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Students in the University of Louisville's TILL, an active-learning classroom that the university uses as an incentive for instructors.

Gale Rhodes/University of Louisville

Online classes are commonplace, and hybrid courses and active-learning initiatives are gaining ground at small private colleges and large public universities alike. Some institutions are even betting on active learning as the teaching method of the future.

But professors aren’t always jumping at the chance to teach with those models, because they require them to learn and use sometimes intimidating technologies or teach in new environments -- and some instructors aren’t confident they’ll be successful.

To give full- and part-time faculty members the encouragement to try, some colleges and universities are offering incentives in the form of stipends, preferential scheduling and plaudits for innovation. And at a number of institutions, the incentives are working.

At the University of New Haven, for example, full-time and part-time instructors are paid a $4,000 stipend to develop a hybrid undergraduate course and a $5,000 stipend to develop a hybrid master’s-level course in their regular course load. Those stipends come in addition to fees for teaching courses, which can range from $4,000 to $7,000 per course depending on the instructor’s qualifications. The instructors are paired with instructional designers, who guide them over two to three months on thoughtfully crafting a curriculum with digital tools in mind.

Since the incentives were established in 2013, approximately 140 part- and full-time faculty members have completed the foundations course, and 15 to 20 instructors each year have teamed with an instructional designer to create a hybrid or fully online course, said Stuart Sidle, the university’s associate provost for strategic initiatives. New Haven has about 280 full-time professors and 600 adjunct professors in total.

“No faculty member becomes rich because of these incentives,” Sidle said. But, he added, "We’re trying to acknowledge that we appreciate people who are taking the extra time to learn new things.”

A welcome benefit of the arrangement, according to Sidle, is that instructors who lack a degree in education get formal training that can help them be more effective teachers in person, with or without digital tools.

“One of our goals is to increase hybrid courses,” he said. “But the reason we’re paying is we want them to really take it seriously and learn.”

According to Sidle, the incentives also help the university maintain quality control over its hybrid courses, preventing individual faculty members from crafting courses without input from instructional designers.

Instructors at Central Washington University also receive stipends after completing training with an instructional designer. But for now, the incentives are limited to full-time and adjunct instructors willing to teach fully online courses, according to Christopher Schedler, Central Washington’s executive director of multimodal learning. The university also offers financial support for conference travel and digital equipment checkouts for professors.

Flexible Classrooms

In additional to stipends, some universities are setting up building space for active-learning environments. The University of Toledo, for example, has encouraged its professors to engage in active-learning lessons for several years, said Michael Haar, director of classroom support services. But until this year, those efforts have been piecemeal.

A visit from the Higher Learning Commission approximately two years ago prompted more intentional efforts, Haar said. Starting with the fall semester, the university is offering professors the opportunity to vie for space in an active-learning classroom outfitted with technological features including a system that allows the professor to send files directly to students’ laptops to increase engagement during a lesson. Instructors interested in the room get priority scheduling as well as a $2,000 stipend -- half before the semester starts and half after it ends.

Toledo has more flexibility to offer monetary incentives because Haar and his team were frugal in creating the space. Instead of purchasing new furniture, Haar spent $100 at Lowe’s buying finished wood, painting it black and using it to attach existing tables in the room together for “pods.” After adding other furniture, computers and a pricey two-sided whiteboard, the 36-seat classroom's total cost was $13,000, which Haar believes is only 10 percent of what a typical room outfitted like that would cost. A much larger expenditure would have been untenable, he said.

This fall 11 courses will be held in that classroom, and more are planned for the spring. Instructors have a range of lessons planned, according to Angela Paprocki, the university’s assistant provost for instructional strategies. One language department faculty member will divide students into pods that represent countries. A soil-ecology professor will cull hundreds of slides he typically shows to students in favor of a less detailed but more interactive lesson. Another instructor is opting for a more traditional approach that utilizes the room’s whiteboard.

Students don’t know during registration whether particular courses will be held in the active-learning classroom, Paprocki said. But over time, Haar said, he thinks the room will gain a reputation among the student body and serve as a model for future endeavors universitywide.

Paprocki and Constance Shriner, Toledo’s vice provost for assessment, accreditation, program review and faculty development, worked closely with instructors who expressed interest in using the space. The university hopes the room will help shift its academic model from faculty centered to student centered -- or, as Shriner puts it, “guide by the side” instead of “sage on the stage.”

“One thing that does surprise me when we work with faculty is their excitement that they could do things differently,” Shriner said. “Many teach the way they were taught because that’s all they know.”

As reported recently in Inside Higher Ed, Indiana University’s active-learning initiative is growing faster than expected, partly because of an approach that embraces different campus types, class sizes and classroom layouts. IU is experimenting with active learning to boost student engagement in class. So far, the university has exceeded expectations, said Anastasia Morrone, associate vice president of learning technologies.

IU’s Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses each have about 30 spaces designated as active-learning or “tech-enhanced” classrooms, according to a university database. In addition to the efforts to redesign classrooms, the effort also includes a fellowship program open to all full-time faculty members. Those selected to participate are required to teach a course in one of the classrooms, attend an intensive one-day workshop and work with researchers and other fellows to test the spaces and improve active-learning techniques. They also receive a small stipend -- about $1,000.

Other Incentives

Instructors don’t always need financial incentives to get on board with new forms of teaching. For example, professors at California State University, Los Angeles, get priority scheduling at peak hours -- between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. -- for agreeing to teach hybrid courses.

At the University of Louisville, professors have eagerly signed on for courses in the Teaching Innovation Learning Laboratory -- the TILL -- an active-learning space that opened for instruction last fall.

According to Gale Rhodes, associate provost and executive director of Louisville’s Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning, the university offers no financial reward for professors willing to teach in the TILL, but it supports instructors when they want to teach in there, even at unusual times like Friday night and Sunday morning. The commitment from administrators has been enticing to professors, who want to feel that they’re being supported.

“You do what you get rewarded for -- [instructors are hearing] more and more about how the university is really focused,” Rhodes said. “We are trying to change teaching and learning at this institution. Everything we do programmatically is going to be in service of active learning.”

One engineering professor told Rhodes that he saw so much student improvement in the TILL that it realigned his “entire way of teaching.” The room will serve as a model for all classrooms in a new academic building under construction and set to open in fall 2018.

In this case, the incentive is not a monetary reward, but one of personal pride in one’s innovative tendencies. Regardless of the variety, though, incentives point toward a future with a stronger digital presence in classrooms over all.

“This is an opportunity to reshape the way we look at the learning experience of our students,” Rhodes said.

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