By Doug Ward

We can glean many lessons from the most recent college admissions scandal.

A system that purports to be merit-based really isn’t. Standardized testing can be gamed. A few elite universities hold enormous sway in the American imagination. Hard work matters less than the ability to write a big check. The wealthy will do anything to preserve the privilege of plutocracy.

We knew all that, though.

What struck me most about the admissions scandal was how blatantly transactional a college degree has become and how vulnerable universities have become to sacrificing their integrity to the promise of a bigger donation.

I’ve written before about how the product of education – a diploma, an overemphasis on sports, bucolic images of campuses, perceptions of privilege from association with a particular institution – have overshadowed the process of learning. The admissions scandal not only reinforces that idea of education as a product but makes it clear that to many, education is only a product.

Those of us who teach see that mentality all too often in our classes. An undergraduate once told me that I was diminishing her prospects because she had to work too hard to earn an A. She knew what she wanted to do, she said, and she would learn nothing from my class or the other classes she was required to take. A degree with a high GPA was the only important thing, she said. Another student quoted his father as saying that the only thing college was good for was to meet people who could help you later.

Those students represent extremes of what higher education has become. College costs loom so large that students choose majors based on how much money they can make rather than on what might fulfill them in career. State governments perpetuate this by channeling money to favored programs rather than to universities as a whole, emphasizing economic development over an informed citizenry. The federal government encourages it by favoring privately issued college loans over grants and highlighting graduates’ income in comparing college programs. And universities themselves perpetuate it by chasing the status of rankings and promoting prestige over the needs of student learners.

Universities must live within this transactional culture but they must not sacrifice their integrity. They must address student concerns about costs and careers and salaries. They must make classes more accessible and convenient to students (see below). They must find fairer ways than standardized tests to gauge student competency.

Above all, they must promote the process rather than the product of education. A college education is certainly about career preparation, and institutions must help guide anxious students toward meaningful careers. They must also remind students that education is about learning and discovery. It’s about challenging ideas and beliefs, about challenging the self. It’s about a wide range of values and intellectual challenges that must be lived and earned, not bought and sold.

If nothing else, the admissions scandal should push universities to take a hard look at themselves and ask what they value, how they are perceived, and how they can maintain their integrity. If they don’t, they risk becoming just a wall decoration in a tarnished gilded frame.

Experimenting with new models of higher education

MOOC-mania has largely subsided, but companies and non-profit organizations continue to experiment with models that allow students to take online courses at little or no cost and transfer the credits to traditional colleges and universities.

EducationNext writes about three of those entities – StraighterLine, Modern States, and Global Freshman Academy – which collectively have enrolled more than 500,000 students but have mostly had the same low completion rates as MOOCs.

For instance, Arizona State created Global Freshman Academy in 2015. That program allows students to take 14 online freshman-level courses for $600 each. Of 373,000 who have enrolled, only 1,750 have completed. Students who have enrolled in classes through StraighterLine and Modern States generally complete only a course or two.

Those are hardly stunning results, but they are nonetheless worth watching. Many students are already acquiring college credit through advanced placement exams and dual-enrollment courses, which are generally taught on college campuses. KU is also expanding the number of classes it offers through Lawrence Public Schools, with courses created by KU instructors but taught by high school teachers. Students will pay a lower rate for those courses.

The Edwards Campus has taken this even further, working with area high schools and community colleges so that students can earn a college degree in three years.

Take a trip on the K-10 bus between Lawrence and Johnson County Community College, and you will see substantial numbers of KU students traveling to classes at JCCC. Many others take online community college classes in the summer, not only because of the convenience but because of the lower cost. Some university classes incorporate MOOCs in their instruction, supplementing the online materials with in-class discussions and problem-solving.

The upshot of all this is that a college education is not always centered on a single institution. Most universities treat it that way, but students are increasingly considering cost and convienience. And as long as the cost of a college education pushes large numbers of students into debt and the demand for flexibility in scheduling and class format grows, there will be opportunities for outside organizations to step in with alternative approaches to higher education.

Perception and reality of university budgets

Those of us in higher education know all too well that states have slashed funding for colleges and universities over the last 10 years.

Yes, “slashed” is the right work. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that states’ spending on higher education is $9 billion lower today than it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

That message apparently hasn’t gotten through to the American public, though.

According to a poll conducted by APM Research Lab and the Hechinger Report, 34% of Americans think funding for higher education has stayed the same over the last 10 years, and 27 percent think it has increased. (We wish.) Only 29 percent realize that funding has actually declined.

