Education has always been a balancing act. In our classes, we constantly choose what concepts to emphasize, what content to cover, what ideas to discuss, and what skills to practice. As I wrote last week, the choices we make will influence our students throughout their careers.
Higher education is now facing a different kind of balancing act, though, one that involves not just what we teach and who we are but what college is and should be about and how it fits into the broader fabric of society. The recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities made clear just how tenuous a grasp higher education has on credibility and how broad the gap is between internal and external perceptions of colleges and universities.
Consider this from Brandon Busteed, a former Gallup executive who is now president of Kaplan University Partners:
“If you were to take the most brilliant marketing minds in the world, put them in a room for a day, lock them in there and say, please emerge with words that would be the worst possible combination to use in attracting students to higher education, they would emerge with one combination called ‘liberal arts.’ ”
To explain that, he referred to a study of high-performing, low-income students at Stanford. When asked what they thought of liberal arts, they most commonly replied: “What’s that?” Or “I’m not liberal.” Or “I’m not good at or interested in art.”
Lest those of you in professional programs start to feel smug, read on.
The negative connotations of ‘college’
In Gallup polling, Busteed said, Americans express confidence in “higher education” and “post-secondary education.” They see those things as important to the future. When asked about “college” or “university,” though, the warm feelings suddenly chill.
“Why?” Busteed asked. “When we say ‘college,’ we think about traditional-age students. We think about a residential experience. We think about Animal House movies.”
In other words, Americans see a need for education to prepare them for jobs and careers. Increasingly, though, the typical student who needs additional education looks nothing like Flounder, Babs or Bluto and wants nothing to do with a system they see as driven by liberal ideology and populated by drunken misfits more interested in toga parties than in preparing for the future.
“The words are holding us back,” Busteed said.
A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces that. According to Pew, Democrats rank improving education as the second most important priority for the president and Congress, trailing only reducing health-care costs. Republicans, on the other hand, see defending against terrorist attacks, fixing social security and dealing with immigration as far more important than education or health care.
Another divide shows up in the Pew survey, with about three-quarters of women and those between 18 and 49 years old saying that improving education should be the top priority. Men and older Americans see education as a less pressing issue. The Pew poll doesn’t distinguish K-12 from higher education, but it does point to the complicated relationship Americans have with education of all sorts today. And the way educators see education and the way the public sees education are vastly different.
“Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in societal education, has been replaced by talk of return on investment: tuition in exchange for jobs,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U said during the organization’s annual meeting. She added: “The fact that Americans believe more in higher education than in colleges and universities is a clear indication that the way we talk about what we do in academia shapes public perception.”
Employers’ conflicted feelings
That perception applies not only to the public whose voices carry weight in state and federal funding of education but to the businesses and organizations that hire college graduates.
A survey AAC&U conducted last year found that only 63% of business executives and hiring managers have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities. That’s higher than the 45% of the public who express confidence in colleges and universities. And if you ask those same business leaders whether college is worth the time and expense, 85% to 88% say yes, according to the AAC&U survey.
The responses indicate a clear ambivalence about higher education, though. Nearly all of the business leaders say they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and more complex tasks than in the past. Nearly all of them say they are looking for prospective employees who think critically and communicate clearly, possess intellectual and interpersonal skills that will lead to innovative thinking, and have an ability to use a broader range of skills than workers in past years did. Many of them just aren’t convinced that college is preparing students for that.
Many academics will scoff at the focus on business leaders. A university education isn’t the same as job training, they say. It isn’t about tailoring classes to meet the specific demands of the business world and molding students into corporate clones.
I agree. And yet as the cost of college has risen precipitously, students increasingly want assurances that their degrees will lead to good jobs. We can – and should – talk about how our degrees will make students into better people and better citizens, about how our courses prepare students to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Students want that, too. Above all, though, they want to be able to pay off their loans once they graduate. As Busteed told the AAC&U gathering, today’s students, as “consumers of higher education,” want more efficient and less expensive paths through college, and they want their coursework aligned with the jobs they will take upon graduation.
So we are back to the balancing act that those of us inside colleges and universities face. We want our students to leave with disciplinary knowledge but must help them understand how our disciplines lead to careers. We fret over week-to-week understanding of course material even though much of it is very likely to be obsolete within a few years. We try to teach in a reasoned, meaningful, inclusive way even as a partisan, skeptical public questions our epistemological foundations. We carry the burden of a name – college or university – that has lost its cachet even as a wary and reluctant public continues to see a need for what we do.
What’s the point of a major?
A colleague at AAC&U pointed to an enormous paradox in teaching and learning today. As students flood into what they see as “safe” majors of business and engineering, the liberal arts and sciences have donned the mantle of job skills. English isn’t just about literature and poetry; it’s about the communication skills that employers prize. History isn’t just about an understanding of the past; it’s about critical thinking skills that will get you a job. Political science isn’t just about the machinations of government; it’s about learning to work in groups so you can thrive in a career.
