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

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


  • 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.