Half-Learned Lessons

Ten years after the National Center for Academic Transformation began course redesigns, early adopters applaud learning outcomes but remain ambivalent about the cost reduction.
October 9, 2009

In the afterglow of a course redesign, it’s not uncommon for converted faculty and administrators to make bold predictions. In the 10 years since the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) began working with colleges to improve learning outcomes while reducing cost, many college administrators have ended the process quite certain the redesigns would spread like wildfire across their campuses.

There’s little question that course redesigns have served as models for expansion at many colleges, and have generated what most describe as improved student learning. But the experience of some of the earliest campuses involved with NCAT suggests the cost reduction aspect of NCAT’s program is the hardest element to retain over time.

With help of an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, NCAT began working with a novel concept. The idea was to use technology to create a more “active” learning environment, where students -- even in large enrollment classes -- engaged in problem solving and online quizzing, rather than “passively” listening to professors lecture from podiums.

But NCAT’s clearly stated goals were twofold: The organization not only wanted to prove that greater student engagement leads to better grades and lower failure rates, but also that making this transition to “active” learning was more cost effective.

Many institutions have successfully used NCAT's program in a conscious effort to reduce costs, but it’s clear that other participants see cutting costs as a pleasant byproduct -- not an integral part -- of redesigns. Take the University System of Maryland, which began working with NCAT to redesign courses across its 11 campuses three years ago. Even Chancellor William E. (Brit) Kirwan, who has won accolades for bringing down costs at Maryland, says “you can debate whether costs go down or not” with redesigns, adding that he’s satisfied just to break even as long as students show progress.

“The improved learning is the thing that is so exciting from my perspective,” he says.

There are plenty of campuses that report cost reductions as a result of NCAT-sponsored redesigns, and Maryland is among them. Indeed, of the 30 two- and four-year institutions that completed redesigns between 1999 and 2004, all reduced costs by 37 percent on average, ranging from 20 percent to 77 percent, according to NCAT. But interviews with some of NCAT’s earliest participants, who would have the longest track record to demonstrate sustainable cost reductions, suggest the colleges are often no longer actively tracking the cost of instruction as they expand the redesign model across their campuses.

“You’re dealing with a culture that does not care about reducing cost,” says Carol Twigg, NCAT’s president and chief executive officer. “If Brit Kirwan, who has done all of this work [reducing costs at Maryland], doesn’t care, then there you have it.”

To say Kirwan "doesn't care" about the cost reductions NCAT provides may be overstating things a bit, but it's clear the chancellor has promoted redesign more for its academic attributes than its savings potential.

Twigg, who was hired by Maryland as a consultant, says the only way for colleges to actually reduce costs is to understand up front what their costs actually are. That means drilling down into budget numbers, and calculating the average per-student cost of instruction in a given course. With that data in hand, colleges can begin to rein in the “outlandish and rising out of control cost” of higher education, Twigg says.

One of the proven strategies for reducing cost through redesigns is reducing the number of faculty, or even graduate students, required to teach a section. In some cases, campuses have replaced adjunct faculty or graduate students with “undergraduate learning assistants,” using the less expensive aides to support ever-larger course sections. The undergraduates often help guide small group discussions in laboratories, thereby reducing the number of days required for large lecture meetings.

The use of undergraduates in a general psychology course at Maryland’s Frostburg State University campus helped reduce the average per student cost from $89 to $25 -- a 72 percent decrease. The assistants, who graded papers with faculty supervision and training, were required to be at least second semester sophomores with minimum 3.5 grade point averages and an “A” in honors psychology.

Megan Bradley, an associate professor of psychology at Frostburg State, says she’s seen clear evidence that the undergraduate assistants help improve learning -– while freeing up faculty to do more actual teaching and less grading. Frostburg compared students’ performance on a comprehensive final exam in 2008, finding that those in the traditional course scored 68 percent on average, compared with 75 percent in the redesigned version.

“What I’ve found is those who criticize it really don’t understand it,” Bradley says of redesigns.

