In a review essay for the Washington Post, Janet Napolitano takes on the idea that higher education is in crisis.

She brushes aside criticisms from Ryan Craig (College Disrupted) and Kevin Carey (The End of College) and says that instead of falling apart, colleges and universities are going through “an intense period of evolution driven by advances in technology and better understanding of cognitive learning.”

Higher education, she says, “is in motion, and it always has been.”

Doll head behind glass
West Bottoms, Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Doug Ward)

After brushing aside the idea of crisis, Napolitano nonetheless suggests that a crisis may be at hand. Universities are highly complex organizations that face many challenges, most notably the decade-long series of cuts from state legislatures, she says. They have also been asked to take on new roles in areas like prevention of sexual assault and a growing need for mental health services for students. Technology and online education also create challenges.

Napolitano, president of the University of California, raises some excellent questions about the future of higher education: What is the role of online learning? How do we help students become critical thinkers? How do we help them adapt to a changing job landscape?

Those are difficult but certainly not impossible questions. They require honest discussion about increasing the generally weak emphasis on high-quality, innovative teaching, and creating a genuine reward system for instructors who embrace reflective teaching.

Napolitano doesn’t address those crucial areas, but one of her comments could serve as a rallying cry:

“Universities are not factories; students are not widgets,” she writes.

Pushing the boundaries of higher education

A British university leader made a bold prediction earlier this month.

Depending on your perspective, though, perhaps it’s not so bold.

The university leader, Tim Blackman, the acting vice chancellor of the Open University in the U.K., told The Korea Herald: “We are seeing the end of 100 percent face-to-face teaching. In 10 years’ time, it won’t exist.”

Blackman is a proponent of flipped and hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face components. The Open University also relies on its extensive array of online courses, YouTube videos, iTunesU materials, open course materials and open research materials to reach students internationally.

Beyond the widespread adoption of online course components and open resources, Open University has made changes that no doubt make many traditionalists wince: courses that last only 15 to 20 minutes to match students’ attention span, badges for demonstrating mastery of subjects, and growing adoption of mobile technology to reach students.

That’s not surprising given that the cornerstone philosophies of the university are pedagogical innovation and flexible learning for part-time, mostly adult students.

Blackman also calls lectures a “crazy” way to try to educate students, saying, “I don’t understand why universities are still building lecture halls.”

I don’t either, not if we are truly interested in helping students learn.

Then again, I do. It’s about efficiency, not learning. The Open University runs a deficit of millions of pounds a year, financed by the British government. That makes its model easy to dismiss as unsustainable. Doing so would be a mistake, though. It is forging ahead with the kinds of experiments that all universities need to embrace if they hope to keep up with changing students and a changing world.

Few can afford to run deficits, but we all need to innovate.

A ‘wayfinder’ approach to education

Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy urges instructors to think of learning beyond the narrow bounds of a classroom, a syllabus and a reading list.

“The core demand of 21st-century education is that students learn to navigate an incredibly complex global society,” Hudson writes in an article for Hybrid Pedagogy.

Silhouette of trees against blue sky and puffy clouds
(Photo by Doug Ward)

To do that, he urges instructors to become “wayfinders,” a term he borrows from the invisible cues that architects build into airports to help travelers find their way.

“As teachers, we are no longer needed as the source of all content and knowledge in the classroom, but we are more necessary than ever when it comes to designing experiences that allow our students to find their own way,” he writes.

That means finding ways to “encourage collaboration and connection,” including use of technology to empower students to find, filter and produce information; creation of personal learning networks; use of experiential learning; and the ability to learn from one another.

None of those ideas are new, but Hudson provides a good reminder of the direction that educators need to head.

Briefly …

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released an interactive map showing how cuts to public universities have led to substantial increases in tuition. … Inside Higher Ed reports on the latest hybrid learning evaluation from the research firm S+R, saying that students are learning as well in hybrid courses as they are in traditional in-person courses. … The budget committee of the Kansas Senate approved a bill that would require all public colleges and universities to publish the cost of degrees and the expected earnings of graduates, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports. The bill provides no means for covering the millions of dollars in data collection costs.

