By Doug Ward

Here’s a thought to start the semester with:

Education offers only a blueprint. Learning takes place in the application.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It lies at the heart of active learning, an amalgam of practices that that moves education beyond the mere delivery of information. It’s an approach that improves student learning, especially among underserved students, and helps make teaching more engaging for instructors and students.

GTAs at the graduate conference in lawrence
Students work through a group problem at the GTA conference in Lawrence

In short, it’s an approach we should use in all our classes.

I’ve found that a university’s newest instructors – graduate teaching assistants – understand that. They are, after all, successful students in their own right, having been both participants in learning and observers of teaching for many years.

I’ve also found that most new GTAs have a good sense of how to approach teaching. They lack experience, of course. They need guidance, of course. They also need reassurance, support, and training. They want to succeed as teachers, though, and they are willing to put in the time and effort to help the students they work with succeed.

Evidence of that attitude can be seen in the distillation of active learning at the beginning of this post. It came from a recent session with new GTAs. In that session, I shared some thoughts about teaching before breaking students into groups. Within those groups, the participants – most of whom had yet to teach their first class – considered these questions:

  • What is a teacher?
  • How do we create an environment that encourages learning?
  • As instructors, how to we help our students learn how to learn?
  • What are the biggest challenges we face in accomplishing that?

In those discussions, the teaching assistants talked about the importance of displaying interest and enthusiasm in the course material, encouraging students, providing concrete examples, personalizing assignments, creating a safe environment for sharing ideas, removing obstacles to learning, promoting interaction in groups, and modeling vulnerability. One group also brought up the importance of the teacher as learner, as someone who aspires toward constant improvement.

There was no way to work through those questions – or the responses – thoroughly in an hour-long session, but I wanted the new GTAs to contemplate the important role they were taking on.

GTAs will return for similar follow-up sessions in the coming weeks. Those sessions will again offer time for reflection, support, advice and assistance in teaching. Participants will also get an opportunity to add detail their own blueprint of education.

They need much more than that, though. Good teaching doesn’t come from a handful of sessions on pedagogy and strategy and philosophy. It builds slowly from planning and reflection, listening and evaluation, adjustment and assessment, and then more planning and reflection.

Some GTAs come from departments that will help them gain those skills. Others, unfortunately, work in departments that see little value in high-quality teaching and provide little support for instructors. Some of those GTAs who receive support and encouragement will go on to become great teachers. Others will be swallowed by a culture hostile to change and hostile to the reality that learning requires more than the mere memorization of facts.

And so every academic year begins with grand hopes for renewal, with encouraging signs that higher education will indeed embrace the idea of application. It also comes with a sobering reality that we need to do so much more.

A fascinating map of student migration

The New York Times offers a fascinating look at the geographic shift of students who attend public universities. A series of maps shows the number of students who have left each state and those who have moved to a different state to attend a public college or university.

That number is substantial. Over the last 30 years, The Times reports, the number of out-of-state freshmen at public universities has nearly doubled. That shifting geography is a result of budget cuts that have made in-state tuition more expensive, and financial aid packages that public universities have offered to bring in more out-of-state students.   

Kansas showed a net gain of 1,290 students to its public universities. Other states didn’t fare so well, with California, Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey among the states with the largest losses.


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

Alma Clayton-Pedersen offers this vision for higher education:

“Imagine what a nation we would be if students really took away everything we wanted them to have,” she said at last week’s Teaching Summit in Lawrence.

Alma Clayton-Pedersen
Alma Clayton-Pedersen at the KU Teaching Summit

Problem is, they don’t. Much of the reason for that, she said, has to do with their background, the quality of the education they received before college, the way they are treated in college, and the connections they feel – or don’t feel – to their peers, their instructors and their campus.

We talk about college readiness as students being ready for college, she said, but “what about our colleges being ready for the students we have?”

Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a former administrator at Vanderbilt University and the chief executive of Emeritus Consulting Group. In her keynote address at the Teaching Summit, she spoke to more than 300 faculty members, staff members and administrators on Aug. 18 about the importance of combining excellence and inclusivity into a single goal.

“There is a disconnect between how we think about diversity and how we think about educational excellence,” Clayton-Pedersen said.

In fact, she said, faculty, staff and administrators too often see students’ diverse backgrounds as something that needs to be overcome rather than something that could serve as a frame for learning. Even students take that mindset, she said, explaining that well-meaning students often volunteer in disadvantaged areas with a mindset of “saving” people from their circumstances rather than recognizing that they are part of a living community.

