By Doug Ward

The future of teaching went on display Friday afternoon in Spooner Hall.

By display, I mean the 30-plus posters that hung from the walls of The Commons, documenting the changes that KU faculty members and post-doctoral teaching fellows made to courses this academic year.

Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little
Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The poster session was the culmination of this year’s C21 Course Redesign Consortium, but it included work from participants in last year’s Best Practices Institute and those involved in a project known as Trestle, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the posters explained efforts to incorporate active learning into classes.

Abbey Dvorak, an assistant professor of music therapy, captured the spirit of the poster session with a question she used to guide her course redesign:

“How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning?”

 

That’s a simple question, but don’t let it fool you. It can be difficult to answer. Most of us who teach struggle with that question semester to semester. The faculty members and teaching fellows at the poster session offered bursts of inspiration in their work, though, demonstrating how they have approached various problems in teaching and learning. For instance:    

  • Stefanie DeVito, Brad Williamson, and Trevor Rivers explained how making an introductory biology course more student-centered improved students’ attitudes toward biology.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Noah McLean, Greg Baker, and Andreas Moller explained how shifting an introductory geology course to an active learning model improved student grades, reduced the percentage of students who failed or withdrew, and greatly reduced performance gaps between men and women.
  • The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing explained how a series of faculty workshops helped it increase the number of online learning modules.
  • Susan Marshall from psychology explained her efforts to use a pre-class survey to better prepare students for an online course.

Not every poster showed success, but then success wasn’t the point. The point was to show how reflective teaching can lead to important changes in teaching and learning. (You’ll find more than 100 other examples at CTE’s online portfolio gallery.)

I called this session the future of teaching for three reasons:

  • It shows how instructors are using engaged and active learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning.
  • It shows how important reflection is in the teaching process.
  • It shows how building community around innovative, reflective teaching can provide support for faculty in a broad range of disciplines.

Teaching rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially in the promotion and tenure process at research universities like KU. That simply must change. Students and parents are demanding more from their education. Society is demanding evidence that higher education does what it says it does. And those of us in the academy must provide better explanations.

Groups like C21 help bridge the gap between research and teaching. The future involves better teaching, better documentation, and constant revision in our courses. Those who participated in Friday’s poster session helped show us the way forward.


Check out some scenes of active learning at KU in this video, which we showed during the C21 poster session. (There’s no sound, just images.)
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player


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

Innovation, meet frustration.

I’ve written frequently about how the lack of a reward system hampers (if not quashes) attempts to improve teaching and learning, especially at research universities.  A new survey only reinforces that short-sighted approach.

The survey was conducted by the consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R and involved a random sample of faculty members at U.S. universities in 2015. Ithaka has conducted the survey every three years since 2000.

The survey did offer reason for optimism: More than 60 percent of faculty members said they would like to use digital technology and new pedagogies to improve their teaching. The problem: Only 35 percent said their universities recognized or rewarded faculty for innovations in teaching.

The upshot: Most courses at most universities will remain mired in the past, failing to move beyond a curricular approach that emphasizes delivery and regurgitation of information over critical thinking, application, and adaptability. Only a small number of faculty members will be willing to risk the challenge of pedagogical innovation.

That’s especially unfortunate given another of the survey’s findings: More than 60 percent of faculty members in the humanities say that undergraduates do a poor job of finding and evaluating scholarly information. Those in the social sciences, sciences and medical fields are slightly more positive, but overall 54 percent of faculty members find students’ research skills lacking.

The United States has a larger number of colleges and universities relative to overall population than any other country. That provides more opportunities for more students, but it has also made it difficult for universities to distinguish themselves from one another. Research universities, especially, could do that by elevating the importance of teaching. Not only could students learn from top researchers and professionals, but they could learn in creative and innovative ways that would benefit them in the long run.

Or they could continue along the current path where teaching is treated as an afterthought, where one university pretty much looks like all universities, and where pedagogical innovation continually meets frustration.

