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

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like RateMyProfessor.com. They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.


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

At workshops for graduate teaching assistants on Monday, I shared one of my favorite quotes about education.

It’s from Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab. In a TED Talk on innovation last year, he said: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself.”

Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.
Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.

He added, “What you need to learn is how to learn.”

Several students took issue with Ito’s premise of “education” as something imposed on students. They should. It’s a generalization that pulls in all the negative perceptions people have about schools and higher education. It draws on imagery of education as a factory where students are slathered with information as they move along a conveyor belt and tested for uniformity before they emerge at the end of the line wrapped in a generic diploma that guarantees they will provide the “right” answer on cue.

And yet that’s Ito’s point. Learning is individual. It’s something you take on because you see value in it for yourself. Ito dropped out of college twice and is largely self-taught, experiences that most certainly shape his perspective on education but should also inform ours. As educators, we need to stress the importance learning rather than information. We must provide approaches to learning that are as rich and varied as our students, and create opportunities for students to find their own meaning and relevance in our curricula.

In my classes, I tell students that I can’t make them learn. I provide material to help them learn. I try to create a classroom environment where they feel welcome, and lead discussions that I hope will inspire them to learn – and keep learning. But I can do only so much. Students have to meet me halfway. They must complete the work I assign, share their ideas, and participate in discussions. They must invest in the process of learning. Only then will they truly learn.

Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.
Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.

Most GTAs understand that, I think. After all, by making their way to graduate school they have learned to work within – and thrive in – the current educational system. As they shift from students to instructors, they must unravel the concept of learning and help their own students put it back together. That’s a challenging mission, one they will spend the rest of their careers trying to perfect.

The GTAs in my sessions had a good sense of how to begin that mission. When I asked them to consider how we can help students learn how to learn, the group discussions were robust and enlightening. Here are some of the responses:

    • Ask good open-ended questions and provide concrete examples that lead to meaty discussions.
    • Provide a variety of examples that allow students to approach ideas from many angles.
    • Provide a variety of ways for students to demonstrate understanding.
    • Vary the method of instruction to help students learn in different ways.
    • Model the behavior you want students to follow.
    • Draw on your own experiences with learning and use those as relatable examples.
    • Help students make connections between academic topics and life.
    • Scaffold class material so that students work in increments toward mastery of a subject.
    • Humanize yourself as an instructor, make yourself available, and provide consistency throughout the semester.

The students’ suggestions provide an excellent framework for classes of all types. I hope they left the sessions feeling as energized as I did about the possibilities not just of education, but of learning.


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

True learning has little to do with memorization.

Benjamin Bloom explained that with enduring clarity 60-plus years ago. His six-tiered taxonomy places rote recall of facts at the bottom of a hierarchical order, with real learning taking place on higher tiers when students apply, analyze, synthesize, and create.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Deep learning, project-based learning and a host of other high-impact approaches have provided evidence to back up Bloom’s thinking. A study from the Programme for International Student Assessment adds even more evidence. It found that students who memorized mathematics material performed worse than those who approached math as critical thinking, Jo Boaler writes for The Hechinger Report.

Boaler, a professor at Stanford, says the United States has among the highest percentage of students who approach math as memorization. That’s not surprising, she says, because the teaching of math in the U.S. stresses memorization and speed of calculation for standardized tests. That not only narrows thinking, she says, but creates barriers to students who don’t learn well with memorization. Approaching math as problem solving, modeling, and reasoning expands thinking and expands math’s appeal to students.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math,” Boaler writes. “We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.”

That’s good advice for all disciplines.

Need a professor to respond? Try a sticky note. Really.Yellow sticky note with Professor, please take care of this. The sticky note survey says you will.

Experiments by Randy Garner of Sam Houston University found that professors are twice as likely to respond when a request is accompanied by a personal message on a sticky note, Harvard Business Review reports.

Writing for the Review, Kevin Hogan speculates on the reasons this approach works: It’s hard to ignore. It’s personal. And it creates a bit of neon clutter that the brain wants taken care of.

I’ve always considered duct tape a magic solution to most problems. Looks as if I’ll have to expand my toolkit.

Looking at K-12 as the key to raising college graduate rates

Michael J. Petrilli makes a good case that college graduation rates aren’t likely to improve significantly until students come to college better prepared.

