Credit Hour, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncategorized

A Smart New Deal

Last week I attended two events focused on education.  The first was hosted by Inside Higher Ed entitled “Higher Education and the New Congress.” This event consisted of a day long series of presentations about proposed updates to the Higher Education Act.  The second was a workshop in my local K-8 school district, where I am a member of the Board of Education. This day focused on re-designing physical spaces to support new pedagogies.  Heidi Hayes Jacobs (Bold Moves for Schools) spent the day discussing the ways in which the layout of classrooms (and schedules) reflect and shape the learning.

All of these conversations got me thinking about how we approach the design of educational experiences in higher education.  Despite years of research about pedagogy and outcomes, we have a tendency to avoid consulting the literature.  We make our decisions based on the past (how we learned, how we’ve taught so far), not on research.  Some of us run small experiments with a new technique, but the experiment is generally not followed up on with the entire university.  We operate on beliefs and intuition, not on systematic analysis.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of good learning experiences do occur on college campuses, and on mine in particular. Faculty earnestly design and redesign their courses based on the outcomes of the semester before.  That first hand experience and effort should not be discounted.  Faculty want their students to succeed and they tweak assignments, try new readings, and occasionally experiment with new technologies. But these efforts never become a university strategy for teaching excellence.  They are done one by one, only occasionally consulting the literature on teaching, and with little impact on the university overall.

To be fair, faculty are constrained by the environments we have created.  The physical spaces tell a story. Are the chairs moveable? If yes, we can collaborate. If no, we are set up for individual learning. Are the rooms large or small? The answer will determine the range of activities available to the professor.  The physical spaces constrain the pedagogies available.  Faculty are also constrained by semesters, time, and credit hour definitions, leaving little room to imagine curriculum in different chunks than those standardized units. Most faculty would be surprised to be asked to even think about those constraints. We have come to see them as a natural precondition for curriculum planning.

They aren’t natural, nor are the written in stone tablets.  The space and the time structures of education are made by us and they can be revised.  However, to do so will require careful planning across academic areas and they must draw from well structured research. We don’t want to undo our good traditions in favor of the new, without any justification and evidence that the new will improve things.

Here’s what I mean about time structures.  We may find some compelling research about how much time we should spend working on quantitative reasoning each week if we want to improve our students’ engagement with this essential analytic skill.  If that time is different from what we have allotted in our traditional course structures, we may wish to make an adjustment, but that change could impact student and faculty schedules in complex ways.  The evidence from the scholarship may be compelling, but we may not move forward because of the complexity of how we’ve organized time.

Let’s be clear, not all things are best learned in long blocks of time.  Some things are better done in short bursts of discussion followed by quick applications and then a break.  Other topics (or students) need intensive engagement for long periods.  These differences do not necessarily fit into our current structures.  We are fitting square pegs in round holes.

I say all this for two reasons.  First, in the meeting with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she started with two simple questions: “How can we prepare our learners for their futures?” and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”  These questions drove our conversation as we looked at building design.  It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the research on the connections between pedagogies, spaces, time, and learning.  We rarely get to think this way about space and time, when we approach building design.  We moved into discussions of places where some pretty radical changes have taken place (Finland for instance) and how much more fluid those environments were. Faculty and students were able to change course and adjust time and space throughout the year to improve the experience. They weren’t trapped in a structure beyond their control. This kind of conversation has to take place in all levels of education. Instead of relying on projected enrollments and few pet projects (a lab, perhaps), we should be looking at the holistic and the research on learning.

The second reason is that much of the higher education environment is encoded in the Higher Education Act, and it too, is based more on tradition than science. The shape of that document reflects assumptions about teaching and learning that can be traced back at least 150 years (or to antiquity).  While the heart of a good liberal arts education may still share some assumptions with Socrates, the ways in which we can achieve that education have broadened and shifted with increased access to both information and college. Indeed, this access was spurred on by the HEA.  The result is a need for more research (and more funding).

The discussions I heard in DC last week nibbled around the edges of the HEA.  Some of the proposals were scary, some were interesting, all seemed to have been shaped by political considerations rather than educational ones.  Convenient statistics were quoted, but bodies of scholarship on pedagogy were not.  Like our building structures and our schedule structures, our elected officials are viewing this document as if it arose from nature or was presented on a stone tablet.  It needs a much bigger overhaul.