Other findings from the survey:

  • Nearly 40 percent of faculty said open access materials were important to their teaching, but 25 percent said those types of resources were hard to find.
  • The percentage of faculty members looking to libraries to help undergraduates improve their research skills grew by 15 to 20 points between 2012 and 2015. The jump was largest among scientists.
  • The percentage of faculty who start their research at a physical library has dropped to nearly zero, though humanists are more likely than other disciplines to start at a library. Most start with either a general search engine or a specific database. A slightly smaller percentage start with a library catalog.

Financial challenges and hard questions

Recent statistics cast stark relief on the financial challenges that public colleges and universities face.

Between 1991 and 2008, enrollment at public colleges and universities grew 23 percent, although state support for those institutions rose only 13 percent. By 2010, enrollment rose an additional 8 percent while state support fell by 7 percent.

bar chart showing where research universities get their money
From ‘Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century’ https://www.amacad.org/content/Research/researchproject.aspx?d=929

The statistics come from an analysis of federal data by Steven Brint and Charles Clotfelter. Their article “U.S. Higher Education Effectiveness” was published this month in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

That declining state support has led to a growing reliance on part-time instructors. Non-tenure-track faculty now make up 37 percent of college and university faculty, up from 19 percent in 1970. Just as disturbing, the growth in spending on instruction has lagged that on student services and research. Actually, “lagged” isn’t quite the right word. Colleges and universities devoted two and a half times as much additional money to research (2.6 percent growth) as they did to teaching (1.1 percent), and nearly twice as much (2.2 percent) to student services.

That’s not bad on its own, but it is symbolic of how far too many universities view teaching. (See above.)

Another study, from an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says that public flagship universities must adopt new financial models given the declining support from states. It called for states to increase their financing of public universities but said universities must reduce costs, seek out additional forms of revenue, and form new public-private partnerships.

In reviewing the state of public higher education, it asks some hard questions: “Is public higher education truly open to the public? Can high school graduates afford to attend their state’s postsecondary institutions?”

Those are pertinent questions given that the number of Americans with high-quality postsecondary credentials lags the needs of a digital-age economy.

One last question from the American Academy study should burn in the minds of all of us in academia: If students can afford to attend college, “what kind of education can they expect to receive?”

The future of higher education depends on how we answer that.

Briefly …

Faculty Focus offers a useful list of ways to deepen student learning. … A study of Chicago high schools found that students did considerably better in face-to-face courses than in similar courses online, NPR reports. … Schools that increasingly rely on digital resources also open themselves to risks of data breaches, PBS reports.


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

Among academics, online education inspires about as much enthusiasm as a raft sale on a cruise ship.

That’s unfortunate, given that higher education’s cruise ship has a hull full of leaks and has been taking on water for years.

The latest evidence of academic disdain for online education comes from the Online Report Card, which is sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium and other organizations, and has been published yearly since 2003. It is based on surveys conducted by Babson Survey Research Group in Fall 2015.

In that survey, only 29.1 percent of chief academic officers said their faculty viewed online education as valuable and legitimate. That’s a slight increase from the year before but a slight decrease from 2004. Granted the drop was only about a point and a half, but I was still surprised that faculty support for online education had declined over the past decade.

chart showing where students are taking online courses
From Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States

Less than two-thirds of those administrators say online education is crucial to their institutions’ long-term strategies. That is a drop from 2014, though considerably above 2002, when less than 50 percent of administrators saw online as an important option.

The report said that 28 percent of students were taking at least one online course, and the vast majority of those students were at public universities. The report’s authors write: “It appears that many traditional universities are using online courses to meet demand from residential students, address classroom space shortages, provide for flexible scheduling, and/or provide extra sections.”

Those are all logical, important reasons to pursue online education, yet some universities see their future as solely an in-person enterprise. That may make sense at some level, but failure to experiment with online learning now will only make it more difficult later.

Online learning isn’t a salvation for higher education. In fact, many of us who create and teach online courses see in-person learning as a better option for most students in most courses. Universities need online courses in their repertoire, though. Online courses provide flexible learning options to students, especially during summers and breaks. That flexibility offers a means for keeping students on track toward graduation, and gives them the option of pursuing jobs, internships, and study abroad. Online courses also help faculty and staff members develop expertise in creating materials for hybrid and flipped classes. And perhaps most important, they provide a means for exploring news ways to help students learn.

