know. In an article in Faculty Focus, he uses the telephone book as an example. No one needs to memorize all the numbers in a phone book. The idea is absurd. And yet, many instructors in science courses insist that students memorize facts they can easily look up, just as they would with a phone book. To help weed out the essential from the nonessential, he says that instructors should approach their courses with these questions:

  • How much of the information in our courses do the students really need to know?
  • How much time do we devote to making sure students know when they need a fact and how to look it up?
  • Do our students know what to do with the facts once they find them?

Dropout rates hit record lows

Pew Research reports that the high school dropout rates have reached a record low, 7 percent, continuing a decline that started in the mid-1990s. The dropout rate among Hispanics has declined by more than half since 1993, and the rate among blacks has been cut in half. Even with the declines, though, the number of high school dropouts is more than 2.2 million.

Those gaps that speak volumes

Matthew E. May writes about the creative power of empty space in attracting attention and intriguing audiences. His piece in the Harvard Business Review is aimed at marketers, but it applies equally as well to educators.

Digital technology for education 

Jane Hart has released her annual list of the top 100 tools for learning. The top of the list offers no surprises – Twitter, Google Drive, YouTube, PowerPoint – but the latter part is a good place to look for new tools you might try. It includes some that I’ve found useful, including Explain Everything and Powtoon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an app under development at Dartmouth that helps measure students’ mental health.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

A focus on efficiency, for learning’s sake

The Evolllution began a series on operational efficiency at colleges and universities with an interview with Cathy Sandeen, vice president for educational attainment and efficiency at the American Council on Education. Sandeen lays out the right goals for cost efficiency, saying the process should aim at ways to help students learn and earn their degrees. “We need to work together to figure out how we can change and do things differently,” Sandeen says. “It’s not saying we’re doing things wrong in the past; it’s just how we can do things better in the future.”

During October, the Evolllution plans to tackle these questions:

  • What impact does operational efficiency have on institutional growth and competitiveness?
  • How can postsecondary leaders effectively communicate the value of efficiency-related changes to institution-wide stakeholders?
  • Do students notice when institutions are efficient?
  • How can institutions leverage technology tools to become more efficient?

Job skills vs. liberal education

Emmanuel Felton of The Hechinger Report writes about how City Colleges of Chicago remade themselves by aligning courses with the skills that were most in demand in the region. The change has helped City Colleges, a system of seven community colleges, improve abysmal graduation rates, at least somewhat. Felton interviewed several business leaders who espoused the benefits of tying education to skills that industry needs. One executive said higher education needed to take the same approach. That might serve some students and it would certainly serve industry in the short term. In the long term, though, we need a wide range of people who possess the critical-thinking and adaptive skills provided by a liberal education.small boy and adult sitting next to each other at desks

Keep an eye out for student mental health issues

Claire Shaw at The Guardian urges instructors to pay attention to students’ mental and physical state. She provides a list of warning signs that may indicate that students need assistance. She also offers several suggestions for instructors to help prepare themselves for struggling students.

A worldwide shortage of teachers

A new UNESCO report says that 93 countries face a chronic shortage of teachers and that many of them are recruiting people who lack any training in education.

An adaptive system that helps personalize learning

Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada writes about beta testing of an adaptive learning system that combines customized materials from dozens of sources with data from learning, social environments and work environments. He calls this a “learning and performance support system.” Despite the stuffy name, it sounds fascinating.

Way cool: A tool for creating animated whiteboard videos

I’ve always been fascinated by animated whiteboard videos that show drawings being created in fast motion right before my eyes. I just came across a tool called VideoScribe that will help create those videos – for a price, of course. The software costs $198 a year. There’s a seven-day free trial, though. I’m going to have to give it a try. I’ll share my results.

By Doug Ward

There’s no shortage of ideas for remaking higher education.

Consider a few recent ones:

Margaret Rhodes at Wired is among the latest to report on ideas for remaking an antiquated educational format that rewards students for taking notes, memorizing facts, and then checking boxes on tests.

“Students don’t need information,” Rhodes writes. “They need to learn how to process and use it.”

Bravo!

Rhodes offers four ways to help higher education become more creative, based on ideas from the Stanford School of Design:

  • Revamp the timeframe. Substitute the four-year degree for a six-year program that allows students to move in an out as their needs change.
  • Eliminate class designations. Rather than designating students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, let them range across the curriculum, learning and then applying and then learning something new.
  • Ditch the transcript. Rather than focusing on GPAs, focus on skill building and portfolio development.
  • Forget majors. Rather, have students declare goals or missions and let them take classes that help them meet those goals.
barn-raising
Thinking about education as a barn raising offers many possibilities as we move toward changing teaching and learning.

Cathy Davidson of City University of New York immediately added two other ideas to the list: eliminate tuition, and provide better pay for high-quality instructors.

Davidson is spot-on in her argument that radical changes will have little effect unless we’re willing to change the underlying problems. That is, we say we want high-quality education but still fail to provide the incentives and rewards that would make that happen.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Forham University, explains perhaps the central difficulty of elevating teaching in the research-driven culture of higher education. “It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter,” Cassuto writes, “but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.”

Cassuto is right, but even in higher education’s research-driven culture, we brush aside teaching as impossible to measure. So we send research packets out for external review when a professor goes up for tenure or promotion, but to evaluate teaching, we generally resort to student evaluations and observations of a single class. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

We can change that. The Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member, offered several solutions to improving teaching at KU. The solutions apply to every university, though. They aren’t particularly radical, and there’s nothing as eye-popping as the ones from the Stanford School of Design. Rather, the ideas are intended to help change the culture of teaching and the systemic problems that hold good teachers back. They include these:

  • Create community. We need to identify faculty who want to improve or change their courses and provide opportunities for them to network with similar-minded instructors to share ideas that will lead to additional change.
  • Encourage collaboration. This means within departments but also among departments and universities to share ideas and approaches to improving education. It also applies to faculty members who teach different sections of the same course.
  • Provide support. We need to expand programs that provide support for faculty members interested in changing their courses. In our case, that includes the C21 Consortium and the teaching fellows program, both of which help faculty members and departments improve active learning.
  • Recognize and reward effective teaching. Until we truly reward innovative, high-quality teaching in the same way we reward innovative, high-quality research, we have little hope of wide-scale change.
  • Increase funds for remaking classrooms. Classrooms alone won’t change anything, but as I’ve written previously, classroom design can indeed improve student engagement and motivation.
  • Make better use of digital technology for learning. Good teaching starts with sound pedagogy, but digital technology provides the means for reaching students in new ways, making courses more engaging, and time-shifting assignments so we can make better use of class time to address areas where students struggle.