Unsurprisingly, the use of undergraduates is not without its critics, from parents who worry about undergraduates playing too great a role in instruction, to faculty who are concerned their jobs may be threatened if costs are cut by relying less on professors.

When Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis joined the first 10 colleges to conduct redesigns between 1999 and 2001, faculty were concerned that some of the suggested cost cutting strategies might have deleterious effects. Hoping to avoid any redesign that would reduce faculty involvement, they decided their redesign of Introduction to Sociology would aim to decrease costs only by reducing the percentage of students who might have to retake the course.

“Some of the other proposals [made to NCAT] seemed more along the lines of replacing faculty with graduate students or part timers, and that’s not what we were about,” says Robert White, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of sociology. “My memory is we were concerned about the long-term implications of what some other people were doing, replacing faculty and so forth.”

Subsequent course redesigns conducted at IUPUI have occurred with little attention to cost. NCAT is credited with inspiring the university’s Jump Start program, which was developed in 2003 to help faculty better integrate technology and online teaching into their classes. While the use of technology to stimulate more active learning is a cornerstone of both NCAT and Jump Start, no one working with Jump Start is assessing savings by calculating the cost of instruction in traditional and nontraditional courses.

“We’re not really measuring all of what we put into it resource-wise,” says Terri Tarr, associate director of the center for teaching and learning at IUPUI. “We are interested in it, but we don’t have clear-cut data.”

The State University of New York at Buffalo, an early adopter, doesn't track the costs anymore either. Carl Alphonce, a teaching associate professor at Buffalo, says cost cutting in redesign is "certainly one motivation, but I don't know that that's the primary motivation."

Ditto for Pennsylvania State University, where course redesigns have flourished in the absence of any real attention to cost. That’s something of a disappointment to John Harwood, senior director of teaching and learning with technology at Penn State.

“I’m hoping the time will be right, but we have not done a very good job of doing the cost piece,” says Harwood, a member of the Redesign Alliance, which promotes large-scale redesigns across higher education.

In order for the cost reduction component of redesigns to be effective, the process can’t be left to faculty alone, according to Twigg.

“If administrators do not continue to be involved and simply let it devolve to a faculty project, most faculty don’t care about costs,” she says.

Penn State and Buffalo were both among the first 10 colleges to implement course redesigns with NCAT, and those early redesigns were partial and not reflective of the more comprehensive reworking of courses that later participants conducted, Twigg says. A better example, she says, is the University of Alabama.

Robert Olin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Alabama, says the redesign it began in intermediate mathematics nine years ago has since been used as a model for several other courses in a variety of disciplines throughout the college. But Olin says his college no longer tracks the cost per student when conducting a new redesign, because he’s already demonstrated the model saves money.

“I’m beyond the point of calculating cost anymore. I just know it works,” he says. “I’m beyond the stage where I have to prove it to somebody, so I haven’t run the numbers on that [in more recent redesigns].”

After completing a redesign of intermediate mathematics, Alabama reported lowering its cost per student to $82, a 33 percent decrease. The savings were largely derived from using undergraduate tutors in place of more costly graduate students.

While Alabama no longer tracks its cost per student savings, Olin says it’s clear he has more budgetary flexibility because he has been able to hire additional faculty even during an economic downturn.

“You don’t follow the dollars around,” he says. “They’re not labeled 'you saved this.' I can guarantee you I’m able to hand out more positions.”

If calculating savings isn’t always a lasting feature of course redesigns, it’s no surprise, according to Harwood. Indeed, administrators may actually have a disincentive for publicizing that they’ve learned to do more with less, because they wouldn’t necessarily be able to direct those savings back into their own programs. You’ve saved money? a provost asks. Great, I’ll take it.

“No department head would ever willingly give resources back to the dean, and no dean would ever willingly give resources back to the provost,” Harwood says. “That’s a core structural feature of American higher education, it truly is. And what Carol’s program does is expose that.”

