By Doug Ward

Distilling hundreds of comments about the future of the university into something manageable and meaningful is, in understated terms, a challenge.

The university’s department of Analytics and Institutional Research accomplished that, though, creating a 73-item list that summarizes ideas from a fall planning session and from comments submitted through an online portal. That list, titled What We Could Do at KU, was distributed to the 150 or so university employees who gathered last week for a second strategic planning session. Presumably, Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer and Chancellor Doug Girod drew on those in creating another document that listed vision, mission and values statements, along with their institutional priorities. The priorities they laid out – student success, healthy and vibrant communities, and research and scholarship – offer a good sense of where they want the university to go in the coming years.

word cloud from strategic planning document
The larger the word in this word cloud, the more the idea was mentioned by university employees.

I have a few thoughts about those priorities – namely a lack of any mention of teaching – but I want to focus on something else first.

I found many connections among the 73 suggestions on the What We Could Do list, and I wanted a way to get a better grasp on those ideas. That’s because they provide a broad look at what employees around the university see as important.

I started by creating a spreadsheet, combining and paring the 73 suggestions into 68 words and short phrases. Think of it as a summary of a summary, which has both benefits and drawbacks. I then used those to create the two word clouds that accompany this article.

I wasn’t able to get all 68 words and phrases into a single word cloud, so I eliminated those that were mentioned by fewer than five people. I also created a separate list of 11 verbs that were used in the summary statements. Most describe a need to do more or less of something. This by no means indicates a consensus of ideas from around campus. Rather, it represents the opinions of those who were willing to take the time to attend a planning session or to submit comments online. (I was one of those people.)

Collaborate and communicate

There’s nothing startling on the list, but I was nonetheless surprised by the prominence of collaboration and communication. I agree with those wholeheartedly, and I’m glad others put them at the top of the list.

In far too many cases, departments and offices work in isolation (or in siloes, another word on the list) and even compete against one another for students, resources and attention. To improve as a university, we must find more ways to work together and see ourselves as part of a singular effort rather than as a collection of competing entities. We need to find more ways for our students to collaborate with faculty and with one another. We also need to collaborate with other colleges and universities, and with communities in Lawrence, Kansas City and across Kansas.

verbs used in strategic planning document
These are the verbs used in the summary of what KU employees saw as important in strategic planning.

Doing that requires better communication internally and externally. We have to make sure potential partners around the university know what we are doing, and we need to tell our story (another prominent term) to students, families, businesses and communities. They need to understand that we are part of – not separate from – them.

Another frequently mentioned issue, financial stability, ties into other needs like maintenance, retention, accessibility, professional development, degree cost, campus beauty, mental health, morale, accountability and transparency.

Three other prominent terms on the list – diversity, mental health and generational needs – tie closely together. The diversity of the student body has increased over the last decade, but the student population at KU is still predominantly white. The faculty and staff are even less diverse. The current generations of students are more diverse and have different needs from previous generations.

Not surprisingly, most of the comments from around campus called for an increase in something, including diversity, revenue, accountability, prestige, student and faculty retention, and, of course, collaboration and communication. After years of underfunding and a few rounds of budget cuts, there are many unmet needs.

What about teaching?

If the What We Could Do at KU list represented the opinions of faculty and staff, a document called Jawhawks Rising gave a clear sense of where university leaders want to go. It’s a good aspirational document.

Strangely missing, though, is any mention of teaching. The document uses phrasing like “community of learners,” and “student engagement” and “educate leaders.” It lists “student success” as one of three core institutional priorities.

Teaching doesn’t show up anywhere, though. That’s discouraging and disturbing. You can argue that “educate” involves teaching. It does. But without a clear strategy for improving and elevating the importance of teaching, any attempt to improve student success will fall short. And without the involvement of faculty in student success, the vision, the mission and the values of the institution quickly become hollow.

All of this is a work in progress, and encouragingly, Bichelmeyer gave teaching an important nod in remarks she made at the start of the strategic planning session last week.

“We’re learning about how we teach and how our students learn,” Bichelmeyer said, referring to the use of analytics to examine curricula and student movement through curricula. “There are lots of ways where we can start to unpack the individual student from the crowd through watching and knowing that they need a nudge to say, ‘It’s really important for you to get to the first week of class’ or ‘It’s really important that you don’t turn your homework in late.’ ”

She added: “We’re not teaching little widgets on an assembly line where we hold time constant and let achievement vary or we think about our work as production.”

She also pointed to the need to change our approach to engaging students, many of whom work 20 or more hours a week and have family responsibilities. They also see technology as an important part of who they are.

“Students would rather have a lecture on YouTube than sit in a class with a thousand students where they can’t see the professor and they can’t see what’s on the board and they maybe can’t hear,” Bichelmeyer said. “And they don’t have to pay for parking, and they don’t have to get a babysitter, and they can do that at night.

“So when we think about unbundling the elements of instruction, we have to understand that what we do well at the University of Kansas that nobody else can do is we engage students,” she added.