That same disconnect shows up in universities in such forms as weed-out classes; an unwillingness to adapt teaching to the ways that students learn best; low expectations based on the types of students enrolled; and even preconceptions about students that lead to anger and frustrations among faculty and students.

“We need to be focused on all of our students,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “and we are not doing as well as we’d like – in all categories.”

Most of the enrollment growth in higher education is coming from students that colleges and universities haven’t served well, she said. When universities lose those students, they lose both money and reputation, she said.

Disparities in graduation rates between white students and underrepresented minorities “not only is it a travesty for those students, but it goes to the heart and vitality of your institution,” she said.

“You lose dollars every time one of those students walks out of your door,” Clayton-Pedersen said. “You lose reputation every time one of those students walks out of your door. Remember, they go back to their homes and say, ‘I had a bad experience.’ ”

She followed with a provocative question – “What does that do to you in the long run?” – and a sobering answer:

“If we don’t attend to this now, and do so rapidly, our institutions are at peril.”

Alma Clayton-Pedersen on the steps in Budig Hall, speaking with KU faculty members
Alma Clayton-Pedersen speaks with faculty during her keynote address in Budig Hall

A way forward

Even as she sounded alarm bells, Clayton-Pedersen offered suggestions for how to make the university learning environment more inclusive. Her suggestions drew heavily on research-based strategies and high-impact practices for teaching and learning that increasing numbers of faculty have been embracing. Among them:

  • Help students make connections. This involves creating meaningful, relevant curricula that allow students to see a clear path toward learning, that allow them to apply the knowledge they acquire, and that allow them to see connections among discrete ideas and concepts.
  • Encourage interaction. Students need meaningful interactions with instructors who accept their differences, mentor them, help them gain a deeper understanding of the world and the many cultures it offers. They also need instructors who see them more than just marks on a page. “Take a moment before handing that paper back and tell that student that I believe in you and will help you succeed,” Clayton-Pedersen said.
  • Create safe havens. Students need safe places “where they can go and relish in their identity,” Clayton-Pedersen said. They also need opportunities to move beyond those safe environments and interact with people different from themselves. Providing support systems and places where students feel like they belong, though, “matter as much as what you are teaching in a class because if they feel like they belong, they will listen differently.”
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and courses that explore world cultures. They emphasize active learning, group work and similar practices that allow students to work hands-on with course material rather than have it recited to them in lectures. That is, the best courses work at application of information rather than the transfer of information.
  • Make learning relevant. Encourage students to propose solutions to social problems, take on open-ended questions, integrate ideas from disparate courses, and reflect on their own learning. This helps them learn to learn on their own, and to understand that learning is never a static process. It also helps students see the relevance in their coursework.

An emphasis on equity

In her keynote address and in her later sessions with faculty, Clayton-Pedersen stressed the importance of equity. She challenged the faculty to define both equity and equality, saying that we often misunderstand the terms.

Equality, she said, is the outcome of equity. If we give people what they need to succeed, she said, we can move toward equality.

“Everyone is part of diversity,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “but not everyone is treated equitably.”

Providing more opportunities for people to learn will only grow in the future, she said. Already, the number of jobs that requires people to work with information and to solve unstructured problems dwarfs those that require routine tasks and minimal training. If we are going to be a country that employs all our people, we need to make sure that all have at least some college, she said.

“How many times do we need to have to belabor the point that all students need to learn in an economy that is going to require a lot more skills?” she said.

“Money isn’t the issue,” she added. “It’s the expectation that every student can learn and succeed.”


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

WASHINGTON — To understand the priorities of the Association of American Universities, you need to look no further than its criteria for membership: volume of federally funded research; number of memberships in the National Academies; faculty awards and fellowships; citations that reflect research volume and quality.

That is, research, research, research, and more research.

So it was refreshing – and hopeful – to hear Tobin Smith, the AAU’s vice president for policy, speak this week about the importance of high-quality teaching of undergraduates.

“We have been seen as the organization that only cares about research,” Smith said. “Now we are saying that teaching is really important.”

The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members
The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members

Smith spoke at the semiannnual meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward improving teaching and learning. The organization met this week at the AAU’s offices in Washington.

Actually, the AAU’s interest in undergraduate education isn’t new. The organization began an initiative to improve STEM education in 2011, when, Smith said, the timing seemed right and the evidence about teaching and learning began to mount. Around that time, states started pushing for more evidence about the effectiveness of universities, he said, and many faculty members and administrators saw a potential threat from massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Those many pieces came together and created an opportunity to effect change.