Whether radical or not-so radical, the ideas for improving higher education offer no magic powers. Rather, they provide blueprints we can follow and frameworks on which we can build.

Think of an old-fashioned barn-raising, which provides a lens for looking at many aspects of education. By joining our forces and applying our expertise, we can create something that none of us could accomplish individually. And yet, to effect change we need individuals to step up and join the community.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Notes by hand or with laptops? Sorry, wrong question.

Cathy Davidson raises exactly the right question in the debate about whether students should take notes by hand or with laptops in class. The real issue, Davidson writes, is that instructors should be working to avoid lecture and instead engage students in active learning. Even in a large lecture hall, instructors can use active-learning activities that help students learn far more than they would with lecture. Davidson’s suggestion doesn’t involve digital technology. Rather, she says, a simple notecard will do.

Tom Whitby, in Edutopia, reinforces Davidson’s argument by explaining the importance of collaboration in modern pedagogy.

If textbooks are dead, are universities next?

Educause, an orgranization that focuses on information technology in higher education, held its annual conference this week in Orlando, Fla. Most of the discussions were geared more toward IT than educators, but a few interesting nuggets caught my attention:educause logo

Helping students take control of class discussions

In an article in Hybrid Pedagogy, Chris Friend shares some techniques for letting class conversations evolve organically. He writes, “A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed.”

Making sure all group members pull their weight

Li-Shih Huang offers tips on making sure all members of a project group share in the workload. Those tips include designing projects so that students complete them in phases, allowing students to choose project topics that match their own interests, and helping students become better problem-solvers. You’ll find the full post at Faculty Focus.

Number of stay-at-home college students hits 20-year high

National Journal reports that the number of college students living at home has reached a 20-year high. Tuition increases and “an economy that still feels like a recession to many families” have played a role, National Journal writes, saying that the combination “may be turning more students into pragmatists.” That shift can make diversifying the student body more challenging.

What to do when a class has a wide range of skills

In an article on differentiated learning, Christina Yu offers suggestions on helping students with wide ranges of skills in the same class. She suggests avoiding a technique that is often recommended: having students who understand course material help those who don’t. I wish she had explored that area more. That approach can certainly help in some scenarios. Yu doesn’t dismiss it outright; rather, she includes it in a list of “what differentiated instruction is not.”

A trend worth watching

eSchool News reports that tablet use is growing increasingly common in grades 4 through 12. School tablet use has reached 66 percent in grades 4-5, 58 percent in grades 6-8, and 42 percent in grades 9-12, the publication reports. Moreover, 81 percent of students say that tablets help personalize learning. These are students who will be in college in the coming years.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

That pricey fifth (or sixth) year of college

Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report writes about the overlooked cost of a fifth or sixth year in calculating the cost of a college education. Ninety percent of freshmen begin college thinking they will graduate in four years, though less than half actually do. … Also, in a disturbing trend, Hechinger reports that the number of homeless students in U.S. public schools has grown 58 percent since 2007-08.

Some trends worth watching

In a report released last week, the consulting firm Michael Cohen Group identified several digital trends in education. The report, which was created in late spring, provides no real surprises yet highlights some of the issues that educators everywhere should pay attention to, including social media, open educational resources, massive open online courses, blended learning, flipped courses, gamification, integration of coding into courses, digital simulations, bring-your-own-device programs, assessment, big data, and adaptive learning.

man standing on dock at foggy lake
Todd Quackenbush, Unsplash

The biggest challenge in educational technology? Managing change.

In its most recent research report, the Center for Digital Education says that technology itself “is never the biggest hurdle” in a changing educational environment. The biggest challenge is managing the changes brought on by technology, including integration into curricula, development of effective personalized learning, and effective training for teachers and staff members who use technology. Above all, the center said, institutions need to help instructors, students and staff member “think about how technology can fundamentally turn old pedagogy on its head.”

A startling statistic from the report: Singapore spends $21,200 per student on education annually, compared with $2,500 in the United States.

The university of the future

U.S. News & World Report recently looked at the challenges that colleges and universities face amid changing demographics, rising costs, a hypercompetitive admissions process, and a growing adoption of online courses, among other things. As part of the report, called College of Tomorrow, U.S. News asked six university leaders to offer their thoughts on the future. They talked about the need for improving transparency, leveraging research, and continuing to challenge students with new opportunities.

The most pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, was Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. Mendenhall said higher education in the future would probably look a lot like it does today, given the resistance to change on college campuses. He sees a need for change, pointing to areas like accountability and the growth in nontraditional students, and says that colleges that don’t may not survive.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic, touched on areas I see as among the most important for the future. She wrote, “Students need to acquire new skills for this digitally interconnected environment, including the ability to ‘translate’ between and among disciplines and sectors. They must learn to operate effectively and ethically in virtual communities, immersive environments, and in blended worlds.”

How millennial are you?

Finally, educators need to do a better job of understanding all their students, including Generation Z, but Pew Research republished a four-year-old but still relevant quiz last week about understanding millennials. It’s worth a look.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

At a meeting of the CTE faculty ambassadors last week, Felix Meschke brought up a challenge almost every instructor faces.

Meschke, an assistant professor of finance, explained that he had invited industry professionals to visit his class last semester and was struck by how engaged students were. They asked good questions, soaked up advice from the professionals, and displayed an affinity for sharing ideas with speakers from outside the university.

The interaction was marvelous to watch, Meschke asked, but how could he assess it? He could ask a question on an exam, he said, but that didn’t seem right. The content of the discussions wasn’t as important as the discussions themselves and the opportunities those discussions brought to students.

In a sense, Meschke had answered his own question: His observations were a form of assessment. I suggested that he log those observations so he could provide documentation if he needed it. No, that wouldn’t provide a numerical assessment, but it would provide the kind of assessment he needed to make decisions on whether to do something similar in the future.

Paint pots and letter blocks
WordPerfect

All too often we think of assessment as something we do for someone else: for administrators, for accreditors, for legislators. Assessment is really something we need to do for ourselves, though. Thinking of it that way led to an epiphany for me a few years ago. Like so many educators, I approached assessment with a sense of dread. It was one more thing I didn’t have time for.