All of those things are true, but as my colleague reminded me, students don’t choose a major because they think it will make them better at group work, improve their critical analysis, or allow them to make better decisions independently. They choose a major because they are passionate about literature or linguistics or biology or politics or French or journalism or (name the major).
So more than ever, we educators must approach our work in multiple layers. We must balance disciplinary depth with broad-scale career skills, short-term understanding with long-term viability. We must learn to explain our majors more meaningfully and our roles as academics more thoughtfully. We must help our students explore the many facets of our majors while helping them connect to the ideas and philosophies of other majors. We must guide students through the details of disciplinary competency while recognizing that only the broader skills and experiences – what the media historian Claude Cookman calls the “residue” of education – generally sticks with students over the years.
Higher education has always been about exploration and understanding. As those of us who make up higher education balance the many demands pressing down on us today, though, we must undertake a broader exploration of just who we are because, increasingly, those on the outside don’t know.
Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.
Those of us in higher education like to think of ourselves as preparing students for the future.
That’s a lofty goal with a heavy burden. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and yet as educators we have accepted that responsibility by offering degrees that we tell our students will have relevance for years to come.
In our courses and with our colleagues, we simply don’t talk nearly enough about how we foresee the future and what role our disciplines will play. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves difficult questions: What skills will our students need not just next year, but in the next decade and the 40 or 50 years after that? What can we do to prepare students for a future we can’t possibly predict?
You can find many others. Most likely you have your own. Or you may prefer to think about higher education in broader terms, much as Bernard Bull, assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, wrote about recently:
“The essence of a great college experience is not a college degree. It is a rich, engaging, empowering, enlightening and transformative learning experience. It is the experience of a network that may well extend through one’s lifetime. It is the experience of being immersed in a culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It is a place where you are stretched, challenged, inspired, and pushed to discover meaning and purpose in your life and the world around you.”
Most certainly, college helps students learn about themselves, their peers and society, develop independence and responsibility, and gain enough disciplinary understanding to apply skills in a meaningful (if often rudimentary) way. There’s a danger in being too general, though, because those generalizations make academia an easy target for critics, who like to paint higher education as out of touch and irrelevant. In that view, all a person needs is hard work, ingenuity and grit, not a college degree. Drawing on those inner skills is not only practical but much, much cheaper.
A variation on that theme posits that college students are ill-prepared for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow. You don’t have to look far to find scathing portrayals of universities as mindless playgrounds in which students dally for four (or five or six) years and emerge mired in debt and no more prepared to face the world than when they started college.
Both of those portrayals hold grains of truth, but they also view education through the lens of neo-liberal utilitarianism. In that view, the only valuable skill is one that leads to monetary gain and the only valuable graduates are those that fit like cogs into predetermined slots of corporate machinery. A degree, in that view, is all about the money. The federal government has backed that perspective by promoting comparisons of graduates’ salaries vs. cost of degree, and universities have perpetuated it themselves as they have whittled away at the liberal arts, raised tuition to levels that stretch ordinary families to the limit, and run themselves like corporations rather than nonprofits that serve the public good. States and the federal government have forced universities to adopt that way of thinking as they have slashed spending on higher education and turned student loans into a guaranteed profit center for private lenders.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
It’s the beginning of the semester, though. Students and instructors have a chance to start anew. We can’t solve all the problems of higher education in a single semester, no more than we can teach students all the skills they need in a single class. We can and must keep the broader picture in mind, though, as we lead students into a new exploration of disciplinary challenges, societal problems, and academic inquiries. As we do, though, we must remember that knowledge is useless without an ability to apply it, and that skills have limited currency without an ability to refresh, revise and remake them.
So as you begin the semester, consider this: What are you doing to prepare your students for the future? And how will they know they are on the right track?
Worth considering …
“I think it is important for parents to be situated in the context of the digital revolution through which we are living. It was only 11 years ago that the iPhone was introduced, and faster download speeds, and it has transformed almost all of American community life. Inevitably, for good or for ill, it’s going to transform where education heads.”
The Midwest is producing an increasingly larger share of graduates in technology-related fields, the website OZY reports. Twenty-five percent of computer science graduates now come from the Midwest, OZY writes, saying that “tomorrow’s innovators may never set foot in Silicon Valley.” … The Atlantic looks at the struggle that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point faces in maintaining liberal arts programs amid budget cuts and a declining number of majors. … Providing students more direction and community could help reverse declining enrollments in history programs, Jason Steinhauer of Villanova argues in a Time column. … Politico writes about how free college, an idea usually associated with liberal politics, has been enthusiastically embraced in conservative Tennessee.
Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.
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).
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.
From the trenches, the work to improve college teaching seems interminably slow.
