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At a moment when college and university business models are under severe strain, one of the biggest questions facing public higher education is whether it is possible to educate larger numbers of students with improved learning outcomes at lower costs.

This question has taken on new urgency after recent study by Caroline M. Hoxby and a survey by WCET questioned whether online education – often upheld as a way to make higher education more affordable -- actually reduces student or institutional costs.

The answer is yes, as Carol A. Twigg and the National Center for Academic Transformation have demonstrated.  Twigg and the National Center have identified  a number of strategies to trim costs while improving outcomes that include:

  • Augmenting existing lecture classes with technology-based instruction outside of class and active-learning activities within the lecture portion of the course.
  • Introducing an emporium model where students use interactive software in a learning resource center where they also receive help from tutors and facilitators.
  • Replacing a face-to-face model with a fully-online courses in which students receive automated as well as personal feedback.
  • Offering linked workshops to provide targeted academic support.

Yet even greater success is possible, I am convinced, if institutions think boldly outside of the established paradigms and consider innovative ways to transform the academic experience – while maintaining the elements of a high quality education that we most prize: Regular and substantive feedback from and interaction with a subject-matter expert; a sense of membership in a learning community; and robust scaffolding and support for learning.

Here are a number of strategies that seek to scale an education that equals or exceeds a traditional lecture class in quality.

1. Creating Shared Instructional Content, Learning Tools, and Teaching Resources
Under the current paradigm, most instructional content is produced by an individual faculty member or purchased from a publisher. This “artisanal” approach rarely reflects best practices or lessons from the learning sciences.  Clearly, it would be less expensive – and almost certainly raise average quality -- to develop instructional content, authoring tools, learning objects, shared assessments, and automated feedback at scale rather than to create custom applications for (or by) individual faculty members.

Many of the lower-cost non-profits, as well as many for-profits, create master courses that are then taught by lower paid instructors, often by adjuncts or instructors without a Ph.D.  The master courses are designed to be “instructor-proof,” ensuring a uniform experience for all students irrespective of the instructor.  This is not what I am suggesting.  Instead, I want to suggest that jointly developed courses, with explicit learning objectives, common standards of mastery, and a rich online dimension, might offer a better learning experience than standard courses.

2. Self-Paced, Self-Directed Learning
Many so-called Competency-Based programs consist of self-paced, self-directed modules that students complete sequentially.  Many rely on pre-existing content and learning resources developed elsewhere (for example, by Khan Academy).  The student experience is monitored by a coach or instructional facilitator who periodically checks in to motivate, provide guidance, and answer questions.  Obviously, such an approach won’t work with many students.  But for those for whom it does, one advantage is that it allows students to receive credit for prior learning, allowing them to accelerate their progress toward a degree.

3. Utilizing Interactive, Personalized, Adaptive Courseware
Although courseware is sometimes dismissed as little more than programmed learning, consisting of little more than drills, interactive courseware, with embedded diagnostics, personalized-adaptive learning trajectories, and sophisticated interactives, can provide students with practice and timely feedback.  Courseware has been shown to be effective, especially in Emporium settings where students can work collaboratively and receive hands-on support from faculty and other facilitators, including peer mentors.

New Staffing Models
Faculty are, of course, the most expensive contributor to the cost of delivering a quality education.  Thus, we must ask, can faculty teach more students without diminishing quality?  The answer is “yes,” but only if we are willing to consider new kinds of pedagogies and support mechanisms.

Here are several new models:

4. Team-Based Learning
In traditional lecture and discussion courses there is a direct trade-off between class size and the attention that individual students receive.  In larger classes, students receive substantially less feedback and personal interaction with an instructor.

But with a team-based approach, it is possible to expand student-faculty ratios by altering the instructor’s role.  In many team-based learning settings a single instructor can teach two or even three times the number of students found in a traditional classroom of 25 to 35 students.  Typically, such courses combine large lectures with team-based problem-solving activities.  Such courses also emphasize differentiated instruction.  As in the old-fashioned “one-room” classroom, an instructor can work closely with one group of students while other groups engage in a project-based learning activity.

To ensure high levels of participation in the team-based activities, group size must be kept relatively small (generally no more than seven); team member roles must be clearly defined; team functioning must be regularly monitored; and regular peer evaluation can ensure that all students are pulling their weight.  The use of coaches or peer mentors can, not surprisingly, greatly enhance the efficacy of team-based learning.

5. Course Sharing Arrangements
The Big 10 Academic Alliance has a course sharing arrangement to give students access to highly specialized courses.  Such arrangements, which allow institutions to fill curricular gaps and better meet student needs, tend to focus on less-commonly taught foreign languages, such as Kazakh, Uzbek, and Dutch.  Synchronous seminars using videoconferencing can provide an experience that can approach and in some instances exceed that found in a face-to-face setting.

6. Scaled Online Courses
A growing number of institutions have begun to offer extremely large introductory courses, with upwards of 1,500 students, synchronously.  The learning experience combines brief lectures with debates, interviews, surveys, and video clips.  Frequent quizzes, which offer instant, automated feedback, replace high-stakes exams. To personalize the course and produce a sense of intimacy and belonging, students are placed into teams to solve problems and engage in discussion with instructors, teaching assistants, former students, and peers in interactive chat rooms.  Many of these mega-courses leverage their size by incorporating interviews with or presentations by leading national or international experts and other elements featuring very high production values.

7. Tiered Support
Large on-campus lecture courses without breakout sections, which rely largely on easy-to-grade multiple choice exams, generally do not provide significant numbers of students with the support that they need to succeed.  A tiered approach to support – involving near-peer mentors, near-peer study groups, and supplemental instruction for students at risk of failure -- can be cost effective, especially in roadblock courses with high DFW rates.  This “community of care” approach allows larger numbers of students to be served without diluting access to the support and interaction that students need.

Rethinking the Academic Experience
The most radical way to scale learning requires department, colleges, and institutions to rethink the academic experiences.  Let me suggest several ways that institutions might rethink the academic experience.

8. A Modularized Approach
By disaggregating courses into discrete modules, each with its own distinct learning objectives, and using diagnostics to assess students’ prior learning, it is possible to customize students’ learning trajectories and embed remediation within students’ learning journeys.  The key to successful modularization is to granularly map the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that students need to acquire and tightly align activities and assessments with these objectives.  A modular, competency-based approach will allow some students to accelerate their progress, while seeking to bring all students to a defined level of mastery.

9. Meta-Majors
Meta-majors, broad, career-oriented content areas that share common courses, help students identify a major, minimize the accumulation of excess credit hours, and keep students on track to a degree.  Meta-majors help institutions optimize the curriculum and give students a more coherent, coordinated, synergistic learning experience while making the value proposition of the introductory courses clearer.  By reducing the number of courses offered at the lower-division level, meta-majors free faculty to devote more time to high-impact teaching practices.

10. Expanded Experiential Learning
Student engagement, motivation, and persistence all benefit significantly from earn-learn models, mentored research opportunities, supervised internships, clinical experiences, practicums, service learning, maker activities, and integrated co-curricular experiences.  Ironically, these kinds of immersive learning experiences are among the most affordable for institutions to offer.

It is easy to downplay the potential advantages of scaled teaching.  But teaching at scale can offer some important benefits.  These include:

  • Producing quality teaching and learning resources with high production values.
  • Ensuring that every instructor has access to high quality learning objects.
  • Redeploying faculty in higher impact instructional activities.
  • Providing the data needed to verify the effectiveness of the curriculum for various learner profiles.

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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