By Doug Ward

The amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.


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

Add another lock to the ivory tower.

A majority of college students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker they disagree with, and 20 percent accept the idea of resorting to violence to keep an undesirable speaker from campus, a poll from the Brookings Institution finds.

John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, conducted the poll to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. The survey contained responses from 1,500 students in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of 2 to 6 percentage points.

elements of bill of rights on a tablet screen
The Blue Diamond Gallery

The results are disturbing, although not surprising given the recent campus reactions to controversial speakers:

  • More than 40 percent of students say that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. (It does.) Women (49 percent) are considerably more likely than men (38 percent) to believe that.
  • Male students (57 percent) are considerably more likely than female students (47 percent) to say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable. Democrats (62 percent) are far more likely than Republicans (39 percent) to agree.
  • Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (10 percent) to say that violence is acceptable to keep a speaker away from campus.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students say that the First Amendment requires that a campus provide an opposing view to a controversial speaker. (It doesn’t.)
  • A majority of students (53 percent) say they would prefer a campus environment that prohibits offensive viewpoints to one that exposes them to many different viewpoints, including offensive ones. Democrats (61 percent) are more likely than Republicans (49 percent) to choose the prohibitive environment.

Villasenor issues a pessimistic assessment of the results.

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” he wrote.

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, sees this as part of a fraying of liberal education, which he says isn’t vigorously promoting the idea of discussion and dissent to hone thinking.

“Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds,” he said in a recent speech.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees this lack of willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints as part of a “rise of identity consciousness.” A movement that started in the 1980s has led to a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities,” he writes.

Lilla says this approach has been helpful in improving inclusiveness on campuses and on exploring ideas of neglected groups. “But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins,” he says, “so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.”

Any discussion of how to rekindle the ability to engage in reasoned debate and dissent must include an understanding of the First Amendment. That understanding needs to start in middle school and high school, Villasenor argues. At colleges and universities, he said, professors and administrators need to do a better job of creating an environment that values free and open speech. He was pessimistic about that, though, saying he thought faculty responses to his survey would probably be similar to students’.

Students’ ignorance of the First Amendment not only diminishes an open airing of ideas, he said, but foreshadows changes in society as students’ understanding of free speech will “inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

In other words, we need to help students learn to listen to many views and embrace disagreement as a natural process of improving themselves and society. It we don’t, they will find that an ivory tower isn’t just a place of safety. It can easily become a place of intellectual imprisonment.

Budget cuts and the imperilment of public universities

State budget cuts and reductions in federal funding have clouded the future of public research universities, especially those in the Midwest, Jon Marcus writes in Washington Monthly.

Not only have university budgets become shaky, he says, but many faculty members have left Midwestern universities for better jobs, public research universities in the Midwest have fallen in national rankings, and spending on research and development has fallen. These universities are “experiencing a pattern of relative decline,” Marcus writes. (He uses a definition of “Midwest” that encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.)

He cites some startling statistics that put his premise into context:

“The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times.”

Additionally, a decline in federal research spending comes at a time when other countries have put additional money into research activities at their universities.

“This ominous reality could widen economic inequality,” he says, in part because students with higher degrees who stay in a state after receiving their degrees bolster that state’s economy. It could also threaten communities in which universities are the primary employer and ultimately threaten the national economy, he says.

The tone of the article seems overly alarmist at times, but the financial challenges at public research universities is very real.

“These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor,” he says.


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

Randy Bass sees a struggle taking place in higher education.

On one side are those who see the future as “unbundled,” a model in which students pursue discrete skills at their own pace and mostly under their own direction. On the other side are those who see the future as bundled, much as a university is now with classes and programs and a physical environment that draws everything together.

Randy Bass during a breakout session at the 2017 Teaching Summit

This is not a clash of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, Bass, a professor and administrator at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address at KU’s annual Teaching Summit this month. The bundled model needs the skills, flexibility and other elements of the unbundled side, he says, although he contends that those pursuing the unbundled model “are working with a diminished vision of education.”

Let’s tease those elements apart a bit.

