The University as a Learning Design Problem

UTA_TorchBearersOne of the things I’ve enjoyed in getting to know the community at the University of Texas Austin, is the energy that exists among fellow faculty to rethink the undergraduate experience. This is particularly challenging at a large, research intensive state university.  And it is especially true when such state universities have activist legislatures with a strongly conservative bent.  As Mark Twain once said, ” No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

The Campus Conversation, an activity started by President Bill Powers in 2014, with three primary goals in mind:

  1. How do we implement changes to curriculum and degree programs?
  2. How do we evolve pedagogy for 21st century learners?
  3. How do we create more opportunities for interdisciplinary and experiential learning for our undergraduates?

I have been drawn to one of the six faculty working groups in particular, that which is addressing the question of establishing a Teaching Discovery Innovation Center.


Teaching Discovery Innovation Center

Focused on the creation of a faculty-led innovation center, this committee is engaging leaders and stakeholders across campus and externally to accelerate UT Austin’s advancement in this area.


We are approaching the point after multiple conversations among an diverse group of interested faculty of proposing a way forward using the method “90 day innovation process” developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).

I had the pleasure, and it truly was a great pleasure, to spend time with a colleague who I highly regard at Georgetown University, Assoc. Provost Randy Bass, who is leading a marvelous project entitled “Redesigning the future(s) of the University“. They are doing some very critical thinking about the impediments to teaching in ways that are high impact, expansive (in the sense of including both university and the rest of the world in their conduct) and empowering.

The Georgetown Redesign project describe their experiments in curriculum design and the undergraduate experiences as ‘pump-priming ideas’, and they’ve started with five of them.

  1. Flexible Curricular and Teaching Structures
    1. These might include teaching courses in shorter modules and combining modules such that a set of two or three end up being a traditional semester in length. Or it may be unbundling the credits into individual units to better fit into the pacing of a students learning (taking a 6cr. ‘course’ and breaking it into a three 2 credit units that could be taken together or separately).
  2. Competency-based learning – this one is relatively self explanatory.  In Georgetown’s perspective it would consist of one or more of the following elements:
    1. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and
      proficiencies
    2. A flexible time frame to master these skills
    3. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
    4. Certification and assessment based on learning outcomes
    5. Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance
  3. Expanding Mentored Research – Programs of study that shift from predominantly formal coursework to a substantially different balance of coursework and credit bearing mentored immersive learning through independent or collaborative projects.
  4. New Work/Learn Models – Programs of study that maintain or expand years to degree but include a substantial experiential component (e.g. workplace Co-op), dependent on Georgetown placement (in DC and globally), and guarantee both degree certification and intensive work experience on graduation.
  5. Four-year Combination BA/MA – Four-year combination BA/MA built around new configurations of online and self-paced learning, coursework and experiential learning.

This is really significant.

MIT has been beavering away at how the undergraduate experience needs to evolve through an Institute-wide Task Force, the product of which was the report  The Future of MIT Education:Reinventing MIT Education together. In it was a recommendation about greater modularity, as well. One of its attributes, in addition to allowing students greater influence on their own learning pathway, is the creation of structural ‘holes’ in the curriculum – making time and places for experiential learning.

“Recommendation 7: The Task Force recommends that this commitment to pedagogical innovation for the residential campus be extended to the world to set the tone for a new generation of learners, teachers, and institutions…..

<stuff removed>

a. Exploration of modularity based on learning objectives and measurable outcomes. In January 2014 Harvard and MIT released a report summarizing an analysis of the data collected during the first year of open online classes. Modularity refers to breaking a subject into learning units or modules, which can be studied in sequence or separately. The finding that drew the most attention is the low rate at which students who enroll in an MITx or HarvardX class complete it. The first 17 HarvardX and MITx classes recorded 841,687 registrations, of which only 43,196 (5.1%) earned a certificate of completion.

“While the completion rate is low, other data from the report suggests that students are focused more on learning certain elements of a class and less on completing what has traditionally been considered a module or unit of learning. For instance, in addition to those who completed a course through MITx or HarvardX, 35,937 registrants explored half or more of the units in a course, and 469,702 viewed some but less than half of the units of a course. The way in which students are accessing material points to the need for the modularization of online classes whenever possible. The very notion of a “class” may be outdated. This in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society—a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables “just-in-time” delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”

Is there a pattern emerging?

— pdl —

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About longpd

I'm a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
This entry was posted in curriculum_redesign, experiential learning, innovation, interdisciplinary_learning, mission, undergraduate_education, UT_Austin. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The University as a Learning Design Problem

  1. In order to address this question: How do we evolve pedagogy for 21st century learners?
    one or more of your faculty groups may want to address the ‘cost of education’ question raised by William G. Bowen in his two 2012 Tanner Lectures at Stanford.

    As you may know, Bowen is an economist and former President of Princeton University.

    The titles of his two Tanner talks were:
    1) Cost and Productivity in Higher Education and
    2) Prospects for an Online Fix: Can We Harness Technology in the Service of Our Aspirations?

    Here’s a link to Bowen’s recent book on this:
    The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer?
    http://www.ithaka.org/sites/default/files/files/ITHAKA-TheCostDiseaseinHigherEducation.pdf

    The reason I bring up the cost issue is because it may well be one that the faculty may not wish to discuss, especially since they are part of the cost of education. However, if faculty are the only ones empowered – some would say qualified – to discuss the evolution of pedagogy for 21st century learners, then who else other than the faculty can address the cost issue?

    In my experience, faculty are much more inclined to discuss all the innovative ways technology might be used to improve the quality of education. But, they are far less inclined to discuss ways technology might be used to reduce the cost of education. In particular, they are not eager to look for ways to innovate themselves out of a job altogether. Also, they are not eager to look for ways to innovate themselves out of a role they enjoy (e.g. giving lectures), and into one they might enjoy less (e.g. grading the papers of lower division undergraduates).

    Since Bowen seems to have taken up the challenge of looking at cost and productivity, it might be good to at least look at what has come out of his research to date.

  2. Pingback: University as a Learning Design Challenge | Actualization

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