The Future of Learning and How It Could Change Your Classroom

The Chronicle of Higher Education | May 17, 2018 - Hello and welcome to Teaching, a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, Beckie talks to Beth about her big new report, called The Future of Learning, and its relevance to the classroom. Then Beckie shares some of your suggestions about how to make students’ visits to your office more productive and pleasant. Let’s get started.

The Future of Learning

Close readers of The Chronicle’s teaching coverage may have noticed that there haven’t been as many stories from Beth lately. That’s because she’s been working on a report on the future of learning. The report is out now, and for sale here. It’s written with academic leaders in mind, but Beth and I had a recent conversation about what professors and others who care about college teaching might learn from her reporting.

Beckie: You spent three months working on this report, which lays out how technology, pedagogical innovations, and the student-success movement could change teaching and learning. Much of what you cover could alter the way professors do their jobs. What are the most important takeaways for them?

Beth: One of the things I was trying to convey is that reform is both hard and necessary. If you want more students to succeed, particularly at a time when more disadvantaged students are coming into higher education, then you need to be more deliberate in figuring out what works and trying to bring it to scale. One person described it to me by saying that the artisanal approach to teaching isn’t going to work anymore. I don’t think that means we’re going to have a bunch of robots teaching students, though.

Professors should expect measurement and data and analytics to only increase (at least for those who don’t teach at small colleges). It also means they need to advocate collectively for more support to help them do their jobs better. There’s a big disconnect between what academic leaders say they want to do to support student success and what is actually offered to encourage better teaching. In my report, I really hit that point hard -- don’t assume your faculty is technophobic or resistant to change. Their concerns are real, and you should pay attention to what they need.

Beckie: You describe possible ways colleges could better elevate teaching and encourage professors to try new things in the classroom. Tell us more about that.

Beth: One thing I heard is that it’s really hard to experiment when it’s on top of all your other responsibilities. Colleges have to compensate or reward faculty in some way if they want them to try new things. Changing the way teaching is evaluated is one obvious way. Grand Valley State University does that, for example, by including a detailed rubric on how it measures effective teaching, which includes a number of indicators of things like active learning techniques.

Some innovative campuses — and I don’t honestly know how many are doing this — will also pay faculty members for the time it takes to redesign a course, particularly when they’re putting some or part of it online. Or they may offer course release time. All this says to the instructor that the college recognizes that it takes time to learn how to teach more effectively.

Beckie: I have to think one challenge underneath these efforts to improve teaching is the question of who’s doing it. We know a huge chunk of the teaching work force is adjuncts, and that professors in such jobs often have less access to institutional resources, including professional development. How does that factor in?

Beth: My understanding is that this is something most colleges haven’t really figured out how to address. There’s a project underway at Achieving the Dream that focuses on helping adjuncts become more engaged in student success. They’ll be coming out with a guide in the fall. Some community colleges, which have long depended heavily on adjuncts, are getting them more involved in course design, which also brings with it a discussion on teaching.

Beckie: Throughout the report, you describe technology as a tool, not a solution. And you mention the risk colleges face of falling for ed tech’s hype. Do you have any advice for professors who want to experiment with new technology, but want to go in with their eyes open?

Beth: There are some projects out there that they may want to check out, although they may also want to collaborate with their academic technologists or instructional designers on campus to vet these tools. Two initiatives that have gotten attention recently are the new Jefferson Education Exchange, which is crowdsourcing information from K-12 teachers and college instructors to figure out what works. There’s also the Courseware in Context, or CWiC, framework, to help you think through what kind of technology you need. And there are also associations like the Online Learning Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative, which provide professional development in ed tech and teaching.

The report itself was, for me, just the beginning. I plan to dive into a lot of these issues in more detail to figure out what’s working and what’s not. And I also want to hear from readers about the challenges they’re facing on these topics. Please get in touch with me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com to share any thoughts.

Putting Students at Ease

Recently, we asked how you encourage students to visit your office and make them comfortable once they arrive. Tara Louise Casey, an associate clinical professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law, wrote in to share a few things she’s done to make her space more inviting. Casey decluttered her office, to avoid sending the unspoken message that she is too busy to meet with students. She swapped out her original desk for a smaller one, which allowed her to add chairs, an ottoman, and a small table “on which sits a box of tissues,” creating a more inviting place for students to sit down and talk. Finally, she bought a mini-fridge and keeps it stocked with sparkling water. Now Casey is able to offer students a place to sit and something to drink: the same gestures of welcome she would make for a guest at her home.

Heather Sparling, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University, in Nova Scotia, wrote to say she holds some of her office hours in the cafeteria. This comes with several advantages. Students might not know where her office is, but they use the cafeteria, and it’s centrally located. Plus, it allows her to buy students a coffee or tea, though, she writes, “no one’s actually taken me up on that offer.” Still, the setup takes on a more social dynamic, and Sparling reports seeing students she wouldn’t otherwise. She does maintain more traditional office hours for students who want to meet privately. Sparling also makes an effort to schedule office hours at students’ convenience, by surveying students about their availability and choosing times that don’t completely overlap with the periods when a class would be taking place.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here.

— Dan, Beth, and Beckie

SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education