The unbundled model that Bass describes has been embraced by many entrepreneurs and authors who see the traditional model of higher education failing. Under this model, classes have little or no ties to each other and learning is detached from physical spaces. Students focus on particular skills when they need them, work at their own pace and learn on their own, often online. Bass describes this approach as “granular, targeted, modular.” Competency-based education lives on this side of the spectrum. So do MOOCs and online organizations like Lynda.com and Kahn Academy. It is driven by analytics and takes what Bass calls a “disintegrated” approach to learning, one that its advocates say will help underserved populations.

The bundled model approaches higher education as a community. Classes, at least in theory, build on and integrate with each other, helping students accumulate expertise that leads toward completion of a degree. This approach works toward whole-person education, Bass said, providing interaction with other students and with instructors. It builds in skills like critical thinking, creativity, empathy and ethical judgment. All of this is integrated into a larger learning community located in a particular physical space: classrooms, living spaces, informal spaces, and a physical campus. It involves things like student organizations, sports, and arts and entertainment.

Bass said universities should work toward an integrative, inclusive model

He called on universities to work at “rebundling” education in more meaningful ways, finding opportunities to integrate skills and to allow students to work on difficult, authentic questions from the beginning of their studies. The future of higher education, he said, depends on our ability to bring together the components of the unbundled and bundled models of education.

“These two discourses have largely been separate and at war and talking past each other until the last few years,” Bass said. “The great challenge of the next decade or more is to move toward a new synthesis.”

This new synthesis is crucial, Bass says, because higher education will undergo big changes in the next couple of decades. He drew on the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggests that evolution doesn’t take place in a steady progression. Rather, it goes through long periods of stability punctuated by big leaps in changes of life forms.

“I think we’re in that period of time in higher education,” Bass said. “I think the last 15 to 20 years have been building to it. … It’s creating a shift in what we consider the species of how we deliver higher education. Over the next 15 years, there’s going to be a jump, a shift in the landscape.”

He made a case that the future lies at the intersection of inclusiveness and integration. It involves integrating the skills promoted by those who want to unbundle education but integrates what Bass called “hard skills”: learning to learn, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, resilience, empathy, humility, ethical judgment.

“We also know that we can’t teach most of those things directly,” Bass said. “We can’t teach these as direct instruction. But we can design environments where they are more likely rather than less likely to be cultivated.”

Where various forms of education fit into that quadrant now

Universities were founded on the idea of exclusive excellence, he said, and much of higher education still operates on this model. The future, though, depends on our ability to provide inclusive excellence, he said, to find ways to draw in more people into high-quality, integrative education.

To help with that, he urged adoption of high-impact practices, which have been shown to improve student success. These practices help create unscripted environments that provide hands-on learning, push students outside their comfort zone, help them learn more about themselves, and allow disparate components of education to come together. (What’s the opposite of high-impact practices? That would be low-impact practices, he joked, “otherwise known as the curriculum.”)

The future depends on helping students accept uncertainty and to learn to think like experts in their disciplines. It also depends on instructors, disciplines and universities identifying what they want students to take away from classes, curricula and a university education.

“If it matters, you have to make it integral,” Bass said.

We also need to redesign and expand what we mean by rigor, Bass said. One thing that draws people into a discipline, he said, is that they fall in love with what’s difficult about that field.

Bass argues that the future of higher education depends on a “new synthesis” of unbundled and bundled models

“The most important thing we can do, as early as possible and with as many people as possible, is to introduce them to how to navigate difficulties and appreciate difficulty and uncertainty.”

Bass offered examples of what that might look like. One involved a student project from a class he teaches on the future of the university. That model envisions education as a community of peers working to gain experience, expertise and independence as students’ thinking grows in complexity. It emphasizes a “profound sense that college should build to something that makes you really capable,” Bass said.

Another, in which he went into more depth, was a biology class his wife taught that involved at-risk students in a project that analyzed the soil and environment of a Virginia winery. The project humanized learning by having students take on a challenge that involved real-world problems in a location that students got to know well.