Those of us at research universities devote time to our students at our own peril as colleagues who shrug off teaching and service in favor of research earn praise and promotion. When we point out deep flaws in a lecture-oriented system that promotes passive, shallow learning, we are too often told that such a system is the only way to educate large numbers of students. We seemingly write the same committee reports over and over, arguing that college teaching must move to a student-centered model; that a system established for educating a 19th-century industrial workforce must adapt to the needs of 21st-century students; that higher education’s rewards system must value teaching, learning, and service – not just research.
That’s my perception, at least. During my 15 years as a faculty member, I have seen many positive changes as the benefits of active and engaged learning have seeped into broader conversation and as the need to reform higher education has become part of a growing number of conversations. The largest barriers to change seem immovable, though – especially as we push against them day by day. It’s easy to get discouraged.
So when I heard Mary Huber speak about dramatic changes she had seen in teaching and learning over the last three decades, I wanted to hear more. That was in January 2017 at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. I finally had that opportunity a few months later at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of research universities working to improve teaching and leadership in higher education.
I was hoping not only to get a broader perspective on higher education but to gain some reassurance that the work we do to improve undergraduate education matters. I wasn’t disappointed. I never am when I speak to Mary, who has played a crucial role in shaping discussions about teaching and learning over the past 30 years. I have gotten to know her over the past few years through our work in the BVA. She was a founding member of the organization and is now a senior scholar and a member of its leadership team. The insights and leadership she brings to the BVA were honed over many years of work at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, among other organizations.
At Carnegie, Mary Huber was among the “we” that Ernest L. Boyer refers to in the recommendations in an influential 1990 report, Scholarship Reconsidered. That publication took higher education to task for diminishing undergraduate teaching through a rewards structure skewed toward narrowly defined research. She was a co-author of a follow-up book, Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professorate, and was an early advocate for the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). She has continued to publish works about SoTL and present conference papers on improving teaching and learning. She also serves as a contributing editor to Change magazine.
Mary covered a lot of territory during a 30-minute conversation on a shady balcony during a mild summer day in Boulder, Colo. She spoke about such things as the rise of pedagogical scholarship within disciplines; the way that education scholarship in the United States developed separately from a line of inquiry followed in the U.K., Canada, and Australia; and the role that teaching centers have played in promoting engaged learning.
“There’s much more conversation today, more places for that conversation, more resources out there that have burgeoned, really, in the past 20 to 25 years,” she said.
She also spoke of faculty members and administrators in terms of the learning they must do about teaching and learning and “remember what it’s like to be a novice in this area” like our students.
She didn’t downplay the challenges, though. In fact, at the end of our interview, she made it clear that those challenges were enormous.
“I don’t think it’s fair to just say that colleges and universities are failing,” she said. “I think society is failing. If they need higher education to do something different, which I think they do, we cannot any longer settle for the kind of education that we have been providing to most of our students. Those good jobs in the workforce and the life they supported are no longer viable for a growing number of college graduates. We need to do better by the students. But we aren’t going to be able to do that without broader social support.”
To understand how we go to that point, though, we have to go back to the 1960s, when Mary Huber completed her undergraduate work at Bucknell University. It’s from that starting point that she explains the changing landscape of teaching and learning through the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
A Q&A with Mary Huber
Mary Huber: My first exposure to teaching in higher education was at a liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, Bucknell University, a fine liberal arts college. That was in the mid-1960s. So that’s my baseline. From there, I went on to experience with graduate schools, first with my former husband’s and then with my own. After that I began work as a researcher and writer on higher education, first as a research assistant in economics and public policy at Princeton University and then through my roles at the Carnegie Foundation. So it’s kind of been an unbroken chain of some exposure to teaching and learning in higher education at different kinds of institutions.
I think that higher education itself began to change as the proportion of students going on to college changed. That was something that began after World War II, but really took off in the mid to late ’60s. And it brought to colleges and universities a lot of people who weren’t prepared in the traditional sense, at the level that high schools used to prepare college-bound students. There were people going to college who might not have gone in earlier years. That was partly made possible by the growth of community colleges at that time, but many four-year colleges had also opened their doors and brought in new students.
This influx of new students created pockets of pedagogical innovation in the university. I’m thinking in particular about some of the new fields that emerged during that period like composition. Not that composition hadn’t been around, but as a separate field with an identity of its own, it started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, dealing with this issue of students who weren’t prepared for college writing. Composition scholars have persisted in doing excellent work on teaching and learning, with many thoughtful, committed people working to understand and address the problems student writers face in academic writing tasks. There were some other new fields that took off around that time, like ethnic studies and women’s studies, which had a pedagogical twist to their mission. Concerned about how traditional power structures were re-enacted in the classroom, scholars in these fields were trying to create more democratic classrooms that empowered students to move beyond all that. So there were several pockets where there was some very interesting pedagogical thinking going on.
