By Doug Ward

When Mark Mort began remaking a 100-level biology course a few years ago, he asked instructors who had taught the class what they thought students needed.

“Not surprisingly, the answers were very much content, content, content,” said Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Then he went to colleagues who taught classes later in the curriculum, courses for which his course, Biology 152, was a prerequisite. He asked what they expected students to know after taking Biology 152, or Principles of Organismal Biology.

Their response?

Nothing.

That’s right. Nothing. They told Mort: “We don’t think they have any content retention.”

The response was both sobering and liberating, reminding Mort of the course’s weaknesses but helping justify a major remake.

Biology 152 is the first of a two-course sequence that most biology majors take. It had long been taught as a lecture to 400 or more students, with instructors using PowerPoint slides to “plow through as much material and content as possible,” Mort said.

Mort knew the course had problems.

“We were losing a lot of students because we were trying cover a lot of material in a very rapid fashion,” he said.

So he set out to change the course in several ways:

  • Creating “high-reward, low-risk” activities, both in class and out of class, to help students learn material along the way rather than forcing them to cram for exams
  • Lecturing less and integrating more discussion, case studies, problem-solving and application of material, even in a class that often had more than 400 students
  • Helping students improve their study skills
  • Focusing on activities that help students think like a scientist, including improving their understanding of scientific method, their ability to read scientific papers, and their ability to interpret charts and graphs

    Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152

All too often, Mort said, faculty members get lost in the content and forget about the things that fascinated and inspired them early in their careers.

“And I think if we don’t step back and say, ‘This is why I’m a biologist’ or ‘This is why I’m a psychologist,’ we don’t get the excitement in the next generation of students,” Mort said.

The transformation is working. Students are more engaged. The number of those who drop or fail has declined. Instructors are enjoying the teaching of the class more. And Mort is able to have new conversations with his colleagues.

“It’s allowing me to go to my colleagues downstream and say, ‘The students in Biology 152 were held accountable for this information at this level of knowledge, and you don’t have to feel compelled to go back to the very basics because they have some of this content already.’ The price is we don’t cover 15 chapters on human anatomy and physiology or mammalian physiology. I don’t think we need to. I don’t think we ever should have tried to do that.”

In other words, it’s no longer all about the content.


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 amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.


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 evaluation of teaching generally looks like this:

Students hurriedly fill in questionnaires at the end of a semester, evaluating an instructor on a five-point scale. The university compiles the results and provides a summary for each faculty member. The individual scores, often judged against a department mean, determine an instructor’s teaching effectiveness for everything from annual reviews to evaluations for promotion and tenure.

That’s a problem. Student evaluations of teaching provide a narrow, often biased perspective that elevates faculty performance in the classroom above all else, even though it is just a small component of teaching. Even as faculty members work to provide a multitude of opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding, and even as their research receives layers of scrutiny, teaching continues to be evaluated by a single piece of evidence.

A CTE rubric for evaluating teaching helps instructors and departments focus on a series of questions.

The Center for Teaching Excellence hopes to change that in the coming years, with the help of a $612,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Through the grant, CTE will offer mini-grants to departments that are willing to adopt a richer evaluation of teaching and adapt a rubric we have developed to aid the evaluation process. The rubric draws not only on student voices but also on peer evaluations and on material from the faculty member, including syllabi, assignments, evidence of student learning, assessments, and reflections on teaching.

The grant project involves departments that fall under the umbrella of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, but we plan to expand involvement to humanities and professional schools. It will focus on the evaluation of teaching, but our goals extend beyond that. The reliance on student evaluations has in many cases hindered the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, which emphasize student learning as the central outcome of instruction. These practices have resulted in deeper learning and greater success for students, in addition to closing gaps between majority and minority groups. So by helping create a richer evaluation of faculty teaching, we hope to help departments recognize the work that faculty members put into improved student learning.   