When I started thinking of assessment as something that helped me, though, it didn’t seem nearly so onerous. I want to know how students are doing in my classes so I can adapt and help them learn better. I want to know whether to invite back guest speakers. I want to know whether to repeat an assignment or project. I want to know what students report about their own learning. All of those things are natural parts of the teaching process.

That sort of thinking also helped me to realize that assessment doesn’t have to be quantitative. Assessments like quiz and exam grades can indeed point to strengths and weaknesses. If a large majority of students fails an exam, we have to ask why. Was there a problem in the way students learned a particular concept? A flaw in the wording of the exam? A lack of studying by students?

I rarely give exams, though. Rather, I use things like projects, journals and participation.

I use rubrics to grade the projects and journals, but the numbers don’t tell me nearly as much as the substance of the work. Only through a qualitative assessment do I get a sense of what students gained, what they didn’t gain, and what I need to rethink in future semesters.

In the class Meschke described, students applied their learning through active participation. Trying to put a numerical value on that would in some ways cheapen the engagement the students showed and the opportunities they gained in interacting with professionals. Observing those interactions provided excellent feedback to Meschke, though, and by writing a brief summary of his those observations, he could provide documentation for others.

The message was clear: Do it again next semester.

And when it comes to assessment, the message is clear, as well: Do it for yourself.

Additional resources

Portfolio Assessment: An Alternative to Traditional Performance Evaluation Methods in the Area Studies Programs, by Mariya Omelicheva

Assessment Resources for departments and programs at KU

Combining Live Performance and Traditional Assessments to Document Learning, by the School of Pharmacy


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Good teaching often starts with a simple greeting to students.

A simple hello will work. A smile helps. So does body language that signals a willingness to work with students. That recognition — both inside and outside the classroom — can go a long way toward engaging students and setting the tone for an assignment, a class or even a college career.

We can’t forget that. Stellar lesson plans, carefully chosen readings and incisive questions mean little if students aren’t engaged. That doesn’t mean that every instructor needs a cult of personality. Not at all. It simply means that an instructor needs to show human elements that students can relate to. They have to connect in some way.

hands with puzzle pieces that fit together
Pixabay

At a discussion at CTE in the spring, a group of freshmen explained just how important that is. During their first semester, those freshmen were trying to find their place on campus: Where did they belong? Did they belong? How would they know?

One drove home the point this way: A few weeks into her first semester, she was still feeling unsure about herself and about KU. When one of her professors smiled and greeted her in the hallway one day, though, she felt validated. Her professor recognized her. He knew who she was. He said hello. That simple acknowledgment made her feel that she had a place on campus.

Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise made a similar point in their opening plenary at the annual Teaching Summit last month.

Good pedagogy is important, Blaich said, but students need professors who make connections with them. They notice instructors who experiment with teaching and pay attention to students. They seek them out, and they learn from them.

“Being human and being present for them is a really important thing,” Blaich said.

A Gallup-Purdue Index Report released earlier this year further reinforced that idea. Students who felt that their professors connected with them, cared about them and made them excited about learning were far more likely to succeed in college. That held true whether colleges were large or small, public or private.

The connectedness lasted long after college, the report said, doubling the likelihood that graduates were engaged in their jobs and felt an overall sense of well-being.

None of that is surprising, but it provides a reminder of the important role that instructors play in the lives of college students. Simple acts of humanity pay dividends in students’ engagement, learning and long-term success.

That’s worth keeping in mind the next time we walk into a classroom, reply to email or see a student in the hallway.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Whenever I give workshops about teaching with technology, I try to provide a handout of resources.

This is one I distributed after workshops I led at the Best Practices Institute at CTE last week and at the School of Education. It’s a relatively modest list, but it includes sites for for visualizing text; for editing images; for creating maps, charts, infographics; and for combining elements into a multimedia mélange.Ward Online Tools handout cover

My goal in creating lists like this is to help instructors think about ways to incorporate multimedia elements and technology into their teaching. I never insist that instructors use specific tools. Rather, I try to show how various resources can enrich assignments, deepen learning, expand skills, and make class time more engaging.

Not all assignments lend themselves to multimedia elements, but I’ve found that multimedia tools inspire creativity in students, and make assignments more interesting and more meaningful.

I’ve listed a few tools below. The rest are available in the accompanying PDF.

You’ll find more tools like this at my site journalismtech.com and at Teaching With Technology, a site that Germaine Halegoua and I manage. (This post appears on that site, as well.) Nearly are all are free. Some may have restrictions, so please read the terms of use on each site.

Multimedia tools

  • New Hive. Provides many options to create a single web page with text, images and video.
  • ThingLink. Allows you to upload photos and place icons on them that pop up with text, other photos and video.
  • Weavly. For creating mashups from YouTube, SoundCloud and other sources.
  • Popcorn Maker. A tool for mixing video, audio and images from the web. From Mozilla.
  • Meograph. A site for creating multimedia stories.
  • Storify. An easy-to-use tool for creating stories from many types of social media.

Timelines

  • Dipity. Create timelines, flipbooks, lists and maps. Easy, effective and free for the basic version. One glitch that I’ve found: The embed codes don’t always work well with WordPress sites.
  • TimeGlider.
  • TimeToast.

Text visualization and analysis

  • Wordle. Insert text and create customizable word clouds.
  • Document Cloud. Upload documents to the website, analyze them, highlight them and annotate them. You can also create a slideshow-like form that can be embedded elsewhere.

Chart and graph tools

  • Many Eyes. Offers tools for creating maps, charts and diagrams, and for analyzing text (word clouds and tag clouds, for example). It offers many examples of how to turn data into visual information. You can input or upload data.
  • Chart Gizmo. A free website that allows registered users to create basic charts and graphs.
  • Cacoo. Allows you to create and share diagrams, which can be linked, embedded or saved as .png files. More options available with a paid account.

Maps


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

 

Participants in the Best Practices Institute work at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.
Participants in the Best Practices Institute work on a backward design exercise at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.

By Doug Ward

I’m always surprised at the common themes that emerge when faculty members talk about teaching.

Goals and challenges transcend disciplinary boundaries, allowing for robust discussions about learning; class design and preparation; assessment; the struggles of students, and other areas of teaching.

In discussions Tuesday at CTE’s Best Practices Institute, faculty members from a dozen disciplines shared aspirations and strategies for improving their classes. Among the speakers was Meagan Patterson, associate professor of psychology, who explained the key elements of backward design and then asked participants to write down goals they hoped to achieve in their classes.