But small groups of people were becoming pedagogically restless in some of the older and larger fields as well. Math was certainly a case in point, spurred by the math wars in the K-12 arena, by the arrival of calculators, and (of course) by high rates of attrition in developmental and advanced introductory mathematics classes.
So there were things happening here and there, but it was in pockets. And at some point it spread out. There’s a very interesting article on changes in STEM education policy from roughly the mid-1980s to the late 1990s by Elaine Seymour, who led a center for ethnography and evaluation research right here at the University of Colorado. Her history began with concerns about the pipeline for STEM careers. There weren’t enough people graduating and continuing on in STEM careers, especially not enough women or underrepresented minorities who were coming in and persisting in STEM. That spurred government agencies to support research to explore why that would be. And there was some finger-pointing at pedagogy. But it wasn’t just finger-pointing. It was based on research that was being done at the time on people who did leave STEM to go elsewhere in the university. That, I think, has been another continuing stream of attention to teaching and learning, but not so walled off from other parts of the university. STEM was a large and a growing area in higher education and there was money for research on pedagogical and curricular issues that involved people in mainstream disciplines and institutions making that part of their work. Indeed, by the 2000s, well-known research leaders, like Nobel-prize winning physicist Carl Wieman were lending their prestige and their intelligence and their networks to initiatives to improve STEM teaching in higher education.
Doug Ward: So here we’re talking about the ’90s? 2000s?
MH: Getting into the ’90s and ’00s. But certainly concern about pedagogical and curricular issues in STEM education predated that, going all the way back to Sputnik in the 1960s.
Emergence of a teaching commons
DW: So this surprises me because it sounds like many of the same conversations we are having today: that there’s a concern and certainly a lot of effort over the last 10 years. Why has it been so hard to get some of the changes through to help our students?
MH: Well let me back up just a little to say that I actually think there have been many changes in teaching and learning over the past several decades. Some of them grew out of changes in our fields themselves – especially some of the goals, the way people thought about what they wanted for undergraduates. My field is anthropology and I think anthropology, like many others, has had thinkers who had pedagogical interests, and departments that wanted students to begin to experience what it was like to produce knowledge as professionals do in the field. This was also the case, I think, in history. Yes it’s true that not everybody jumped on board for that. But nonetheless there has been a growing sense that there is just too much knowledge out there now, too much information, too easy to access in this period with the internet and the Word Wide Web. So that was another push that maybe we should be doing something else with undergraduate education than just focusing on mastering content. That’s another thread to add to pipeline and equity concerns. And I think there have been many others – for instance, attention to service and community engagement, not to mention gaining mastery over the new technological tools of the academic trade.
Indeed, if you trace them all out, I think, the picture that emerges is the growth of something that Pat Hutchings and I have called a teaching commons. There’s much more conversation, more places for that conversation today, more resources out there that have burgeoned, really, in the past 20 to 25 years. Disciplinary societies have developed new journals or beefed up old ones about teaching in their fields. There are panels on teaching and learning and curriculum now at meetings that didn’t used to be there. For a long time, it really was a kind of an invisible ground. The traditional forms of teaching – we’ve all experienced them, at Bucknell or wherever we went – but then that’s what shifted.
From private conversations to public discussions
DW: That’s interesting. The way you’re describing it is that there were a lot of private conversations about teaching but really not the public places to have those discussions or the resources to disseminate information.
MH: That’s right. Or to make it part of your life as a teacher. There’s a lovely book by the scholar Wayne Booth. He was a literary critic and scholar of rhetoric at the University of Chicago. He has a wonderful book called The Vocation of a Teacher, published in 1988, which was a collection of his essays and speeches on educational themes. And the resources he cites on how he himself learned to teach are from another era. Not the citations and references you’d expect to find today. There was a footnote listing books that “teach about teaching by force of example” and citing “an obscure little pamphlet” about discussion teaching, but mostly, he said, he learned about teaching through staff meetings and conversations with colleagues. ..There was very little in terms of a formal apparatus of research, or of major thought leaders in teaching and learning. It was very sporadic. I wrote about that back in 1998 or ’99 in an essay on disciplinary styles in the scholarship of teaching. That’s when I was getting into this myself and realizing that there was much more going on than I thought. And I used Wayne Booth’s book an example of the thin web of scholarship on teaching and learning that was common before. Of course, there were thoughtful people who were wise about these things and had given it enough thought to write about it, but they didn’t have much to back it up.
DW: I’m going to veer a little bit because this sort of ties in with an article that you’ve been working on about what is known about teaching for liberal learning. We talked before our interview about how different strands in the scholarship of teaching and learning evolved. Essentially, in the 1970s and 1980s, the British were saying we have a theoretical grounding to our efforts to improve teaching and learning and you Americans don’t. It’s interesting how this kind of practitioner research started to form. How are you seeing the differences?