Writing for the Thomas B. Forham Institute, he cites statistics showing that the percentage of “college prepared” students (35 percent in 2005) nearly matched the graduation rate of those students eight years later. He says that indicates that most students who are well-prepared for college eventually graduate.

“But until we start making significant progress at the K12 level — and get many more students to the college-ready level before they land on campus — our dreams for significantly boosting the college completion numbers seem certain to be dashed,” Petrilli writes.

Briefly …

The percentage of students needing remedial math courses at Colorado colleges and universities has declined for three years in a row, Education News reports. Among students who started college in 2013, 34.2 percent needed remedial math, down from 40 percent in 2011. (Rates in other states vary widely.)  … Eduardo Porter of The New York Times asks whether the federal government shouldn’t get a share of profits from federally financed research ventures in academia. He cites Tesla, Google, GPS, and touch-screen technology as examples of projects that emerged from taxpayer-supported research. … Google has made recordings of its Education on Air event available for viewing. One caveat: All the sessions have separate links but are part of a single video file of more than five hours. That makes skipping among the sessions a challenge.


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.

Award winners, Student Learning Symposium, by Lu Wang
Chris Brown and Bob Hagen accepted the university degree-level assessment award for work that they and others have done in the environmental studies program. Chris Fischer, right, accepted the Chris Haufler Core Innovation Award on behalf of the physics department. Joining them at the Student Learning Symposium on Saturday were Provost Jeff Vitter, left, and Haufler, second from right. (Photo by Lu Wang)

By Doug Ward

Chris Brown sees assessment as a way to build community.

It brings together faculty members for much-needed discussions about learning. It helps departments explain to colleagues, administrators, and accreditors the value of a degree. And it helps create a better learning environment for students as courses undergo constant evaluation and revision.

“Assessment is not a box to check off on a thing that says you’re done and now you can stop thinking about it,” said Brown, director of the environmental studies program at KU. “It’s about people who are engaged in an ongoing process of learning themselves about how to do their jobs better.”

Brown’s program received the university’s degree-level assessment award at Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium in Lawrence. He was joined by two colleagues, Bob Hagen and Paul Stock, in accepting the award, which comes with $5,000 the program can use in advancing teaching and assessment.

Brown said everyone at KU was “basically taking crash courses” in assessment, which he describes as a series of questions about student learning:

  • How do you document?
  • What do you document?
  • How do you decide what’s valuable to document and what’s not valuable to document?
  • What changes do you need to make based on the evidence you’ve gathered?

Moving from informal to formal

Instructors in all departments have been engaging in informal assessment for years, Brown said.

“It’s every time we talk to each other about one way we think we could have done things better for a particular course, or all the times we’ve looked at our curriculum and decided to make changes,” he said. “The degree-level assessment we’ve been doing has taken that to a formal level.”

Faculty members in environmental studies began focusing on that formal assessment process a few years ago when the program did a self-study as part of an external review, Brown said. That forced them to take a hard look at what students were learning and why they thought the degree was valuable.

“We’re an interdisciplinary major,” Brown said. “Our foundational course should cover all the divisions of the college – the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities – as it relates to environmental studies. So there were a bunch of different moments that came together and really piqued people’s interest across our faculty and really say, ‘What do we want with this degree?’”

As it created a formal assessment process, environmental studies looked first at core writing skills, largely because instructors weren’t happy with the final projects students were turning in for upper-level courses. It was clear students were struggling with collecting evidence, structuring arguments, and making those arguments clear in their written work, he said. So faculty members broke larger assignments into smaller segments and gave more feedback to students along the way as they moved toward their final projects. Doing so has led to a dramatic improvement in those projects.

It has also led to opportunities for instructors to share their successes and struggles in classes. They also freely share class material with colleagues. Brown says that openness allowed him to teach an environmental ethics course for the first time with meaningful and successful results.

“I could not have done that if I weren’t in conversations with colleagues,” Brown said. “That’s what this comes down to.”

Brown makes assessment sound easy.

“Once the formal process began, it really helped solidify that we do need to get together at specific faculty meetings as a whole group,” he said.  “When I call those faculty meetings, I don’t have to pull teeth. Everybody comes. It’s not difficult. Perhaps it’s the nature of the major. People seek out contact across these various fields because it’s an interesting and rewarding conversation. Assessment has given us one more reason to come together and talk about what we value.”

