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’

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.