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.

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:

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.”


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.