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

By Doug Ward

The note cards I handed out to students in my hybrid class last week drew astonished looks.

Each contained a hand-written list of three things: events, people, animals, objects, locations, movies, songs, television shows. All were random, created one evening in a stream of consciousness. For instance:notecards showing groupings of items for the class exercise

“Eye of the Tiger”

Eye of a needle

Arctic Ocean


Fire alarms

Fairy tales

Calvin Klein

“Here’s the fun part,” I told students. “Find a connection among the three things.”

That’s where the astonishment came in.

The main goal of the exercise was to help students synthesize, to open their eyes to connections they might not otherwise see and to creative solutions they might not otherwise consider. They worked in pairs, and once they got beyond the initial “I can’t do this” shock, they generally came up with excellent answers.

After the exercise, one student asked a question that surprised me, even though it shouldn’t have.

“What’s the right answer?” she asked.

After wincing, I said there was no right answer to any of the postcard triads. Then I recited one of my educational mantras to all the students:

“There are no right answers in this class,” I said. “There are better answers. But there are no right answers.”

That’s a hard concept to grasp for students who focus far too much on a grade and a diploma rather than on learning. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable, and many have been taught that there are indeed right answers in their classes.

In some disciplines there are, of course, though even in those the understanding of the process is more important than any single answer.

I teach a class called Infomania, which is intended to help students become better researchers and to help them learn to solve problems with information and digital tools. I also try to help students work their way through ambiguity. Pushing them to find a link between fire alarms, fairy tales and Calvin Klein is part of that. So is working in groups, developing individual and group projects, and other approaches that emphasize active learning.

I thought about sharing some of the students’ creative responses to my nonsensical challenge but decided that wouldn’t be fair. You, dear reader, must work through that ambiguity on your own.

Remember, there are no right answers.

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

Angelique Kobler offered an uncomfortable question about education last week.

Kobler, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Lawrence school district, met with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign and explained the steady expansion of blended learning in Lawrence public schools.

To illustrate the need for new ways of engaging students, she said, she asks her staff a question that can make even the most experienced teacher squirm: Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Education is never that cut and dried, of course. Learning depends on a wide range of factors that have nothing to do with an individual teacher. Kobler knows that. She uses the question to spur discussion about the need for change.

blended learning graphic
Wikimedia Commons

Today’s students are different from those a generation ago, as are their needs in an era when laptops and smartphones offer access to nearly unlimited amounts of information.

Fifteen years ago, Luc E. Weber, a professor of public economics at the University of Geneva, made an observation that has grown only more apparent today: “Teachers will have to accept that their role is changing,” Weber wrote in Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium. “They will be decreasingly information providers and increasingly animators and commentators in charge of giving context and in-depth understanding of an area.” (p. 10)

Blended classrooms force teachers to heed that call for change. Many teachers are responding. Lawrence public schools started with a pilot program of eight blended classrooms in Spring 2013. By fall of this year, the district plans to expand that number to 150.

Kobler defines blended as “somewhere between traditional and virtual.” Students in blended classes can use whatever means help them learn: Some choose textbooks. Others work through assignments online. Sometimes students work alone. Other times, they reach out to peers to help them understand a topic or a concept.

In all those scenarios, the teacher keeps tabs on students and meets with them individually or in groups to keep them on track.

This approach isn’t easy to pull off. Teachers have to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes in front of students, and to talk with students about those mistake, Kobler said. Blended classrooms can seem chaotic as students go in several different directions at once, something that doesn’t also sit well with teachers who demand order.

Parents, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic about the blended approach, sometimes asking that their children continue in a blended classroom because the approach works well for them.

