Breaking the Iron Triangle

Affordability, quality, and student success.

October 5, 2016

The great challenge facing public higher education is to break through the iron triangle: Increasing affordability, quality, and student success all at once.

Achieving that goal will require our institutions to solve three wicked problems -- an infrastructure problem, a curriculum problem, and a mentoring problem – in ways that are financially sustainable.

The least appreciated, but debatably the most important, challenge is to create the technological and service infrastructure capable of supporting the kinds of learning that need to take place in the 21st century: An education that is more personalized, immersive, skills-oriented, well-supported, and data-driven than that which is standard today.  It is also an education acquired through multiple providers – including industry, the military, and  alternative educational suppliers -- across the lifespan.

Existing Learning Management Systems are unable to support a wide range of activity or assessment types and have extremely limited social, networking, and collaborative capabilities. Nor are their learning analytics capabilities particularly sophisticated. Learning data, student profile data, and course level data are generally located in distinct silos that cannot be easily accessed, linked, or analyzed. Meanwhile, fine-grained data about student engagement, pace, and persistence is rarely collected or utilized.

LMS’s biggest problem is that the current technology focuses on individual courses rather than on learning across time.

A next generation “Learning Relationship System” must:

  • Offer a consumer-grade user experience.
  • Support personalized, modularized, gamified, variable-paced learning.
  • Deliver high-fidelity, transmedia learning content on the go, in class and in the field;
  • Support a broad range of assessment types, including those that are case-, challenge-, and team-based.
  • Integrate note-taking, indexing, messaging, and collaboration tools.
  • Connect students seamlessly to a community of care consisting of faculty, instructional facilitators, tutors, peer mentors, and advisors.
  • Gather “click-level” data on student engagement, persistence, pace, performance, and other variables and be able to link these data to Student Information System data to support learning research.
  • Integrate data from backend systems, including the Student Information System, to improve our understanding of a particular student’s learning needs and strengths and adjust the curriculum and pedagogy accordingly
  • Track learning journeys across multiple contexts, whether K-12, post-secondary, military, or professional.
  • Authenticate and celebrate student accomplishments, from mastery of a single critical path skill to the award of a degree.

A new infrastructure can support data-driven instruction, interventions, and decision-making.  The institutions that have been most successful in moving the needle on student success have used these data to:

  • Identify curricular bottlenecks.
  • Examine  pass rates in course sections and instructor variance in grading.
  • Manage course availability and scheduling.
  • Guide financial aid allocations.
  • Detect students at risk of failure and prompt proactive advising.

Institutions need to find ways to pay for such an infrastructure, train faculty, staff, and campus leadership to make data-informed decisions, break down administrative silos to create an integrated data system, and adopt a unit record system to better understand students’ educational trajectories over time. 

A second major problem is curricular.  Too many students find today’s curricula insufficiently engaging (particularly at the foundational level), incoherent, and lacking in a clear value proposition. In addition, too few curricular pathways offer many windows into future careers. 

Many students would benefit from a very different curricular model: A clearly delineated pathway consisting of synergistic courses with well-defined learning objectives.  Such a curriculum would be developmental by design, with a careful sequencing of courses to build skills and competencies and many windows into future career options. However, collaborative design of the curriculum, especially across departmental lines, remains extremely rare. 

Nor are there strong incentives for faculty to alter instructional approaches.  Lacking clear measures of student engagement, quality, or learning outcomes, or a reward structure that values teaching innovation, faculty have few inducements to apply the emerging lessons of the learning sciences to curricular or course design, pedagogy, or assessment.

For institutions, a bloated, fragmented curriculum is extremely costly, featuring many small, highly specialized boutique courses.  Such a curriculum also diverts faculty from participating in the high-impact practices, like supervised research, that can transform student lives.  Yet optimizing the curriculum is extremely difficult, since it raises sensitive issues about workload, instructional staffing, and faculty autonomy in course design.

Nevertheless, a growing number of institutions are reimagining curricular pathways and redesigning bottleneck courses with a goal of improving student learning outcomes.  Studio courses, hybrid courses, emporium models as well as courses that emphasize team-based and activity-driven learning demonstrate that education can be made more effective and more efficient. The sharing of learning objects, including advanced simulations and interactives, and of high-quality assessments, can improve course quality and promote economies of scale while supporting individual faculty members.

A third key problem involves mentoring.  Even at the most selective, best endowed institutions, most students rarely receive the kinds of intensive feedback that they need to truly master essential skills.  Despite a growing emphasis on experiential learning – mentored internships and research experiences, study abroad, and service learning opportunities – faculty members’ primary responsibility remains lecturing and leading discussions.

A tiered approach to advising and mentoring holds great promise.  A “care coordinator” can help students navigate difficult transitions, including changes of major or transferring from another institution.  A life coach can help students tackle financial problems, family emergencies, and shifts in job schedules.  Greater use of peers and near-peers – as tutors and as leaders of study sections, team-based learning experiences, and supplemental instruction opportunities -- can augment student support and feedback while expanding on-campus employment, a proven contributor to student success.

To be sure, other factors can contribute to affordability and student success.  These include seamless credit transfer, better alignment between high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions, and exploratory majors or meta-majors to open windows into particular fields of study.  Four-year degree plans prior to the first semester, participation in a learning community, and access to emergency financial aid can also make a big difference.

Can we break through the iron triangle in ways that are cost effective and financially sustainable?  Yes.  But the task isn’t easy, for the steps we need to take are anything but business as usual.

A recent Eduventures report identified three key barriers to tackling higher education’s cost, quality, and student success challenges: initiative fatigue, an absence of accountability, and, perhaps most important of all, diffusion of responsibility. When everyone is collectively responsible for addressing critical challenges, the “bystander” effect kicks in: No single group “takes ownership” of a problem. The results are inertia, finger-pointing, and buck passing.

Cost, quality, and student success aren’t someone else’s problem.  These are a collective challenge that deserves all the attention faculty, staff, and campus leaders can muster.

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


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