By Doug Ward

The future of higher education may very well hinge on our skill as interpreters and communicators.

Too often, though, we never bother to define the terms we use or to help students, parents, and employers understand the purpose and significance of a college education, Ashley Finley told participants at the 2021 KU Teaching Summit last week.

Ashley Finley smiles as she listens at the 2021 Teaching Summit
Ashley Finley

“We develop language as currency,” said Finley, who is vice president for research at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “and we communicate with each other about a shared meaning without really ever actually defining” what we mean.

Finley is a sociologist who has studied such areas as assessment, high-impact practices, equity in institutional outcomes, and student success. In her presentation at the Teaching Summit, she drew on a recent AAC&U report she wrote titled How College Contributes to Workforce Success, based on a survey of executives and hiring managers at 496 companies. That report contains both good and bad news for colleges and universities.

For instance, 87% of executives and hiring managers said a degree was definitely or probably worth it, but a smaller percentage (67%) said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education. Finley compared those results to a random sample of adults who were asked the same question. Only 60% thought a college degree was worth the time and money.

“We have to get serious about how we’re communicating out what we do,” Finley said. Colleges and universities need to do better at telling their story, she said, not only to employers but to students.

“That explicitness is absolutely for our students,” she said. “They will be our best ambassadors.”

Finley used the term well-rounded as an example of why good communication is important. In academia, we often talk about a need for well-rounded students, but we rarely explain what that means. Students create their own interpretations, though, as Finley showed with a student quote from a focus group:

“I don’t know too many jobs that the job is being well-rounded. You know, it’s not like you’re going to work at Well-Rounded Inc. or something.”

Finley said she appreciated the student’s snark.

“They’ve taken us to task for not defining this thing that we lob in front of them constantly,” Finley said.

She also said the comment was a “good reality check” for educators, in part because of the connection the student made between education and employment.

“They linked it with a job, as if to suggest what you do for me as a person, how I situate myself in a community, and what I learn about a sense of purpose doesn’t have anything to do with the work that I’ll do,” Finley said.

Defining the common good

Another term we often fail to define, Finley said, is common good. She referred to the title of her presentation – Learning for Our Common Good: The Overlapping Skills of Successful Lives and Careers – and said that we all had different definitions of common good and that we rarely shared those definitions with others. She tried to unpack the term.

wide angle picture of Ashley Finley and participants of Teaching Summit in large lecture room
Finley speaks to Summit participants in 130 Budig Hall. About 150 people joined this year’s Summit, a number that was down significantly because of the pandemic.

“When we are talking about a common good, we are talking about a greater purpose,” Finley said. “We are talking about how work influences our life, builds a sense of identity, gives our own sense of purpose in the world.”

The common good, she said, is closely tied to the overlapping skills we want students to acquire while they are in college. She asked members of the audience to offer their thoughts on those skills and on how students should be different by the time they graduate. The responses painted a broad picture of aspirations within the academy:

  • To critically evaluate what they read and hear
  • To gain perspectives on people and stories other than their own
  • To be problem-solvers and “realize that there’s a whole big world out there”
  • To be more open to diverse people and perspectives
  • To try new things without fear of mistakes
  • To feel empowered to make the world a better place

We all might add our own flavor and content to those things, Finley said, but they all sound perfectly reasonable for any discipline. She then asked:

“At the end of the day, can we in fact have a common conversation about what matters, and the standards to which we might hold ourselves for students’ learning and for their success?”

The employer view

Articulating a clearer sense of higher education will require us to move past the “false binaries” we often create, Finley said. Those include things like depth vs. breadth, and academic vs. practical skills. They all matter, she said. Higher education should be committed to knowledge, and “equally committed to the ways in which we equip students to have the skills to use knowledge, to create new knowledge, to have an imagination.”