Before then, Smith said, “I don’t think our campuses were ready.”

Then, as now, faculty members in many early undergraduate STEM courses saw their role as gatekeepers, as guardians  there to keep out those who couldn’t measure up. Learning wasn’t really part of the equation.

“We’ve allowed that to be acceptable in the STEM fields,” Tobin said. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore.”

That weed-out culture and inattention to teaching has made it especially difficult for female and minority students to succeed. Many people Tobin meets share their horror stories of undergraduate science courses. Many of them hold up as a badge of honor their failure in STEM and subsequent success in other fields.

That, Tobin said, needs to stop.

“We need to teach in ways that our own research shows is effective,” he said.

The Bay View Alliance, of which KU is a member, has been working to change teaching culture at its nine member institutions in the United States and Canada. At KU, for example, that involves a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to hire teaching specialists and to create a community of partners across campuses. Indiana, another alliance member, is leading an effort to help faculty members use data to improve their teaching.

Those are just two projects that have grown from the BVA. The AAU has created a framework for change in undergraduate STEM education and has worked with eight member campuses to make individual changes based on that framework. It has also mapped examples of innovative efforts at member campuses. And through meetings with faculty and administrators, AAU administrators have been spreading the word about the need to improve undergraduate education.

“When I go on site visits, I see things changing,” Tobin said. “Slowly, but they are changing.”

That change seems glacial, at least to those of us who care deeply about teaching and learning. And all the efforts have still failed to remove the biggest barrier to improving teaching: lack of an incentive system that rewards high-quality, innovative teaching at research universities.

That lack of an incentive system for innovative teaching came up again and again during two days of BVA meetings this week. It’s a long-term goal, one that will require continued work. The bigger goal, though, is to provide a much richer, more effective means of teaching and learning.

Tobin offered a great synopsis of that goal.

“Everyone who takes a course at our universities should be taught in the best ways we know how,” he said.


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 Kansas Legislature and governor often treat colleges and universities like deadbeat relatives they wish would just go away rather than partners in navigating the future.

That wasn’t always the case, but budget decisions over the past 15 years show waning support for higher education. Inflation-adjusted state dollars spent by the six Kansas Regents universities have fallen 22.2 percent since the 2002 fiscal year. State money for universities peaked that year at an inflation-adjusted amount of $559.6 million. By fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, that amount had fallen to $435.5 million (in 2002 dollars).

Those amounts represent the actual spending of state dollars that the universities report and that the regents post each year. (You can see more details in the interactive chart below.)

Actual appropriations for all of Kansas public higher education fell by 8.6 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2017, according to the regents. That was after a $30 million budget cut imposed by the Kansas Legislature and the governor. Those cuts were announced last week.

State universities have borne these cuts as enrollment has risen by 6.5 percent since the fall of 2004.

Making matters worse, the most recent state budget cuts $875,664 from student financial aid. By my estimates, that means that more than 400 fewer Kansas students will receive financial aid from the state in the coming year. I based that estimate on calculations using the average award in the 2015 fiscal year. (Most of the awards range from $1,000 to $3,500, and the average for the largest grant program was $2,026 per student.)  

That’s just my estimate. Breeze Richardson, the regents director of communications, said via email that the regents hadn’t decided which areas of financial aid would be cut.

The state provided more than $22 million in financial aid to nearly 12,000 Kansas students in the 2015 fiscal year. The regents oversee distribution of that money through 16 programs, including the Career Technical Workforce Grant, the Kansas State Scholarship Program, and the Kansas Ethnic Minority Scholarship. The money goes to students who attend both public and private institutions in the state.

The Kansas Comprehensive Grant accounts for the vast majority of state financial aid, and more than 10,000 students received that grant in fiscal 2015. Students at Kansas State ($1.93 million) received the most from that grant program that year, followed by students at KU ($1.3 million), Baker ($1.2 million), Friends ($1.1 million), and Wichita State ($1.1 million).

Like many other states, Kansas has slashed money for higher education since the 2008 recession. As a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences puts it, “public higher education is perceived as a relatively flexible budget item.”

The problem with that mindset is that it darkens the future of the state and its residents. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require some sort of training beyond high school, according to a recent report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Colleges and universities will play an important role in that training.

Those institutions desperately need to change the way they think, act, and operate – a common theme in my posts on this blog – but to have any chance of success, they need stable operating budgets.


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 future of teaching went on display Friday afternoon in Spooner Hall.