It’s time for all of us to change course.  Let’s consult the research, compare approaches to teaching with other countries, imagine funding strategies that support student success,  and create a comprehensive plan for research and development in education.  Let’s not leave this to the good graces of our entrepreneurs (thanks Bill & Melinda Gates) or for-profit publishing and technology corporations. We need public investment in this public good.  Let’s shift the paradigm from education by intuition, tradition, and hope (and politics) to education by strategy, experimentation, and design. And let’s drive that experimentation and design with those two questions asked by Heidi Hayes Jacobs.  “How can we prepare our learners for the future? and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”

Those two questions can take us a long way.  With funding attached, they could a Smart New Deal.



equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Cognitive Dissonance and Equity

It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education, and I’m not talking about funding or enrollment. Whether we point to the pulling down of Confederate statues, to heated discussions about racism in our academic organizations, to photoshopped recruiting materials that exaggerate campus diversity, it is clear that things are not going as we had hoped. We have reached a point of cognitive dissonance, with our sense of ourselves as fair and equitable routinely contradicted in academic and main stream media. And that cognitive dissonance is making us very uncomfortable.

Good. We should be uncomfortable.  We should be questioning our ability to support inclusive educational experiences that grapple with hard questions and take honest looks at discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about diversity (or the lack thereof) in our curricula.  I argued that we should get started with looking at our syllabi, course offerings, and majors with eyes toward greater inclusivity.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated.  Regular exposure to that diversity has the potential to weaken pervasive stereotypes or what Banaji and Greenwald call “mindbugs.” (Their book, Blind Spot (2013), by the way, would be an excellent text for a psychology course addressing our biased social constructs around race, gender, and age.) When we are not intentional about creating curricula that draw on excellence from all groups, we are supporting discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.  There is no time to waste on this project.  It is time-consuming, but it is the easiest of all the tasks associated with creating an inclusive learning environment because it is entirely within our control.

But there is more to do. Our next step is to work harder at supporting dialogues that address systemic inequity.  This is much harder than updating our curriculum. Let’s face it, leading those conversations is fraught with risks. There is a chance we may get the words wrong and inadvertently offend someone.  There is a chance that our students will not wish to participate.  There is fear that administrators like me will not understand the complexity of the situation when a conflict does emerge in a class.  These are all valid concerns, but we do no good avoiding difficult subjects. So, what do we do?

I have one suggestion to get us started.  Let’s see how far we can get by adopting a debate across the curriculum model.  We can identify classes in every major that will include structured debate.  It is important that we don’t default to debate in general education and ignore all of the other areas where these arguments should take place.  Students need to see the value of this investigative strategy in all disciplines. It would be great to lay foundations in general education and then follow up in majors so that the form of inquiry supported by this pedagogy becomes a habit. I’ve selected courses from nearly every discipline at WCSU where I’d love to see debate included:

  • ED 206 Introduction to Education
  • NUR 301 Nursing Leadership in Health Care Organizations
  • HPX 200 Introduction to Community Health and Organizations
  • SW 210 Social Welfare as an Institution
  • ACC 340 Business Law I
  • FIN 370 Financial Institutions
  • JLA 100 Introduction to Criminal Justice I
  • MGT 251 Human Resources Management
  • MIS 307 Social Media in Business
  • MKT 200 Principles of Marketing
  • AS The American Dream: Visions & Revisions
  • ANT/SOC 204 Culture and Personality
  • AST/ENV 134 Extraterrestrial Environments and Intelligence
  • BIO 200 Ecology
  • CHE 102 Everyday Chemistry I
  • COM 190 Introduction to Mass Communication
  • CS 110 Website Production
  • DIMA 200 Storytelling for Digital and Interactive Media
  • ECO 211 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ENG 108 Introduction to Literature
  • HIS 148 American History: To 1877
  • HUM 110 Moral Issues in Modern Society
  • MAT 110 Great Ideas in Mathematics
  • MTR 240 Climatology
  • PHI 100 Introduction Philosophy
  • NWC/HIS 115 Latin American and Caribbean Civilization
  • PSY 202 Abnormal Psychology
  • SS 201 Researching Social Issues
  • SOC 100 Introduction to Sociology
  • WS 200 Introduction to Women’s Studies
  • WRT 171W Craft of Writing I: Conversations with Predecessors
  • ART 101 History and Appreciation of Western Art: Renaissance to the Present
  • MUS 100 History & Appreciation of Music
  • THR 180 Introduction to Theater Arts
  • All introductory language courses