Employers generally see the value in the many skills students gain in college, Finley said. They also value things like mindset, aptitudes, and character. The most recent AAC&U study showed a disconnect between the skills that colleges and universities emphasize and the views employers have on students’ career preparedness. When she and other researchers at AAC&U looked more closely at data from the employer survey, though, they found a stark difference in the perceptions of executives and hiring managers 40 and younger and those 50 and older. Those under 40 are more optimistic about student preparation. They also value different skills.

For instance, younger employers put considerably more emphasis on the need for critical thinking, leadership skills, empathy, and an ability to work with numbers and statistics. More broadly, they are far more likely than their older colleagues to say that a college education should encourage engagement in communities, foster a sense of social justice, focus on global issues, and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences.

“This felt like a game-changer to us,” Finley said, adding: “Hello, liberal arts. And hello, community-based learning.”

A need for articulation

If the views of younger employers offered optimism about the core values of higher education, another study that Finley brought up muddied the picture. That study showed a growing gap between the number of campuses that say they have learning outcomes and the number of students who are aware of those outcomes. She called that a “reality check of how our own communication is going.”

participants wear masks while sitting in Budig lecture hall
Summit participants were required to wear masks this year, as is everyone in KU buildings.

We have to increase the visibility of our core goals, Finley said. We have to do a better job of communicating, and we have to do a better job of projecting the type of outcomes we care about. This will require a nuanced approach to career preparation, she said, and must help students connect the dots among the courses they take and the experience they gain while in college. By the time students graduate, they should be different, she said.

“It’s not just about what they know and can do; it’s about who they are. And should they be able to persist through failure? Should they be a little more resilient? Should they have a sense of what it means to flourish?”

The answer to all of those is yes, of course, and Finley was optimistic that faculty could work through the many challenges before them.

“Good teachers are good learners,” Finley said. “You have to be humble to learn something new, and I hope that is always a point of connection we have with our students.”

* * * * * *

You will find a recording of Finley’s presentation at the Teaching Summit on the CTE website.


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

By Derek Graf

Teaching has traditionally centered on instructors as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Students, though, can now type a few words into their phone’s web browser and find the same content they would hear in a lecture-based class. Immediate access to a wide range of lectures, models, and examples has many students asking why they are paying enormous amounts of money for educational material that is often available for free. And instructors who cling to the gatekeeper model of education risk overlooking their own redundancy.

This is not to say that the internet has replaced the instructor. In Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College, argues that instructors should embrace technology both inside and outside the classroom. On the one hand, it is obvious that “technology can be harnessed to enhance the widely desired goals of increased student engagement and faculty-student interaction” (x). Less obvious, though, is Bowen’s claim that technology “is most powerfully used outside of class as a way to increase naked, nontechnological interaction with students inside the classroom” (x).

diverse group of people leaning against a wall and using smartphones
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Central to Bowen’s argument is his observation that “technology has created new competitors, new expectations, and a global market for higher education” (24). Teaching Naked contains a unique sense of urgency because of Bowen’s consistent reminder that students, as consumers, are beginning to question the university as a business. Working within this global market, instructors who ignore or dismiss online learning from the classroom environment alienate 21st-century students and put the traditional university system at risk of seeming outdated and irrelevant.

One way instructors can demonstrate to students that the university remains in step with technological advances is by utilizing social media for communicating with and among students. Because classroom communication can involve much more than trading information about assignments and deadlines, Bowen offers creative ways to use social media. For example, he advises that “if practical problem solving is a goal of the class, you might send a daily tweet or message with a new practical problem” (138). Using Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat does not necessarily increase student engagement with the course material; however, it can allow for varied forms of communication between instructor and student.

Changing how we communicate with our students shows them that our courses do not exist only in the physical space of the classroom. An online discussion board, for example, “is an easy way for your students to constantly reengage with material and concepts while they are away from your classroom,” and this helps to establish “learning communities that integrate learning into residential life” (141). Rethinking the classroom space in this way can lead to changes in the curriculum. As Bowen says, “picking a textbook and a list of topics was never a learning strategy, and ignoring that the world has changed will not impress your students” (127). When we ask students to consider questions and concepts through informal means, such as a tweet, we expand the content of our courses and encourage a larger network of student engagement.