More people realize that government-financed grants and loans have not kept up with tuition increases. In the APM-Hechinger poll, 44 percent said they knew that. Disturbingly, though, about the same percentage said they thought that government aid had either increased or stayed the same.

The poll showed some interesting disparities among various groups. I won’t go into those other than to say that Easterners seem better informed than Westerners and Democrats better informed than Republicans. The abysmal overall understanding, though, should send a clear message to those of us who work in higher education: We need to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Briefly …

EdSurge asks an intriguing question – Is creativity a skill? – and then seeks answers from the perspective of various professions. … The University of Missouri plans to add five new undergraduate degrees and four new graduate degrees as part of its plan to increase enrollment by 25,000 students by 2023, The Missourian reports. … From the this sounds familiar department, a committee in the Missouri House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow concealed carry of firearms on public university campuses. … Moody’s has issued a new warning about the finances of universities as enrollment flattens or declines, Education Dive reports. … Speaking of finances, Blackboard has agreed to sell one of its businesses and plans to move its headquarters outside Washington, D.C., as part of an effort to reduce its substantial debt, an analyst writes in e-Literate. …


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

By Doug Ward

Howard Gobstein issued both a challenge and a warning to those of us in higher education.

Universities aren’t keeping up with the pace of societal change, he said, and the initiatives to improve education at the local, state and national levels too often work in isolation.

“We’d better start talking to one another,” said Gobstein, vice president for research policy and STEM education at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Howard Gobstein

Gobstein spoke in Lawrence last week at the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and math. Pressures are building both inside and outside the university to improve education, he said, citing changing demographics, rising costs, advances in technology, and demands for accountability among the many pressure points. Universities have created initiatives to improve retention at the institutional level. Departments and disciplines, especially in STEM, have created their own initiatives. Most work independently, though.

“There are almost two different conversations occurring, I would argue,” Gobstein said. “There are those that are pushing overall and those that are pushing within STEM.”

Not only that, but national organizations have created STEM education initiatives focusing on K-12, undergraduate education, graduate education, and industry and community needs. Those initiatives often overlap, but all of them are vital for effecting change, Gobstein said.

“To transform and to make it stick, there has to be something going on across all of these levels,” he said.

Universities must also work more quickly, especially as outside organizations draw on technology to provide alternative models of education.

“There are organizations out there, there are institutions out there that are going to change the nature of education,” Gobstein said. “They are already starting to do that. They are nipping away at universities. And we ignore them at our peril.”

Gobstein made a similar argument last year at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities that are working to improve teaching and learning. Demographics are changing rapidly, he said, but STEM fields are not attracting enough students from underrepresented minority groups and lower economic backgrounds.

Howard Gobstein showed this chart to demonstrate the breadth of STEM education initiatives across the United States.

“That’s not entirely the responsibility of institutions, but they have a big role to play,” Gobstein said. “To the extent that we can transform our STEM education, our classes, our way of dealing with these students, the quicker we will be able to get a larger portion of these students into lucrative STEM fields.”

Change starts at individual institutions and in gateway courses that often hold students back, he said. Research universities must value teaching and learning more, though.

“It’s the recognition that teaching matters. It’s the recognition that counseling students matters,” Gobstein said.

Higher education is also under pressure from parents, students and governments to improve teaching and learning, to make sure students are prepared for the future, and to provide education at a price that doesn’t plunge families into debt.

“We seem to be losing ground with them as far as their confidence in our institutions to be able to provide what those students need for their future, particularly at a price that they are comfortable with,” Gobstein said.

Sarah LeGresley Rush (front) and Steve Case of the University of Kansas participate in a discussion at TRESTLE with Joan Middendorf (center) of Indiana University.

At TRESTLE, Gobstein challenged participants with some difficult questions:

  • What does teaching mean in an era of rapidly changing technology?
  • How do we measure the pace of change? How do we know that we are doing better this year than in previous years?
  • How do we make sure the next generation of faculty continues to bring about change but also sustains that change?

He also urged participants to seek out collaborators on their campuses who can provide support for their efforts but also connect them with national initiatives.

“What we’re really trying to do is to change how students learn, and we’re trying to make sure that all students have access and opportunity,” Gobstein said.

Despite the many challenges, Gobstein told instructors at TRESTLE that the work they were doing to improve teaching and learning was vital to the future of higher education.

“You are doing work that is some of the most important work any of us can think of doing,” Gobstein said.

“The nation needs you.”


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

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.


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

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.


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.