Breaking the 'Iron Triangle'

Faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro experiment with a model for course redesign they say can increase access and quality and lower costs.

August 17, 2016
An example of a lecture video

Quality, cost, access -- pick two.

That’s the traditional view of higher education’s “iron triangle” -- that trying to adjust for one of the three main factors of a college education will influence the other two. For example, cutting costs might increase access to students who were previously unable to afford an education, but quality might suffer as a result.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is the latest institution to challenge that axiom. Over the last two academic years, the university has been involved in a project where faculty members redesigned four courses according to design principles they named CRAFT (the acronym is short for Create and curate content, Replace lectures with Active, and Flipped, Team-based learning). The project targeted general education requirements and courses with high rates of students withdrawing or earning a D, F or an incomplete.

Results and survey responses show that students in most of the redesigned courses received higher grades than did students in lecture courses, and that they preferred and felt more engaged by the new format. At the same time, the flipped model meant the university was able to enroll more students in those courses. The faculty members teaching the courses, meanwhile, said their workload remained stable -- at least after they had finished developing the courses -- and that they would want to teach again using the new model.

“I’m effectively teaching more students than I was before, but it’s taking less of their time … and the workflow is neutral for me because I’m spending the same amount of time in the classroom,” said Wade Maki, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the university who led the project. “You can move the needle on access and affordability with this. And we need to do that.”

Maki’s redesigned course, Ethical Issues in Business, is a typical example of how he and the three other faculty members, none of whom are on the tenure track, flipped their courses.

Before, the course enrolled about 40 students who met three times a week for 50 minutes. Maki said his lectures would take up a total of two of those three sessions. Now, students meet face-to-face only once a week, focusing on group quizzes, presentations and other forms of active learning. Outside of class, they watch short lecture videos and complete quizzes and other exercises on their own time.

Since the class only meets once a week, Maki was able to increase enrollment to about 90. Yet only one-third of the class meets at a time, effectively shrinking class sizes.

Maki acknowledged that the project needs to be replicated by faculty members teaching other courses and at other institutions to test the validity of the results. He described the project as the “Oregon Trail” of this take on flipping the classroom -- a risky, pioneering venture that could have easily ended in failure.

“If we fired the first shot in a revolution, great,” Maki said. “Hopefully others will give it a try and show us how to do it even better.”

The university's findings also come with some caveats. For example, the claim that faculty members didn’t have to put in more work only holds up when taking a long-term view. The instructors spent the fall 2014 semester learning how to shoot and edit video and run classrooms that revolved around classroom activities, not lectures, and the spring 2015 semester creating lecture videos and assignments. But those time investments were more or less start-up costs. Once the redesigned courses launched, the faculty members spent no more time preparing for them than they did for lecture courses -- in some cases, they even saved time by only preparing for one session taught three times.

The same goes for cost. The university might one day be able to achieve savings by flipping more courses and being able to enroll more students. Perhaps those savings could be passed on in the form of lower tuition rates. At the moment, students save time by not meeting as often face-to-face (though in some of the courses, students did save money on textbooks by using the online lecture videos and assignments instead).

Student outcomes show a more immediate positive impact. In three of the four courses, students in the redesigned courses earned higher grades than students in traditional courses did. In one course, exam results rose by about four points on a 100-point scale; in another, the share of students earning an A or a B increased to 56 percent from 40 percent. In two of the courses, the share of students who earned a D or an F fell by about 50 percent.

Undergraduate student researchers in the Wabash-Provost Scholars Program at North Carolina A&T State University in November 2015 conducted a dozen focus groups with more than 100 students at Greensboro (as well as one with the four faculty members involved in the project) to gauge their feelings about the redesigned courses.

Among students, reactions were generally positive, though some said they prefer lectures and working on their own. Most students said they found the redesigned courses more engaging than the lecture courses, that they appreciated the flexibility of meeting only once a week and that they benefited from working in groups. Since they knew the face-to-face sessions would involve discussions, presentations and quizzes, many students said they felt an obligation to keep up with the assigned readings. That same obligation made many students report that they felt more connected with their peers, though some argued that team-based learning made them feel less connected with the instructor.

The faculty members, from their perspective, said the smaller class sizes made them feel closer to their students. They said they were surprised by their students’ willingness to try a new format. Although some of them admitted to missing lecturing, they said the redesigned courses were “more energizing,” and that they would continue using the model -- perhaps with some small tweaks.

A report on the project, including summaries of the focus groups, can be found here. Maki invited anyone interested in flipping their courses to test the same model.

“We have shown the model didn’t fail, which we expected it might,” Maki said. “Now we have to get others on board.”


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