Finding colleagues to help

He urges others interested in moving assessment forward to seek out like-minded colleagues, those with whom you are already having discussions about teaching.

“It really doesn’t have to start with any greater number of people than two,” Brown said. “Start there if that’s all you have.”

Talk about goals for students and goals for your major. Determine how you know students and the major are meeting those goals. Then think about how you can gather meaningful information and use that information in ways that lead to greater success. Then carry that conversation forward with other colleagues, including those in other departments. Draw on the many workshops and discussions at CTE.

“That’s hundreds of colleagues from various fields who are eager to talk with you about what you do and to help you and others see that what we’re doing with teaching and learning is intellectual work,” Brown said.

Again, assessment loops back to the idea of building community.


The lighter side of assessment

A short film that helped lead off Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium showed that assessment isn’t always serious business.

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.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.

By Doug Ward

Will students one day piece together their own degrees by assembling courses a la carte from a variety of colleges and universities?

Derek Newton of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, says no. Writing in The Atlantic, Newton argues that technology won’t force the “unbundling” of degrees and programs in higher education the way it has the music industry and cable TV.

The American Enterprise Institute, among others, contends that technology indeed will force higher education to change its existing model of “bundled services” like degrees, dorms, food services, recreation centers and the whole idea of a “college experience.” Rising costs already force most families to choose colleges based on price, making institutions vulnerable to outside competitors that can find ways of reducing costs while still providing the desired services, according to this reasoning.

The music industry and cable television have long relied on a bundling model. Songs are bundled into albums, which can be sold at higher prices; programs are bundled into expensive cable packages. Apple, among others, forced music companies to allow consumers to buy individual songs, and services like Hulu have given viewers control over when and how they watch TV programs and movies.

block windows with abstract patterns in reflection
Doug Ward

Newton agrees that higher education has not kept up with technology. He says, though, that a widespread breakup of higher education’s courses and services simply won’t happen. That’s because students and parents look at higher education in an entirely different way than they look at media, he says. “They shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

Newton offers a good counterargument to the idea of unbundling. What he overlooks, though, is that once students begin their education, they do indeed shop for professors. Word of mouth and sites like Rate My Professor point students toward some classes and instructors and away from others. Similarly, many students take online classes at other colleges and universities to save money or to avoid in-person classes they see as onerous. (University administrators refer to this as “leakage.”)

Students make choices about higher education based on the reputation of individual programs within a university, as well as a university’s overall reputation. They haven’t shown interest in abandoning college or university identity for a generic major, though, as in patching together a degree on their own from dozens of individual classes at dozens of universities.

Colleges and universities are indeed vulnerable, though, if they don’t prove their worth to students and parents. That must start by putting a greater emphasis on student learning and helping students see the value of courses, programs and degrees, and then move more quickly into a variety of areas:

  • Course options that break away from the three-hour, in-your-seat lecture.
  • An emphasis on critical thinking and adaptation of ideas instead of memorized facts.
  • Clear explanations about why individual courses and topics matter and how they fit into a degree.
  • Incentives for and recognition of innovative teaching.
  • Approaches in which universities unbundle – yes, unbundle – their own degrees and then rebundle them into smaller packages like certificates that recognize achievements in learning but that don’t require dozens or hundreds of hours of course time.

That’s just a start. Newton is right that a great unbundling is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Critics are right, too, in that universities must change – soon.

Steps in the right direction

Diana Stepner of the education services company Pearson has declared 2015 “the year of the learner,” arguing that “the future of education will be created by learners themselves.”

That’s great news if we can help make it happen. Writing in Wired magazine, Stepner describes a world in which engaged students take an active role in their learning, help shape educational programs, and delve into learning with gusto.

I’m not buying into the “year of the learner” hype, but Stepner makes good points about the future of education. I see no signs that we are on the cusp of a dramatic, immediate change, but education is – and must continue – taking incremental steps to make education more learner-centered. (See above.)

Briefly …

An analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education finds that enrollment of international students has soared at public colleges and universities in the U.S. but that those students are not taking spots that would have gone to in-state students. …. Writing in Educause, Holly E. Morris and Greg Warman offer ideas on how higher education might use design thinking. … Writing in Good magazine, Rosie Spinks says that “libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books.”


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.