Improving Learning and Reducing Costs:
Carol A. Twigg
A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Change: The magazine of Higher Learning.
In spring 1999, The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) launched the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Funded by an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the program supported colleges and universities in redesigning instruction using technology to achieve quality enhancements and cost savings. Selected from hundreds of applicants in a national competition, 30 institutions redesigned one large-enrollment introductory course each.
The application guidelines laid out the reason for the program:
Fifteen years later, the challenge that drove the program is still very much in play. But now, NCAT has proven that it is possible to improve quality and reduce cost in higher education. In partnership with more than 200 colleges and universities—and with support from private foundations, government agencies, and systems of higher education—NCAT has demonstrated how course redesign can offer a broad solution to higher education’s historic cost/quality trade-off.
Course Redesign Defined
Course redesign is the process of redesigning whole courses—rather than individual classes or sections—to achieve better learning outcomes at lower costs by taking advantage of the capabilities of information technology.
The quality-improvement strategies leading to greater student success and the cost-reduction strategies leading to more-productive learning environments are equally applicable to all disciplines: mathematics, social science, humanities, natural science, and professional studies. They also work for both introductory and advanced-level courses; on-campus and distance-learning courses; small, medium-sized, and large institutions; two- and four-year colleges; and traditional-age and working-adult students.
Results of Course Redesign
Improving Student Learning Outcomes
NCAT’s redesign methodology produces consistent evidence of improvements in student learning. For example:
Increasing Course-Completion Rates
Many students who begin postsecondary education drop out before completing a degree. High failure rates in freshman courses—on average 15 percent at research universities, 30 to 40 percent at comprehensive universities, and 50 to 60 percent at community colleges—are costly to both institutions and students.
The first year of college is the most critical to a college student's success and to degree attainment, and successful completion of introductory courses is critical for first-year students. NCAT’s redesign methodology produces increases in course completion—and thus, overall student retention.
Key Quality-Improvement Strategies
Based on our experience over the past 15 years, NCAT has identified seven strategies that are essential to improving the quality of student learning. If any one of those strategies is absent, it is unlikely that student success rates will improve. If all of the strategies are present, we guarantee that student success rates will improve. The combination of and interaction among all seven are what make course redesign so successful.
In a July/August 2003 Change article, “Improving Quality and Reducing Cost: Designs for Effective Learning,” I discussed which quality-improvements strategies were most effective in the first 30 Pew-funded projects, all of which are repeated above. That article concluded:
But we also said in 2003, and have since reaffirmed, “What is significant about the faculty involved in these redesigns is that they were able to incorporate good pedagogical practice into courses with very large numbers of students—a task that would have been impossible without technology.”
At many institutions, enrollment demand cannot be met through existing delivery modes. Many also cannot hire enough faculty members to accommodate escalating demand for certain subjects, thereby creating academic bottlenecks for students and slowing graduation rates. NCAT’s redesign methodology enables institutions to increase student enrollments without increasing associated costs.
Freeing Up Resources
Most colleges and universities are trying to deal with budget cuts without diminishing the quality of the student learning experience. Many want to offer additional or new courses or to increase faculty released time for research, renewal, or additional course development but do not have the resources to do so. Course redesign frees resources for these uses.
Key Cost-Reduction Strategies
The traditional format requires instructors to develop and deliver courses on their own. That format is based on the assumption that small classes are needed to produce learning gains because the instructor must responsible for all interactions.
Course redesign uses technology and assistance from different kinds of personnel for many of these interactions, rather than expecting the instructor to respond to every inquiry, comment, or discussion personally; prepare lectures; and hand grade assignments, quizzes, and examinations.
Share course-development and delivery tasks. When the whole course is redesigned, substantial amounts of time that individual faculty members spend developing and revising course materials and preparing for classes can also be reduced, while achieving greater course consistency. Faculty begin the design process by analyzing the amount of time that each person involved in the course spends on each kind of activity, which often reveals duplication of effort among multiple faculty members.
Make use of interactive-learning resources. When redesign reduces the number of lectures or other classroom presentations that faculty members must prepare for and present and replaces them with interactive and team-based learning strategies, faculty time can be reallocated to other tasks, either within the same course or in other courses. Moving toward greater reliance on interactive learning and student-to-student interaction offers many opportunities for reducing instructional costs.
Take advantage of automated assessment. Automated homework grading, low-stakes quizzes, and exams for subjects that can be assessed through standardized formats increases feedback to students and offloads these activities from faculty. Many redesigns automate all grading; others automate some and hand grade where appropriate. Automated grading and record keeping reduce the cost and improve the quality of feedback.
Utilize course-management systems. Using course-management software makes it possible to reduce costs while increasing the level and frequency of oversight. Sophisticated course-management systems enable faculty to monitor student progress and performance, track time on task, and intervene on an individualized basis.
Using course-management systems also radically reduces the amount of time that faculty members spend on non-academic tasks such as calculating and recording grades, posting changes in schedules and course syllabi, sending out announcements to students, and creating and revising course materials.
Substitute less expensive staff. By constructing a support system that comprises various kinds of instructional personnel, institutions can apply the right level of human intervention to particular kinds of student problems. Highly trained (and expensive) faculty members are not needed to perform all the tasks associated with delivering a course. By replacing expensive with relatively inexpensive, less-expert labor when appropriate, it is possible to increase the person-hours devoted to the course and the amount of assistance provided to students.