Both of those models follow his ideal of education as inclusive and integrative. There are many ways of moving into that realm, he said, and we must keep experimenting. Bass said a biologist reminded him that in a period of punctuated equilibrium, 99 percent of all lifeforms die. In the case of higher education, those “lifeforms” are colleges, universities, departments, programs and individual faculty members.

“There will be institutions to whom change is done, and there will be institutions in control of that change,” Bass said.

Throughout his talk and in workshops that followed, Bass pushed instructors, staff members and administrators to think about ways of staying in front of potentially destructive change.

“The question is,” he said, “how do we as higher ed institutions survive and thrive during this shift?”


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

BOULDER, Colo. – Noah Finkelstein rarely minces words, and the words he offers to public universities carry a lofty challenge.

Society can make no better investment in its future than by promoting higher education, he said. It is perhaps the most fundamental form of infrastructure we have – institutions designed to influence the lives of students and build the core components of society. Pressures on these institutions have pushed them toward priorities that run counter to their founding missions, though, and overlook the very aspect that makes them special: in-person education grounded in a particular region.

Finkelstein is a physics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-director of the Center for STEM Learning at CU. He was one of the hosts for the semiannual meeting of the Bay View Alliance steering committee in June in Boulder. KU is among the nine member universities of the Bay View Alliance, which works toward changing university culture in ways that improve teaching and learning. I wrote earlier about Emily Miller of the Association of American Universities and the update she provided about the AAU STEM Initiative. While she focused on the challenges of gaining internal support for changes in teaching culture, Finkelstein spoke more broadly about the way universities have responded to external pressures.

Noah Finkelstein works on a poster at a strategy session for member universities of the Bay View Alliance

One of the biggest problems, he said, is that universities, responding to concerns from legislators, parents and students, have focused on higher education as a driver of the economy rather than as a means of empowering individuals and investing in the future of democratic society.

“We have those roles inverted,” Finkelstein said. “We’re leading with economic and workforce development. The problem with that as a leading goal is that it does not ensure that benefits flow to individuals or to our society as a whole. It’s possible, but if we start with these other two – if we empower individuals, if we invest in our society writ large – workforce and economic development do come along for the ride in time.”

Universities have taken on the vernacular of business, he said, promoting ill-defined goals of innovation and entrepreneurship, and putting economic drivers ahead of individuals. And like publicly traded businesses, they have pursued a goal of “short-term profit over long-term welfare within our institutions.” That type of thinking must stop, he said.

“We have the privilege of being long term,” Finkelstein said. “We have that opportunity and we must not forgo using that tremendous lever we possess to improve society.”

Short-term thinking has helped drive a wedge between the essential functions of teaching and research at public universities, he said. As states have drastically cut funding to universities, universities have grown increasingly dependent on undergraduate tuition to pay the bills.

“The role of teaching is essential at our institutions,” Finkelstein said, “but it matters to consider the question: to what end? Right now it’s being seen as the main financial driver of our institutions by those who are making decisions. And it’s true that our campuses are driven by undergraduate tuition. But there is – or ought to be – more to it than that. How do we couple that to undergraduate development and learning, or student development and learning, rather than follow the easy, destructive path of hiring adjunct faculty and decouple our core missions of research and teaching?”

He pointed to three ways the BVA could help lead universities toward a better model.

Promote evidence-based teaching. BVA is already engaged in this by creating tools, policies and practices that promote evidence-based teaching. Subgroups of the BVA have been working on models, some financed by grants, to show how teaching specialists can help improve teaching and learning; to create tools for analysis of data about teaching and learning; to use university data to answer questions about teaching and learning; to promote means of assessing teaching that reach beyond student evaluations; and to explore ways to help teaching centers better reach faculty members.

Empower all those engaged in education. Finkelstein said the professional development of chairs was a “key lever” in spreading evidence-based teaching. Another is changing the rewards system so that instructors who use evidence-based teaching stand a fair chance in the promotion and tenure system and in merit raises.

“There seems to be a stronger and stronger discontinuity between what is recognized and rewarded and the core value systems for which our institutions were established,” Finkelstein said. “And that’s something that we can really take on within the BVA.”