As the project unfolds, four to five departments will receive mini-grants in the coming year and will work with CTE staff members to develop a shared vision of high-quality teaching. We will add departments to the program in the next two years. Those departments will adapt the rubric so that it aligns with their disciplinary goals and expectations. They will also identify appropriate forms of evidence and decide how to apply the rubric. We envision it as a tool for such things as evaluation for promotion and tenure, third-year review, annual review, and mentoring of new faculty members, but the decision will be left to departments.  

Representatives of all the KU departments using the rubric will form a learning community that will meet periodically to share their approaches to using the rubric, exchange ideas and get feedback from peers. Once a year, they will have similar conversations with faculty members at two other universities that have created similar programs. 

The KU grant is part of a five-year, $2.8 million project that includes the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Michigan State University. UMass and Colorado will also work to improve the evaluation of teaching; a researcher from Michigan State will create case studies of the other three campuses. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE; Meagan Patterson, a faculty fellow at CTE; and I will oversee the project at KU. The project grew from conversations at meetings of the Bay View Alliance, a group of North American research universities working to improve teaching and learning on their campuses. KU, Colorado and Massachusetts are all members of the alliance.

We see this as an important step in recognizing the intellectual work that goes into teaching and in elevating the role of teaching in the promotion and tenure process. In doing so, we hope to help faculty make their teaching accomplishments more visible and to elevate the importance of student learning. 


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

Add another lock to the ivory tower.

A majority of college students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker they disagree with, and 20 percent accept the idea of resorting to violence to keep an undesirable speaker from campus, a poll from the Brookings Institution finds.

John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, conducted the poll to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. The survey contained responses from 1,500 students in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of 2 to 6 percentage points.

elements of bill of rights on a tablet screen
The Blue Diamond Gallery

The results are disturbing, although not surprising given the recent campus reactions to controversial speakers:

  • More than 40 percent of students say that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. (It does.) Women (49 percent) are considerably more likely than men (38 percent) to believe that.
  • Male students (57 percent) are considerably more likely than female students (47 percent) to say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable. Democrats (62 percent) are far more likely than Republicans (39 percent) to agree.
  • Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (10 percent) to say that violence is acceptable to keep a speaker away from campus.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students say that the First Amendment requires that a campus provide an opposing view to a controversial speaker. (It doesn’t.)
  • A majority of students (53 percent) say they would prefer a campus environment that prohibits offensive viewpoints to one that exposes them to many different viewpoints, including offensive ones. Democrats (61 percent) are more likely than Republicans (49 percent) to choose the prohibitive environment.

Villasenor issues a pessimistic assessment of the results.

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” he wrote.

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, sees this as part of a fraying of liberal education, which he says isn’t vigorously promoting the idea of discussion and dissent to hone thinking.

“Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds,” he said in a recent speech.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees this lack of willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints as part of a “rise of identity consciousness.” A movement that started in the 1980s has led to a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities,” he writes.

Lilla says this approach has been helpful in improving inclusiveness on campuses and on exploring ideas of neglected groups. “But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins,” he says, “so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.”

Any discussion of how to rekindle the ability to engage in reasoned debate and dissent must include an understanding of the First Amendment. That understanding needs to start in middle school and high school, Villasenor argues. At colleges and universities, he said, professors and administrators need to do a better job of creating an environment that values free and open speech. He was pessimistic about that, though, saying he thought faculty responses to his survey would probably be similar to students’.

Students’ ignorance of the First Amendment not only diminishes an open airing of ideas, he said, but foreshadows changes in society as students’ understanding of free speech will “inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

In other words, we need to help students learn to listen to many views and embrace disagreement as a natural process of improving themselves and society. It we don’t, they will find that an ivory tower isn’t just a place of safety. It can easily become a place of intellectual imprisonment.

Budget cuts and the imperilment of public universities

State budget cuts and reductions in federal funding have clouded the future of public research universities, especially those in the Midwest, Jon Marcus writes in Washington Monthly.

Not only have university budgets become shaky, he says, but many faculty members have left Midwestern universities for better jobs, public research universities in the Midwest have fallen in national rankings, and spending on research and development has fallen. These universities are “experiencing a pattern of relative decline,” Marcus writes. (He uses a definition of “Midwest” that encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.)

