Five points on change in the college classroom

The last 60 years of enormous growth in college enrollment has extended a dominant model of curriculum and instruction grounded in the lecture and measured by semesters and credits.  But this has not always been so.  The history of US higher education is one of short periods of intensive change followed by much longer periods dominated by the new status quo.

Perhaps we are now in the early stages of a cycle of change that will reset the higher education table for a generation or two.  Here are five points about change in the classroom worth considering in this turbulent period:

  • Despite conventional wisdom, styles of instruction are changing

The last ten years show an increase in student-centered practices (such as small group discussion and projects) and a decline in the amount of lectures and traditional class discussion as reported by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.  HERI has surveyed faculty on these topics since 1978 and its data reveals a steady accumulating rate of change in pedagogy.  Younger faculty is driving the change.  Kevin Eagan, the interim director of HERI, suggests that the full impact of this generational shift may not be seen until 2020.

  • Course redesign must come before technology

Smart technology leaders have long warned against “paving the cow paths” – using technology to do pretty much what you’re doing now but with electronic tools.  Take a look at all the talking head lectures online, in MOOC’s or otherwise, and it’s clear that not everyone is following this valuable advice.  Faculty networks have emerged that can help you think through course design before making a technology choice.  The National Center for Academic Transformation has an extensive track record in faculty redesign across a wide range of disciplines.  The Reacting Consortium includes faculty at over 300 institutions who have developed role playing games for the classroom.

  • K-12 education has ideas worth considering

Hopefully we can get past sector differences and learn from the extensive experience of colleagues in K-12 education.  TNTP, a national group founded by teachers to help improve teaching in disadvantaged schools, has written about a new model based on the roles of researcher & developer, integrator and guide.  Their recent report, Reimaging Teaching in a Blended Classroom, contrasts this with the traditional role and rebuts the notion that the transition away from “sage on the stage” diminishes the role or leadership of faculty.

  •  The monopoly of the traditional time structure is cracking

Besides the lecture, the other backbone of the status quo model is how colleges use time to structure learning.  Can we really break down all learning into the 42 hours of class time that most three credit courses deliver in three months of a semester?  Technology will enable faculty to pursue the possibility raised by a vice provost at Duke that a “14-week course would be better as three four-week courses.”

  •  Put the collegial back in college

Today’s dominant pedagogical style still has too much inertial strength to be overcome by the disconnected efforts of individual faculty.  That work is the raw material of change.  But if it is to have coherence, we must put collegial activity ahead of personal preference.  Campus leaders and faculty need to figure out where they want to go with the new learning tools at their disposal – or this new environment may take them to a destination not of their own choosing.

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