The Future Is Now

Next-generation models of education that tackle higher ed’s biggest challenges head-on – not tomorrow, but today.
January 24, 2016

The University of Texas System and its partner campuses have launched an ambitious and comprehensive initiative to envisage and implement future models of education that reimagine the path to a college credential.

Higher education is experiencing radical challenges across several critical vectors of change, from the shifting profiles, goals, and enrollment behaviors of the learner populations we serve, to the increasingly volatile, complex, and ambiguous future of work for which we are preparing them to lead and thrive. New options are needed that tackle these challenges head-on, not tomorrow, but today.

Nine of our campuses – UT Arlington, UT Dallas, UT El Paso, UT Health Houston, UT MD Anderson, UT Permian Basin, UT Rio Grande Valley, UT San Antonio, and UT Tyler -- have established experimental sites that aim to provide these options, targeting a range of credentials in the Health Professions, Engineering, Computer Science, Criminal Justice and Business.

The portfolio includes an early prototype initiative, a BS in Biomedical Sciences that launched in August 2015 at UT Rio Grande Valley. Second-phase prototypes in Nursing, Cyber Security, Industrial Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Energy Technology Management will enroll students in the Fall of 2017.

These experimental sites disaggregate the post-secondary pathway as we know it into scalable and affordable verticals of connected educational experiences that can begin in high school and persist throughout a lifetime. In order to drive exponential increases in student engagement, retention and post-program success, our future models reinvent every facet of the learning experience, from the way that curricula and educational experiences are designed, developed, and delivered, to the services that support students along their educational journey, to how student learning is monitored and assessed.

Each programming site begins its development process with faculty working shoulder-to-shoulder with researchers, industry leaders, accreditation experts, and learning architects to define target learner audiences and identify the context and design requirements for intentional and meaningful disruption. The process continues with an intense blueprinting and development phase where campus faculty and student and academic affairs leaders plan all aspects of the new pathways from optimal modality (face-to-face, hybrid, or online), to academic operations, policy, and supporting technologies and services.

These design teams deliberately and courageously pull multiple levers that have been shown to increase student success. Although each programming area brings its own unique requirements, common elements include:

▪  An outcomes-first approach
Our outcomes-focused approach hinges on the definition of the graph or scaffold of assessable outcomes that underlies each programming trajectory. Critical path knowledge and skills benchmarks and assessment requirements for each disciplinary or transdisciplinary area are described and mapped in collaboration between faculty, professional associations, and industry stakeholders. These graphs are complex and dynamic, often sketching out hundreds of outcomes across multiple levels of competency, and serve as the master blueprint over which we can then trace (and over time as the field evolves re-trace) the outlines of flexible program “packages” including foundational instruction, stand-alone modules, micro-certificates, stackable credentials, and degrees.

▪ An atomic approach to design
Once an outcomes graph is articulated, faculty, instructional designers, and assessment experts develop extremely granular -- “atomic” -- units of instruction that allow for enormous flexibility in building and evaluating targeted and personalized learning pathways that can be tailored to each learner’s strengths, challenges, prior experiences, and goals. This atomic approach to design allows us to easily recycle and tag prerequisite instruction to more advanced knowledge and skills, allowing learners just-in time opportunities to review and refresh their command of essential material. The approach also allows for more efficient management, updating, and expansion of learning experiences as we analyze object-specific impacts on student behavior or performance and as the targeted learning outcomes graph continues to evolve.

▪ A commitment to high-impact pedagogies
High impact pedagogies such as problem-, project-, and team-based learning underlie the better part of instruction across every learning experience, presenting students with authentic assessments and driving challenges that need to be actively investigated and that are social by design.

▪ A focus on personalization and gamification
Our programming models give credit to outcomes-aligned prior learning and to formal and informal professional experiences. Robust pre-admissions coaching guides students as they set pathway and completion goals according to their unique incoming profile. Once enrolled in any given program of study, students are encouraged to set reasonable pace targets and make instructional content choices (including access to bilingual content) to address their academic strengths and challenges.

As learners make progress toward short-term and long-term goals, they earn points and are credited for a wide range of academic, co-curricular, and professional accomplishments.   If they begin to fall behind target, they are alerted and receive tailored interventions from faculty, coaches, and peer mentors designed to get them back on track quickly and adjust goals as necessary.

▪ A persistent, progressive profile that builds a universal transcript
With every step students make during their learning experience they build a persistent, progressive profile and a universal transcript of accomplishment that includes traditional course credit, an expanded portfolio of earned competencies and selected work, as well as prior and co-curricular learning and professional experiences that are aligned with their learning pathways and their educational and career goals.

▪ A next generation digital learning platform
All programming pathways are offered on TEx, our mobile-first digital learning platform, which provides an elegant and consistent user experience as students move from module to certificate to degree and beyond.  Among TEx’s distinctive features is its ability to collect and integrate data from a variety of silos (including the Student Information System, Learning Management System, content services, and a broad array of learning and assessment applications) that offer real-time actionable insights into student pace, engagement, persistence, and performance, as well as measures of self-efficacy. This infrastructure empowers faculty and staff to provide high-touch services to those students most in need of encouragement and to personalize support and instructional development efforts as never before possible.

▪ A commitment to research
The data that TEx generates will drive operational and academic research into every facet of these new experiences over the coming years. In the first term of our small prototype offering alone, TEx collected over 2 million data events. At scale, this data set, and a community of research that spans the UT System and beyond, will engine unprecedented empirical research into teaching and learning. The U.T. System’s future models of education initiative is an integral part of a broad diffusion of innovation strategy that seeks to advance new approaches to  curricular design, pedagogy, delivery modes, scheduling, and student services.

The emphasis we place on the collection and analysis of learning data seeks to nurture a culture of evidence across the U.T. System. This is a strategy that rests on strong partnerships between campuses and the university system, between the System and best-in-breed application developers and analytics service providers, and between solver teams of faculty and curriculum and instructional designers, educational technologies, assessment specialists, and data scientists.  The work is fascinating, complex, and rife with both opportunities and challenges.

We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions and look forward to sharing our experience as well move toward 2017 and beyond!

Marni Baker Stein is Chief Innovation Officer of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.



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