He cites some startling statistics that put his premise into context:

“The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times.”

Additionally, a decline in federal research spending comes at a time when other countries have put additional money into research activities at their universities.

“This ominous reality could widen economic inequality,” he says, in part because students with higher degrees who stay in a state after receiving their degrees bolster that state’s economy. It could also threaten communities in which universities are the primary employer and ultimately threaten the national economy, he says.

The tone of the article seems overly alarmist at times, but the financial challenges at public research universities is very real.

“These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor,” he says.


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

If you’ve noticed that your students still don’t have required course materials, you have lots of company.

That’s because more students are delaying purchase of course materials, if they buy them at all, and paying more attention to price when making decisions, according to a report by the National Association of College Stores.

That’s not surprising, as students have said for several years that they have been avoiding the purchase of course materials. It is still worth watching the trends, though, because it is difficult for students to succeed if they don’t have the books and other course materials they need for their classes. Students who avoided purchase of books reported lower GPAs, the report said, even though two-thirds of students said that they suffered no consequences.

Jeffrey Betts, Stocksnap

The report, Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors Toward Course Materials, is based on surveys of students at 90 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada in the spring. Among some of the findings that stand out:

  • 20 percent of students waited until after the first week of classes to buy course materials, compared with 12 percent in each of the three previous semesters.
  • Only 40 percent of students reported that they had all course materials by the first day of class.
  • 25 percent of students said they gained access to course material by borrowing, sharing or downloading them (most likely through illicit means). That is up from 15 percent in Spring 2017.
  • The amount students spend on required course materials has been on a steady decline over the last decade, falling to $579 in the 2016-17 school year from $701 in 2007-08.
  • Freshmen spent an average of $633 during the last academic year, compared with $481 for seniors.
  • The average cost of a textbook was $81 during the 2016-17 academic year.
  • Students in health professions and business spent the most on course materials, the report said. Those in computer science and math spent the least.

The takeaway from the report is that instructors must pay more attention to the cost of course materials they assign. More and more students simply won’t buy the required materials. I’ve heard many professors say that’s the students’ faults, but the reality is more complex. More than a third of students said instructors never used the required texts they bought, and more than a fourth said the materials were hard to understand or use. Nine percent of students at four-year universities said they had to borrow money to pay for their books, and 18 percent said they had to wait for financial aid before they could afford books.

Seemingly fishing for some good news, the report highlighted a finding that 97 of students bought at least one required text during the spring semester.

Yes, one.  If only learning were that simple.

So long, computers?

At least that’s what many faculty members speculated in a survey by the magazine Campus Technology. The magazine asked faculty members what technologies were most likely to disappear in the next decade. Desktop computers and laptops landed at the top of the list, followed by clickers and non-interactive projectors and displays.

Interestingly, the survey didn’t ask people what would replace computers. (Probably smaller computers.)

The survey was too small (232 volunteers nationwide) to provide any real validity, but the responses were interesting nonetheless. For instance, faculty expect virtual and augmented reality to grow in importance, along with mobile devices and apps, and 3D modeling, scanning and printing.

Here’s a conundrum, though: Eighty-one percent of respondents said technology had improved their teaching, and 81 percent said it had improved student learning. When asked to identify the technology they wish they didn’t have to deal with, though, faculty members said learning management systems, mobile devices, printers and computers.

Apparently faculty think technology works well as long as they don’t have to use it.

A thoughtful reflection on concealed carry

“To me, the college classroom is a sacred space—a place to practice dealing with conflict without recourse to violence,” Lisa Moore of the University of Texas, Austin, writes. “My professional judgment as a teacher is that the kind of security we need in the classroom is incompatible with the presence of a loaded firearm.”

Her thoughtful essay on the site of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is well worth reading.


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

Students aren’t always sure what to make of a flipped class. Some resist and complain. Others take to the format immediately and recognize how it helps them learn. Most are somewhere in between.

A class in film and media studies that Anne Gilbert helped transform provides a good example of student reaction.