In some cases, the debate should be, “why is this a category?” (Non-Western Cultures and  Women’s Studies come to mind).  In all cases, the debate topic should include some question of equity and students should be required to find evidence for their arguments from a body of literature that represents a diverse group of contributors.  This will require us to consider evidence from marginalized voices and people who do not have access to the traditional scholarly outlets associated with higher education, but I think we can do that.

The value of this approach is that it allows us to guide challenging conversations without taking a position on the topic.  This is important because our positions frequently leave our students feeling like they can’t disagree. Instead, we can focus on teaching about asking good questions, finding follow-up lines of inquiry, discovering contradictions, and evaluating evidence. Our students will take the lead in the debates, learning about the contributors to their position and anticipating the arguments of those who disagree. It’s a great approach for developing knowledge of a discipline and the structure of argument. It also helps us all become better listeners.

As students and faculty dive into this curriculum, we will be cultivating a habit of listening. We will be hearing points of view we have never considered.  We will be considering diverse bodies of evidence that we may not have encountered before.  And we will be discussing questions of equity as a regular practice, not as an add-on to our courses.

Learning with our students, about all of things we forgot to consider as we shaped our understandings of our disciplines and of education more generally, seems to me to be the best path to reconciling the gap between who we thought we were and who we want to be.  This step toward resolving our cognitive dissonance will be imperfect and require further review, but it is does offer a way forward and I’m ready for the first step.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blind Spot. U.S.: Delacorte Press.

Credit Hour, DeVos, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Western Governors and the future of higher education.

Well, unsurprisingly, Western Governors University was issued a reprieve by the US Department of Education on Friday.  Despite clear violations of the existing guidelines that distinguish distance education from correspondence education via “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” they will not have to pay back $713 million in Federal Financial Aid.  This decision lines up neatly with the recent proposals by DeVos to revise definitions of the credit hour and expand “instructors” to “members of the instructional team.”

Here it is folks, that point in the road we’ve been traveling down for the last twenty years in higher education–we must clearly articulate the value of the contact between students and faculty.

The ride to this point has included many stops.

The higher education community argued seriously and productively about online education. We know that learning online is not the same as the classroom experience, but when done well, it can be a good learning environment.  It does afford access to busy adults who cannot get to a campus.  If the students are ready for online learning, and that is an important if, they can get a good education online.

At the same time, we have embraced (to various degrees) the ways in which new learning technologies can enhance the classroom.  We’ve been putting supplementary materials online, allowing students many opportunities to encounter and review materials important to their courses.  Often there are group assignments, review tests, or even supplementary explanations in video or written format to support student success.  Sometimes we call it flipping the classroom.  Sometimes we call it homework. Either way, it points out that learning can happen independently, with materials curated by a faculty member.

We have also embraced the diagnostic potential of digital texts and evaluations.  Pearson, famously, is at the forefront of this, turning textbooks, into interactive learning environments, and adjusting material based on the responses of the students.  Adaptive learning is being used in classrooms to try to enhance student success.  Those classrooms may be supervised by faculty, but are frequently filled with tutors and TAs.

Let’s not forget the routine use of graduate assistants and teaching assistants as part of our “instructional teams.”  This is an old practice that frequently limits student contact with faculty.  Over the years we have moved to better training for graduate assistants, requiring classes in teaching methods, or at least bringing GAs together for weekly meetings about the material they are covering. Like distance learning, questions were asked about the effectiveness of the graduate assistants, and we had to move to demonstrate their value.  That impulse was a good one, but it leaves us with more questions.