The challenge is bigger than that, though, he said. Universities must do a better job of involving everyone in building community.

“This is a way of connecting people, from the parking staff to the faculty to the students to the chancellor to advisors on our campus, that we are engaged in collective vision making. That creates a community. It stitches people together in what have been historically different enterprises. It also allows for essential forms of inclusion and belonging that historically have not been our strength at these kinds of institutions.”

Create vision and identity. Universities create mission statements and value statements that often change when leaders change, and fail to resonate with the individuals on campus, Finkelstein said. Similarly, setting goals like increasing retention and graduation rates is important, but those goals are so general that they don’t provide a means of connecting people or of defining specific roles.

“The students don’t understand what this means,” Finkelstein said. “The faculty don’t understand what this means. Certainly the staff within many of our campus efforts don’t know what this means.”

BVA can be instrumental in sharing and modeling for universities what compelling and comprehensive visions might look like, he said. He also offered his vision for what public universities are and should be.

“We are about knowledge at our institutions,” he said. “We’re about the generation of knowledge and need to be proud of that mantle.”

Not only that, but a college education enculturates students into knowledge systems, he said.

“That’s what education is about,” Finkelstein said. “Not only are we generators of knowledge but we’re generators of those people who are the leaders of these knowledge systems. These things must essentially be coupled, and we are better for having that happen.”

Public universities must also embrace their regional identities, he argued. They must have an international scope grounded in a regional identity.

“We have the particular privilege of being residence-based and committed to human interactions,” Finkelstein said. “We are about people interacting with other people. But we are also still geographically, temporally and spatially located systems. We are essentially regionally based and should recognize that.”

Universities can’t be shy about explaining who they are and where they fit into society.

“We need to put a stake in the ground for what we are as social institutions and enterprises,” Finkelstein said. “Make it very clear and shout this from rooftops.”


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

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.


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

 

By Doug Ward

The future of colleges and universities is neither clear nor certain.

The current model fails far too many students, and creating a better one will require sometimes painful change. As I’ve written before, though, many of us have approached change with a sense of urgency, providing ideas for the future for a university that will better serve students and student learning.

The accompanying video is based on a presentation I gave at a recent Red Hot Research session at KU about the future of the university. It synthesizes many ideas I’ve written about in Bloom’s Sixth, elaborates on a recent post about the university climate study, and builds on ideas I explored in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

The takeaway: We simply must value innovative teaching and meaningful service in the university rewards system if we have any hope of effecting change. Research is important, but not to the exclusion of our undergraduate students.


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

Rajiv Jhangiani makes a case for free and open course materials in very personal terms.

As a student at the University of British Columbia, he and his cash-strapped roommates fashioned “pretend furniture” from sheet-covered cardboard boxes. When his roommates wanted to add a second phone line for dedicated dial-up Internet access, Jhangiani couldn’t afford the extra $8 a month. His grandfather, who had taken in Jhangiani in Bombay after his father died and his family lost their home, was paying for his schooling. There was no room for frivolous expenses.

Rajiv Jhangiani, left, with Josh Bolick and Erin Ellis of KU Libraries.

He uses his experiences to illustrate that the high cost of textbooks and other course materials are not an abstraction. With state support for higher education declining and tuition rising, many students are forced to work more hours to pay for college. A rising number are relying on food banks for basic nourishment. Two-thirds take out loans.

“It’s really extraordinary when you think about the burden this places on students,” Jhangiani said. “It’s like shackles.”

Jhangiani, a university teaching fellow and a psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, B.C., spoke at KU as part of Open Education Week. He stressed the close ties between open educational practices and social justice, mixing the personal and the practical as he made a case for embracing free and low-cost course materials.

College instructors long ago ceded academic freedom to textbook makers, Jhangiani said, and follow an absurd approach of mapping their courses onto textbooks rather than the other way around. That has given textbook makers power to charge more than $400 a book in some cases, creating what Jhangiani calls a “second tuition” for students.

