The Most Important Higher Ed Story of 2015

The competitive motivators for large enrollment course redesign.

January 4, 2015
The most important higher education story of 2015 will, ironically, be a story published at the end of 2014.  This is the 12/26 NYT’s story by Richard Prichard Pérez-Peña Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science.
Every educator (both faculty and non-faculty) that I speak with is involved in some aspect of large enrollment class re-design. Free open online education and scale (MOOCs) have caused all of us to re-think the purpose and affordances of a residential education. The drop of the cost of a high quality lecture to zero dollars has upended the traditional value proposition of the course. Any college or university that bases a significant part of its business model around an information transfer model will be first irrelevant, and then quickly insolvent. 
Larger enrollment courses are being re-thought as opportunities to invite students into the knowledge creation process. Advances in learning theory have taught us that we don’t retain what we don’t manipulate, create, and explain. Advances in digital learning platforms have enabled us, with significant investments in instructional design and course planning, to bring more active and collaborative methods to classes that were traditionally based on lectures and high-stakes assessments.  Any course that does not move a significant portion of the content to beyond the time and space where instructors and students gather will feel anachronistic in an age of blended learning. Any course that does not take advantage of adaptive platforms for frequent low-stakes assessment will be forgoing opportunities for authentic learning.   
An omission from the Times’ story are the business reasons for colleges and universities to invest in large enrollment course redesign. This is not a story about cost savings. In the past a major imperative for course redesign has been to lower overall instructional costs, usually through improvements in student retention and via lower levels of course re-takes. The need for students to re-take introductory courses is costly for both the school (or system) and the student. Failure to persist to graduation can usually be traced back to difficulties in foundational courses. This cost motivation to large-enrollment course redesign has existed for many years, and has indeed spurred important initiatives (and research) in this area. 
Today, the motivation to redesign large enrollment courses is a competitive one. The variation in learning quality and student outcomes that have been the norm in introductory courses is no longer acceptable. Students (and parents and other payers) previously accepted the idea that some courses were great and that some were terrible. Bad courses could be avoided, or if not avoided managed as well as possible.  Some faculty are great at lecturing, some are not, and there is not much that could be done to change this reality. This way of thinking is on its way out.  High quality introductory courses, ones that mimic the best attributes of smaller upper-division courses, are emerging as a postsecondary differentiator. Just as a lavish student center or a fancy new athletic facility are indicators of quality (and desirability), high investment introductory classes are emerging as institutional must-haves.   
I predict that colleges and universities will start marketing their redesigned introductory courses on their websites, brochures, and recruitment materials.  Campus tours will include an obligatory stop by an redesigned course in action, so that prospective students can see what a calculus or statistics or chemistry intro course looks like in action. Data on STEM completion rates, broken down by demographic and economics variables (such as first-generation attendance), will be collected and disseminated. A team approaches to course design and teaching, where teams include faculty members and instructional designers and librarians and analytics specialists, will increasingly be the norm.
This shift to a high investment team approach to large scale course design and instruction will be expensive. We will need to find savings in non-mission critical areas (those not directly related to teaching and in some places research) of the institution.  
The days of the lower-division large enrollment course subsidizing the upper-division seminar are over.  


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