On the other hand, high-achieving students sometimes struggle in a blended environment, something I’ve found in my own classes. High achievers often thrive within a tightly structured, traditional model of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you on a test.” A blended, flipped or hybrid environment strips away this neat order and pushes students to find their own structure and to pace their own learning. That’s a far more difficult task, but it’s also far more meaningful in the long run.

Let me put a twist on Kobler’s earlier question: Can education survive if educators don’t adapt to the needs of students?

That question may make us squirm as well, though it’s also a bit easier to answer.

“If we don’t keep up, we will become irrelevant,” Kobler said.


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

By Doug Ward

If you want to find a quick answer to a question, where do you go?

Google, most likely.

If you want to help students from half a dozen disciplines understand how the elements of linear algebra apply to them, where do you go?

Again, Google. But this time, think outside the search box.

That’s one of the tricks Erik Van Vleck, a professor of math at KU, uses to help students learn linear algebra. Students in all disciplines use Google to search for information. Van Vleck pushes them to look at the search engine in mathematical terms, though, asking: “What does Google do when you put in search terms?”

The matrix transforms its eigenvectors (represented by the blue and violet arrows) to vectors pointing in the same direction. “Eigen” translates to “characteristic.” Interestingly, for a while after WWII, the use of “eigen” was replaced by “characteristic” in the British scientific literature. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

This semester, Van Vleck coordinates two dozen sections of Calculus I and teaches a freshman seminar in the computer age and computational mathematics. Students in the classes come from majors like biology, physics, engineering, computer science and, of course, mathematics. Each of those disciplines applies math to its own types of problems, but students need the same basic understanding of concepts like derivatives, matrices and eigenvectors.

To help students grasp those abstract concepts, Van Vleck looks for problems and examples that apply across disciplines.

“I’m trying to give them examples that everybody knows,” Van Vleck said.

That’s where Google comes in.

He gives students an article that explains how Google’s bots troll the web, gathering information about pages and determining how they are connected to one another. From there, Google’s computers construct matrices and eigenvectors that ultimately determine what shows up on the results page of a search.

Only Google’s engineers and computer scientists know all the elements of the company’s search algorithm. But by relating those abstractions to everyday life, Van Vleck not only engages students in problem solving but helps them learn better, as well.

“Part of my belief is that if people are comfortable with context, it’s easier to understand things,” Van Vleck said. “Abstraction is great, but often we map back to context we’re comfortable with or familiar with.”

Van Vleck learned this firsthand when he was a new faculty member. He and other recent mathematics Ph.D.s attended a seminar where they received equivalent mathematical problems. One of the problems was phrased abstractly, the other in terms of drinking beer.

You can guess where this is going.

“All the math Ph.D.s did better in the beer example because we could see how to solve the problem even though it was the same as the abstract problem,” Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck uses other techniques to help students learn, including a flipped approach in which he gives students pre-class assignments, builds on those assignments in class, and then has students follow up with related assignments out of class.

He has also boiled down a 400-page textbook to 20 pages of notes with hyperlinks to additional information for students who want to go beyond the essentials.

“If students can master those 20 pages,” he said, “they can pass the class.”

All of Van Vleck’s strategies are part of a pedagogical approach known as “just-in-time teaching,” which aims to make the most of classroom time by focusing on what students need most.

Here’s a link with more information about the just-in-time strategy.

You can also search Google, as long as you’ve done your math homework first.

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

By Doug Ward

An organization called Reclaim Open Learning held its first symposium last week. The organization promotes innovation in higher education through the use of technology, online resources and open learning in unconventional ways.

The approach and goals of Reclaim Open Learning aren’t for everyone, though I embrace most of the same principles in my course Infomania. I found the comments emerging from the symposium thought-provoking and useful. I created a Storify compilation of some of the tweets on learning, innovation, promoting change, and the role of education in a digital age. You’ll find that compilation on another site, Teaching with Technology. I’ve provided a taste of some of those tweets here.

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