My table included instructors from pharmacy, philosophy, journalism, and health, sports and exercise science. The overlap among the group was remarkable. As I wrote the goals on a whiteboard, nearly everyone in the group nodded in agreement. They, too, had essentially the same goals. Here’s a distilled list:

  • Learn basic course concepts (as in science or philosophy)
  • Learn basic definitions and moral principles and apply those to specific situations
  • Demonstrate a big picture view of a subject
  • Apply knowledge to real world problems
  • Demonstrate good persuasive writing and an ability to refute opposing positions
  • Make connections to other disciplines and ideas
  • Demonstrate an ability to synthesize and explain discrete specialty topics learned in a course.

Identification of goals is only the first step of creating or remaking a class. The bigger challenge comes when a faculty members starts to envision ways for students to learn material and to demonstrate their learning.

That’s part of what makes teaching so enjoyable, though, no matter the discipline.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

 

By Doug Ward

Bozenna Pasik-Duncan specializes in a branch of probability theory called stochastic systems, which views problems through a lens of randomness.

She teaches courses in that area, as well as in subjects like applied statistics, linear algebra and optimization theory.

When faced with a high dropout and failure rate among students in a large 100-level calculus class, though, Pasik-Duncan found a solution in a distinctively humanistic equation: She created a sense of community.

Her methods offer an excellent example of how cooperation among students and instructors can improve learning – and help everyone make friends along the way.

The calculus class that posed the challenge for Pasik-Duncan was Math 121, a 500-person class with several lab sections. In a typical semester, 30 percent or more of the students who enroll eventually withdraw or receive a D or an F. In university parlance, that’s known as the DFW rate, a statistic that administrators follow closely.

individuals gathered around globe representing community
Colinda, Open Clip Art Library

To address that problem, Pasik-Duncan urged collaboration from the first day of class. Everyone was expected to collaborate: the instructor, the teaching assistants and the students.

Collaboration was just the beginning, though. She promoted the idea of “C to the power of five”: collaboration, community, connection, curiosity, and connectivity.

“Always interpret,” she told students. “Always question. Why, why, why, why do I need to know that?”

About a quarter of the students in the class struggled with concepts like derivatives, domains, integrals and arc lengths. A quarter of the students, many of them from outside the United States, excelled at calculus. So Pasik-Duncan struck a deal. She asked for volunteers to help the struggling students and said she would write letters explaining their role in helping others succeed.

“We’re a community. Let’s help each other,” Pasik-Duncan told students. “At this moment, you need my help. Next semester, I may need your help.”

Students loved it, she said. Not only did they make connections among concepts in the classroom, but they made connections with other students. The DFW rate in her class fell to less than 14 percent, less than half the typical rate.

And not only did the struggling students improve in math, but the international students who struggled with English found that the one-on-one interactions with fellow students helped them improve their language skills.

“I consider this a beautiful thing,” Pasik-Duncan said. “On top of teaching and learning, we also have this community service.”

And the power of community.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Angelique Kobler offered an uncomfortable question about education last week.

Kobler, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Lawrence school district, met with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign and explained the steady expansion of blended learning in Lawrence public schools.

To illustrate the need for new ways of engaging students, she said, she asks her staff a question that can make even the most experienced teacher squirm: Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Education is never that cut and dried, of course. Learning depends on a wide range of factors that have nothing to do with an individual teacher. Kobler knows that. She uses the question to spur discussion about the need for change.

blended learning graphic
Wikimedia Commons

Today’s students are different from those a generation ago, as are their needs in an era when laptops and smartphones offer access to nearly unlimited amounts of information.

Fifteen years ago, Luc E. Weber, a professor of public economics at the University of Geneva, made an observation that has grown only more apparent today: “Teachers will have to accept that their role is changing,” Weber wrote in Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium. “They will be decreasingly information providers and increasingly animators and commentators in charge of giving context and in-depth understanding of an area.” (p. 10)

Blended classrooms force teachers to heed that call for change. Many teachers are responding. Lawrence public schools started with a pilot program of eight blended classrooms in Spring 2013. By fall of this year, the district plans to expand that number to 150.

Kobler defines blended as “somewhere between traditional and virtual.” Students in blended classes can use whatever means help them learn: Some choose textbooks. Others work through assignments online. Sometimes students work alone. Other times, they reach out to peers to help them understand a topic or a concept.

In all those scenarios, the teacher keeps tabs on students and meets with them individually or in groups to keep them on track.

This approach isn’t easy to pull off. Teachers have to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes in front of students, and to talk with students about those mistake, Kobler said. Blended classrooms can seem chaotic as students go in several different directions at once, something that doesn’t also sit well with teachers who demand order.

Parents, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic about the blended approach, sometimes asking that their children continue in a blended classroom because the approach works well for them.

On the other hand, high-achieving students sometimes struggle in a blended environment, something I’ve found in my own classes. High achievers often thrive within a tightly structured, traditional model of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you on a test.” A blended, flipped or hybrid environment strips away this neat order and pushes students to find their own structure and to pace their own learning. That’s a far more difficult task, but it’s also far more meaningful in the long run.

Let me put a twist on Kobler’s earlier question: Can education survive if educators don’t adapt to the needs of students?

That question may make us squirm as well, though it’s also a bit easier to answer.

“If we don’t keep up, we will become irrelevant,” Kobler said.

 


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Thoughts from two speakers I’ve listened to in the last week have been bouncing around my brain.

At Journalism Interactive last week, Richard Hernandez of the University of California, Berkeley, pressed conference participants to experiment with technology that allows new forms of expression. To illustrate his point, he held up a smartphone and said: “You have more information in your pocket than Ronald Reagan had as president.”

Last night in a speech in Lawrence, the columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. used his smartphone as a prop, as well, after an audience member asked him about effecting change. His response went something like this:

In the 1950s, the civil rights movement started among concerned people who used rotary dial phones and mimeograph machines to mobilize citizens and end American apartheid. Today, he said, with smartphones that give us access to infinite amounts of information and an ability to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, why can’t we seem to steer society in an inclusive direction?