The importance of speedy communication

Using technology to communicate changes one-on-one meetings with students as well as how, when, and where instructors hold office hours. Bowen claims that “millennial students are much more interested in the speed of your response than in your physical presence” (41). As someone who often struggles with the question of whether office hours are beneficial for all my students, I find this area of Teaching Naked particularly useful. While I want my students to know that I am available and accessible, I also wonder whether traditional forms of availability, such as physical office hours or email, are the best ways for students to reach out to me. Bowen offers the following strategies for instructors interested in shifting office hours to such digital formats as Skype and Facebook:

  • Pick a time frame when you will be online and available for calls from students.
  • Combine the video session with chat technology. You can use the chat to keep a queue for your Skype calls. When there is no Skype call, you can talk to as many students on chat as you can handle.
  • Give students choices. Tell them they can contact you on Skype or by text or post questions to a class Facebook group.
  • Don’t overlook the value of (nontechnologically) getting out of the office. Try a local coffee house, find a student lounge or find a spot next to your class and get there an hour early.

Throughout Teaching Naked, Bowen urges his readers to make deliberate choices about the most productive ways to communicate with students outside the classroom with the goal of increasing learning inside the classroom. For those who feel comfortable incorporating different forms of interaction, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are valuable tools. For those who are hesitant to increase the channels of communication students can use to seek help, it is still important to increase our visibility and transparency. We limit the range of student learning when we assume that all learning must occur in the classroom.

While it’s difficult to argue against the pedagogical benefits offered through a more comprehensive use of technology in and outside the classroom, the issue of treating students as customers remains troubling. Bowen admits that “the demand for customer service can be tremendously annoying,” but he also encourages instructors to “think about the possible benefits to learning” in the customization of education. One central concern in Teaching Naked is how students are first exposed to new material, an exposure that often takes the form of assigned readings followed by lecture. Bowen argues that “even if reading followed by lecture were the best way to reach the most students, it would still be teaching only the students whose learning preferences favor reading and listening” (55).

Reading this passage, I cannot help but wonder if it’s plausible to customize one’s course to take into account students who do not “favor” reading or listening. Of course, not all students learn the same way, but if instructors consider students customers first and learners second, we risk seeking to please the customer rather than challenge the learner. Varying one’s pedagogical strategies is always a good idea, yet the problematic implications of complete customization remain open for inquiry and debate.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

By Doug Ward

The beginning of an academic year is a time of renewal. Our courses and our students start fresh, and we have an opportunity to try new approaches and new course material.

The beginning of an academic year is also a time for sharing advice, information, experiences, and insights. Here are some interesting tidbits I think are worth sharing.

Motivating students (part 1)

Aligning course goals with student goals is an important element of motivating students, David Gooblar, a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Many students say they are motivated by grades – actually, many seem obsessed with grades – but that type of motivation doesn’t benefit them intellectually in the long term.

Graduate teaching assistants share their thoughts during an exercise at the opening session of the new GTA conference. About 350 GTAs participated in the conference earlier this month.

To help stimulate intrinsic motivation, Gooblar uses a low-stakes writing assignment in which students explain their goals for the course and how they hope the course will benefit them in the long term. Gooblar draws on those goals to adapt his class during the semester. Flexibility is important, he says, because it helps show students that he is willing to respond to their needs. That can be a powerful motivator.

I have also had success with having students write about their goals. I frame that in terms of learning goals, explaining to students that I have goals for the class but that I want them to pursue individual goals, too.

Most students struggle with writing individual learning goals because they have never had to think about learning as something they have control over. That thought makes them uncomfortable. They generally see school as a place where someone tells them what to do. I have found that waiting until the second or third week of class makes the process go more smoothly. By then, students have a good sense of what the class is about and they generally offer more thoughtful goals than they might in the first week.