In the 2003 Change article, I discussed what cost-reductions strategies were most effective in the first 30 Pew-funded projects, all of which are repeated above. But we have learned something important since 2003: Reducing costs as a part of redesign comprises not one but two steps.
The first is to compare the number of hours spent by each person involved in the traditional and redesigned formats of the course. The savings in faculty time that the strategies produce can be reallocated to address departmental or institutional needs.
The second step is to translate those “saved” hours into a cost-reduction plan that describes how they will be reallocated to benefit the institution. For example, faculty members or teaching assistants who spend half the time on the redesigned course than they did on the traditional one could increase section enrollment or carry two sections without an increase in workload.
That produces real savings for the institution. If you stop at the first step, you create what NCAT calls paper savings—savings that represent a workload reduction for the individual but do not produce cost savings for the department or institution.
NCAT has always viewed course redesign as a means to an end: the transformation of the way the campus community considers the relationship between quality and cost. At the first Pew-funded workshop we offered in early 2000, a young faculty member from the University of Colorado Boulder correctly observed, “You’re not trying to redesign a single course; you’re trying to redesign the entire university.”
NCAT’s course-redesign methodology increases learning outcomes, improves completion rates, and reduces instructional costs. We have succeeded in changing the national conversation about the relationship between quality and cost in many settings, particularly at the national level. We have developed and publicized models, techniques, case studies, and various other resources, including a series of how-to guides to support campus efforts in course redesign (see Resources for details). But while our efforts have been cited, praised, and awarded, there has been precious little large-scale adoption of course redesign throughout higher education.
Foundations, government agencies, journalists, and policy makers have repeatedly asked me, “Course redesign is so great—why isn’t everyone doing it?” or, its variant, “Yes, course redesign is great, but will it scale?” As the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey once wrote, “While Twigg's efforts are widely known in higher education circles, there has been no great rush to replicate them nationwide.” Generally, these questions and observations have occurred in the context of the cost issue.
I used to take this personally, especially since I was usually being asked about my plan to scale course redesign. But I finally had a revelation: The three-person NCAT staff can’t possibly scale course redesign. The responsibility to do so is not ours—it’s yours, especially if you are a campus executive, board member, or policymaker, because you have the power to implement change. Scaling course redesign must occur at the campus level.
Doing so requires active and thoughtful leadership. Here’s what campus leaders need to do.
Learn how to talk with faculty about reducing costs. NCAT has worked with thousands of faculty at all types of institutions in all kinds of disciplines. Faculty are not the problem: They are a critical part of the solution to higher education’s historical trade-off between quality and cost. Once faculty understand that it is possible to reduce costs while increasing or maintaining quality and learn about strategies to address both simultaneously, they become willing to include cost reduction in their redesign plans.
It is important to choose the right language. When NCAT discusses cost reduction with faculty, we ask them to think about it as a reallocation of resources that enables them and their institutions to do things they’d like to if they had additional resources. Some of those might include offering new courses and programs; breaking up academic bottlenecks; increasing faculty released time for research, renewal, or additional course development; and dealing with budget cuts without diminished quality.
Run a campus-wide program. The reason NCAT has achieved success is that we run programs based on what we have learned. A course-redesign program is organized like the grant programs offered by public agencies and private foundations. It is public—easily accessible to and understandable by all campus constituencies. It includes clear goals, a detailed timeline with specific activities and deadlines, the number of grants to be awarded, the monetary amounts of the grants, and selection criteria.
Course-redesign programs are organized in rounds. The primary goal of the initial round is to produce good models that are supported by data that can serve as proof of the possibility of improving learning while reducing costs and that will inspire others at the institution to engage in further course redesign. Rounds are repeated until a sufficient number of models have been created to take the next step.
NCAT’s most recent how-to guide, How to Organize a Campus-Wide Course Redesign Program Using NCAT's Methodology, explains how to run a campus-wide course-redesign program.
Integrate course redesign into the campus resource-allocation strategy. After producing, say, 9 to 15 excellent models, institutions should move beyond a demonstration-program mode. They should require all departments to engage in course redesign as part of a campus-wide strategy to accomplish the joint goals of improving quality and reducing costs. This means using a combination of carrots and sticks—rewarding those departments that engage in redesign and penalizing those that do not.
Because institutional circumstances differ, each college or university will need to develop a strategy that fits its particular environment. In the following examples, each strategy assumes that many departments have produced successful models as part of a campus-wide course-redesign program, that both faculty and students are satisfied with the new mode of instruction, that a specific goal is made clear to the campus community, and that course redesign is chosen as the way to achieve it.
To paraphrase former Citibank chairman Walter Wriston, the job of campus leadership is to create wealth, not to allocate shortages. Course redesign enables you to create that wealth, especially when you integrate it into the overall campus resource-allocation strategy.
Some may wonder why I have put so much emphasis on cost reduction in this retrospective, given the successes NCAT has had in quality improvement. Here’s the thing: Everyone seems to be working on the student success agenda, but practically no one is working on cost. Unless higher education addresses the cost issue, the nation’s completion goals are, I believe, unattainable.
Higher education has traditionally assumed that high quality means low student-faculty ratios and that large lecture-presentation techniques supported by cheap labor constitute the only viable low-cost alternative. But it is now clear that course redesign using technology-based, learner-centered principles can offer higher education a way out of this historical trade-off between cost and quality. For the first time, we can have our cake and eat it too.
Carol A. Twigg (ctwigg@theNCAT.org) is president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the effective use of information technology to improve student learning outcomes and reduce costs in higher education.