“The students who are in the class, they’re learning a lot,” she said. “They’re a little bit overwhelmed in the beginning. They sort of have this look on their face: ‘There’s so much going on. I love all of this, but I’m so scared.’ ”

Anne Gilbert answers a student’s question as other students (background) work in groups on the basics of video lighting

The class she describes is Basic Video Production, or Film and Media Studies 275. Gilbert, who was a post-doctoral teaching fellow at KU and is now an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, worked with Meg Jamieson, the instructor of the class, to transform it into an active learning format. Rather than lecturing to students about concepts and then having students explore those concepts in lab, they shifted much of the material to a hands-on format in the classroom.

“The hope is that the connection between studies and practice, which is at the heart of film and media studies as a degree, can be implemented a little more deeply with the flipped classroom,” Jamieson said.

The accompanying video explains more about the approach that Jamieson and Gilbert took in remaking the class. They worked with other faculty members in their department to home in on what students needed to take away from FMS 275 to prepare them for subsequent classes. They created videos and other assignments that allowed them to shift some in-class material online. That gave them freedom to experiment with in-class techniques like a series of stations that students rotated through to learn the basics of lighting. That, in turn, freed up lab time so that students could spend more time creating, editing and honing their video productions.

None of this was easy. Gilbert said that she and Jamieson spent 10 to 15 hours a week planning and creating materials in the semester before they taught the class in a flipped format. They created a pre-test so they had a better sense of students’ skill levels when they entered the class. Other faculty members contributed material, as well, and helped with some of the class sessions.

There were glitches along the way, as there are in any course redesign. Some students saw the new format as too much work. And, not surprisingly, the graduate teaching assistants in the class needed help in adapting to the new format. That’s a crucial aspect of any change in a class. Everyone involved has to understand the goals and the methods.

Meg Jamieson leads students through some of the components of effective lighting for video

Gilbert spent a considerable amount of time helping the GTAs understand teaching styles “that don’t involve standing in front of the classroom and explaining things.” They were “a little unsettled at their changing position,” she said.

That led to discussions about what teaching involves, and ultimately helped improve the class and helped the teaching assistants improve their work.

“They don’t necessarily understand that when the students do an activity in class and you’re circulating around and helping them – that is teaching,” Gilbert said. “They don’t see that as teaching. They see that as the students doing an activity. They ask how students are learning things because I haven’t taught it to them. It’s like, ‘Well, this is teaching. This is how they are learning.’ ”

Students did indeed learn. Gilbert and Jamieson both said that the quality of student projects had improved with the flipped format. Other instructors have found the same, and the evidence about flipped teaching and other forms of active learning continues to grow.

You can read more about teaching in a flipped format in the CTE portfolio and poster gallery. Instructors in music, economics, engineering, Latin, psychology, and physics have all had good results with flipping their classes. They are good examples of how instructors, not just students, are learning in a flipped format.


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

Research universities generally say one thing and do another when it comes to supporting effective teaching.

That is, they say they value and reward high-quality teaching, but fail to back up public proclamations when it comes to promotion and tenure. They say they value evidence in making decisions about the quality of instruction but then admit that only a small percentage of the material faculty submit for evaluation of teaching is of high quality.

That’s one finding from a recent report by the Association of American Universities, an organization that has traditionally embraced research as the most important element of university culture. That has begun to change over the last few years, though, as the AAU has emphasized the importance of high-quality teaching through its Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. It elevated the importance of teaching even more with its recent report.

That report, called Aligning Practice to Policies: Changing the Culture to Recognize and Reward Teaching at Research Universities, was created in collaboration with the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, an organization of educators working to improve the teaching of science. The report contains a survey of AAU member universities about attitudes toward teaching, but many of the ideas came out of a 2016 gathering of more than 40 leaders in higher education. Andrea Greenhoot, the director of CTE, and Dan Bernstein, the former director, represented KU at that meeting.