Surprising (and Welcome) Consequences

The University of Colorado at Boulder was the first campus to suggest using undergraduates to help reduce costs, but Colorado faculty have come to embrace the model for entirely different reasons. The system is no longer touted for its cost cutting potential, but instead for its track record of steering talented young people toward teaching careers in math and science.

The learning assistant model began with Dick McCray, now a professor emeritus of astrophysical and planetary sciences. McCray, who retired three years ago, was working on a redesign of Introduction to Astronomy with NCAT and had trouble finding a way to bring the cost down.

“That was a real problem for me, and the reason is that we do things with introductory courses that are so on the cheap already,” McCray says. “You have one professor and 200 students and one teaching assistant, and it’s very difficult to see how you can reduce cost with a course like that.”

So McCray proposed eliminating the teaching assistant and adding undergraduates to help facilitate online learning sessions in small teams. The "Undergraduate Learning Assistant" was born, but not without a few people trying to kill the idea in its crib.

“Parents were complaining the students were interacting with undergraduates and not professors,” he recalls. “But I said this is going to give them more access to me, not less.”

McCray’s’ redesign did not conclude with clear-cut data showing improved learning outcomes, and one of the key elements McCray proposed -- replacing one weekly large lecture with a computer lab session -- has not been sustained in astronomy. In fact, there’s some outright antagonism toward the idea that technology can be used to reduce class time.

“Some of us still feel strongly that student contact with the actual professor is important,” says John Stocke, a professor of astronomy at Colorado. “In my mind, the direction in computer assisted learning is the wrong direction, outside of the real world. Many of us in our profession have not changed our minds about that issue, and that’s another reason why it hasn’t continued. I’m sure there are people out there that love that stuff, and I would not touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

What has been retained, however, is the use of learning assistants -- not as replacements for graduate students, but in addition to them. What began with five undergraduate learning assistants in McCray’s astronomy class has spread across nine departments, where 75 learning assistants are now used each semester.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the STEM Colorado Learning Assistant model now attracts as many as 250 applications a year. The goal is not only to engage the undergraduates in the courses, thereby improving their own performance in math and science, but also to attract them to the idea of teaching at the K-12 level. Of the roughly 450 students who have participated in the learning assistant program since 2003, about 15 percent have pursued teaching careers, according to program organizers.

Noah Finkelstein, an associate professor of physics and lead advocate of learning assistants at Colorado, says the program has changed the conversation that faculty have with their best and brightest students. Promising students who would once have been steered away from K-12 teaching now see the teaching profession actively promoted by faculty, he says.

“This is shifting the identity of what it means to be a physics major at the University of Colorado," Finkelstein says.

But NCAT officials would see little in Colorado’s current program that speaks to the organization’s cost reduction goals. The central cost reduction element of McCray's redesign -- replacing more expensive graduate assistants with undergraduates -- has not been sustained.

“I’m personally not invested in trying to reduce the cost of education,” Finkelstein says. “I think it could be destructive if our goal was to reduce the cost of education. I don’t think we put enough energy and attention into our educational system. I think we need more resources, not less.”

For Twigg, the results at campuses like Colorado are bittersweet. While Colorado illustrates that course redesign can lead to unexpected innovation, the campus is yet another example, she says, that higher education won’t get serious about reducing cost without “external pressure."

“If people are improving the quality of students’ lives and their learning experience, that’s great. But that’s not my primary emphasis,” Twigg says. “My primary emphasis is to do both. We could do more business if we dropped the cost aspect.”

Twigg’s work has drawn praise from many, including faculty across Maryland’s campuses who spoke with Inside Higher Ed. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spelling, also urged colleges and states to draw upon NCAT’s “innovative work.” Despite the accolades, Twigg says the reforms she's pressed for 10 years remain elusive.

“One of the things I find personally sort of ironic and hilarious is that I’ve won every major award higher education gives; I get constant praise, and I’m against the higher education culture,” Twigg says. “People in higher education believe in what we’re doing, as long as they don’t have to do it.”


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