By Doug Ward

There’s no shortage of ideas for remaking higher education.

Consider a few recent ones:

Margaret Rhodes at Wired is among the latest to report on ideas for remaking an antiquated educational format that rewards students for taking notes, memorizing facts, and then checking boxes on tests.

“Students don’t need information,” Rhodes writes. “They need to learn how to process and use it.”

Bravo!

Rhodes offers four ways to help higher education become more creative, based on ideas from the Stanford School of Design:

  • Revamp the timeframe. Substitute the four-year degree for a six-year program that allows students to move in an out as their needs change.
  • Eliminate class designations. Rather than designating students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, let them range across the curriculum, learning and then applying and then learning something new.
  • Ditch the transcript. Rather than focusing on GPAs, focus on skill building and portfolio development.
  • Forget majors. Rather, have students declare goals or missions and let them take classes that help them meet those goals.
barn-raising
Thinking about education as a barn raising offers many possibilities as we move toward changing teaching and learning.

Cathy Davidson of City University of New York immediately added two other ideas to the list: eliminate tuition, and provide better pay for high-quality instructors.

Davidson is spot-on in her argument that radical changes will have little effect unless we’re willing to change the underlying problems. That is, we say we want high-quality education but still fail to provide the incentives and rewards that would make that happen.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Forham University, explains perhaps the central difficulty of elevating teaching in the research-driven culture of higher education. “It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter,” Cassuto writes, “but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.”

Cassuto is right, but even in higher education’s research-driven culture, we brush aside teaching as impossible to measure. So we send research packets out for external review when a professor goes up for tenure or promotion, but to evaluate teaching, we generally resort to student evaluations and observations of a single class. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

We can change that. The Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member, offered several solutions to improving teaching at KU. The solutions apply to every university, though. They aren’t particularly radical, and there’s nothing as eye-popping as the ones from the Stanford School of Design. Rather, the ideas are intended to help change the culture of teaching and the systemic problems that hold good teachers back. They include these:

  • Create community. We need to identify faculty who want to improve or change their courses and provide opportunities for them to network with similar-minded instructors to share ideas that will lead to additional change.
  • Encourage collaboration. This means within departments but also among departments and universities to share ideas and approaches to improving education. It also applies to faculty members who teach different sections of the same course.
  • Provide support. We need to expand programs that provide support for faculty members interested in changing their courses. In our case, that includes the C21 Consortium and the teaching fellows program, both of which help faculty members and departments improve active learning.
  • Recognize and reward effective teaching. Until we truly reward innovative, high-quality teaching in the same way we reward innovative, high-quality research, we have little hope of wide-scale change.
  • Increase funds for remaking classrooms. Classrooms alone won’t change anything, but as I’ve written previously, classroom design can indeed improve student engagement and motivation.
  • Make better use of digital technology for learning. Good teaching starts with sound pedagogy, but digital technology provides the means for reaching students in new ways, making courses more engaging, and time-shifting assignments so we can make better use of class time to address areas where students struggle.

Whether radical or not-so radical, the ideas for improving higher education offer no magic powers. Rather, they provide blueprints we can follow and frameworks on which we can build.

Think of an old-fashioned barn-raising, which provides a lens for looking at many aspects of education. By joining our forces and applying our expertise, we can create something that none of us could accomplish individually. And yet, to effect change we need individuals to step up and join the community.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Notes by hand or with laptops? Sorry, wrong question.

Cathy Davidson raises exactly the right question in the debate about whether students should take notes by hand or with laptops in class. The real issue, Davidson writes, is that instructors should be working to avoid lecture and instead engage students in active learning. Even in a large lecture hall, instructors can use active-learning activities that help students learn far more than they would with lecture. Davidson’s suggestion doesn’t involve digital technology. Rather, she says, a simple notecard will do.

Tom Whitby, in Edutopia, reinforces Davidson’s argument by explaining the importance of collaboration in modern pedagogy.

If textbooks are dead, are universities next?

Educause, an orgranization that focuses on information technology in higher education, held its annual conference this week in Orlando, Fla. Most of the discussions were geared more toward IT than educators, but a few interesting nuggets caught my attention:educause logo

Helping students take control of class discussions

In an article in Hybrid Pedagogy, Chris Friend shares some techniques for letting class conversations evolve organically. He writes, “A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed.”

Making sure all group members pull their weight

Li-Shih Huang offers tips on making sure all members of a project group share in the workload. Those tips include designing projects so that students complete them in phases, allowing students to choose project topics that match their own interests, and helping students become better problem-solvers. You’ll find the full post at Faculty Focus.

Number of stay-at-home college students hits 20-year high

National Journal reports that the number of college students living at home has reached a 20-year high. Tuition increases and “an economy that still feels like a recession to many families” have played a role, National Journal writes, saying that the combination “may be turning more students into pragmatists.” That shift can make diversifying the student body more challenging.

What to do when a class has a wide range of skills

In an article on differentiated learning, Christina Yu offers suggestions on helping students with wide ranges of skills in the same class. She suggests avoiding a technique that is often recommended: having students who understand course material help those who don’t. I wish she had explored that area more. That approach can certainly help in some scenarios. Yu doesn’t dismiss it outright; rather, she includes it in a list of “what differentiated instruction is not.”