Thom Weerd, Unsplash
Thom Weerd, Unsplash

The take-away is that technology alone can’t solve problems. Simply having access to infinite amounts of information does us no good unless we know how to find the information we need. Having the information we need means nothing if we don’t know how to interpret it, to synthesize it, and to present it in meaningful ways. And even if we do that, new information is meaningless unless others have the context and the means to learn from it, use it, and act upon it.

I’m a big fan of technology, and I’ve written more about Journalism Interactive on one of my websites, JournalismTech.com.

Listening to Hernandez and Pitts speak, though, reminded me how important the human element of technology is. I continually push my students to experiment with new digital tools and new techniques of storytelling. Technology can give us superpowers, of sorts, abilities to make sense of things we once could only dream about. It can make us look smart (or dumb), and can shrink the world to the size of a smartphone screen.

Technology means nothing, though, unless we apply it to meaningful questions and problems at a human level.

I hope you’ll let that idea bounce around in your head this weekend.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Saundra McGuire urges faculty members not to judge students’ abilities too quickly or too harshly.

She speaks from experience. As a chemistry professor at Cornell and Louisiana State universities, she used to make snap judgments about her students, separating them into achievers and non-achievers.

Then she realized that those students who skipped class and didn’t study but then acted surprised at bad grades were “just being good scientists.”

Really. (More about that shortly.)

TP1 - Study Cycle 2010 (2)
A strategy for studying from the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University. Click to link to a PDF from the center.

McGuire, director emerita of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State, led workshops for faculty and staff members at KU on Monday, sharing strategies for helping students learn through a technique called metacognition.

She described metacognition as thinking about one’s own learning. Students who employ metacognitive strategies recognize themselves as problem solvers. They are proactive rather than reactive.

“You take steps to answer your own questions,” McGuire said.

That doesn’t come naturally to students, though, McGuire said. In high school, many teachers offer reviews before tests and simply give students the answers. Students learn that they don’t have to put in much effort. As long as they show up for the review sessions, they can usually get a B.

So as good scientists, having learned that they don’t need to exert themselves to get good grades, they show up at college overconfident and underprepared. When they get bad grades, often for the first time, many begin a downward spiral. They withdraw psychologically from classes, doubting their abilities, developing a negative self-perception and showing little interest in trying.

Faculty and staff members need to pay attention to that, she said. Recognize that an early failure may be the result of poor learning strategies, she said, and help students learn the strategies they need to succeed. She offered these suggestions:

Explain to students what we want them to do

Too often, McGuire said, we tell students we want them to move to a higher level of thinking and learning but never explain what we mean. Take reading, for example.

“Students think reading means looking at words while doing something else,” she said.

If we want them to read critically, take notes and prepare to discuss the material, we need to tell them that explicitly, she said.

Make sure students understand terms

She gave an example of a student who struggled with the concept of volume in geometrical figures because to the student, volume meant making the music louder or softer. Another student couldn’t grasp the concept of gases and liquids, saying that by definition gas is a liquid because if it weren’t you couldn’t put it in the tank of your car.

Providing the proper context for students can make all the difference, she said.

Help students develop solid reading strategies

She recommends that students read a paragraph of an article or a book, think about what they remember and put that down in their own words. That may sound as if it will take more time, she said, but it actually takes less time because students don’t have to reread.

“After you do this for a few paragraphs, you start to train your brain to learn,” McGuire said.

Make sure students do the example problems

Students in math and sciences often skip example problems when they complete readings, she said. When they see similar problems on a test, they don’t know how to work through them. So instructors should remind students to work through those problems, looking at the answers only after they have done the work themselves.

Explain Bloom’s Taxonomy to students

It doesn’t matter whether you use the original taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) or the updated one (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), she said. The important thing is to help students recognize the different levels of learning and understanding.

Students understand the difference between studying and learning, she said. They’ll tell you that studying is memorizing and that learning is understanding. Studying is dull and tedious; learning is fun. Studying is short term; learning is long term.

Students get it, she said, but we need to have conversations about learning to help them learn.

We just have to remember not to judge them by a single bad grade.

——–

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

CTE is hosting a series of lunchtime workshops for experienced GTAs who want to discuss facets of teaching in higher education. The workshops will take place from noon to 1 p.m. on the final Friday of every month, through April, in 135 Budig Hall.

To participate in a session, register at cte@ku.edu at least two days before the event. A light lunch will be provided. Please note that space is limited. If you have any questions or need accommodations, contact Judy Eddy at jeddy@ku.edu.

January 31: Using Film in the Classroom
Have you always wanted to use film in your classes but you’re not sure how to do it? Have you wondered what assignments work best when using film? In this workshop, we will talk about mindfully choosing films (both short clips and whole films) to complement lectures and/or as a component to an assignment so as to actively engage students. Time will be allotted to brainstorming film ideas for your own class. With two of CTE’s graduate student staff members, Ann Martinez, English, and Mary Beth Woodson, Film Studies.

February 28: Best Practices in STEM Teaching & LearningCTE sign

During this session, participants will engage and reflect on several evidence-based strategies for increasing student learning in STEM disciplines. This includes multiple levels of inquiry-based approaches, use of technology, and use of appropriate assessment tools. With KU teaching post-docs Kelsey Bitting, Geology, and Anna Hiatt, EEB.

March 28: Managing the Paper Load

Are you faced with stacks of assignments to grade? In this workshop, we’ll talk about how to respond to student writing in ways that support learning goals and help you grade strategically and efficiently. GTAs are encouraged to bring sample assignments to discuss with peers. With Terese Thonus, Director of the KU Writing Center.

April 25: What I Wish I Knew Last Fall

This is a special session for graduate students who are graduating this spring or summer and are preparing for faculty positions. Bring your questions for two faculty members, Ward Lyles, Urban Planning, and Eileen Nutting, Philosophy, who started teaching at KU last fall.

By Doug Ward

My trips to the office of Paul Jess often seemed liked counseling sessions.

I was a master’s student at KU in 1990, and I’d go to Jess’s office with a stream of problems: My students weren’t responding as well as I’d hoped, and some even seemed hostile toward me in the classroom. My thesis wasn’t going as well as I’d expected, and I didn’t know where to begin a search for doctoral programs.

It all seemed so grave then (and seems so innocuous now).

Jess would lean back in his office chair, fold his hands over his bulging stomach, and listen intently. Then he’d smile and nod and explain what I could to do.Teaching Matters Nov. 13 2013

He could be surly, even crotchety, but he had nothing but patience and sound advice when I visited his office. He had a magic filing cabinet that seemed to contain solutions for every possible problem I had in class, and he was ever generous in sharing anything and everything. The folders from that filing cabinet, accompanied by his sage advice, always calmed my nerves and saved me from embarrassment with my students.

