Six Transformational Ideas for the New Year

Scale, personalization, flexibility and more.

January 2, 2015

Academic innovation is in the air. But many of the proposed innovations are fairly tame. Placing lectures online; breaking large classes into small groups; incorporating more in-class activities into instruction are all signs of progress – and yet, these incremental innovations do not fundamentally transform the learning experience.

In celebration of the New Year, let’s look at six slightly more radical ideas designed to transform the student experience.

1.  Scale
Are there ways to deliver higher education more efficiently without reducing quality or undercutting student success? 

The best way to do this is to teach at scale. Colleges and universities already do this by offering large lecture classes. Such high enrollment courses may be cost effective, but the student experience tends to be impersonal and passive. 

Are there ways to leverage scale in order to improve students’ learning experience? Yes.

Scale provides the preconditions for truly personalized learning experiences. Large “n”s allow instructors to pinpoint areas of confusion and devise multiple pathways through the instructional material. 

Scale also offers opportunities to survey students, to break students into cohorts of varying sizes and compositions.

But if scale is to be effective it must overcome the anonymity, impersonality, passivity, and instructor-centric aspects of large lectures.

Here are a few strategies to incorporate active learning within scaled classes whether taught online or in hybrid format.

  • Concept mapping: Ask teams of students to diagram relationship between ideas or concepts.
  • Create virtual discussion or question-and-answer sections: Organize online sessions when large groups of students can take part in guided discussion, debate, role-paying exercises, and problem solving.
  • Case studies: Provide teams of students with a specific example that they can examine in-depth, allowing them to apply various methods of analysis and test various theories.
  • Peer feedback: Provide students with a rigorous rubric and use this to provide specific feedback to students’ writings.
  • Polling and surveying students: Psychologist Steve Joorden at the University of Toronto has students complete a detailed questionnaire. Then, he has students address key questions using anonymitized data drawn from the class.
  • Role-playing exercises: Historian Mark Carnes’s Reacting to the Past offers a powerful example of a gamified approach to instruction, in which students assume roles rooted in historical documents. Especially noteworthy are the science games, involving cholera, the debate over Pluto’s status, and many other topics, which illustrate that role playing can be valuable in STEM disciplines.
  • Small group problem solving: Have teams of students work together to answer or address problem sets.
  • Student formulated questions: Ask teams of students pose research questions, test questions, or questions posed by a text, theory, or approach.
  • Textual (or visual) interpretation: Assign teams of students to interpret particular passages from a text or image.

2.  Personalization
For the first time, truly individualized learning has become a genuine possibility. Adaptive content search and recommendation tools allow instructors to tailor readings and lessons to students’ interests, learning styles, prior knowledge, and aspirations.

Even more ambitious is adaptive course design. Instructors and instructional designers must construct a knowledge map, in which they identify and diagram a course’s key concepts, competencies, theories, methods, and assessments. They then draw preliminary pathways through the material, which are later refined as students traverse the course and embedded diagnostics identify students’ learning needs.

3.  Flexibility
Why must a semester begin in late August or January? Why must a class be 50 or 75 minutes in length? The explanations are simple: Tradition. Administrative convenience.  Conventional practice.In practice, these routines do not conform to many students’ needs or schedules. Already, institutions are experimenting with somewhat more flexible arrangements: Asynchronous online courses. Holiday courses. Seven-week accelerated classes.

But a truly accommodating approach would be even more flexible. It would allow for varied start dates and variable pacing. It would permit students to bundle modules together in ways that better meet their learning objectives.

4.  Courseware
Courseware – educational materials that include tutorials, interactives, simulations, animations, immersive learning experience, embedded assessments, and, yes, readings – represents the next iteration in the evolution of the textbook.

At its worst, courseware is little more than programmed learning: A prepackaged series of computer-delivered lessons and drills that students must go through sequentially. This form of courseware emphasizes content transmission and provides few opportunities for independent thinking or self-expression.

At its most sophisticated, courseware is a textbook on steroids. It is immersive, adaptive, and highly interactive.  It contains sophisticated diagnostics and embeds remediation and enrichment.

Courseware can support or even substitute for an existing face-to-face class. Stanford’s Open Learning Initiative offers twenty free, open learning experiences in subjects ranging from Arabic and Anatomy and Physiology to Principles of Computing and Statistical Reasoning that illustrate courseware’s potential to enhance student learning.

5.  Alignment
Roughly one student in three transfers from a two-year or a four-year institution. Many more acquire course credits from a number of institutions. 

Most lose credit hours in the process. Only 58 percent of community college transfer students succeeded in transferring more than 90 percent of their credits to four-year institutions.  In many instances, these credit hours are accepted only as electives, and do not apply toward completion of a major.

So far, the answer has been articulation agreements among institutions or state mandated common course numbering and credit transfer. A superior answer might be curricular alignment: Backward-design of verticals that can begin in high school and proceed through community colleges and four-year institutions. To succeed, such a process must bring together instructors from a variety of institutions who will work together in curricular mapping and instructional design and instituting teacher training programs to ensure that everyone is well prepared to teach their pieces of this jointly designed curriculum.

6.  Coaching
In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens attacked the Monitorial or Lancasterian System of Education, which allowed a single instructor to teach a hundred or more students by using older students to instruct those who were younger. 

In fact, a personal coach – whether a professional, a graduate student, or a peer mentor – can greatly improve student persistence and learning. By regularly checking in on a student, asking questions, and listening to their responses, a coach can:

  • support a student throughout the learning process
  • serve as an intermediary between the student and the faculty member, providing regular feedback, timely advise, and study tips
  • pose reflective questions and offer opportunities for students to discuss the course material
  • inform students about specialized support services
  • identify confusions and devise a plan to address these
  • monitor acquisition of critical knowledge and competencies
  • review student progress

Coaching is quite rightly controversial if the coaches are perceived as displacing faculty or lacking in content expertise. But a coach can also serve as the kind of personal mentor, tutor, and advisor that too few students regularly encounter. Since coaches do not evaluate a student, properly trained – and well compensated -- coaches can provide the skillful support and honest feedback that students need.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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