In all of these steps, we moved toward more carefully defined outcomes.  These include learning outcomes in courses and degrees, as well as student success measures such as retention, timely graduation, and post-graduate activities.  These outcomes became points of comparison for all of the above – online vs. on-ground, traditional vs. interactive texts, student success in courses taught by GAs vs. FT-Faculty.  It turns out that when we compare institutions who serve similar students, and follow similar definitions of the goals of an undergraduate education, the outcomes are surprisingly similar. (Take a look at to compare some of these outcomes.)

So now what?  We’ve got to get serious about defining the quality of learning that takes place when a student has regular interaction with a person with advanced knowledge of a discipline.  We have to be able to show why that matters in the whole of a student’s education.  We have to show that these benefits are a matter of equity and that we should not just provide that kind of education to the elite. And we have to do it honestly, assessing the weaknesses in the educational paradigms we’ve created in an effort to truly transform.

I was struck by the final paragraph in Inside Higher Education’s coverage of this decision.  They quote Spiros Protopsaltis, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Education Policy and Evaluation and a former Education Department official,

“However, the critical issue is that we should not lower the bar to accommodate any particular online model, whether it’s WGU or any other school, but instead we should raise the bar for quality and rigor,” he said. “Given the evidence on the importance of interaction between students and instructors for student success, requiring and enforcing such interaction is imperative.”

Just because one institution has strong outcomes while failing to meet that standard, he said, does not mean the Education Department should lower the bar for the entire online industry.

Here’s the thing, Protopsaltis has acknowledged that the WGU model has strong outcomes.  This is the real issue, folks.  If we don’t address the reasons for those strong outcomes, and make a case for something more, then WGU is our future.  Or perhaps the future is just some really great libraries.


Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Cultivating Curiosity

Curiosity. We value the questions that drive learning, innovation, and creativity, which serve as the beginning and the desired outcome of education.

— Western Connecticut State University Core Value

This statement emerged during a three-year process of revising our mission, vision, and values statement, as part of the development of our strategic plan. It is my favorite part of the whole thing.  While nearly everything else speaks to the institution, this statement celebrates the very purpose of education.

But what next?  Can we make this value statement an action statement? Should we try to do so?

For those of us who decided to pursue advanced degrees, curiosity is likely second nature. We find our disciplines fascinating, and care enough about the contexts of our knowledge to pursue connections to other disciplines.  We certainly didn’t like everything we studied, but we enjoyed enough to develop inquiring minds.  As we moved into careers in higher education, many of us had to adjust to the realities of the classroom.  As it turns out, not everyone is passionate about our discipline and not everyone approaches learning with an interest in the broader context.  Quite the opposite appears to be true.

It is a kind of culture shock at the start.  We dive into teaching assuming that our passions will be shared by our students.  Yet, in nearly every class, there are students who simply want to pass the class.  Our passions are not intrinsically interesting to them.  Nor do they see education as interdisciplinary linkages.  It is more compartmentalized, with courses experienced in isolation, not connected to a whole.  This realization can make us despair and ask the silliest question of all, “Why aren’t they like us”?

Let’s start with the obvious.  Lots of them are like us.  We were the engaged students, in classrooms full of students who were less so. Those engaged students are in all of our classes, alongside those who are simply satisfying requirements. They are different from us because they grew up in another era, and we may need new teaching strategies, but they are still curious and seeking a meaningful educational experience.

As far as the compartmentalization of education, well that’s on us.  If we are not intentional in helping our students see the connections between their learning experiences and if we do not make clear that the undergraduate experience is something more than the sum of its parts, then it will be experienced as a disconnected list.  The extreme version of this was recently expressed to me by a student who was outraged that she had 30 more credits to complete for her degree, with no particular requirements in those credits. She had completed general education and her major and felt that we were simply collecting money for credits because there was no point to the rest of it.  I tried, and failed, to explain otherwise, but everything about her experience validated her assessment of the situation.

Then there is the career language.  Many (most) of our students come to us with goals that drive their educational decisions. They want careers and, if possible, some measure of financial security, that will make the investment in education worthwhile. Given the cost of education and the public discourse surrounding it, these are not unreasonable goals.

So, how do we support curiosity as a core value?  How do we cultivate the asking of questions?  Nothing short of a revolution is required.