Jess never understood why I wanted to be a professor. In nearly every conversation we had, he’d try to dissuade me by explaining all the problems he saw in academia: the long hours, the stacks of grading, the troublesome students, the even more troublesome colleagues, the endless committee meetings, the out-of-whack research expectations, and an academic culture that gave lip service but little reward to high-quality teaching.

When I insisted that I knew what I was getting into, he would shake his head and sigh. Then, like the mentor he was, he’d point me in a direction where I could find my own answers, experience my own failures, and achieve my own successes.

I thought of Jess when I read this month’s issue of Teaching Matters, which focuses on the challenges of graduate education and on the importance of mentoring.

Here’s what you’ll find:

Judy Eddy writes about a paradox that often exists in graduate education.

Dan Bernstein writes about tailoring graduate programs to meet the expectations and aspirations of students and the needs of the university. This includes opportunities for students to develop their teaching in addition to their research.

Ann Martinez speaks with Angela Lumpkin, Susan Lunte and Charles Eldredge and some of their former students about the importance of mentoring.

Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport, and exercise sciences, explains in an interview with Martinez that a mentor must treat each graduate student uniquely, “setting high standards, but then working with them to achieve those standards.”

Reading her words makes me realize how much good mentors have in common.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Caroline Bennett

So, I’ve decided to flip a class.  [File this blog post under ‘Confessions’.]  Specifically, I’m going to flip a course this Spring semester, titled “Design of Steel Structures.”  It’s a fourth-year design class taken by civil and architectural engineers.

This is an undertaking that I’m both excited and nervous to tackle.  The part that I’m really looking forward to the most is really, really focusing in on “what should students be able to do” when they’re done with the course.  This is also the part that I am the most nervous about.

When I’ve taught this course in the past (seven or eight times), I have tried to keep this end-game in focus.  However, I have found that it is far too easy to let “what do I need to cover” take front stage under the pressures of any given semester.  I am expecting that flipping this class will pretty much make that recurring ‘slide’ impossible.  Which is great, and a 100% worthy goal.  And also a little terrifying.

I’m starting to think about how I am going to restructure the course for this spring.  The class is three credit hours, and meets for “lecture” sessions twice a week for 75 minutes and once a week for a two and a half hour “lab” sessions.  In the past, I’ve used the lecture sessions for presenting the theory and concepts behind designing steel structures.  I don’t think these lecture sessions have been particularly bad; in fact, I am proud of many of them.  We spend a lot of time in class working through examples — many of them I lead, and many of them students work through in small groups.

I am planning to move approximately 75% of this content outside of the class time.  Instead of working through this material in-class, I am going to create a series of online videos that students will be asked to view before class periods.  This is going to free up a lot of in-class time.  This newly-freed class time presents a great opportunity to focus deeply on higher-order learning objectives.  The question that this begs is “what is the best way to meet those objectives?”  The answer to this question should drive how we spend our in-class time.

This is my first foray into flipping, and I promise to keep you posted on my progress — my thought exercises and implementation.  I’m going to be wrestling with a host of new questions and challenges, and I would appreciate engaging in discussion with you on this forum!

Caroline Bennett is an associate professor of civil engineering and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. 

By Doug Ward

Learning is a partnership, I tell students. As an instructor, I do my best to provide interesting and relevant material, use class time wisely, and grade student work fairly. I also make time in and out of class to help students better understand material they struggle with.

I can do only so much, though, I explain, and I certainly can’t make students learn. Learning takes place only when students engage themselves in their education, complete their work meaningfully, come to class prepared, and participate in discussions and projects.

It sounds simple, but it’s not, as a new study on undergraduate engagement makes abundantly clear.

The study, A Fresh Look at Student Engagement, surveyed freshmen and seniors on such things as higher-order learning, collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction and the supportiveness of their campus. In the foreword to the report, Paul E. Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, sums up the challenges well: “An authentic postsecondary education is more than simply acquiring knowledge; it must produce a sophisticated ability to use knowledge creatively to solve problems and add value.” (5)Pages from NSSE_2013_Annual_Results

That ability starts with engagement, and the report shows that those of us in higher education have lots of work to do on that front. Here are a few of the findings:

Collaborative learning

Only about a third of students reported engaging in collaborative learning, which was defined as working with other students on projects and assignments, explaining course material to others, or preparing for exams together. Those in engineering and biology reported the highest levels of collaborative learning; those in the arts, humanities, social sciences and social services reported the lowest levels.

Study time

Freshmen reported spending an average of 14 hours a week preparing for classes; seniors, 15 hours. Students taking all their courses online reported spending about an hour more studying each week. Seniors in engineering spent the most time studying (19 hours); those in communications, media and public relations, the least (12 hours).

Time spent reading

Students in online courses spent more time reading (eight hours a week for both freshmen and seniors) than students in traditional courses (six hours for freshmen, seven hours for seniors). A third of students reported doing no reading for class.

Amount of writing

Students in online courses did far more writing (59 pages a semester for freshmen, 107 for seniors) than students in traditional classes (45 pages for freshmen, 75 pages for seniors). Not surprisingly, the more reading and writing a course required, the more students perceived that they increased their ability to think in complex and critical ways.

Learning strategies

Students who used such learning strategies as identifying key elements of reading assignments, reviewing notes after class and summarizing what they had learned from a course generally reported higher grades than those who didn’t.

Effective teaching

Only about 40 percent of students at research universities reported that their instructors used effective teaching practices. The study defined those practices as having clear goals and organization, using clear examples to explain difficult concepts, and giving prompt and detailed feedback on assignments. Those in liberal arts reported the highest percentages of effective teaching; those in engineering, science and technology the lowest.

Interaction with faculty

Only about 20 percent of freshmen and seniors at large universities (those with more than 10,000 students) reported having meaningful interactions with faculty members. This included activities such as talking about career plans, meeting with faculty members outside class, and discussing academic performance.

Supportive environment

Older students, veterans and transfer students were less likely to find the campus environment supportive than other students were. Students who lived off-campus were less likely to describe campus as supportive than students who lived on campus were.

Online engagement

Students in online-only courses reported a higher level of interaction with instructors, advisers, student services staff members and administrators than students in traditional classes did. At the same time, they reported low levels of collaborative learning and were less likely to find the class environment supportive than those in face-to-face classes.

