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The Learning MarketSpace, April 1, 2002

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


In the August and November 2001 issues of The Learning MarketSpace, we described the efficacies of a new instructional model that is emerging from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign, one that Ohio State University has christened the “buffet” model. The essence of the buffet model is that it enables mass customization, offering students a variety of ways to learn within a single course.

As our colleagues at Ohio State have thought systematically about how to improve the quality of student learning in their introductory statistics course, they have focused on the need for better preparation of the sixteen graduate teaching associates (TAs) who assist in teaching the course each quarter. As they have thought systematically about how to reduce the cost of instruction, they have identified substantial inefficiencies in the way TAs spend their time that provide opportunities for a number of important changes.

OSU’s statistics department has long recognized the importance of TA training for ensuring the quality of undergraduate courses. The most important component of their program has been a ten-week, four-credit, summer-quarter course in teaching statistics, which TAs take before their first teaching assignment. The course covers learning theory and pedagogy for recitation and lab sessions. TAs in the training class serve as assistants to the TAs working in the statistics course during the summer and write critiques of the classes they observe. They also participate in mock teaching exercises, read the texts and discuss the content of the courses to which they will be assigned in the fall quarter. The few first-year TAs who are unable to attend the summer course take a four-day intensive training program provided university-wide by the Office of Faculty and TA Development (FTAD) just prior to fall quarter.

These initial preparations are reinforced by 1) one-day of statistics-specific training sponsored by FTAD but administered by the department's statistical education specialist; 2) discussions in weekly course-specific staff meetings (faculty and TAs); 3) brown bag lunch discussions on teaching held throughout the year; 4) twice quarterly class visits; and, 5) teaching awards for top performers. TAs are also encouraged to provide input to the management of the course, and a $50 award is given to TAs who provide course suggestions that are incorporated into the class. Senior TAs help junior TAs, and the best senior TA is given a five-section rather than a six-section per year teaching load in exchange for help in training other TAs.

In the traditional format of the statistics course, every TA essentially does the same things: conduct labs, grade homework and lab assignments, proctor and grade exams, and hold office hours. But just as the learning styles and capabilities of students vary, so do the teaching styles and capabilities of the TAs. In the redesigned format, OSU’s goal is to make a better match between the various delivery options included in the buffet and the talents of the TAs. TAs who do well in one-on-one help but have not yet mastered the management of whole class discussions can facilitate study sessions or provide individual help during problem-solving sessions. TAs who have a talent for facilitating small group discussions and managing the dynamics of a hands-on laboratory experiment should utilize these skills and not be burdened with grading duties. In its redesign, Ohio State will individualize the “supply side” of the buffet as well as the student demand side.

To ensure that the teaching associates are well prepared for the variety of roles envisioned in the buffet model, OSU will implement a certification process, which will certify TAs at four different levels.

--A level-one TA may grade assignments after demonstrating knowledge of course content and the ability to read and interpret typical student writing.

--A level-two TA may serve as a one-on-one tutor, facilitate a study session, or assist a level-four TA or faculty lecturer by providing one-on-one help as part of a large group setting. Level-two TAs must successfully complete a customer-service training (described below) and demonstrate proficiency during a one-quarter probationary period at level two. In addition, international TAs must successfully complete a university English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) course.

--A level three TA must demonstrate skills in classroom management and small-group learning appropriate for conducting recitation sessions and laboratories. Certification at this level may be achieved, for example, by successfully completing the summer training program and by demonstrating proficiency during a probationary quarter at this level.

--A level-four TA must have the skills necessary to organize and plan activities in large groups and to help train other TAs.

TAs will be rewarded for making progress in their teaching skills by cash bonuses as they advance to each succeeding level. Certification will also bring increased choice and more rewarding, less rote teaching duties as TAs progress from one level to the next. Certified TAs will be able to choose the roles they will play in the statistics program since the TA certification plan will also be applied to the rest of the department's undergraduate courses. Thus, temperament, desire, and ability will be matched to specific instructional positions.

As part of their analysis of the current approach to TA training, the statistics faculty realized that most of it is geared to in-class pedagogy even though TAs report greater problems related to "customer service." OSU’s Office of Human Resources (OHR) has developed a successful training program in customer service for university staff to help them deal with students and the public. The statistics team is working with OHR to adapt that program to train faculty and TAs in how to handle course-related customer service issues. Instituting a program to identify and serve individual student needs will alleviate the many difficulties that faculty and TAs have in dealing with these issues.