As a result, students do a sort of cost-benefit analysis with course materials. If they can get by without buying the materials, they will, even if it means a lower grade. If they must buy a book, they search for an older, cheaper version or a pirated online version.

The cost of course materials has a real impact on learning, Jhangiani said, and instructors need to pay closer attention to the costs of materials they assign. He advocated for the use of open educational resources, which are often known as OER. Those resources are not only free but can be remixed and remade to fit the needs of students and instructors.  Many people have the perception that something free isn’t as good, he said, but much time, effort and even peer review goes into making OER materials available.

He cited recent research showing that students who use open resources have lower withdrawal rates and higher course grades. They are also enrolled in more courses each semester. One of his own studies found that students who used open resources scored about the same on exams as those who used traditional textbooks, with one exception. Those who used open resources scored higher on the first exam, largely because they had access to the course material immediately.

Jhangiani urged instructors to go beyond open educational resources, though, and to adopt open pedagogy, which involves having students create materials that others can use, an approach he called “renewable assignments.” Those involve everything from writing op-ed pieces for newspapers and websites to creating Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos.

Only a fraction of students read the feedback instructors provide, Jhangiani said, providing little benefit to students or instructors.

Rajiv Jhangiani kneeling at a table where Carl Luchies and Molly McVey from engineering sit
Jhangiani with Carl Luchies and Molly McVey from engineering at a workshop last week.

“Traditional assignments might just be sucking energy out of the world,” Jhangiani said. “Students hate doing them and faculty hate grading them.”

Alternative assignments offer more incentives for students to complete the work, he said. Students often take more time and care in completing them because they know the work will be on display for others to see and use.

“I’m amazed at how much pride students put into these assignments,” Jhangiani said.

These types of assignments also help students think more critically about sources and write more concisely, he said. They improve digital literacy and allow students to collaborate with others from around the world. They also help students work across disciplines, bringing together concepts and approaches from other classes.

When taking that approach, he said, it is important to give students control over their work. Let them choose Creative Commons licenses they are comfortable with. Allow them to later remove online work they decide is inferior. At the same time, scaffold assignments so that students gradually build skills and improve their ability to produce high-quality work.

These open assignments, he said, are not just about meeting the goals of an individual course but about helping students become better citizens. Again, Jhangiani speaks from personal experience. As a student, he was intent on excelling academically and making his family proud. He eventually got a job to help him pay his tuition, earned a Ph.D. and became a Canadian citizen.

This journey from international student to Canadian citizen to an educational leader was not traditional, Jhangiani said, and is “something I fear is becoming less and less likely as we move forward.”

That’s why open education is so important. It provides a means of lowering costs and helping more students earn a college degree.

“I sincerely believe that higher education is a vehicle for social mobility,” Jhangiani said.

His personal journey illustrates that.

Where to find open course materials

Where to learn more about open education practices

  • Open, a new book by Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener on the philosophy and practice of open education. It is free to download.
  • WikiEdu, the Wiki Education Foundation, which helps instructors integrate Wikipedia assignments into their courses.

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

By Doug Ward

The annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities offered many thought-provoking sessions, teaching tips and discussions about the future of higher education. I wrote earlier about some of the themes. Here’s a sampling of some of the other ideas that stood out.

The importance of engaged learning

A session on engaged learning offered some of the most insightful observations of the conference. Engaged learning encompasses a variety of practices that help students learn beyond the classroom, including community service, study abroad, research projects and other opportunities that allow students to work outside the traditional classroom and reflect on what they have done.

James Holloway of the University of Michigan said engaged learning provided important opportunities to demonstrate how classroom learning translates into making society better. Universities bring together “huge bodies of enthusiastic, engaged people,” he said, and serve as a launching pad for new kinds of learning.

“This unscripted learning is how we help students translate what they learn in the classroom into bigger problems,” Holloway said, and helps demonstrate the value of residential education.

Randy Bass of Georgetown was even more forceful about the importance of engaged learning.

He pointed to the growth of online education and the proliferation of digital information.

