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Charting a Course

August 15, 2013

Hitting faculty and student inboxes today at the University of Texas at Austin is President Bill Powers’s white paper on the future of “technology enhanced” education.

He’s calling the document a report, but Powers said in an interview it’s really an invitation to jump into a dialogue this fall on how the highly visible flagship university will continue to develop – and remain a leader in – online and “blended learning.” The latter term refers to online course content and methods of delivery complementing more traditional forms of instruction. “Flipped” classrooms, in which online content is used to prepare students outside class for more meaningful in-class engagement of the material, for example, are popular at UT.

It’s somewhat rare for a university president to take so public a role in discussions about technology and pedagogy. But through partnerships with other flagship universities and institutions in Texas, UT has been gathering data on the topic and building up resources for years, Powers said. It’s also joined the educational and research delivery platform edX, along with developers Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other major research institutions.

Now it’s time for broader input, Powers said – and the call may be one that faculty appreciate, since they haven't always been invited in. In May, Harvard faculty sent a letter to the dean of that institution’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences asking for greater involvement in overseeing the educational and ethical implications of MOOCs.

Of course, asking for faculty involvement means ceding some control; in April, Amherst College’s president left the decision to join edX up to the faculty, who rejected the venture for now. (UT faculty didn’t vote on joining edX; the decision was made by the UT System, representing 15 institutions and medical facilities.)

Nevertheless, faculty need to decide how available material should be used and incorporated into the curriculum, Powers said -- and should be encouraged to develop new content. “More than a few” professors have embraced online education, and there’s increasing interest among other faculty in what the president called UT’s “early second stage” of innovation.

“I believe a first-class college education will continue to consist of a cutting-edge experience at a first-class university,” Powers says in the report. “Nevertheless, rapidly advancing technology is changing virtually every aspect of our lives, and education is no exception. …We need to lead change in higher education, both for ourselves and for the future.”

The document offers a handful of guiding principles for future discussions of online and blended learning.

Faculty “are responsible for ensuring that online resources, courses, certificates and degrees reflect the content and rigor appropriate for a leading national university,” the report says. At the same time, online resources can “amplify the visibility and impact of individual faculty and staff as representatives of the university on a global scale.”

Powers said “faculty are the innovators, and need to have control over the curriculum and how we educate students – that’s a shared governance point.” And as more online content becomes available, “departments are going to start making curricular choices, and that’s part of the discussion and dialogue I want to get going in campus.”

In making those choices and developing their own course content, the report says, faculty members need UT’s support, as well as rewards -- specifically, the report states that faculty own the copyrights to original work and license it to the university for use, even when UT has sponsored its creation.

“Our incentive structures need to encourage faculty innovation in this area,” the report says. “Just as faculty members who write textbooks or create devices benefit from their work, we should ensure that faculty who create online content can benefit, as well as their departments, colleges and the university.”

Powers said that principle relates to another: UT’s learning model must be financially sustainable. Establishing a successful online learning infrastructure takes a “huge infusion of capital” (UT, through its partnership with the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, has devoted at least $5.5 million to its MOOC pursuit), and faculty “having a stake in the game” ultimately will benefit them and the university, he said.

Still, Powers said faculty should avoid “recreating the wheel” for every course by sharing content -- another guiding principle.

“We have never expected our professors to write all of the textbooks from which they teach; likewise we cannot expect all teachers who use blended learning to generate all-original content,” the report says. Rather, content should be sharable across platforms – a faculty member might build material for a flipped class and adapt that content for another online course, for example, the report suggests.

Another professor might build simulations for a MOOC, then develop modules to help instructors at other institutions use the course for their own flipped classes.

Finally, “[w]e must never stop innovating,” the report says. That means UT will continue working with its Faculty Council, like a faculty senate, to ensure professors are supported in their design and delivery. It also means relying on students and their “native user sensibilities” for feedback and inspiration.

Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University’s Computing and Communications Center, hadn’t seen the document, which was just released this morning, but said that universities are being faced with a lot of questions about MOOCs, not the least of which is who owns what content.

It’s not unheard-of for presidents to address that and other issues head-on, she said, and some have been criticized for not doing enough on the MOOC front – including ousted-then-reinstated University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, whose board wanted more movement toward online education.

Across academe, she said, “This is all in play, and it’s all fascinating. I don’t think there’s one institution to look at that’s going to be the model.”

In all these discussions, the essential question must be “What is the MOOC for?," Mitrano added. Or, more generally, how does online learning enhance education?

At UT, Jamie Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department, has an answer. He and a colleague teach an intro to psychology course they call a “SMOC,” or synchronous massive online course. Twice a week, they lecture live from a video studio to at least a thousand students at home or in their dorm rooms in what Pennebaker called “Daily Show” format, behind a desk with plenty of humor. (The course also is open to non-UT students at extension course rates through a UT-specific delivery platform). It's a kind of flipped classroom with no face-to-face component; students participate in simultaneous class discussions and activities.

Despite the laughs, the course isn’t easy, Pennebaker said. Historically, in his traditional classroom, some lower-income students have fared particularly poorly, earning on average a full grade-point lower mark (a 2.0, compared to a 3.0, for example) than their fellow students from more affluent backgrounds. (Pennebaker attributed this to a kind of rote instruction more commonly found at lower-income schools that makes the application of knowledge expected at college challenging for graduates of those schools).

But through the SMOC format, where quizzes are individualized and instructors can gather a rich data set on each student’s performance, Pennebaker said, that grade point average gap has closed to 0.4. Academic performance in those students’ other courses, as well as courses in the following semester, has also improved, he said.

Pennebaker said he didn’t like the term “better” teacher, but that online teaching has made him a more thoughtful teacher.

“It’s changed me in that to be a better teacher means not just the ratings, or the laughs, or the ‘show,’ but, ‘How are these kids doing when they leave this course?’ ” he said. “It’s changing the way they’re studying, and changing the way they’re thinking – they’re thinking more conceptually.”

Pennebaker, one of UT’s online pioneers, took an early look at the white paper. He called it an honest representation of the “underlying values” the university’s been acting on for several years already.

 

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