When the Elephant Is the Room

By Lawrence Butler

Maybe the classroom is where we should seek  the transformation we need in higher education …

For several years now, many of us have been agonizing over the sorry state of American higher education—indeed, of our entire educational system—and for good reason:

  • Once the U.S. had the highest college completion rates in the world, we now rank 12th among 25-35 year-olds in developed countries.
  • The U.S. is ranked 14th out of 34 other OECD (Office for Economic Co-operation and Development) studied countries for reading skills, 17th for science and 25th for mathematics
  • Only eight countries have a lower high school graduation rate than the U.S.
  • Fewer than four in 10 (36%) entering freshmen obtain a bachelor’s degree within four years. Within six years of entry, that proportion rises to just under six in 10 (57%).

Numerous causes have been cited for this state of affairs from poor high school preparation to inadequate governmental financial aid policies to postsecondary grade inflation. The most recent culprit du jour is student retention, and any number of retention-enhancement strategies have been proposed and implemented with varying degrees of success. Ironically, the one area that seems to have received the least attention from policymakers and institutional leaders is the very centerpiece of the educational enterprise—the actual delivery of educational content. Is it possible that the very process of teaching and learning has become the elephant in the room? Or, to put it more accurately, the elephant is the room itself: the classroom.

This is not so surprising. The administrative leadership of virtually every institution that serves a societal purpose has always trod carefully around the prerogatives of the professional cadre at its core. Whether they be the musicians in the orchestra, the curators in the museum, the doctors in the hospital, or the faculty in the college; they are the holders of institutional purpose.

Over time, however, professionalization of the management function (largely as the consequence of organizational complexity and economic necessity) may have conferred upon administrators the dominant role in shaping institutional direction; but the professional cadre (and in higher education, it’s the faculty) still functions at the heart of the enterprise and it still carefully guards its prerogatives, asserting allegiance to professional norms that go beyond institution obligations. As a result, academic faculties often remain above the fray and curiously exempt from the heated debates about institutional and system failure.

Which is not to say that faculty are solely or even mainly responsible for our education woes. Our problems are much too complex and multifaceted to be laid at the doorstep of any one stakeholder group. But learning outcomes are, after all, what these debates are about; and whom better to consult than those whose main responsibility is to produce positive learning outcomes? And what better time to consult them? For, as luck would have it, we are now witnessing a revolution in the power of information technology to transform the learning experience at all levels of our educational system.

A bewildering array of hardware and software tools enable students to receive educational modules tailored to their individual learning styles, available when and where they are most conveniently and effectively absorbed, and accessible for as long as necessary to gain mastery. This highly mobile, anywhere-anytime learning paradigm, rather than replacing teachers, actually has the potential for making teachers better teachers by freeing them from instructing all students at the pace of the slowest learner and providing them with the real-time, individualized student progress data that enables timely intervention.

Although online learning with its powerful capacity to deliver curricular content is often seen as the very embodiment of the IT-powered educational paradigm, it is really only the virtual part beyond the physical classroom. Think of it as merely the trunk of our metaphorical pachyderm. The bulk of the elephant is the classroom or more precisely the learning lab with students seated at computers working through interactive course materials, homework exercises, and tests with real instructors at the ready to assist as needed.

One of the most compelling stories of how integrating technology in this way can yield significant benefits in terms of enhanced learning outcomes (and reduced costs) is told by the National Center for Academic Transformation in recounting its work in the field of Course Redesign (CR).

As NCAT describes it: “Course Redesign is the process of re-conceiving whole courses (rather than individual classes or sections) to achieve better learning outcomes at a lower cost by taking advantage of the capabilities of information technology. … [CR] is not about putting courses online. It is about rethinking the way we deliver instruction, especially large-enrollment core courses, in light of the possibilities that technology offers.”