Unbundling and rethinking

Additionally, she said, digital technology is leading to the separation of teaching from certification. That is, students no longer need a university credential to get good jobs. They can learn from many online providers or gain skills from short-term coding camps and other intensive sessions that don’t require a four- or five-year commitment and cost far less than a university degree.

“So we have to think about what it is that only we can do really well and how we think about the educational experience from the students’ perspective in order to help them think about why it’s worth it for them to be at KU,” Bichelmeyer said.

Think collaboration, communication, diversity, generational needs, networking, accessibility, engagement, cost and other terms from the campus list. But also think teaching and learning, which is why students come to the university in the first place.


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 a meeting to provide highlights of KU’s latest climate survey, Emil Cunningham of Rankin & Associates asked audience members a question:

What is the point of higher education?

“Students,” someone in the audience said.

“That’s right,” he said. “Our purpose for being here is students.”

Cunningham is right, but the answer is more complicated than that. A university is an intellectual community with many different interests and goals that compete for the time of faculty members, staff members and students. Those include research, and service to the community, the state and alumni. At its heart, though, a university exists to educate students and to help them become mindful citizens.

cover of climate survey
The full climate survey, along with an executive summary and the slides from Rankin’s presentation, is available for download.

Or does it?

Although he stressed the importance of students, Cunningham failed to bring up a statistic that speaks to the value of students: Only 64 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members who took the survey said the university valued teaching, compared with 83 percent who said the university valued research. Among non-tenure-track faculty, those numbers were 63 percent 86 percent.

Those figures reflect what those of us who value innovative, high-quality teaching already know: The rewards system is heavily weighted toward research. To say that teaching takes a back seat to research would be an understatement. Teaching is more like a trailer hooked to the back of a carefully polished SUV.

One faculty member put it this way in the survey: “I think that KU *says* teaching is valued far more than it is actually valued when it comes to compensation, job security, etc.”

Service, the third leg of the university’s three-legged platform of teaching, research and service, fared even worse than teaching in the survey. Service means many things, from sitting on governance committees to leading community events to participating in workshops to guiding junior colleagues. It also keeps the university running through administrative roles at many levels. In many cases, though, service goes hand in hand with teaching through such means as advising and mentoring students – responsibilities that are not equally shared.

Only 45 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty said they thought KU valued service, and 47 percent said they did more work to help students than their colleagues did.

“Service and teaching obligations are not equal in our department,” one respondent said. “If we do a good job (i.e. do our job) in either regards, we are given more jobs to do. Those who don’t fulfill their service or teaching obligations are just taken off committees or given reduced teaching because they are bad at it.”

Another offered this: “So much service, so many students, not enough hours in the week.”

Women, especially, reported unfair distribution of service loads, with 50.4 percent of female faculty members saying they felt burdened by service, compared with 30.4 percent of men.

“As one of the few women in my department I feel that I am tasked with more service because I actually do the assigned work,” one respondent said.

Everything wasn’t gloomy. Seventy-seven percent of undergraduates and 83.7 percent of graduate students said they felt that faculty members valued them, and slightly smaller percentages (70 and 80) said there were faculty members they perceived as role models.

Those are encouraging numbers, but if we truly value students, we will make teaching a higher priority and reward those who serve students and colleagues. KU takes teaching more seriously than many other universities but not seriously enough that teaching actually carries weight in the reward system. As one faculty member said in the survey: “If teaching were valued at KU, KU would value its teachers.”

That leads back to the earlier question:

What is the point of higher education?


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

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


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

I got a reminder this week of the value of collaboration.

In my 300-level hybrid class Infomania, I asked students to critique a hierarchical model of information and information processing explained by Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro and Anthony Mills.

The model, originally proposed by the organizational theorist Russell Ackoff, is often portrayed as a pyramid with data at the bottom and wisdom at the top. The model has come under criticism for being too simplistic, and yet I find it useful in helping students consider the complexities of information.

Image: clker.com

In Infomania, students work in one of five groups online and in person. We generally have one class period each week devoted to discussion and another devoted to project work.

At the start of discussion this week, I gave each group a different question related to the readings and then had students explain what their groups talked about and what conclusions they had reached.

I was reluctant to assign the question about information hierarchy, fearing that it would be too difficult. I was curious, though, so I asked students to consider this: What, if anything, is missing from Ackoff’s hierarchy of information?

When it was their turn, the students who had that question didn’t hesitate. They said the model needed a better explanation of how one moves from understanding to wisdom, the top two layers of the hierarchy. To truly gain wisdom, they said, you have to apply your understanding.

I was blown away. They had altered an established theory of information, making it not only more meaningful but more useful.

I asked another group to explain the components and importance of digital literacy, the focus of an article by Howard Rheingold. One of those components is collaboration. At one point in the discussion, I asked: What’s the value of collaboration?

One student replied: “Two heads are better than one.”

True, I said. But those two have to listen to each other, engage each other and share meaningful ideas.

That’s the real value of collaboration.

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