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 so 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.

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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.

By Doug Ward

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


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