3 Investments In Teaching and Learning That Your Institution Can’t Afford Not To Make

Course redesign, online/blended learning, and data driven continuous improvement.

August 10, 2016

I get it. There is no money.

There are more things that need funding than there are dollars to fund them.

Every constituent on campus believes that their service/operation/initiative is critical for the viability of the institution.

Investing in one thing means disinvesting in another.

Doesn’t matter.

A failure to make the following 3 investments in teaching and learning will - in the medium-to-long run - put your institution at risk.

Teaching and learning are core to the mission and operation of (almost) every college and university. An erosion of the relative quality in teaching and learning, (as compared to peer schools or emerging competitors), will eventually result in an inability to compete for students, faculty, and funding.

I offer these 3 suggested investments with the knowledge that all 3 may seem like luxuries (or distractions) to contingent and underpaid faculty. (And to those of us who stand with these colleagues).

How can any investment in improving teaching and learning not start with providing all faculty with decent compensation and adequate security?

I agree.

My argument is that making these 3 investments will enable, in the medium-to-long run, schools to have the resources to compensate all faculty fairly and equitably.  Conversely, not making these investments is sure way to guarantee future institutional decline.

The 3 teaching and learning investments that your institution can’t afford not to make:

Investment #1 - Redesigning Introductory, Foundational, and Other Larger-Enrollment Courses:

The higher ed business would be much simpler if running only small seminar courses was a viable economic strategy. Nirvana would be a situation where every course comprised 12 to 20 students sitting around an oval table, actively creating their learning with the guidance of a skilled educator.

Alas, outside of maybe a few examples (please share) - the reality of higher ed is that larger enrollment courses cross-subsidize smaller enrollment courses. A large lecture class taught by a single instructor is one of the most economically productive and efficient educational models ever created.

The problem is that the value of a transactional (information transmission) model of education is quickly dropping to zero.

The quality of open online courses (MOOCs), paired with adaptive learning platforms, are evolving at a pace that threatens to overtake the advantages of traditional lecture courses. This is an inconvenient truth that your school may not want to hear, but it needs to.  Every course offered on your campus must offer a significantly better learning experience than free online courses and scaled adaptive learning platforms.

Burying our head in the sand and claiming that MOOCs are irrelevant (so 2014) will not solve this necessity. Rather, the only viable strategy is to invest in every course so that they are moved from a transactional model of teaching to a relational model of learning.

A combination of classroom and course redesign can create power active and experiential learning opportunities in larger enrollment classes. Contrary to the popular myth that today’s learning reformers are anti-lecture, the lecture can (and usually is) an effective strategy (when combined with other teaching approaches) for creating high quality courses.

What can’t be argued, however, is that every school needs to put serious time and attention into re-thinking and re-designing their foundational and large enrollment courses.

Investment #2 - Developing Capabilities and Experience in Blended and Online Learning:

Why should “traditional” schools - colleges and universities with highly valued brands built on face-to-face residential teaching - ever invest in blended and online learning?

There are many answer to this question - maybe you can supply your own - but I’ll offer two.

First, at almost no school is it a viable economic strategy to have only seminar classes.  Revenues must be found to cross-subsidize the seminars.  Developing online (and low-residency) programs, (particularly at the master’s level - but also summer schools), is a great way to bring in additional revenues.

Small, targeted online programs - particularly if built around the differentiating strengths of your institution - can be part of a portfolio of approaches to diversify revenues.

Second, it is in developing the capabilities to offer online and blended courses where colleges and universities will figure out how to raise the quality of face-to-face education.  Sound instructional design principles transcend modes of educational delivery.

The same principles that govern the design of quality online courses apply to fully residential courses.  Staring online programs will usually mean bringing new educational thinking (and new educational expertise) to campus.  Online learning programs are, in my experience, the most effective faculty development program yet devised.

Intimate residential teaching and online learning can happily and peacefully co-exist.  In fact, if done well, the creation of online learning programs may be the best way to strengthen existing face-to-face residential offerings.

Investment #3 - Moving Towards a Culture of Practice of Data Driven Continuous Improvement:

The final investment in teaching and learning that every school should be making is in data.  Maybe actionable data is a better way to put this.

Every school must develop the ability to make decisions based not on tradition, gut feelings, or hierarchical authority - but on data.

We owe it to all of our students to understand the conditions in which they thrive and which they stumble. 

We should be able to make use data to continuously improve how we design and deliver our courses, and how we support our students through their educational journey.

Part of getting good with data means embracing the idea that each student should “own” their own data. That every student should have control and access to the data that they create, and that how we use data to improve our services should be transparent.  Getting good with data also means getting good with privacy, and all the other challenging issues that arise when we commit to a data-driven approach to continuous improvement.

Higher ed has a long, long way to go when it comes to creating a culture and practice of data driven decisions. The good news is that we have the platforms, tools, and expertise to tackle this goal. What is too often missing is the will (and the leadership) to do things differently.

What investments in teaching and learning do you think that your school can’t afford not to make?



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