By Doug Ward

Randy Bass sees a struggle taking place in higher education.

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

Randy Bass during a breakout session at the 2017 Teaching Summit

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

Let’s tease those elements apart a bit.

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

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

Bass said universities should work toward an integrative, inclusive model

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where various forms of education fit into that quadrant now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Doug Ward

Let’s call it pride.

That’s probably the best way to describe the look of Sandra Gautt as she wandered among the 45 posters and the dozens of people at The Commons in Spooner Hall.

Xianglin Li and Moein Moradi from mechanical engineering discuss the work that went into their posters.

Gautt, former vice provost for faculty development, returned to KU for CTE’s third annual end-of-semester poster session on teaching. More than 40 instructors from more than 30 departments contributed posters, demonstrating the work they had done over the past year transforming classes to make them more student-centered, adding elements of diversity and assessing student learning more meaningfully.

The poster session represents work faculty have done thanks to course development funds from CTE, the Provost’s Office and a KU grant project called Trestle, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gautt led the Teaching Commons Committee in the early 1990s and helped establish CTE in 1997. She said she never imagined that an idea for building community around teaching could turn into such a vibrant and diverse demonstration of intellectual engagement. It has, though. As CTE turns 20 years old this year, the poster session represents just one of many ways that teaching has gained in importance over the years.

Krzysztof Kuczera from chemistry talks about his poster with Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty development

I write frequently about the challenges of and barriers to innovative teaching. There are many. But the poster session offered many reasons for hope, especially as administrators and department chairs joined the dozens of people who attended and learned about the things faculty members had been doing in their classes. Among those efforts:

  • Joseph Brennan and Missy Shabazz from math explained how they have begun moving calculus courses toward a flipped model that provides increased incentives for participation.
  • Lin Liu, Carl Luchies and Mohammedmoein Moradi from mechanical engineering explained development of interactive learning modules to help students gain a better grasp of physics and math concepts they need in an introductory mechanics sequence.
  • Pam Gordon from classics explained changes she made in testing that provided better comprehension and understanding of the grammar of ancient Greek.
  • Sharon Billings, David Fowle, Amy Burgin, Pamela Sullivan, Terry Loecke and Dan Hirmas explained how they developed an interdisciplinary course in biogeochemistry.
  • Nancy Brady and Kelly Zarifa from speech, language and hearing explained a shift from an exam to a midterm project to aid student learning.
  • Trevor Rivers, Mark Mort and Stefanie DeVito explained how they had worked to create consistency in a biology course at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses.

Those are just a sampling of the work being done in such areas as geography, biochemistry, math, engineering, music therapy, physics, music, psychology, biology, African and African-American studies, journalism, philosophy, law, English, social work, design, chemistry, art and business. They give a good sense of the types of work faculty members are doing as they focus on student learning rather than delivery of content.

Ward Lyles from urban planning talks about making his courses more inclusive with Carl Lejuez, dean of liberal arts and sciences

The posters also help demonstrate some of the principles we promote at CTE:

  • The needs of students and society are changing, and our teaching must change to meet those needs.
  • Teaching needs constant re-evaluation and reflection if we want courses and instructors to improve.
  • Teaching should be more open and collaborative, allowing instructors to learn from one another by sharing insights and challenges, and working toward shared goals.
  • Communities provide effective vehicles for change, and the communities we have built around teaching have indeed led to important changes at KU.
  • Teaching is intellectual work on par with research and deserves equal weight in the promotion and tenure process.

As Gautt wrote recently, “Teaching and learning are now campus conversations, and reflective/intellectual inquiry into teaching and student learning are a part of the KU culture.”

That’s certainly reason for pride.

Dan Bernstein, former director of CTE, presents the 2017 Bernstein Award for Future Faculty to Rebekah Taussig and Carolina Costa Candal

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
Several faculty members and graduate students from KU attended this year’s conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I wasn’t able to go, though I did listen in on a few of the sessions remotely. I’ve collected tweets and videos into a Storify presentation that shows some of the thinking, conversations and approaches of the convention and the society.