That’s one reason that the continued resistance to online education is so troubling. It is symptomatic of a recalcitrant attitude toward change. We can deny the holes in the hull all we want, but denial won’t stop the leaks.

What department chairs should say

Maryellen Weimer offers a wonderful wish list of things she wishes department chairs would say about teaching. It includes areas like introducing new faculty to teaching, overusing summative evaluation of teaching, and developing a reward system for innovative teaching.

Here’s one of the favorite wanna-be conversation starters she offers:

“We need to be having more substantive conversations about teaching and learning in our department meetings. We talk about course content, schedules, and what we’re offering next semester but rarely about our teaching and its impact on student learning. What do you think about circulating a short article or article excerpt before some of our meetings and then spending 30 minutes talking about it? Could you recommend some readings?”

Briefly …

The Scout Report, a newsletter of curated web resources, recently released an excellent special issue on copyright and intellectual property. … The Hechinger Report looks into the 12-hours-as-full-time culture that keeps many students from graduating from college in four years. … Karin Forssell of Stanford suggests that talking about integrating tools rather than technology into teaching “frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that ‘technology’ can bring.”


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

Earlier this week, I interrupted two students in a small room at Spahr Engineering Library at KU.

Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow doing dynamics homework in new room in engineering library (8)
Tom Ellison, left, and Nathan Marlow at Spahr Engineering Library.

The students, Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow, were working on problems for a dynamics class. Each had tablet computers and used styluses to work problems by hand in OneNote. Ellison’s computer was connected wirelessly to a large monitor on a wall, via an adaptor he checked out from the library, and the two of them conversed and shared ideas as they worked.

It was an impressive scene of collaboration in a space that makes collaboration easy. The room has a table for up to six people and easy access to outlets. A wall-mounted monitor is large enough for everyone at the tables to see, yet it doesn’t get in the way if students don’t need it.

Informal spaces like these are important to student life and student learning. KU Libraries, like libraries around the country, has created more of these spaces, some with tables and chairs, some with whiteboards, others with cushioned chairs and a view of campus. They are constantly in use. The new engineering building has ample numbers of these types of spaces, everything from the small rooms in the Spahr Library to booths in a food court to soft chairs in a bright atrium. Small alcoves with chairs and tables are sprinkled through the building, and students made ample use of all the spaces when I visited the building earlier this week.

These informal spaces make buildings more inviting, but they also reflect a shift toward mobile technology, a shift that is moving ever more rapidly. Within two years, smartphones will provide all the computing power you need at home or at work, Wired reports. It cites predictions from the chipmaker ARM, which recently released a new generation of processors, and a consumer trends researcher. That doesn’t mean the world will change in two years. Adoption of any new technology takes time. It does suggest a tipping point that most universities are ill-equipped to handle.

The size of computer hardware has been shrinking for decades, and if this latest prediction plays out, it will have substantial ramifications for all levels of education. Teenagers have adopted the online world as an important social sphere, with mobile phones an important connection point. Many primary and secondary schools have shifted to a bring-your-own-device model, one that incorporates students’ phones, tablets and laptops into their learning inside and outside the classroom. Pew reports that 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds rely predominately on their phones for Internet access, and that non-White Americans are more likely to have web access only on their phones.

A change by U.S. wireless phone carriers over the summer could add to the pressure to make mobile computing more accessible to students. The carriers began shifting the upfront costs of mobile phones to consumers, rather than building in a sort of installment plan that required two-year contracts. Those higher upfront costs could lead even more people to look at their phones as a primary device for computing and connecting to the Internet, especially if the phones have the power of laptops.

Higher education has generally been slow to adapt to these changes, and indeed there are many challenges in security, compatibility, and capacity of wi-fi networks. It has been even slower in adapting to a mobile web. Everything from university websites to scheduling systems to learning management systems lack basic functionality and usability on mobile.