Use of technology

Students said courses that used technology for learning and that helped them understand the use of technology improved engagement and higher-order learning.

Adjustments to teaching

Assistant professors and lecturers were far more likely than associate and full professors to use course evaluations to improve their courses and their teaching.

Highimpact practices

This was the umbrella term the survey used to describe such things as learning communities, study abroad, internships, service learning and research with faculty members. Eighty-four percent of seniors reported engaging in at least one of these activities and 60 percent reported two or more. Fifty-eight percent of freshmen reported engaging in at least one, and 12 percent said they had done two. For seniors at research universities, the most common activity was an internship (53 percent), followed by service learning (52 percent). For freshmen, the most common activity was service learning (46 percent).

Student jobs and activities

Seniors at research universities averaged 14 hours a week working for pay, 12 hours relaxing and socializing, 5 hours participating in extracurricular activities, 5 hours commuting (including walking and driving to campus), 4 hours caring for dependents, and 3 hours doing community service.

The study was conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization that focuses on undergraduate learning. Dan Bernstein, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, serves on the organization’s advisory board.

This year’s survey involved more than 1.6 million students at more than 600 colleges and universities. Unfortunately, KU was not among them.

I’d highly recommend looking more closely at the report, which provides a rich snapshot of student and faculty perceptions of higher education. Most certainly, the survey highlights many encouraging aspects of student engagement. As I said, though, we all have a ways to go.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

If you want to find a quick answer to a question, where do you go?

Google, most likely.

If you want to help students from half a dozen disciplines understand how the elements of linear algebra apply to them, where do you go?

Again, Google. But this time, think outside the search box.

That’s one of the tricks Erik Van Vleck, a professor of math at KU, uses to help students learn linear algebra. Students in all disciplines use Google to search for information. Van Vleck pushes them to look at the search engine in mathematical terms, though, asking: “What does Google do when you put in search terms?”

Eigenvectors
The matrix transforms its eigenvectors (represented by the blue and violet arrows) to vectors pointing in the same direction. “Eigen” translates to “characteristic.” Interestingly, for a while after WWII, the use of “eigen” was replaced by “characteristic” in the British scientific literature. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

This semester, Van Vleck coordinates two dozen sections of Calculus I and teaches a freshman seminar in the computer age and computational mathematics. Students in the classes come from majors like biology, physics, engineering, computer science and, of course, mathematics. Each of those disciplines applies math to its own types of problems, but students need the same basic understanding of concepts like derivatives, matrices and eigenvectors.

To help students grasp those abstract concepts, Van Vleck looks for problems and examples that apply across disciplines.

“I’m trying to give them examples that everybody knows,” Van Vleck said.

That’s where Google comes in.

He gives students an article that explains how Google’s bots troll the web, gathering information about pages and determining how they are connected to one another. From there, Google’s computers construct matrices and eigenvectors that ultimately determine what shows up on the results page of a search.

Only Google’s engineers and computer scientists know all the elements of the company’s search algorithm. But by relating those abstractions to everyday life, Van Vleck not only engages students in problem solving but helps them learn better, as well.

“Part of my belief is that if people are comfortable with context, it’s easier to understand things,” Van Vleck said. “Abstraction is great, but often we map back to context we’re comfortable with or familiar with.”

Van Vleck learned this firsthand when he was a new faculty member. He and other recent mathematics Ph.D.s attended a seminar where they received equivalent mathematical problems. One of the problems was phrased abstractly, the other in terms of drinking beer.

You can guess where this is going.

“All the math Ph.D.s did better in the beer example because we could see how to solve the problem even though it was the same as the abstract problem,” Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck uses other techniques to help students learn, including a flipped approach in which he gives students pre-class assignments, builds on those assignments in class, and then has students follow up with related assignments out of class.

He has also boiled down a 400-page textbook to 20 pages of notes with hyperlinks to additional information for students who want to go beyond the essentials.

“If students can master those 20 pages,” he said, “they can pass the class.”

All of Van Vleck’s strategies are part of a pedagogical approach known as “just-in-time teaching,” which aims to make the most of classroom time by focusing on what students need most.

Here’s a link with more information about the just-in-time strategy.

You can also search Google, as long as you’ve done your math homework first.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A session from an education conference I listened in on last week reminded me of the parallels between teaching and editing.

That might seem strange, but bear with me.

I used to commute on Amtrak between Philadelphia and New York City, where I worked at The New York Times. One afternoon, I sat next to a chatty woman who wanted to know all about my job as an editor. As the train sped through central New Jersey, I explained how editors scrutinize the work of others, raising questions, fixing errors, working out the kinks in articles, pushing reporters to provide better context and better phrasing, writing headlines, and completing innumerable other tasks that lead to the publication of a newspaper.

Clker.com
Clker.com

As the train pulled into Penn Station, she thanked me and said, “I’ll watch for your byline.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wouldn’t find one. Editors work behind the scenes. They don’t get bylines.

That’s what I started to think about during the remote session from the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Those of us who teach know the myriad components that go into our jobs. Most people don’t realize that, though. They equate teaching with standing in front of a room just as they equate journalism with writing articles that get bylines.

Of course, ISSOTL, as the organization is known, has worked for the last decade to not only open up the teaching process, but to promote the importance of a scholarly approach to reflective teaching in higher education. Dan Bernstein, the director of CTE, has been at the forefront of using teaching portfolios to do that.

As participants at the conference made clear, though, we still have a long way to go. At research universities, especially, scholarly reflection on teaching has yet to achieve a meaningful place in the promotion and tenure process. Some professors see teaching as a necessary evil they must endure so they can concentrate on their research. Many faculty members who do value teaching find it difficult to open their work to scrutiny. Without a doubt, teaching is a far more personal activity than research, and the setbacks and failures feel far more personal.

Christina Hendricks, a senior instructor in philosophy at the University of British Columbia, raised that point in her session at ISSOTL. “Sometimes people don’t want to open up their teaching to discussion or peer evaluation,” she said. “It’s as if it’s OK to open up your research to peer review but not your teaching.”

She had been keeping a journal to reflect on teaching and learning, she said, and at one point thought, ” ‘Why not do it in a way that other people can see?’ ” The result was a blog called You’re the Teacher, in which she reflects on her teaching of undergraduates, and writes about issues related to the scholarship of teaching and learning, among other things.