When I was an English graduate student in the late sixties, I was solely responsible for teaching a course in freshman composition during my first year of study. My training consisted of the course coordinator’s telling me to “take a writing sample” during the first class and come to a group meeting the next day. To be sure, a group of TAs had weekly meetings with the coordinator throughout the first semester where we discussed various problems we encountered. I learned a lot that semester; I wonder whether my students did.

Despite the fact that graduate teaching assistants play a major role in first-year courses taught at most medium-to-large four-year institutions, their preparation is probably a lot closer to mine than to that of the teaching associates at Ohio State. If we want to improve student learning, a good place to begin is to examine how we train TAs. Because TAs are the future professoriate, the benefits of adopting the Ohio State approach go far beyond the improvement of a single course.

Now what about certifying the faculty?



While in the final throes of putting together a consulting report for a state advanced network infrastructure project, I was overcome by an incredible sense of deja vu. I found myself thinking that I had already written the words that were tumbling across the window of my word processor. I read back through what I had written but the duplication was not to be found.

Thinking perhaps I had overloaded my brain (which seems to be happening more often these days), I decided to take a coffee break and work on the crossword puzzle. Unfortunately, I had to wade through several articles on tuition increases to find the puzzle. No, they haven't moved the puzzle to the front of the newspaper--educational tuition increases have just gotten so commonplace that they seem to have lodged on the crossword puzzle page.

The listing of the proposed increases at a number of institutions in the state flashed before me--9 percent, 13 percent, 9 percent, 25 percent. Wow! Two general types of observations seemed to arise in response to the tuition and fee increases. The first, from the institutions of higher learning, was that it really wasn't so bad. After all, the increases of a decade ago were even larger. The second, from an unnamed commentator, was that these increases simply were more evidence that the price of higher education was too high and needed to be reduced significantly.

It was then that I began to realize why I had experienced that sense of deja vu. In my report on advanced network infrastructure, I had been making the point that incumbent network providers were wedded to a strategy of network provision, based upon some very old ideas about what amounts of bandwidth were needed by which applications, that they simply could not, or would not, change. I was making the case that network connectivity had to be reduced in cost by more than an order of magnitude before it could be uniformly accessible by people anywhere in the state. In order to reduce the cost of access by some significant amount, it would be necessary to cast off old paradigms built for a previous age when telephony was all there was and move to new strategies and architectures that offered the promise of higher bandwidth, lower provider costs and lower consumer prices. The thrust of my argument was that if providers didn't do something to lower their costs, nothing could ever be done to lower consumer prices.

I had written those words before, but not in the networking report. They had been written in an earlier report, to a different client, not about networking infrastructure but about learning infrastructure. The argument was the same. The inability of providers, in this case institutions of higher education, to grasp a new paradigm, to let go of old concepts predicated on a different economy, leaves us with a provider cost structure that guarantees that not all citizens will be able to take advantage of higher education.

In the networking report, I was worrying over the concept of the state advancing funds to localities to upgrade their advanced network infrastructure. Absent a significant reduction in the provider cost structure--hence the consumer price--how would these funds ever be paid back? That little bit of serendipity with the crossword puzzle caused me to look up at a recent AP report on college costs. The report noted that nearly half the graduates who had student loans were in debt for about $20,000 and they were defaulting at extraordinary rates on the repayment of those loans. So serious was the default problem that legislation had been proposed to exempt student loans from the "clean slate" provisions of the bankruptcy laws.

Can advanced network infrastructure be created for significantly less cost than currently? I think the answer is yes. Can post-secondary learning venues be created for significantly less cost than currently. I think the answer is also yes.

The thorny question is whether either set of incumbents will be able to do so. There are a whole raft of inertia problems that have to do with market share satisfaction, mind set commitments to old paradigms, inability to adjust to the new economy, status quo lobbying clout substituted for innovative research and development and political and regulatory disincentives that militate against change by the incumbents. This is as true in higher education as it is network infrastructure.

Change, at least in the near future, will come from non-incumbents not tied to out-of-date paradigms, not beholden to a currently installed customer base and committed to delivering a better product at less cost. One of the most useful things we can do to encourage this change is to remove the impediments for new entrants. Student vouchers would be a great start for the world of higher education. Relief from legal inhibitions for localities to begin building their own network infrastructure would open new doors in networking opportunities.

If we can't get the incumbent higher education providers to adopt more cost effective learning strategies and telecom providers to adopt more cost effective networking strategies, let's at least begin removing the impediments to entry for those who might have such goals.



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Copyright 2002 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.