MH: It is interesting. The way I see it – I’m sure there are others whose standpoint is different – the U.S. never had a very robust area of scholarly research on learning and teaching in higher education. A lot of our focus in our graduate schools of education was on K-12.
Different approaches in the U.S. and Europe
MH: For some reason that was not true in the U.K. and Europe. One particularly strong line of work on students’ approaches to and experience of learning was really jump-started by a Swedish research team in the mid 1970’s. That’s when they published their initial papers, presenting work on the experience of learning that was then picked up by colleagues in the U.K., Australia, and Canada. Of course you can trace this theme back a long way. But in the U.S. we didn’t have that strong or coherent an education research group. There have always been a few involved in studies of teaching and learning in higher education, but their work didn’t really shape or constrain what was going on as other groups became interested. This led to a rather diverse set of communities and literatures. The field of learning sciences wasn’t really focused on higher ed, but what they were discovering about memory, prior knowledge and other kinds of things were presented as universally applicable. That was one stream. The professional development people took some of that literature and tried to put it into a frame that would be accessible and helpful to teachers in higher education. And then you had this emergence of the scholarship of teaching and learning, which was a practitioner’s form of research and inquiry into teaching practice. And that was followed by the emergence DBER, which stands for disciplinary-based education research. This involved people in disciplinary fields like chemistry education research and physics education research who had higher education as the domain in which they were examining the ins and outs of STEM learning and teaching.
So you have these many different streams. And over recent years, there have been more and more occasions where people coming from one or the other of those communities can have access to and become aware of what’s going on in the others. For example, longstanding journals like Teaching Sociology or Teaching of Psychology, have been raising the bar on what counts as quality in writing about teaching and learning. It’s no longer enough to tell readers about your clever idea for teaching this topic or that one. We really need to be looking at how students are responding to this kind of pedagogy. So those journals upped the ante for what they would be willing to publish. Other journals in other fields have been more recently founded, and there are now several online journals for the scholarship of teaching and learning itself. More campuses, too, now have centers for teaching and learning that have been sponsoring faculty learning communities and improvement initiatives around issues of teaching and learning that bring people together from across the campus. All these developments have helped widen and deepen the teaching commons, as we have more occasions and more reasons to meet each other and learn about each other’s work.
DW: So I’m visualizing a lot of threads that have been coming together, and the way you’re describing it is that we have shifted from an anecdotal approach to a scholarly approach where there is some substance; there is some foundation. But then where does the criticism from the British fit in?
MH: They had, and continue to have, a relatively small community of researchers who have been building on each other’s work for 30 to 40 years, exploring students’ approaches to learning, among other themes. That’s where these ideas of deep, surface, and strategic approaches to study emerged. They have looked at how that plays out in the lecture format, in the Oxbridge tutorial, in the seminar – indeed, they’ve gone far beyond just that simple trichotomy, and have created a body of knowledge that is often regarded as foundational for new faculty in the U.K. to learn about, or for scholars of teaching and learning there to reference in designing their own inquiries.
In 2008 a group of researchers from the Higher Education Academy at Oxford did a review of the literature on the student learning experience in higher education. You can see that it’s a body of literature that has depth and subtlety and people who are in communication with each other over the years, and that it’s benefited from a long history of exchange between researchers in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. They are a group of people whose careers shift continents and who stay in touch. That is very different from what we have. Very different.
So when the scholarship of teaching and learning caught on in the U.S. among people who are primarily teachers and researchers in their own disciplines – historians, mathematicians, whatever you have – it was both limited and empowered by the relative absence of a thriving local community of researchers in higher education pedagogy. As the scholarship of teaching and learning developed in the part of the world I was working from, at the Carnegie Foundation, we basically urged newcomers: ‘Come on. Draw on whatever you can. You don’t have to master the field of educational psychology or statistics or 40 years of research on this or that educational theme in order to be observant and reflective about what’s happening in your classrooms with your students. If you want to draw on Husserl or Heidegger, be my guest. There are many different ways in which insights from across the academic spectrum can inform your work.’ And I’m very glad. Some of us who were organizing this movement in the U.S. soon learned that your “typical” professor of Chaucer and medieval English literature may not have the time or the interest to tap a whole new (to them) area of study, although they certainly would be interested in addressing questions about their students’ learning. I myself, coming from the humanistic side of anthropology, had trouble with the literature in educational psychology and professional development. I wasn’t interested in it at first. I wasn’t sure about the epistemological grounds on which it was done. I didn’t have the expertise to read it with understanding. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in student learning and couldn’t bring to it some thoughts and methods from my own field. Still, once people like me or that Chaucerian scholar come together around questions of learning with people from a variety of other fields, we soon expand our range of reference, and get better at accessing even the literature in education without being intimidated or offput.
Improving conversations about teaching
DW: I want to ask one more thing. What do you see as the biggest challenges right now in terms of teaching and learning?