That has to change, and soon, although the financial challenges are steep. IT departments constantly balance innovation with accessibility, but more than anything else, struggle with the financial demands to stay on top of quickly changing technology. Schools and departments face the same challenges, not only with providing technological access but with modernizing classrooms and other learning spaces to accommodate new technology, collaborative learning, and the flexibility that learning environments so desperately need. Those challenges aren’t likely to change anytime soon, given the hostile attitudes toward higher education in many state legislatures. Institutions simply must address those challenges, though, if they hope to remain relevant in which technology and physical environments can aid or hinder student engagement and learning.

A recent comment by Jay Bhatt, president and CEO of Blackboard, cuts to the heart of the mobile challenge in higher education. Blackboard is hardly a leader in adapting to mobile, though it has made progress of late. Bhatt’s comments are worth taking to heart:

“There is a critical disconnect between what today’s learners want, and how the educational system is serving them. The industry hasn’t changed in years. Today’s learners have a drastically different set of wants, needs and consumer preferences. Learners of all ages and at all points in their learning lifecycle today require something different. They want and expect technology to play a major role in their education. And they want education technology that is as convenient as what they’ve become accustomed to from companies like Apple and Amazon. They want mobile. They want to be able to connect with their peers. They want fast, simple, and intuitive.”

Test-optional application process plays well in university rankings

Colleges and universities that make the SAT or ACT optional may have less-than-altruistic goals in mind.

Stephen Burd of The Hechinger Report says that a test-optional application process is often portrayed as a way of diversifying the student body. The argument sounds good, he says, as standardized test scores often create barriers for minority and non-affluent students.

It usually doesn’t work that way, though.

By making standardized tests optional, Burd says, colleges and universities often draw more applicants, thus increasing the percentage of rejected applications and making themselves seem more exclusive. Students who do submit their scores on the SAT and ACT under such a system generally do so because their scores are higher than average, raising the institution’s overall average and again making the school seem more exclusive.

Those exclusivity figures play especially well in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, providing a boost to test-optional institutions and essentially punishing those that either require the ACT or SAT, or don’t.

As for the diversity argument, Burd says there is little evidence that a test-optional approach leads to a more diverse student body. Rather, it simply allows institutions to pander to the types of rankings that affluent families embrace in making college choices. Others say the test-optional approach simply needs more time to work. It’s definitely worth watching.

Briefly …

A short lecture helps students put readings into better context, Illysa Izenberg argues in an article for Faculty Focus. By short, she means 8 to 10 minutes, with the rest of class time devoted to activities, discussion and reflection. … University Business says competency-based education is “poised for explosive growth,” and it provides advice for creating such programs from institutions that have already moved in that direction. … Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey Arnett says companies should tap into millennials’ desire to find engaging work that allows them to make positive contributions to society. I’d argue that college instructors should do the same.


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

Most Americans still see a four-year degree as important, but it is not at the top of the list of things that will help someone achieve a successful career, a recent Heartland Monitor poll suggests.

In the poll, respondents ranked technology skills, an ability to work with diverse groups of people, keeping skills current, and having family connections above a four-year college degree.Graph showing poll responses about the importance of college from 1978 through 2015. The percentage of Americans describing a college education as “very important” peaked in 2010 before declining substantially. The decline looks much less dramatic, though, when the two “important” categories are combined.

They certainly didn’t dismiss a college education. More than half said a college degree was very important and 87 percent said it was either very or somewhat important. Those between age 18 and 29 ranked the importance of a degree slightly higher than those 30 and over (55 percent vs. 53 percent). Blacks and Hispanics looked at a degree more favorably than did whites.

The poll was sponsored by National Journal, Allstate and The Atlantic. In interpreting the results, the organizations said the responses about college were “a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life.”

Maybe. In context, though, it doesn’t look so startling.

I pieced together data from the Heartland poll and several polls conducted by Gallup for the scholarly organization Phi Delta Kappa. (Most of those are available through the database JStore.) Polls in 1978, 1983, 1985, 2010, 2013, and 2014 asked a question about the importance of college very similar to the one asked in the Heartland poll.