We’ve been dabbling.  Professors have flipped classrooms, used clickers, developed applied learning opportunities. They’ve employed universal design, tried learning modules, and talked about badges and competency-based education.  All of this tells me something is shifting. But these experiments are random and experienced in isolation as students happen to encounter an adventurous professor.

Some of that randomness is good.  Education shouldn’t be cookie cutter and predictable. But we need something more than serendipity to engage our students in the kind of learning we love. This isn’t nostalgic impulse (why aren’t they like us), but a commitment to the power curiosity gives us to grow and develop as each new challenge and opportunity arises.  Our current structure is not organized to cultivate curiosity: It is organized for tests and  trivia contests.

I’m not sure what the end of the revolution should look like but I offer three guiding principles for the redesign.

Principal 1: Include students in the design of courses.  Instead of having a syllabus on day one, let’s bring a list of goals and content for students to shape and develop with us. This is very hard work for faculty, but consider the potential for engagement.  If students are asked to co-design the course,  they may be more invested in generating questions and following lines of inquiry. Perhaps we could also encourage them to consider why the topic is worth studying at all.

Principal 2: End all courses with a discussion of follow-up questions.  Make sure those questions are not just in the discipline of the specific course, but connect them to the many other places where questions about the subject might be asked and answered.

Principal 3: Make room for students to follow up on those questions.  This means that our degrees cannot be so over-structured that students have no room to follow a question into another discipline.

There is so much more to do, but these three ideas offer a start.  If we take these steps, perhaps we’ll be able to better answer the question of our value in terms that aren’t about returns on investment or career preparation.  Perhaps we can truly answer that the value of the undergraduate experience is the development of the habit of curiosity that empowers our students to create satisfying and productive lives.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Election Connection

Last week, in the wake of the violence at the Tree of Life, I wondered if we were doing enough to engage our students in difficult conversations.  One of the challenges faculty face when trying to do so is that a large number of undergraduates feel alienated from politics.  Who can blame them? In a world that favors sound bites over discussion and agonistic tones over evidence, it is hard to feel called to participate. When every “fact” turns out to be at the very least a shaded truth, and sometimes just false, political engagement can seem futile.

I understand the alienation, but to leave it unaddressed would be a failing on the part of education.  We can’t just reveal problems: we must also reveal pathways to solutions. At WCSU, one such pathway to engagement, and perhaps solutions, is a fall course called Election Connection.  


For almost a decade, Dr. JC Barone of our Communication and Media Arts department has been running a television production course focused on local and national elections.  Election Connection invites students to conversations about politics in a really interesting way.  Instead of starting with the issues, the students start with the logistics of producing a quality television show.  Some are tasked with promotional duties, others with casting, and others focus on the local angle of important political issues.  It is wildly popular, with robust enrollments, that include students from multiple disciplines.

The brilliance of this approach is threefold:

  • First, we live in a part of Connecticut that gets very little media coverage, so there is a true need for this show. This need gives it a level of importance that producing for the campus alone would not generate.  Our students run to campaign headquarters to watch the returns. Candidates welcome their presence, and have been known to call in to report results.
  • Second, the casting of the election night broadcast always includes anchors and guests from multiple political perspectives to insure robust dialogue among people who work and study together.  This tends to create some tension, as appropriate, without leading to incivility.  It is also important that the casting blends faculty and student panelists, tearing down some of the barriers that can emerge in the classroom, as students sometimes fear contradicting faculty.  In service to the show, all participants are equal.
  • Third, the production team must produce news packages on important political issues. Students who may not have had any real interest in politics or political processes, suddenly become engaged because they want their story to air.

It all works because, rather than telling students they should be engaged, the are busy pursuing excellence in studio production.  It is the kind of hands-on learning that benefits students by developing tools as media producers and gaining knowledge of the subject at hand.  Dr. Barone sets ground rules that promote inclusive dialogue, diversity of perspectives, and civility. Students rise to the challenge, no longer avoiding tough topics, but digging in for a better understanding of the challenges to consensus.

Today, I salute this innovative approach to teaching. Election Connection truly supports the goals we have for our students, both excellence in media production and a rich understanding of the cultural context for that work.

I look forward to seeing this year’s show.  Check it out at or you can tune in at