MH: Well, I really would go along with the Bay View Alliance on that. I still think that building a stronger, more sophisticated conversation about teaching and learning in departments and disciplines and institutions – building stronger cultures of teaching and learning makes this a better conversation, one people are prepared to engage in more readily – is the challenge that we are facing now.
I’m less worried about professional development in the formal sense. I think that centers for teaching and learning have a big role to play. I think we would make much more progress with this if there were more opportunity in people’s regular, everyday lives as faculty to talk about teaching and learning and to have their contributions recognized. And I think that will happen. I do think there’s been change in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go in many departments before the conversation goes beyond just a one small group of enthusiasts or perhaps the faculty appointed to the curriculum committee. I think the work of those committees focused on undergraduate education need to be upheld as more central to the work of our institutions and not just shoved off to one side.
However, we need to remember, just like we do for our students, what it’s like for a faculty member to be a novice in this pedagogical conversation. But if we keep working on this and have more occasions for graduate students and faculty to talk about teaching and learning, and more department chairs who see this as important and include it in faculty meetings, that will help. Indeed, you could list a whole number of ways in which to make more about our teaching lives public and raise pedagogical literacy to a higher level.
DW: I did a presentation a few weeks ago about the need for elevating teaching in a research university. And the response I got from faculty was, “Yes, but … how do you do that? Because we’re a research university.” This is what we get a lot. “We’re a research university. We don’t have time to carve out for something else.” How do you respond to that?
MH: That is partly why we need leaders who keep reminding us that we’re there for an educational mission – for both undergraduates and graduate students, especially when you are talking about a research university. I think we need our faculty evaluation systems to make a larger space for teaching and educational leadership. But I don’t discount the difficulties given the way the larger political economy of higher education has developed and the competitive world in which institutions believe they live.
DW: And that was the theme at AAC&U, this conflict between prestige and learning, that if we are aiming everything toward prestige, that doesn’t fit with this culture of how do we learn from our mistakes, how do we help all students learn more. That’s a big challenge.
MH: It is a challenge. I was struck yesterday (at the Bay View Alliance Meeting) when Howard Gobstein (of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities) said that we are going so slow and that society is changing so fast and we aren’t keeping up, that this is urgent. And I’m saying to myself fine, if it’s that urgent why has society pulled away from supporting our public institutions? I think that’s part of the problem. I don’t think we need to take this on ourselves entirely, the critique that we are just not doing enough.
DW: That’s partly what we talked about. We need to be more of an advocate.
MH: We need to be advocating. We need higher education leaders who can make a better case for public support for higher education. We need less talk about and less focus on austerity. I was reading a book recently on public universities – Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake. At one University of California institution, in the English major, Newfield said, there was only room for students to have “exactly one” small seminar class because they just don’t have enough faculty to offer more. If the need for our work as educators is as urgent as people think, then we need to more generously resource that effort. Obviously we can be smarter in how we work and improve and do better. And we are going to run into that prestige competition as a countervailing force. That’s how we live. But I don’t think it’s fair to just say that colleges and universities are failing. I think society is failing. If they need higher education to do something different, which I think they do, we cannot any longer settle for the kind of education that we have been providing to most of our students. Those good jobs in the workforce and the life they supported are no longer viable for a growing number of college graduates. We need to do better by the students. But we aren’t going to be able to do that without broader social support. Faculty will need time, security, resources, and encouragement to improve teaching and learning and educational programs so that our colleges and universities can serve today’s students well. That’s my view.
Enrollment reports released last week hint at the challenges that colleges and universities will face in the coming decade.
Across the Kansas regents universities, enrollment fell by the equivalent of 540 full-time students, or 0.72 percent. Emporia State, Fort Hays State, Wichita State and the KU Medical Center all showed slight increases, but full-time equivalent enrollment fell at Pittsburg State (3.98 percent), Kansas State (3.09 percent), and the KU Lawrence and Edwards campuses (0.49 percent). Enrollment at community colleges fell 2.6 percent.
Those numbers reflect the regents’ shift to a metric that focuses on credit hours rather than a count of the number of students. Total undergraduate credit hours are divided by 15 and graduate credit hours by 12 to get the full-time equivalency metric. More than 60 percent of students at regents institutions enroll only part time, the regents said in a news release, and the full-time equivalency counts adjust for that. At KU’s Lawrence and Edwards campuses, 16.2 percent of students are part time. That up about 2.5 points since 2013 but still considerably lower than it was in the 1990s.
KU reported that the total number of students across its campuses grew by 63, to 28,510, although the regents’ full-time equivalency total was 24,246. KU’s growth in head count came from the medical center. On the Lawrence and Edwards campuses, the number of students declined by 76. And though the freshman class grew, diversity declined in all categories.
Without doubt, KU had several strong components in its report. The most impressive was that nearly 84 percent of 2017’s freshman class returned to the university this year. That’s an increase of 4 to 6 points from just a few years ago and the highest KU has ever recorded. That growth reflects many factors, including higher admission standards and efforts to improve teaching, advising and student outreach.
