Introductory Course Improvements and ‘The Evolution of Everything’

An argument about the unintended consequences of online learning for foundational residential courses.

November 29, 2015

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley. Published in October of 2015.

The biggest higher ed story is the story that we never talk about. That is the story of how foundational introductory courses have improved dramatically in the past decade, and how these improvements are set to accelerate. 

Could Matt Ridley’s argument in The Evolution of Everything, that progress is fueled by adaptation rather than planning, explain this trend?

Ridley’s main claim is that every social, technological, and economic system is governed by the same properties as biological system. As such, they will each evolve in response to the environment, as long as they are given time to adapt and iterate.

There is a quiet revolution going on in our nation’s foundational introductory courses.

The dominant pedagogical orientation across our campuses has moved from information transmission to active learning.

Introductory classes throughout the US system are being redesigned to conform to research on how people learn. 

Methods such as low-stakes formative assessment and flipped instructional methods (where class time is reserved for collaborative and active learning exercises), are being introduced into larger enrollment foundational courses at almost every institution. (How about at your school?)

This is a huge and important shift, as while small in number, foundational introductory courses touch almost all of our students. 

It is also in the first couple of years of college where student progress towards a degree or a major is likely to be thwarted. 

Improving introductory gateway courses, such that students not only persist but master the foundational material, will have important benefits in both subsequent academic success and persistence to graduation.

Could it be that foundational introductory courses are getting better precisely because there has been no coordinated national effort to improve them?

Is it the case that the roots of improvements in gateway courses cannot be assigned to any number of university strategic plans?

I would like to argue that the improvements in foundational introductory courses can be traced first back to the growth of traditional online programs, and later to the spread of open online learning.

Traditional online programs introduced new instructional methods, such as backwards course design and an emphasis on learning objectives over content.

MOOCs brought the price of educational content down to zero - raising the floor for what we consider valuable in postsecondary instruction.

At the time of the development of the first (traditional) online learning programs, and later of MOOCs, nobody gave much thought about how these modes of online instruction would improve residential teaching and learning.  

The traditional in-class residential course is not undergoing a pedagogical revolution because of the demands of accreditors or the bullet points contained in a strategic plan. Rather, they have evolved independently in response to new pedagogical capabilities and ideas - ideas that were introduced to our campuses largely through the vector of online learning.

Moreover, the improvements in foundational courses are not homogenous. The variety of experiments in improving learning in introductory courses is the real source of vitality in this long-term trend.

Individual institutions and professors are experimenting with new ways to improve their large enrollment introductory courses - methods that are adapted to local circumstances.

Any one size fits all policy to improving introductory courses, either at the national or the campus level, will most likely be counterproductive and susceptible to a host of unintended consequences.

If we buy Ridley’s main arguments in The Evolution of Everything, the best thing that we can do for our students is to give our professors the resources and support that they need to teach their classes, pair them with an instructional designer (ideally one with experience in online learning), and then get out of the way.

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