By display, I mean the 30-plus posters that hung from the walls of The Commons, documenting the changes that KU faculty members and post-doctoral teaching fellows made to courses this academic year.

Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little
Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The poster session was the culmination of this year’s C21 Course Redesign Consortium, but it included work from participants in last year’s Best Practices Institute and those involved in a project known as Trestle, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the posters explained efforts to incorporate active learning into classes.

Abbey Dvorak, an assistant professor of music therapy, captured the spirit of the poster session with a question she used to guide her course redesign:

“How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning?”

 

That’s a simple question, but don’t let it fool you. It can be difficult to answer. Most of us who teach struggle with that question semester to semester. The faculty members and teaching fellows at the poster session offered bursts of inspiration in their work, though, demonstrating how they have approached various problems in teaching and learning. For instance:    

  • Stefanie DeVito, Brad Williamson, and Trevor Rivers explained how making an introductory biology course more student-centered improved students’ attitudes toward biology.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Noah McLean, Greg Baker, and Andreas Moller explained how shifting an introductory geology course to an active learning model improved student grades, reduced the percentage of students who failed or withdrew, and greatly reduced performance gaps between men and women.
  • The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing explained how a series of faculty workshops helped it increase the number of online learning modules.
  • Susan Marshall from psychology explained her efforts to use a pre-class survey to better prepare students for an online course.

Not every poster showed success, but then success wasn’t the point. The point was to show how reflective teaching can lead to important changes in teaching and learning. (You’ll find more than 100 other examples at CTE’s online portfolio gallery.)

I called this session the future of teaching for three reasons:

  • It shows how instructors are using engaged and active learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning.
  • It shows how important reflection is in the teaching process.
  • It shows how building community around innovative, reflective teaching can provide support for faculty in a broad range of disciplines.

Teaching rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially in the promotion and tenure process at research universities like KU. That simply must change. Students and parents are demanding more from their education. Society is demanding evidence that higher education does what it says it does. And those of us in the academy must provide better explanations.

Groups like C21 help bridge the gap between research and teaching. The future involves better teaching, better documentation, and constant revision in our courses. Those who participated in Friday’s poster session helped show us the way forward.


Check out some scenes of active learning at KU in this video, which we showed during the C21 poster session. (There’s no sound, just images.)
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player


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

Three students in an upper-level physics class designed and built a tabletop lightboard for their final project this semester.

Lightboards are used in creating online videos for classes. They allow instructors to write on a glass pane as they would a whiteboard. A camera is positioned facing the instructor, capturing the writing on the glass as the instructor speaks. The image must then be flipped so that the writing can be read in the video. The approach is especially popular among STEM instructors.

conner brown and john rinnert inspect the new lighboard
John Rinnert of KU IT inspects the lightboard created by Conner Brown and other students in an engineering physics course.

The students – Conner Brown, Pranjali Pare and Kyri Barton – adapted a template from Duke University as they created the lightboard for Engineering Physics 601. KU IT and the Center for Online and Distance Learning financed the project, which cost between $600 and $700, Brown said.

Rows of cool white LEDs line the internal frame of the lighboard. Sheets of low-iron glass – the same kind used in aquariums – aid the illumination. Red, blue and green markers work best on the glass surface, creating a fluorescent image that is easy to see, Brown said. Black markers don’t reflect well.

The students, who worked with Professors Chris Fischer and Michael Murray during the semester, demonstrated the board on Tuesday in Malott Hall. They aren’t sure where it will be set up permanently, but the goal is to make it available to physics faculty for recording class videos.

KU IT is installing a similar but larger lightboard in Budig Hall. It should be ready for use this summer.

Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown with the lightboard
Pranjali Pare, Kyri Barton and Conner Brown created the lightboard in Engineering Physics 601 this semester.

Briefly …

Tennessee is the latest state to foolishly allow guns on college campuses. (Kansas will jump into that quagmire next year.) The exclusions in Tennessee’s new law caught my eye. Guns will be prohibited at sporting events and other large gatherings, and at tenure meetings. Yes, tenure meetings. … In a column in the Hechinger Report, Stephen Burd says that public research universities and land-grant colleges give a third of their financial aid to non-needy students. Unfortunately, Burd never explains what he means by “non-needy.” … Sixty-eight percent of 13- to 24-year-olds say they listen to audio on their smartphones every day, Amplifi Media reports. That’s not surprising, but it is worth thinking about as we create online course material for students. …. Far more than their predecessors, today’s college students see higher education as a consumer transaction and a means to high-paying jobs, EAB 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

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.