I wrote earlier this summer about the work of Emily Miller, the AAU’s associate vice president for policy, in helping improve teaching at the organization’s member universities. The AAU, she said, had been working to “balance the scale between teaching and research.” Miller played a key role in creating the latest report, which makes several recommendations for improving undergraduate education:

Provide ways to reward good teaching. This involves creating an evaluation system that moves beyond student surveys. Those surveys are fraught with problems and biases, the report says, and don’t reflect the much broader work that goes into effective teaching. Such a system would include such elements as evidence of course revision based on learning outcomes, documentation of student learning, adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, and reflection on teaching and course development. Universities also need to educate promotion and tenure committees on best practices for reviewing such materials, the report said.

Create a culture that values teaching as scholarship. This might involve several things: raising money to reward faculty members dedicated to improving student learning; providing time and resources for instructors to transform large lecture classes; and creating clear standards of good teaching for promotion and tenure, and for teaching awards. The report also suggests providing forums for recognizing teaching, and diminishing the divide between instructional faculty members and those whose jobs are research heavy.

Gain support from department chairs and deans. University leaders play a crucial role in setting agendas and encouraging faculty to adopt evidence-based teaching practices. This is especially important in the hiring process, the report says, and leaders can signal the importance of good teaching by providing professional development money, supporting involvement in communities that help promote good teaching, and having new faculty members work with experienced colleagues to gain insights into how to teach well.

The report made it clear that many research universities have a long way to go in making teaching and learning a crucial component of university life. Despite mounting evidence showing that student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices help students learn far more than lecture, the report said, most faculty members who teach undergraduate STEM courses “remain inattentive to the shifting landscape.”

In many cases, the report said, university policies express the importance of teaching, with most providing at least some guidance on how teaching should be evaluated. Most require use of student surveys and a majority recommend peer classroom evaluation. The problem is that teaching has long been pushed aside in the promotion and tenure process, even as universities pay lip service to the importance of teaching. The report said that needed to change.

“Research universities need to create an environment where the continuous improvement of teaching is valued, assessed, and rewarded at various stages of a faculty member’s career and aligned across the department, college, and university levels,” the report said. “Evidence shows that stated policies alone do not reflect practices, much less evolve culture to more highly value teaching. A richer, more complete assessment of teaching quality and effectiveness for tenure, promotion, and merit is necessary for systemic improvement of undergraduate STEM education.”

The report features the work of three universities, including KU, in helping change the culture of teaching. It includes a rubric we have developed at CTE to help departments move beyond student surveys in evaluating teaching, and talks about some of the work we have done to elevate the importance of teaching. It also explains the work that the University of Colorado and the University of California, Irvine, have done to improve STEM teaching at their campuses.

I’ll be writing more about the CTE teaching rubric in the coming weeks as we launch a new initiative aimed at helping departments use that rubric to identify the elements of good teaching and to add dimension to their evaluation of teaching. The AAU report is a good reminder of the momentum building not only to improve teaching but to elevate its importance in university life. Progress has been slow but steady. We seem on the cusp of significant changes, though.


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

Randy Bass sees a struggle taking place in higher education.

On one side are those who see the future as “unbundled,” a model in which students pursue discrete skills at their own pace and mostly under their own direction. On the other side are those who see the future as bundled, much as a university is now with classes and programs and a physical environment that draws everything together.

Randy Bass during a breakout session at the 2017 Teaching Summit

This is not a clash of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, Bass, a professor and administrator at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address at KU’s annual Teaching Summit this month. The bundled model needs the skills, flexibility and other elements of the unbundled side, he says, although he contends that those pursuing the unbundled model “are working with a diminished vision of education.”

Let’s tease those elements apart a bit.

The unbundled model that Bass describes has been embraced by many entrepreneurs and authors who see the traditional model of higher education failing. Under this model, classes have little or no ties to each other and learning is detached from physical spaces. Students focus on particular skills when they need them, work at their own pace and learn on their own, often online. Bass describes this approach as “granular, targeted, modular.” Competency-based education lives on this side of the spectrum. So do MOOCs and online organizations like Lynda.com and Kahn Academy. It is driven by analytics and takes what Bass calls a “disintegrated” approach to learning, one that its advocates say will help underserved populations.