Returning to those goals later in the class is important. I have students reflect on their learning goals at midterm, revising them if they wish, and again at the end of the class. That helps students assess what they have gained intellectually and what they still need to work on. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and helps them gain confidence in self-guided learning. It also gives me additional assessment information, as I ask students to explain which elements of the class helped them learn the most and which didn’t work as well.

Motivating students (part 2)

Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, offers additional advice for motivating students.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Portillo, who is also the assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate programs at the Edwards Campus, has students help set guidelines for class engagement, using the exercise to help them feel invested in the class from the start.

At the end of the class, she asks students to evaluate their participation. They give her a suggested grade on their participation and provide evidence to back it up. She doesn’t always agree with their assessment, and ultimately determines the grade herself. Men tend to give themselves high marks, she says, while women tend to be more critical of themselves. The evaluation process helps students reflect on their contributions to the class and on their own learning.

Motivation (part 3). Faculty Focus offers additional tips on motivating students, including offering good feedback; helping students understand how learning works; providing engaging course materials and activities and explaining their relevance; and making greater use of cooperative and collaborative work.

Technology can help, but …

In a survey by Campus Technology, 73 percent of faculty members said that technology had made their jobs easier and 87 percent said it had improved their ability to teach. On the other hand, 19 percent said technology had made their job harder or much harder.

The survey did not say how technology had made things more difficult, but a comment on the article blamed it on a lack of training that ties pedagogy to the use of technology. That makes sense, but sometimes instructors fail to take advantage of the many available resources. KU has many resources for learning technology, including desk-side coaching and frequent workshops.

Student writing: No help needed?

Brianna Hyslop, associate director of the KU Writing Center, explains some of the center’s resources during the new GTA conference. Carmen Orth-Alfie (in red) represented KU Libraries.

In a recent survey by the Primary Research Group, only 8 percent of freshmen and sophomores said they thought they needed help with grammar and spelling. Yes, 8 percent.

Just as troubling, 46 percent of all students said they needed no additional writing instruction in their college classes.

Apparently, those 46 percent haven’t read any of the papers they have turned in or the email messages they have sent.

My intent isn’t to bash college students. Rather, it’s to remind instructor that as we help students, we sometimes need to remind them that they need our help and that resources like the KU Writing Center can provide crucial assistance.

The survey was reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Mental health and students

A growing percentage of students say they suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. That holds true for both undergraduates and graduate students.

At KU, for instance, Counseling and Psychological Services reported year-over-year increases in visits of 1 percent (November) to 73 percent (May) in the 2017-18 academic year.

One of the most important things faculty members can do is to pay attention to students and help them find the resources they need. Make sure that students know about Counseling and Psychological Services. I’ve made several calls to CAPS over the years, helping students schedule appointments with counselors. CAPS has other resources like drop-in hours with peer educators and group therapy sessions.

The Office of Student Affairs is another important resource. Its website provides an extensive list of advice and services for students and faculty members.

The Conversation noted recently that two of the biggest challenges to helping students with psychological issues are reluctance to talk about mental health and a reluctance to reach out for help. Instructors can help break down that stigma by being empathetic and accessible. They shouldn’t try to be psychological counselors. That’s not their role. They can listen to students, though, offer empathy and support, and help them take that first step toward getting help.

A final thought

A quote from Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, helps put issues of student mental health, attitude and motivation into context. In an interview with EdSurge, he said:

“We have developed this cult that you’re either going to go to college or if you don’t, maybe you’ll end up on Skid Row. I’m being a little facetious—but not that facetious. It literally has evolved to that point. A bachelor’s degree is the ticket to success and not having a bachelor’s degree is opposite.”


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

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.


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

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

stylized photo of students working together at tables and whiteboards
My approach to authentic assignments involves considerable group work.

