In a review essay for the Washington Post, Janet Napolitano takes on the idea that higher education is in crisis.

She brushes aside criticisms from Ryan Craig (College Disrupted) and Kevin Carey (The End of College) and says that instead of falling apart, colleges and universities are going through “an intense period of evolution driven by advances in technology and better understanding of cognitive learning.”

Higher education, she says, “is in motion, and it always has been.”

Doll head behind glass
West Bottoms, Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Doug Ward)

After brushing aside the idea of crisis, Napolitano nonetheless suggests that a crisis may be at hand. Universities are highly complex organizations that face many challenges, most notably the decade-long series of cuts from state legislatures, she says. They have also been asked to take on new roles in areas like prevention of sexual assault and a growing need for mental health services for students. Technology and online education also create challenges.

Napolitano, president of the University of California, raises some excellent questions about the future of higher education: What is the role of online learning? How do we help students become critical thinkers? How do we help them adapt to a changing job landscape?

Those are difficult but certainly not impossible questions. They require honest discussion about increasing the generally weak emphasis on high-quality, innovative teaching, and creating a genuine reward system for instructors who embrace reflective teaching.

Napolitano doesn’t address those crucial areas, but one of her comments could serve as a rallying cry:

“Universities are not factories; students are not widgets,” she writes.

Pushing the boundaries of higher education

A British university leader made a bold prediction earlier this month.

Depending on your perspective, though, perhaps it’s not so bold.

The university leader, Tim Blackman, the acting vice chancellor of the Open University in the U.K., told The Korea Herald: “We are seeing the end of 100 percent face-to-face teaching. In 10 years’ time, it won’t exist.”

Blackman is a proponent of flipped and hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face components. The Open University also relies on its extensive array of online courses, YouTube videos, iTunesU materials, open course materials and open research materials to reach students internationally.

Beyond the widespread adoption of online course components and open resources, Open University has made changes that no doubt make many traditionalists wince: courses that last only 15 to 20 minutes to match students’ attention span, badges for demonstrating mastery of subjects, and growing adoption of mobile technology to reach students.

That’s not surprising given that the cornerstone philosophies of the university are pedagogical innovation and flexible learning for part-time, mostly adult students.

Blackman also calls lectures a “crazy” way to try to educate students, saying, “I don’t understand why universities are still building lecture halls.”

I don’t either, not if we are truly interested in helping students learn.

Then again, I do. It’s about efficiency, not learning. The Open University runs a deficit of millions of pounds a year, financed by the British government. That makes its model easy to dismiss as unsustainable. Doing so would be a mistake, though. It is forging ahead with the kinds of experiments that all universities need to embrace if they hope to keep up with changing students and a changing world.

Few can afford to run deficits, but we all need to innovate.

A ‘wayfinder’ approach to education

Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy urges instructors to think of learning beyond the narrow bounds of a classroom, a syllabus and a reading list.

“The core demand of 21st-century education is that students learn to navigate an incredibly complex global society,” Hudson writes in an article for Hybrid Pedagogy.

Silhouette of trees against blue sky and puffy clouds
(Photo by Doug Ward)

To do that, he urges instructors to become “wayfinders,” a term he borrows from the invisible cues that architects build into airports to help travelers find their way.

“As teachers, we are no longer needed as the source of all content and knowledge in the classroom, but we are more necessary than ever when it comes to designing experiences that allow our students to find their own way,” he writes.

That means finding ways to “encourage collaboration and connection,” including use of technology to empower students to find, filter and produce information; creation of personal learning networks; use of experiential learning; and the ability to learn from one another.

None of those ideas are new, but Hudson provides a good reminder of the direction that educators need to head.

Briefly …

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released an interactive map showing how cuts to public universities have led to substantial increases in tuition. … Inside Higher Ed reports on the latest hybrid learning evaluation from the research firm S+R, saying that students are learning as well in hybrid courses as they are in traditional in-person courses. … The budget committee of the Kansas Senate approved a bill that would require all public colleges and universities to publish the cost of degrees and the expected earnings of graduates, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports. The bill provides no means for covering the millions of dollars in data collection costs.


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.

Council gives generally poor grades for core university requirements

In a scathing report on core liberal arts requirements, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives more than 60 percent of colleges and universities a grade of C or lower. “By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum,” the council says in its report, “What Will They Learn?”

The organization generally favors tradition over innovation in course offerings, and encourages a more active role by regents, trustees and alumni. The core curriculum by which it judged colleges and universities consists of writing that focuses on grammar, clarity and argument; a survey of literature; intermediate competency in a foreign language; U.S. government or history; basic economics; college-level algebra, logic, computer science or linguistics; and natural science courses that emphasize experimentation and observation. The council was especially dismayed by a dearth of requirements for a basic course in U.S. government and history, and for basic economics.

In Kansas, the only university to receive better than a C was Wichita State, which received a B. KU received a C. Some other Big 12 schools fared better. Baylor received an A; Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the University of Texas-Austin received B’s; Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Christian received C’s, and West Virginia received a D.

Like all such report cards, this one measures only what the creators want it to measure and tends to oversimplify complex issues. The report raises many good points, though, whether you agree with the criticism or not.

Making a case for blended learning

In the second part of an article on blended learning, the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter argues that blended learning needs to be “positioned as an institutional strategy that can result in organizational learning.” The article is based on a chapter in Kim VanDerLinden’s book Connecting Learning Across the Institution. Not surprisingly, it says that faculty members who have never taught an online course are more skeptical of online learning that those who have. The same applies to blended learning. It ends with excellent questions about employing blended learning.

Part 1 of the article provides a good overview of blended learning, including definitions. It argues: “The pressures on higher education in 2014 are perhaps greater than in any other time period.  The strategic adoption of blended learning is interconnected to all the issues that are front of mind for decision makers such as accessibility, affordability, limited resources, and competition, not to mention perhaps the greatest interconnected concern – student learning.”



Thumbs up for software that allows creation of animated whiteboard videos

I mentioned a new tool called VideoScribe in a previous post. I downloaded a trial and gave it a spin. (See above.) It’s definitely worth a look for anyone interested in creating animated whiteboard videos. The interface is mostly intuitive and I was generally happy with the video I produced for a session on threshold concepts. I did run into a few glitches that are worth noting:

First, the timeline is a bit clunky, especially as you build up a lot of images. All the images are placed on one continuous timeline at the bottom of the screen, and I struggled moving a few of them to the right place. They sometimes ended up in random spots. Ungrouping them (or the equivalent) before I moved them helped.

I liked the ability to import SVG files I pulled from Open Clip Art, but those imported images didn’t always render as well as I would have liked. The final image was fine, but the drawing of them on screen sometimes looked clunky. That said, I ended up buying access to VideoScribe for a year. After my trial ended, the company offered a 33 percent discount.

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.