Most certainly, the percentage of Americans saying that a degree is very important has declined substantially since a peak of 75 percent in 2010. If the categories for “very important” and “somewhat” or “fairly” important are combined, though, the decline isn’t nearly so steep.

Those combined totals rose from 82 percent in 1978 to a peak of 96 percent in 2010 before declining to 87 percent in 2015.

In 2014, Gallup said the decline in the percentage of people who view a college degree as very important was surprising.

It is.

Most people still see a college degree as an important factor in achieving success on the job, yet they have also begun to look at other options, especially as a growing percentage of potential students delay their entrance to college for financial reasons.

Rather than stirring a panic for higher education, though, the polls add one more reason for colleges and universities to clean up their tarnished reputation.

The tech connection

Let’s dig a little deeper into the importance of technology skills.

In April, I wrote about a report from the Educational Testing Service that raised concerns about American millennials’ poor skills when compared with their counterparts around the world.

A report by a group of CEOs offers its own evaluation of that and other data, saying that 58 percent of millennials lack the basic skills they need to solve problems with technology. This is even as millennials use digital media for 35 hours a week, on average, the report said.

The CEO group, which is called Change the Equation, says that this lack of technological know-how will diminish millennials’ job prospects, if it already hasn’t. Most millennials don’t seem to understand how their lack of skills is hurting them, the report said, although only 37 percent of employers say young workers are prepared to stay current with new technologies.

“We must make a point of incorporating technology into how students learn to tackle problems. This does not mean that every young person needs to become a computer scientist, though more certainly should. Instead, students must learn to realize the full potential of technology as a critical aid to human productivity and invention,” the report said.

I don’t dispute the importance of technological savviness. I push my students to use technology for problem-solving, and I emphasize the importance of digital literacy.

Technology isn’t magic, though. Yes, students need technological skills, but that means using hardware and software to solve problems, answer questions, test ideas, communicate solutions, build communities, and stretch our potential.

That all starts with critical thinking, which should be the primary focus of all education. We must incorporate technology into that process. Technology is simply a means to an end, though.

Briefly …

JStor, the online archive, has started a teaching newsletter aimed at helping instructors integrate JStor material into lesson plans. … Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, warns universities against pursuing easy scapegoats in the quest to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment. In an article for The Guardian, she says “we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating.”


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

Higher education has an image problem. And a trust problem.

That should come as no surprise, given the drubbing that public colleges and universities have taken from state legislatures over the past few years. They have also taken criticism from federal policy makers – along with parents and students – about costs and transparency.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

The latest sign of flagging trust comes from a national poll from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute in Pittsburgh.

More than half of parents polled said colleges and universities weren’t staying current with the demands of the job market or maintaining strong relationships with employers. Jerry Lindsley, president of the Center for Research and Public Policy at Robert Morris, put that into some disturbing context. In a press release from the university, he said:

“Our corporate clients strive to attain overall satisfaction ratings in the high 80s. Even health insurance companies and most utilities receive positive ratings in the high 80s.”

Ouch!

Adding to the sting, the poll found that the number of Americans who rate the value of a bachelor’s degree in positive terms had dropped more than 23 points in the last 10 years, to 44.6 percent.

Not surprisingly, given the rising cost of college, Americans increasingly see a college degree in purely economic terms. An overwhelming 82 percent of those in the Robert Morris poll said job training and preparation at colleges and universities were more important than academic work.

Interestingly, students in the United Kingdom say much the same thing. In a recent poll there, students said that professional experience and training in teaching were more important in instructors than being an active researcher, The Guardian reports. Students who study more, have more contact hours with instructors, and take classes with 50 or fewer students are more satisfied with their education than other students are, the poll said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, points out the danger of a narrow, consumerist view of education. College isn’t a commodity, he argues in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. Rather, it’s an awakening. “It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”

You can’t just buy an education, walk off with it and plug it in. Students’ success depends in large part on the work they are willing to put into that education.

“The ultimate value of college,” Rawlings writes, “is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge.”