Let me give you an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, I challenge students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. I set aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. I also bring in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

The approach I take in the class combines elements of team-based learning and problem-based learning, combined with a dose of entrepreneurial thinking. If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. I provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that, but students take vastly different paths. Those who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. I give one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students. I rarely say no to ideas, but I spend a lot of time helping students hone their questions, think through what they really want to discover, and why they think that is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. That teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. I’ve found that students respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. I devote a least one of two classes each week to group work. Many groups still meet outside class, especially later in the semester, but time in class is crucial. None only does it create a regular schedule for group meetings, but it provides a regular time for me to meet with the groups. As I rotate among the groups, I can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When I encounter questions that other groups need to know about, I can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. My approach to Infomania has led to such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. I’ve also had many shallow projects. Even with those, though, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.

****************************************

More on authentic learning: The latest issue of Teaching Matters includes many examples of how faculty members at KU have approached authentic 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

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

Microsoft’s Office software has long been the standard in business and education.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Education Dashboard
The website for Microsoft’s Class Dashboard.

In a webinar this week, though, Microsoft showcased an online amalgamation of its software that looks very much like a learning management system.

Blackboard it isn’t, and that’s the point. Microsoft is drawing on the familiarity and ubiquity of its Office software to create an environment for class materials that is spare, visually appealing, and easy to use – all things that Blackboard isn’t.

The new software, called Class Dashboard, isn’t all that new to many school systems. It has been in beta testing for more than a year, along with data integration software called School Information Sync, but will be made available free to users of Office 365 Education.

Dashboard integrates the company’s Office 365 platform into a portal for displaying class materials, announcements and grades; integrating Office apps; giving feedback to students; managing class rosters and calendars; and integrating discussion boards into assignments.

Facebook's education dashboard
A screenshot of Facebook’s Personalized Learning Plan.

All of this is aimed at K-12 education, but it could easily fit into higher education. KU, for instance, has adopted Sharepoint (along with Office 365) for creating internal web portals, and Skype for Business for communication. It will eventually provide OneDrive access across the university.

Most universities aren’t likely to shift to Class Dashboard for a learning management system, but it could provide a useful alternative for many faculty members.

Facebook also joined the push toward education with an announcement last week about a school-oriented software project.

The company has been working with Summit Public Schools in California on technology it calls Personalized Learning Plan. Facebook was vague about the specifics of the technology, saying that “content and assessments are delivered online through teacher-created materials.” What it displayed on its blog, though, was a dashboard that allows students to visualize goals, create plans to reach those goals, provide a log of accomplishments, and provide a space for reflection.

The technology is independent of Facebook and doesn’t require a Facebook login. Facebook has been testing the software at Summit since last year, it said, and plans to make it freely available in the future.

Finding your “bliss zone” at the office

If you are feeling miserable at work, it could be that you’ve overshot your “bliss zone,” Arthur C. Brooks writes in The New York Times.

That often happens to ambitious professionals who, he says, keep taking on more responsibility until they suddenly realize that by chasing prestige and responsibility they have given up the work that inspired them in the first place.

Brooks points to academics as one group prone to this phenomenon.

Dan Bernstein, the former director of CTE, passed along a link to Brooks’s article and offered this interpretation from his brother:

“If you can, stay in positions that include activities you find satisfying and valuable. If you need to get into a less enjoyable position to get important things done, then use the mindset of service to get yourself through it.”

Excellent advice.

Strange fact of the week

This has little to do with education and everything to do with marketing and with blind adoption of technology. Fortune reports that in a recent survey, nearly half of Apple Watch owners said that they used their watches more than they expected to – are you ready for this? – check the time.

Briefly …

Most young adults age 18 to 34 reject the label “millennial,” Pew reports, though a large majority of those 51 to 69 embrace the term “baby boomers.” … Few teachers are using social media in their classrooms, The Journal reports, saying teachers worry about a lack of training, and problems that might arise with students’ use of social media. … The New York Times reports that companies are redesigning backpacks to better fit the lifestyle of today’s students, who carry more technology and fewer books than students of past decades. Research for the designs included students, yes, but also mountaineers and homeless people, many of whom have developed methods to keep their belongings portability and dry.


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.

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.