Retaining students will grow increasingly important in the coming years as U.S. birthrates decline. An analysis by Nathan Grawe of Carleton University suggests that attendance at regional four-year colleges and universities will drop by more than 15 percent by 2029. Fewer births means fewer potential students, something that could prove particularly troubling for universities in the Midwest and Northeast, where declines are expected to be the steepest.
This all grows increasingly important as KU considers a budget model that would allocate departmental resources in part on the number of undergraduate credit hours. More students would mean more money. Fewer students would mean fewer departmental resources, putting ever more pressure on small departments that provide important perspectives on an ever-changing world but that are never likely to attract large numbers of students.
Long-term predictions are notoriously inaccurate, so there’s no guarantee that any single university will face an extreme drop in the number of students. You don’t have to look far, though, to see what might happen. Enrollment at Kansas State dropped by nearly 1,000 students last year, and its enrollment declined each year between 2015 and 2017. That forced a budget cut of $15 million.
To make up for declining numbers of undergraduates, many universities have developed new master’s programs, many of them online, to tap into a demand for new skills and new credentials. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of master’s degrees granted at U.S. institutions rose by more than 60 percent. They have also added online classes for undergraduates to allow more flexibility for students who often work more than 20 hours a week to pay their bills.
The vast majority of tuition dollars still come from undergraduates, and without a doubt, attracting even the same number of students will grow increasingly challenging in the coming decade. Universities can’t just play numbers games, though. Volumes of students and credit hours may pay the bills, but unless universities elevate the importance of high-quality teaching and learning, those numbers mean little. In an increasingly competitive environment, the quality of teaching matters immensely.
Neil deGrasse Tyson on professors’ communication problem
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has made a career out of explaining science to the public, offered some strong criticism of higher education in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said that a misguided rewards systems discouraged professors from reaching out beyond a small group of like-minded colleagues.
“If communicating with the public were valued in the tenure process, they’d be better at it. This is an easy problem to solve. If 20 percent of the evaluation for tenure were based on how well you communicate with the public, that’s a game changer. All of a sudden universities open up, and people learn about what you’re doing there, whether it’s bird wings or paramecia.
“But in the end, universities don’t really care. Put that in big letters.”
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.
Gobstein spoke in Lawrence last week at the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and math. Pressures are building both inside and outside the university to improve education, he said, citing changing demographics, rising costs, advances in technology, and demands for accountability among the many pressure points. Universities have created initiatives to improve retention at the institutional level. Departments and disciplines, especially in STEM, have created their own initiatives. Most work independently, though.
“There are almost two different conversations occurring, I would argue,” Gobstein said. “There are those that are pushing overall and those that are pushing within STEM.”
Not only that, but national organizations have created STEM education initiatives focusing on K-12, undergraduate education, graduate education, and industry and community needs. Those initiatives often overlap, but all of them are vital for effecting change, Gobstein said.
“To transform and to make it stick, there has to be something going on across all of these levels,” he said.
Universities must also work more quickly, especially as outside organizations draw on technology to provide alternative models of education.
“There are organizations out there, there are institutions out there that are going to change the nature of education,” Gobstein said. “They are already starting to do that. They are nipping away at universities. And we ignore them at our peril.”
Gobstein made a similar argument last year at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities that are working to improve teaching and learning. Demographics are changing rapidly, he said, but STEM fields are not attracting enough students from underrepresented minority groups and lower economic backgrounds.
“That’s not entirely the responsibility of institutions, but they have a big role to play,” Gobstein said. “To the extent that we can transform our STEM education, our classes, our way of dealing with these students, the quicker we will be able to get a larger portion of these students into lucrative STEM fields.”
Change starts at individual institutions and in gateway courses that often hold students back, he said. Research universities must value teaching and learning more, though.
“It’s the recognition that teaching matters. It’s the recognition that counseling students matters,” Gobstein said.
Higher education is also under pressure from parents, students and governments to improve teaching and learning, to make sure students are prepared for the future, and to provide education at a price that doesn’t plunge families into debt.
“We seem to be losing ground with them as far as their confidence in our institutions to be able to provide what those students need for their future, particularly at a price that they are comfortable with,” Gobstein said.
At TRESTLE, Gobstein challenged participants with some difficult questions:
What does teaching mean in an era of rapidly changing technology?
How do we measure the pace of change? How do we know that we are doing better this year than in previous years?
How do we make sure the next generation of faculty continues to bring about change but also sustains that change?
He also urged participants to seek out collaborators on their campuses who can provide support for their efforts but also connect them with national initiatives.
“What we’re really trying to do is to change how students learn, and we’re trying to make sure that all students have access and opportunity,” Gobstein said.