A trend worth watching

eSchool News reports that tablet use is growing increasingly common in grades 4 through 12. School tablet use has reached 66 percent in grades 4-5, 58 percent in grades 6-8, and 42 percent in grades 9-12, the publication reports. Moreover, 81 percent of students say that tablets help personalize learning. These are students who will be in college in the coming years.

By Doug Ward

Whenever I give workshops about teaching with technology, I try to provide a handout of resources.

This is one I distributed after workshops I led at the Best Practices Institute at CTE last week and at the School of Education. It’s a relatively modest list, but it includes sites for for visualizing text; for editing images; for creating maps, charts, infographics; and for combining elements into a multimedia mélange.Ward Online Tools handout cover

My goal in creating lists like this is to help instructors think about ways to incorporate multimedia elements and technology into their teaching. I never insist that instructors use specific tools. Rather, I try to show how various resources can enrich assignments, deepen learning, expand skills, and make class time more engaging.

Not all assignments lend themselves to multimedia elements, but I’ve found that multimedia tools inspire creativity in students, and make assignments more interesting and more meaningful.

I’ve listed a few tools below. The rest are available in the accompanying PDF.

You’ll find more tools like this at my site journalismtech.com and at Teaching With Technology, a site that Germaine Halegoua and I manage. (This post appears on that site, as well.) Nearly are all are free. Some may have restrictions, so please read the terms of use on each site.

Multimedia tools

  • New Hive. Provides many options to create a single web page with text, images and video.
  • ThingLink. Allows you to upload photos and place icons on them that pop up with text, other photos and video.
  • Weavly. For creating mashups from YouTube, SoundCloud and other sources.
  • Popcorn Maker. A tool for mixing video, audio and images from the web. From Mozilla.
  • Meograph. A site for creating multimedia stories.
  • Storify. An easy-to-use tool for creating stories from many types of social media.

Timelines

  • Dipity. Create timelines, flipbooks, lists and maps. Easy, effective and free for the basic version. One glitch that I’ve found: The embed codes don’t always work well with WordPress sites.
  • TimeGlider.
  • TimeToast.

Text visualization and analysis

  • Wordle. Insert text and create customizable word clouds.
  • Document Cloud. Upload documents to the website, analyze them, highlight them and annotate them. You can also create a slideshow-like form that can be embedded elsewhere.

Chart and graph tools

  • Many Eyes. Offers tools for creating maps, charts and diagrams, and for analyzing text (word clouds and tag clouds, for example). It offers many examples of how to turn data into visual information. You can input or upload data.
  • Chart Gizmo. A free website that allows registered users to create basic charts and graphs.
  • Cacoo. Allows you to create and share diagrams, which can be linked, embedded or saved as .png files. More options available with a paid account.

Maps


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

 

By Doug Ward

Bozenna Pasik-Duncan specializes in a branch of probability theory called stochastic systems, which views problems through a lens of randomness.

She teaches courses in that area, as well as in subjects like applied statistics, linear algebra and optimization theory.

When faced with a high dropout and failure rate among students in a large 100-level calculus class, though, Pasik-Duncan found a solution in a distinctively humanistic equation: She created a sense of community.

Her methods offer an excellent example of how cooperation among students and instructors can improve learning – and help everyone make friends along the way.

The calculus class that posed the challenge for Pasik-Duncan was Math 121, a 500-person class with several lab sections. In a typical semester, 30 percent or more of the students who enroll eventually withdraw or receive a D or an F. In university parlance, that’s known as the DFW rate, a statistic that administrators follow closely.

individuals gathered around globe representing community
Colinda, Open Clip Art Library

To address that problem, Pasik-Duncan urged collaboration from the first day of class. Everyone was expected to collaborate: the instructor, the teaching assistants and the students.

Collaboration was just the beginning, though. She promoted the idea of “C to the power of five”: collaboration, community, connection, curiosity, and connectivity.

“Always interpret,” she told students. “Always question. Why, why, why, why do I need to know that?”

About a quarter of the students in the class struggled with concepts like derivatives, domains, integrals and arc lengths. A quarter of the students, many of them from outside the United States, excelled at calculus. So Pasik-Duncan struck a deal. She asked for volunteers to help the struggling students and said she would write letters explaining their role in helping others succeed.

“We’re a community. Let’s help each other,” Pasik-Duncan told students. “At this moment, you need my help. Next semester, I may need your help.”

Students loved it, she said. Not only did they make connections among concepts in the classroom, but they made connections with other students. The DFW rate in her class fell to less than 14 percent, less than half the typical rate.

And not only did the struggling students improve in math, but the international students who struggled with English found that the one-on-one interactions with fellow students helped them improve their language skills.

“I consider this a beautiful thing,” Pasik-Duncan said. “On top of teaching and learning, we also have this community service.”

And the power of community.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Angelique Kobler offered an uncomfortable question about education last week.

Kobler, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Lawrence school district, met with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign and explained the steady expansion of blended learning in Lawrence public schools.