We’re hoping to do similar things with Bloom’s Sixth. We see enormous value in discussing our successes and failures in the classroom, sharing ideas about teaching and learning, raising the profile of high-quality teaching in higher education, and approaching teaching in the same reflective, meaningful way we do scholarship.

Another ISSOTL speaker, whose name was lost in the remote connection last week, offered a useful challenge, saying, “We don’t talk enough about the exciting things we do. We need to turn the narrative of teaching into a narrative of growth.”

Without a doubt, we need to do a better job of explaining what we do and of encouraging colleagues to join us in a journey of scholarly reflection and a deeper understanding of what helps our students learn.

As I discovered in trying to explain editing, though, true understanding will require far more than a single conversation.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward
Several faculty members and graduate students from KU attended this year’s conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I wasn’t able to go, though I did listen in on a few of the sessions remotely. I’ve collected tweets and videos into a Storify presentation that shows some of the thinking, conversations and approaches of the convention and the society.

By Doug Ward

Lecturing as an educational form emerged at a time of scarce information and oral culture. It’s a top-down method of conveying information that under the right circumstances can be quite effective, especially at motivating listeners.Teaching matters cover_Page_1

For many students, though, the lecture can seem like more of an endurance test than a learning experience. In a world of abundant information, lecturing is usually not the best method to help students learn. Many faculty members have long suspected as much, and research has been bearing that out.

The latest edition of Teaching Matters from the Center for Teaching Excellence looks at a movement at KU to shift away from traditional lecture. Among the articles you’ll find:

  • Judy Eddy on KU’s efforts to provide deeper learning for students
  • Dan Bernstein on the challenges of changing the culture of teaching
  • Bob Goldstein and Ann Martinez on a new program that is using post-doctoral researchers to help faculty members transform gateway courses
  • Andrea Greenhoot on a new community of faculty members, graduate assistants and postdocs working across disciplines to improve KU courses

Look for Teaching Matters in your campus mailbox. You can also find it online at the CTE website.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

An organization called Reclaim Open Learning held its first symposium last week. The organization promotes innovation in higher education through the use of technology, online resources and open learning in unconventional ways.

The approach and goals of Reclaim Open Learning aren’t for everyone, though I embrace most of the same principles in my course Infomania. I found the comments emerging from the symposium thought-provoking and useful. I created a Storify compilation of some of the tweets on learning, innovation, promoting change, and the role of education in a digital age. You’ll find that compilation on another site, Teaching with Technology. I’ve provided a taste of some of those tweets here.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Before you ban cellphones and laptops from your classroom, consider this: Students want to use those devices for learning and are looking to their instructors for guidance.

That’s one of the takeaway points of the latest study by the Educause Center for Analysis and Research on students and information technology. The center, known as ECAR, has conducted an annual survey of undergraduates since 2004, accumulating a wealth of data on students and technology. This year’s survey drew 113,000 responses from students at 251 colleges and universities.

Most of the key findings in this year’s study mesh with my own experiences with students. Among them:

PhotoDune
PhotoDune

Students value the social component of education. More than 40 percent of students have taken an online class, but most still prefer in-person classes that give them the opportunity to interact with instructors and fellow students. Older students who have jobs report a higher preference for online classes.

Students like classes that blend online and in-person components. They say that they not only prefer classes with a flipped, hybrid or blended approach but that they learn more in those classes.

Students want instructors to integrate technology into learning. Nearly three-fourths of respondents would like to have online access to recorded lectures, and slightly smaller percentages would like to see more use of learning management systems like Blackboard. They would also like to see more use of online collaboration tools.

Students’ ownership of technology is growing. Ninety percent of students own at least two Internet-capable devices, and 60 percent own three or more. This includes laptop computers (90 percent of students own one), smartphones (75 percent) and tablets or e-readers (48 percent). Students who own more technology are also more likely to see its potential for learning.

One of the most important points of the survey, I think, is that students want their instructors’ help in understanding how to use new software and new technology, and to use digital tools for learning. Not for texting. Not for watching YouTube videos. For learning.

Saying and doing don’t always go together, of course, and as the study points out, this is an ambiguous and often contentious issue. Students want to learn with technology, but most prefer to separate their social and academic lives. They value their privacy, and they express hesitation about software that tracks their academic work and gives them recommendations for course offerings. They also understand the distractions that technology can bring to the classroom, and many prefer to keep their phones stowed away. Others chafe at bans on technology in class, something that large percentages of instructors do, the survey says.

Despite the distractions that technology can bring, it is an integral part of students’ lives. It’s also an integral part of the learning equation. For instance, 60 percent or more of students say that technology helps them feel more connected to their college or university, and to their instructors. They also see it as important not only for their academic success but for their success in the workplace.

There’s no one size fits all approach to technology in the classroom, but it’s clear that we need to do a better job of harnessing the power of technology for what instructors and students say they want: more opportunities for learning.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I got a reminder this week of the value of collaboration.

In my 300-level hybrid class Infomania, I asked students to critique a hierarchical model of information and information processing explained by Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro and Anthony Mills.

The model, originally proposed by the organizational theorist Russell Ackoff, is often portrayed as a pyramid with data at the bottom and wisdom at the top. The model has come under criticism for being too simplistic, and yet I find it useful in helping students consider the complexities of information.

Image: clker.com

In Infomania, students work in one of five groups online and in person. We generally have one class period each week devoted to discussion and another devoted to project work.

At the start of discussion this week, I gave each group a different question related to the readings and then had students explain what their groups talked about and what conclusions they had reached.

I was reluctant to assign the question about information hierarchy, fearing that it would be too difficult. I was curious, though, so I asked students to consider this: What, if anything, is missing from Ackoff’s hierarchy of information?

When it was their turn, the students who had that question didn’t hesitate. They said the model needed a better explanation of how one moves from understanding to wisdom, the top two layers of the hierarchy. To truly gain wisdom, they said, you have to apply your understanding.

I was blown away. They had altered an established theory of information, making it not only more meaningful but more useful.

I asked another group to explain the components and importance of digital literacy, the focus of an article by Howard Rheingold. One of those components is collaboration. At one point in the discussion, I asked: What’s the value of collaboration?

One student replied: “Two heads are better than one.”

True, I said. But those two have to listen to each other, engage each other and share meaningful ideas.

That’s the real value of collaboration.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

CTE’s Twitter feed