Thursday, August 23, 2012

Course redesign: Going beyond the content

The third and final reason why we should all be considering course redesign at this moment in higher education is: Redesigned courses can respond to increasing competition and even potential disruption aimed at "traditional" bricks & mortar universities.

Yes, there is increasing competition aimed at colleges and universities, and yes, colleges and universities need to respond to that competition. This doesn’t mean that we all have to turn into profit-seeking commercial enterprises and become the next University of Phoenix. But respond we must. Plus, the response itself--thinking through innovative ways to advance student learning, often by leveraging technology and virtual learning environments--gets at what is for many the “fun” part of course redesign.

First, we need to tackle this notion of competition and disruption. Indeed, there are strong prevailing reasons to think that change is coming and is inevitable. Increasingly, free content, and even free courses, are available on the Web. 2012 has been called the year of the “MOOCdue to the sudden (overblown?) excitement and buzz surrounding initiatives to offer free online university-level classes to any student who wishes to enroll. Venture capital and elite universities have partnered to provide MOOCs under brand names like Udacity and Coursera. Lectures by university faculty on nearly any topic imaginable are available on YouTube, and the Khan Academy alone presently offers more than 3300 videos providing content in Math, Science, Finance and Economics, and the Humanities.

Does it make sense any longer to think of a faculty member’s primary instructional role as “dispenser of expert knowledge?” Probably not. So what, then, is our real contribution to learning? What is our lasting claim to relevancy? Our institutions of higher education still play a unique role in credentialing student learning, and as long as that role continues to be trusted to colleges and universities, the faculty role has protection. I know of no higher education leader, however, who feels comfortable merely digging in behind the bulwark of credentialing. Already there are ongoing efforts to chip away at that protective line of defense and weaken colleges’ and universities’ monopoly on credentialing.

Over the long term, then, what colleges and universities can offer--what their faculty can bring to the learning equation--is design. Design includes the broad context for learning: the scaffolding of experiences, the careful application of content in service of skill-building, the integration of assessments and feedback opportunities, opportunities to learn from peers, practice with metacognition and self-assessment. All these aspects brought together in combinations uniquely tailored to subject matter and circumstance maximize a student’s chances for learning. They are what faculty need to pay attention to in order to remain relevant in this age of disruption.

While content delivery by the instructor can be substituted for with content found in open educational resources (e.g. Khan Academy, HippoCampus, MERLOT), there is no substitute for creating the most engaging and authentic circumstances for inquiry and learning--that is what course design is all about.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Course redesign: fostering student success in the face of considerable challenges

Reason number 2 to redesign courses: Redesigned courses can better respond to challenging trends that, if left unanswered, work against student engagement and persistence.

The trends are clear: Publicly funded colleges and universities are serving more students, who are less prepared, with less state support.

Vincent Tinto describes these trends and the challenges they bring:

For over 40 years access to higher education has improved, and college enrollments swelled from nearly 9 million students in 1980 to over 20 million today. But while enrollments have more than doubled, overall college completion rates have increased only slightly. Only about half of all college students in the U.S. earn a degree or certificate within six years. For community college students the numbers are worse--a little over a third earn a degree or certificate. The struggles of low-income and first-generation community college students are most troubling--only one-quarter of them complete a credential.

The facts are clear. Despite our success in improving access to college, we have been unable to convert those gains into higher completion rates... (Tinto, 2011)

MSU Denver’s own student persistence and graduation rates fall right in line with these broader trends. Our 6-year graduation rate hovers around 20% (a figure, albeit, that counts only students who enter as full-time first-time college students).

These underlying trends are not likely to change. No one is expecting an infusion of increased public funds into higher education. The level of student preparedness for college is not likely to change in any significant way. Regional comprehensive institutions like MSU Denver have been adapting and will need to continue adaping in order to meet students’ needs with fewer resources. Redesigned courses are one solution.

One motivation for redesigning courses--not the motivation I want to stress here, but one motivation nonetheless--is financial. Redesigned courses have the potential to foster deeper learning at a lower cost per student (yes, this means that class sizes can grow while still improving in student learning outcomes). Also, financial gains can be obtained by reducing the number of students who withdraw from a course or who earn a D or F. In their book Next Generation Course Redesign, Burner and Carriveau explain:

If a student does not succeed in a general education course, there are consequences for both the student and the institution, most of them bad. Many of these students are discouraged and drop out. In fact, students who performed well in introductory courses were twice as likely to complete the degree as their less successful counterparts. Those who do not succeed and persist in the program must retake the course, taking a seat away from an entering student. Sometimes up to 50% of the seats in notorious “bottleneck” courses are taken up by repeaters. (p. 5)

No one who is serious about course redesign, though, thinks that cost savings are the primary reason why we should rethink how students spend their time learning in and out of class. Obviously it’s about the learning, and redesigned courses can promote student learning, or student success even in the face of challenging trends, by doing the following:

  • increasing student’s time on task (remember the one who does the work is the one who learns)
  • aligning instruction with how the mind works
  • creating the greatest opportunity for students to learn, practice, and show mastery of skills and content
  • embedding frequent opportunities for feedback
  • giving students the chance to understand patterns, make connections, formulate meaning, and learn deeply.

Make it more likely for a student to learn and succeed in a single class, and you make it more likely for that same student to succeed throughout an entire course of study and graduate with a degree!