To illustrate the need for new ways of engaging students, she said, she asks her staff a question that can make even the most experienced teacher squirm: Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Education is never that cut and dried, of course. Learning depends on a wide range of factors that have nothing to do with an individual teacher. Kobler knows that. She uses the question to spur discussion about the need for change.

blended learning graphic
Wikimedia Commons

Today’s students are different from those a generation ago, as are their needs in an era when laptops and smartphones offer access to nearly unlimited amounts of information.

Fifteen years ago, Luc E. Weber, a professor of public economics at the University of Geneva, made an observation that has grown only more apparent today: “Teachers will have to accept that their role is changing,” Weber wrote in Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium. “They will be decreasingly information providers and increasingly animators and commentators in charge of giving context and in-depth understanding of an area.” (p. 10)

Blended classrooms force teachers to heed that call for change. Many teachers are responding. Lawrence public schools started with a pilot program of eight blended classrooms in Spring 2013. By fall of this year, the district plans to expand that number to 150.

Kobler defines blended as “somewhere between traditional and virtual.” Students in blended classes can use whatever means help them learn: Some choose textbooks. Others work through assignments online. Sometimes students work alone. Other times, they reach out to peers to help them understand a topic or a concept.

In all those scenarios, the teacher keeps tabs on students and meets with them individually or in groups to keep them on track.

This approach isn’t easy to pull off. Teachers have to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes in front of students, and to talk with students about those mistake, Kobler said. Blended classrooms can seem chaotic as students go in several different directions at once, something that doesn’t also sit well with teachers who demand order.

Parents, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic about the blended approach, sometimes asking that their children continue in a blended classroom because the approach works well for them.

On the other hand, high-achieving students sometimes struggle in a blended environment, something I’ve found in my own classes. High achievers often thrive within a tightly structured, traditional model of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you on a test.” A blended, flipped or hybrid environment strips away this neat order and pushes students to find their own structure and to pace their own learning. That’s a far more difficult task, but it’s also far more meaningful in the long run.

Let me put a twist on Kobler’s earlier question: Can education survive if educators don’t adapt to the needs of students?

That question may make us squirm as well, though it’s also a bit easier to answer.

“If we don’t keep up, we will become irrelevant,” Kobler said.

 


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

If you want to find a quick answer to a question, where do you go?

Google, most likely.

If you want to help students from half a dozen disciplines understand how the elements of linear algebra apply to them, where do you go?

Again, Google. But this time, think outside the search box.

That’s one of the tricks Erik Van Vleck, a professor of math at KU, uses to help students learn linear algebra. Students in all disciplines use Google to search for information. Van Vleck pushes them to look at the search engine in mathematical terms, though, asking: “What does Google do when you put in search terms?”

Eigenvectors
The matrix transforms its eigenvectors (represented by the blue and violet arrows) to vectors pointing in the same direction. “Eigen” translates to “characteristic.” Interestingly, for a while after WWII, the use of “eigen” was replaced by “characteristic” in the British scientific literature. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

This semester, Van Vleck coordinates two dozen sections of Calculus I and teaches a freshman seminar in the computer age and computational mathematics. Students in the classes come from majors like biology, physics, engineering, computer science and, of course, mathematics. Each of those disciplines applies math to its own types of problems, but students need the same basic understanding of concepts like derivatives, matrices and eigenvectors.

To help students grasp those abstract concepts, Van Vleck looks for problems and examples that apply across disciplines.

“I’m trying to give them examples that everybody knows,” Van Vleck said.

That’s where Google comes in.

He gives students an article that explains how Google’s bots troll the web, gathering information about pages and determining how they are connected to one another. From there, Google’s computers construct matrices and eigenvectors that ultimately determine what shows up on the results page of a search.

Only Google’s engineers and computer scientists know all the elements of the company’s search algorithm. But by relating those abstractions to everyday life, Van Vleck not only engages students in problem solving but helps them learn better, as well.

“Part of my belief is that if people are comfortable with context, it’s easier to understand things,” Van Vleck said. “Abstraction is great, but often we map back to context we’re comfortable with or familiar with.”

Van Vleck learned this firsthand when he was a new faculty member. He and other recent mathematics Ph.D.s attended a seminar where they received equivalent mathematical problems. One of the problems was phrased abstractly, the other in terms of drinking beer.

You can guess where this is going.

“All the math Ph.D.s did better in the beer example because we could see how to solve the problem even though it was the same as the abstract problem,” Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck uses other techniques to help students learn, including a flipped approach in which he gives students pre-class assignments, builds on those assignments in class, and then has students follow up with related assignments out of class.

He has also boiled down a 400-page textbook to 20 pages of notes with hyperlinks to additional information for students who want to go beyond the essentials.

“If students can master those 20 pages,” he said, “they can pass the class.”

All of Van Vleck’s strategies are part of a pedagogical approach known as “just-in-time teaching,” which aims to make the most of classroom time by focusing on what students need most.

Here’s a link with more information about the just-in-time strategy.

You can also search Google, as long as you’ve done your math homework first.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.