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.