The bundled model approaches higher education as a community. Classes, at least in theory, build on and integrate with each other, helping students accumulate expertise that leads toward completion of a degree. This approach works toward whole-person education, Bass said, providing interaction with other students and with instructors. It builds in skills like critical thinking, creativity, empathy and ethical judgment. All of this is integrated into a larger learning community located in a particular physical space: classrooms, living spaces, informal spaces, and a physical campus. It involves things like student organizations, sports, and arts and entertainment.

Bass said universities should work toward an integrative, inclusive model

He called on universities to work at “rebundling” education in more meaningful ways, finding opportunities to integrate skills and to allow students to work on difficult, authentic questions from the beginning of their studies. The future of higher education, he said, depends on our ability to bring together the components of the unbundled and bundled models of education.

“These two discourses have largely been separate and at war and talking past each other until the last few years,” Bass said. “The great challenge of the next decade or more is to move toward a new synthesis.”

This new synthesis is crucial, Bass says, because higher education will undergo big changes in the next couple of decades. He drew on the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggests that evolution doesn’t take place in a steady progression. Rather, it goes through long periods of stability punctuated by big leaps in changes of life forms.

“I think we’re in that period of time in higher education,” Bass said. “I think the last 15 to 20 years have been building to it. … It’s creating a shift in what we consider the species of how we deliver higher education. Over the next 15 years, there’s going to be a jump, a shift in the landscape.”

He made a case that the future lies at the intersection of inclusiveness and integration. It involves integrating the skills promoted by those who want to unbundle education but integrates what Bass called “hard skills”: learning to learn, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, resilience, empathy, humility, ethical judgment.

“We also know that we can’t teach most of those things directly,” Bass said. “We can’t teach these as direct instruction. But we can design environments where they are more likely rather than less likely to be cultivated.”

Where various forms of education fit into that quadrant now

Universities were founded on the idea of exclusive excellence, he said, and much of higher education still operates on this model. The future, though, depends on our ability to provide inclusive excellence, he said, to find ways to draw in more people into high-quality, integrative education.

To help with that, he urged adoption of high-impact practices, which have been shown to improve student success. These practices help create unscripted environments that provide hands-on learning, push students outside their comfort zone, help them learn more about themselves, and allow disparate components of education to come together. (What’s the opposite of high-impact practices? That would be low-impact practices, he joked, “otherwise known as the curriculum.”)

The future depends on helping students accept uncertainty and to learn to think like experts in their disciplines. It also depends on instructors, disciplines and universities identifying what they want students to take away from classes, curricula and a university education.

“If it matters, you have to make it integral,” Bass said.

We also need to redesign and expand what we mean by rigor, Bass said. One thing that draws people into a discipline, he said, is that they fall in love with what’s difficult about that field.

Bass argues that the future of higher education depends on a “new synthesis” of unbundled and bundled models

“The most important thing we can do, as early as possible and with as many people as possible, is to introduce them to how to navigate difficulties and appreciate difficulty and uncertainty.”

Bass offered examples of what that might look like. One involved a student project from a class he teaches on the future of the university. That model envisions education as a community of peers working to gain experience, expertise and independence as students’ thinking grows in complexity. It emphasizes a “profound sense that college should build to something that makes you really capable,” Bass said.

Another, in which he went into more depth, was a biology class his wife taught that involved at-risk students in a project that analyzed the soil and environment of a Virginia winery. The project humanized learning by having students take on a challenge that involved real-world problems in a location that students got to know well.

Both of those models follow his ideal of education as inclusive and integrative. There are many ways of moving into that realm, he said, and we must keep experimenting. Bass said a biologist reminded him that in a period of punctuated equilibrium, 99 percent of all lifeforms die. In the case of higher education, those “lifeforms” are colleges, universities, departments, programs and individual faculty members.

“There will be institutions to whom change is done, and there will be institutions in control of that change,” Bass said.

Throughout his talk and in workshops that followed, Bass pushed instructors, staff members and administrators to think about ways of staying in front of potentially destructive change.

“The question is,” he said, “how do we as higher ed institutions survive and thrive during this shift?”


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.