More specifically, CR is a process of modifying whole courses through:

  • Utilization of interactive learning technology
  • Elimination or significant reduction in the use of lecture format
  • Focus on the delivery of content in a laboratory setting where faculty and tutors provide personalized, on-demand assistance.

Over the past 11 years, NCAT has conducted large-scale CR projects in mathematics at 37 institutions. Most have redesigned more than one course either during the project period or afterwards. Collectively, NCAT math redesigns have affected more than 160,000 students to date. The results have been truly impressive.

  • Improved student learning: 72%
  • Equivalent student learning: 28%
  • Average cost reduction: 37% (9%-77%)

*See explanation of figures.

Among other outcomes, the NCAT math redesigns have:

  • Increased course completion rates.  At University of Missouri-St. Louis, for example, the drop-failure-withdrawal (DFW) rate in the College Algebra course decreased from 36% to 21.6% after the introduction of CR.
  • Improved teacher morale (due to reduced time spent on grading, increased opportunity to work directly with students who need help, and more practice and interaction for students with less faculty effort). To quote one teacher: “The quality of my worklife has changed immeasurably for the better.”
  • Increased student satisfaction with mode of instruction. For example, at Ohio State University, students are assisted in thinking about how they approach learning and what mode is easiest for them and then are offered a variety of learning activities using websites, software, video lectures, and individual and group projects. The result: The percentage of students needing to retake the course dropped from 33% to 12%.

And this is just for mathematics. The same kinds of solid improvements in student learning, course completion, and cost are achievable in numerous other disciplines from Biology to English Composition. In other words, the evidence for CR is piling up rapidly and it is hard to deny.

When the proverbial elephant is not in the room, but rather is the room itself, it is all too easy to overlook. And when that room is the classroom, we need to ask college faculty and academic administrators to take a hard look at the evidence for Course Redesign in using technology to improve the delivery and understanding of course content; and to seriously consider it as part of a comprehensive strategy to reverse the current dismal trends in higher education.

Lawrence Butler is senior consultant at Maguire Associates Inc., a Concord, Mass.-based consulting firm.


* Explanation of figures

These figures were drawn from a presentation given by Carolyn Jarmon, senior associate with NCAT. She was reporting on the results of assessment research conducted on 120 math courses redesigned by NCAT working with partnering institutions. The percentages for Improved Student Learning are percentages of these 120 courses that showed student learning outcomes that exceeded what these same courses produced when delivered in a traditional format. As the 72%-to-28% split indicates, all redesigned courses showed at least equivalent learning outcomes. The percentage reported for Cost Reduction is the average reduction achieved across all of these 120 courses.

Here’s what NCAS says about how it assesses Improvement in Student Learning and Costs:

Improvement in Student Learning. “To gauge improvement in student learning, all NCAT projects compare student learning outcomes taught in the traditional format with those achieved in the redesigned course. This is done by 1) running parallel sections of the course in the two formats or 2) comparing baseline data from a traditional course to a later redesigned version of the course. Assessment techniques include comparing the results of common final exams, common questions or items embedded in exams or assignments, pre/post-tests, and final grades when the same assignments, tests and final exams are used and graded using the same criteria.”

Costs. “Before-and-after course costs were analyzed and documented using activity-based costing. NCAT developed a spreadsheet-based course planning tool (CPT) that supported institutions in this process, which involved the following steps: 1) determine all personnel (faculty, adjuncts, teaching assistants, peer tutors, professional staff) costs expressed as an hourly rate; 2) identify the tasks associated with preparing and offering the course in a traditional format and the personnel involved; 3) determine how much time each person involved in preparing and offering the course in a traditional format spends on each of the tasks; 4) repeat steps 1 through 3 for the redesigned format; and 5) enter the data in the CPT The CPT then automatically calculates the cost of both formats and converts the data to a comparable cost-per-student measure. At the beginning of each project baseline cost data (traditional course costs and projected redesigned course costs) were collected, and actual redesigned course costs were collected at the end.”



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