“In a couple of decades, we won’t need colleges and universities to teach people stuff,” Bass said.

As a result, higher education needs to mentor students in learning and to help them handle “unscripted situations.” It must also demonstrate that it is more than a collection of learning experiences, that it helps students move “from a sense of self to a sense of the world to a power to act within that world,” he said.

Quick hits

  • “Students are thirsting for a new kind of education,” one that involves team-based, interdisciplinary, student-driven, hands-on problem solving, said Jacqueline Schulz, a student at Tennessee Tech and a member of Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program.
  • Universities should use the results of course redesign to make the case to administrators and legislators to provide more money for faculty development and teaching resources.
  • We need to change the culture around shared courses to provide more consistency. That doesn’t mean ordering faculty members teach a certain way; rather, it means focusing on shared goals.
  • Many Ph.D. graduates have no opportunities to learn about pedagogy or instruction while completing their graduate work, which focuses almost exclusively on research. One conference participant asked: “How are we investing in the next generation of faculty members?” The answer: not very well.
  • Far too many faculty members see teaching as something they have to do “to pay the bills.” They see teaching as a skill, something that has less value than research, which provides their identity.
  • We talk a lot about empowerment on our campuses but rarely explain what we mean.
  • Curriculum typically develops by accretion, not by design.
  • Faculty members need to do a better job of sharing what they are doing in their classes so that administrators know what is happening and can explain the types of things faculty members are doing and the types of successes they are having.

Faculty need to keep learning

Mary Deane Sorcinelli of Mount Holyoke College and a colleague I work with frequently at the Bay View Alliance, was, as always, a great source of information and inspiration. A couple of things she said stood out:

  • Research done in the 1980s asked faculty members what they read to learn about new practices in teaching and learning. The response: nothing. Rather, they rely on conversations with colleagues. Sorcinelli said that still seemed to be the case today.
  • We need to make faculty development a component of a “four-legged stool”: teaching, research, service and professional development. “I think it’s that important,” she said.

Teaching insights from José Bowen

José Bowen’s book Teaching Naked offered excellent advice about using technology outside the classroom. Drawing on a new book he wrote with C. Edward Watson, Teaching Naked Techniques, he offered some interesting insights about teaching:

  • Students need an entry point into course material. To do that, start with what matters to students and then connect that with what matters to you. He said music was one way to do that. Nearly all students listen to music, so use that knowledge and affinity for music as a connection to class material.
  • Classes that students perceive as difficult or scary will activate their fight-or-flight reflex, making learning all but impossible. We have to recognize that and find ways to help students get over their fears. “We’re all too tied to our content,” Bowen said. That makes it hard to understand what scares or motivates students.
  • The five most important factors for learning have nothing to do with pedagogy: sleep, water, exercise, food and time.
  • Never put a grade on a paper. If you do, students will look at the grade and never read the feedback. Instead, provide the feedback without a grade and tell students to look for the grade on the learning management system a few hours after class.
  • “Pedagogy is a design problem.”

What research tells us about students

Authors of a new volume of How College Affects Students offered insights about their latest research. These are some takeaways from Andrea Greenhoot, CTE’s director, who attended that session:

  • Channeling resources toward teaching rather than administration is associated with better student outcomes.
  • Living on campus is no longer associated with better student achievement. It had been in the past.
  • First-generation and low-income students benefit the most from first-year seminars.
  • Colleges and universities that have larger percentages of full-time faculty have higher graduation rates. Underserved students are hurt most by overuse of adjunct faculty.
  • Where students go to college doesn’t matter that much. What matters is what they do once they are at college.
  • Students are more stressed today than they were 10 years ago.

Notable quotes

“Our entire institutions are set up around maintaining prestige. That doesn’t align with the idea of student-centeredness we are trying to achieve.” — Andrea Beach, Western Michigan University

“We often don’t practice coming up with good ideas.” Rather, we generally stop with the first. “It’s when you get beyond the first one that things get interesting.” — Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, University Fellows Program at Stanford

“Universities have the unique ability to run off in all directions and stay in the same place.” — Randy Bass, Georgetown


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.