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.