Despite the many challenges, Gobstein told instructors at TRESTLE that the work they were doing to improve teaching and learning was vital to the future of higher education.
“You are doing work that is some of the most important work any of us can think of doing,” Gobstein said.
“The nation needs 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.
Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.
Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.
Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)
Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.
“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”
That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:
Every brain is different.
The person who does the work does the learning.
You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
People almost always learn better when they work together.
Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.
Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.
Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.
“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.
Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.
After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.
Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.
Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.
Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.
“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”
Teaching to hundreds of brains
Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.
“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”
That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.
“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.
That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.
“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.
To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.
“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.
Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.
“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’ That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.
That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.
“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.
That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.
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.
On a recent trip to Amherst, Mass., I strolled through the University of Massachusetts campus looking for a bookstore.
There was not a book to be found, at least outside the 30-story library. A technology shop, yes. A natural foods store, yes. A pastry counter, yes. A university apparel store, of course. But a bookstore? For that, you have to travel a mile or so to the Amherst town center.
UMass got rid of its physical campus bookstore three years ago. Instead, it has a wall of lockers and a desk staffed by Amazon. As part of a five-year contract the university signed with Amazon, students and faculty can buy textbooks online and have them shipped free to campus and nearby ZIP codes in a day, according to the university news service. (At least the contract was supposed to last five years. More about that shortly.)
The decision to eliminate a physical bookstore wasn’t popular among many students and faculty members, the Greenfield Recorder reported. Some students complained about Amazon’s business practices. Some instructors didn’t like submitting their textbook selections to Amazon rather than to a campus bookstore. And Amazon is never popular among local merchants.
One of the advantages universities cite for these arrangements is lower costs to students. At least that’s the plan. The university doesn’t have to devote storage space to books, and Amazon’s enormous size allows it to provide the benefit of scale and convenience. Amazon also pays the universities a commission on sales or rent for campus space. Amazon guaranteed UMass commissions of $1.45 million over three years, according to the Greenfield Recorder.
Cost is no trivial matter as state support keeps declining and the individual costs of college keeps rising. UMass said its deal with Amazon was expected to save students $380 a year on textbook purchases, although the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian said students found that the savings were considerably less, especially because the free shipping did not apply to used books.
Those arrangements also don’t take into account the efforts that campus bookstores make to assist students. The KU Bookstore, for instance, has created an online price comparison tool to help students make decisions. It also works with KU Libraries, faculty and staff members to make open educational resources more readily available. And it sends all its profits back to KU through donations to campus programs and organizations.
Each campus bookstore has a different business model, but the money that Amazon promises to universities is increasingly difficult to pass up. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laurent Heller, the vice chancellor for finance and administration cited decreased state funding as one reason the university found a deal with Amazon attractive, according to The Daily Cardinal.
“We need to find creative ways to gain revenue that goes along with our mission,” Heller was quoted as saying.
Those revenues don’t come without risk, though. At UMass, Amazon is ending its five-year contract after three years, according to the Recorder. That has left the university scrambling to find a book supplier for its bookstoreless campus starting next year.
I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not anti-Amazon, and I certainly understand the trend toward electronic course materials and the delivery of books. Libraries have been moving in the same direction, repurposing stacks as collaborative space for students and moving many physical books to remote sites. (This isn’t always a smooth process either.) The growth of digital resources also reduces the need for physical space.
I’m certainly part of this trend. I do most of my reading electronically these days. With an e-book reader and a tablet, I read much more than I did before. The digital devices also make life easier. I can take and store notes without the need for physical filing cabinets, and retrieve them much more easily and accurately than if they were in paper form. The digital format also reduces space and makes large amounts of information much more portable.
Campuses definitely lose an important element when a bookstore goes away, though. As I walked through the UMass campus, the lack of a college bookstore felt disorienting. It was as if something vital had been removed. Without it, there was no physical location for getting a feel for the intellectual life of the campus, no single place for perusing course titles or picking up new ideas from interesting classes and books that instructors had chosen. Without a bookstore, the campus felt somehow more remote, more inaccessible.
I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life – the soul of higher education – behind the gloss of consumer appeal.
If we are to preserve that intellectual core, we need to work harder at making it more visible, especially for potential students and for the public. Otherwise, a campus becomes just a collection of buildings — buildings that at a growing number of universities lack a bookstore.
Fort Hays State University is taking a non-Amazon approach to remaking its bookstore. The university has entered into partnerships with Akademos, a company that provides an online portal for textbook sales; and indiCo, an arm of the National Association of College Stores that will handle general merchandise for the store. … A University of Maryland study supports the idea of using virtual reality for learning, with researchers finding that participants had better recall of information from a virtual environment than from a desktop computer, Campus Technology reports. … A survey by the New America Foundation finds that support for higher education may not be as politically divided as surveys last year suggested, Inside Higher Ed reports. Even so, respondents were much more supportive of colleges and universities near them than they were of higher education in general.
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.