He’s right. I’ve made that case myself. And yet those of us in higher education face an enormous challenge in making that case to students, parents and legislators who increasingly see education as a means to a very specific end, not as a process of mental development.

We have our work cut out for us.

Sage advice about non-traditional students

Jeff Fanter, vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing management at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, offered this excellent insight during an interview with The Evolllution:

“I firmly believe many non-traditional students come into the door of higher education with one foot outside the door at all times. If you give them a reason to take their other foot back outside the door and walk away they will.”

Briefly …

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, will explore the influence digital text formatting has on reading abilities in middle school students, The Journal reports. … Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Reich argues that the United States needs to reinvent its entire education system. … Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will receive their full appropriation from the state legislature only if they meet several guidelines, including increasing graduation rates and job placement, Minnesota Public Radio reports.


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

No one disputes that college tuition has risen substantially over the past 20 years.

Ask why, though, and you’ll get vastly different answers.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado, dismisses the idea that declining state subsidies have led to rising tuition. Instead, he writes, “the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.”

That partly depends on when you start measuring.

chart showing college costs from the 1960s to 2010s
Vox provides this chart as part of a larger package on college costs.

Adjusted for inflation, funding for higher education is 10 times higher than it was in the 1960s, Campos says. Some of that increase has been driven by a larger percentage of Americans going to college, he says, although tuition has risen even faster than legislative financing. He attributes much of the rise to the “constant expansion of university administration.”

Campos says an argument can be made for the increases in spending and the growth in administration, except for the skyrocketing salaries of top administrators. Ultimately, though, he argues, tuition increases aren’t tied to state cuts.

Tom Lindsay of Forbes cheers Campos’s argument, adding his own figures to back up those Campos provides. Lindsay says his own research about Texas shows “that a mild decrease in state funding … has been accompanied by a wild increase in university tuitions and fees.”

On the other side of the spending argument is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on how government policies affect low-income Americans. Its latest report shows that state spending on higher education has dropped more than 20 percent since 2007-08, with some states cutting more than 35 percent. Tuition has increased 29 percent during that time.

Some states have increased funding to higher education by an average of 3.9 percent over the past year, the center said, but 13 states have continued to cut.

So who’s right? All of the above, at least to an extent.

There’s no dispute that financing for public colleges and universities has risen considerably since the 1960s. Nor is there any dispute that education at all levels has taken substantial cuts in state financing since the 2008 recession.

Have tuition increases since 2008 been tied, at least in part, to declining state support? Of course they have. Do those state cuts fully explain the tuition increases? Definitely not. What about the longer term? That’s where Campos and Lindsay have a strong argument. Tuition rates grew enormously even as public spending on higher education rose from the 1960s to 2008.

Whatever your take on rising tuition and state cuts, those issues need to be framed in terms of bigger questions:

  • What type of public higher education system do we want?
  • How much are states and potential students willing to pay for the education those institutions deliver?
  • And how can we keep public education from becoming an elite-only opportunity? That is, how do we keep it truly public?

Those are the harder questions we have yet to answer satisfactorily.

That other big college expense

Discussions about rising tuition rates often overlook an even bigger expense for many families: room and board.

According to NPR, those costs are rising even faster than tuition rates.

It cites statistics from the College Board, saying that the cost of room and board at public universities has risen by more than 20 percent since 2009.

Among the drivers of cost, according to NPR: aging dorms that need to be replaced; student demand for gourmet menus and luxury rooms, along with universities trying to keep pace with one another in this area; use of higher-priced local food; and extended hours for dining halls.

It also points to another cause: As colleges and universities have been pressed to keep tuition increases down, some have pushed up the cost of student housing to help fill budget gaps.

Briefly …

U.S. college enrollment fell by about 200,000 between 2012-13 and 2013-14, The Hechinger Report says, and the proportion of students who moved immediately from high school to college dropped four percentage points between 2009 and 2013. More students are also enrolling part time, Hechinger says, and a slightly higher percentage of students are staying after their freshman year. … Penn State researchers will use Apple watches to interact with students in class, send notifications outside of class, and promote reflection on learning, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


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

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


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