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The Learning MarketSpace, November 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.


A few weeks ago, I spent an enjoyable morning interacting with the participants at a conference sponsored by the Policy Center on the First Year of College. Most were deans and department chairs. This conference is one of a series of activities conducted by John Gardner, Betsy Barefoot and their colleagues at the Center to focus greater attention on how to make the critical first-year experience for students a positive one.

John had invited me to do a presentation about the Course Redesign Program being conducted by the Center for Academic Transformation. The synergy between our two programs is obvious: our Center’s redesigns focus primarily on first-year courses and, as such, add another dimension to the Policy Center’s ongoing interest in what happens to students as they enter our colleges and universities.

At the end of my presentation, we opened the floor to participants’ questions and comments. One of them marched to the microphone and said, “I’m skeptical. Everything we’ve heard about enhancing students’ experience in the first year (and about enhancing student learning in general) says that more interaction with faculty members is essential. Yet, you seem to be saying that less interaction with faculty members leads to better learning. I don’t get it!”

Indeed, the common wisdom in higher education says that an essential component of--and perhaps a pre-condition--for high quality learning experiences for students is small classes led by experienced full-time faculty members. And few would dispute the veracity of that assertion. Small classes led by full-time faculty members are undoubtedly a wonderful way to organize undergraduate education.

But is it the only way?

My answer to the conference participant was that students need a lot of interaction with the content of the course and sufficient interaction with people who can respond to their questions about that content as they arise. Interacting with full-time faculty who present content is one way to achieve the first objective, but there are others. Interacting with full-time faculty to find answers to questions or to be pointed in the right direction to discover answers is one way to achieve the second, but there are others.

Our course redesign program is showing that, in many cases, increases in student learning and improvements in student retention have little to do with interaction with full-time faculty. These successes have a lot to do with full-time faculty in their role as designers of student learning experiences, but little to do with direct interaction between students and faculty. Instead they emphasize greater interaction with the course material and greater interaction with people other than faculty members.

Let’s consider a few examples.

In each of their redesigns, the University of Southern Maine, the University of Iowa, Penn State University, and Carnegie Mellon University found greater interaction with the course material to be a major contributor to significantly improved student learning.

At Southern Maine, the primary pedagogical improvement technique their psychology redesign employs is not more interaction with full-time faculty but rather the introduction of online quizzing which requires students to demonstrate mastery of the course content before class. Repetition and immediate feedback, tools that have repeatedly been documented to facilitate learning, combine to provide a positive experience for the students and to show them what areas needed additional study. Feedback includes directing students to the material that they needed to review.

The University of Iowa is finding that increased success in their General Chemistry course is highly correlated with completion of a Web-based, skill building software package as graded homework. In the past, both the number of problems presented to students to solve and feedback on how well they solved them was limited because of the labor-intensive nature of grading. Because the grading is now automated, students are presented with more problems to solve (i.e., their time on task is increased). Because the software gives immediate feedback to students, areas of weakness requiring further study are easily identified.

Penn State echoes these reports. They view the use of Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs), which regularly probe students’ conceptual understanding of assigned readings and homework, as a major contributor to significantly improved learning in their Elementary Statistics course. In addition to motivating students to keep on top of the course material, RATs provide powerful feedback to both students and faculty, detecting areas where students are not grasping concepts and enabling corrective actions to be taken.

In its redesign of statistics, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has shown a significant improvement in students’ acquisition of exploratory data analysis skills and concepts and in students’ ability to classify statistical problems. Project leaders attribute this success not to greater interaction with full-time faculty but with greater use of Smartlab, an intelligent tutoring system that uses a "scaffolding" approach to provide immediate feedback to students as they navigate the learning environment. It keeps students on course, enabling them to avoid wasting time on bad problem-solving strategies while allowing for exploratory, active learning. By using SmartLab, students have been able to achieve a level of statistical literacy not deemed possible prior to the redesign.

Faculty involved in another set of redesigns attribute improved student success to providing on-demand human help to students when they need it. Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Idaho employ a kind of triage method in responding to student questions and requests for help. Each institution has redesigned a series of math courses, moving them from two or three meetings a week in individual classrooms to 24/7 access to a variety of learning materials together with in-person help in a large computer lab. If a student gets “stuck” in working through the software, the first response may be from an undergraduate peer tutor. If the tutor cannot answer the question, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) tries to do so. Only if both fail does a faculty member step in.

Using Virginia Tech’s redesign of linear algebra as an example, tenure-track faculty members’ time has declined by more than 85%. The time spent by GTAs has decreased by 82%; but all of it is devoted to interaction with students. An additional 1,885 hours of peer tutoring provides even greater assistance to students when they need it than in the traditional model. The total interaction time of all personnel increases from 1,140 hours in the traditional model to 2,305 hours in the redesigned course.

Rio Salado’s redesign of a series of introductory math courses uses Academic Systems software to provide consistent content coverage as well as individualized study and assessment. With a large bank of problems and answers for each topic, the software provides immediate feedback so that students know what aspects of the course they have not mastered and can take appropriate corrective actions. The redesign also added a course assistant (whose strengths were student support skills rather than mathematical training) to improve communication and proactive intervention and to shift non-instructional questions from the instructor to the assistant. Rio found that about 90% of student questions were non-math related (since many content questions were “answered” by the software) and could easily be handled by the course assistant.

Efforts to improve undergraduate education like the Policy Center on the First Year of College and the National Survey of Student Engagement draw heavily from the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” developed by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson in 1987 based on “50 years of research” on good teaching and learning in colleges and universities. The first of the seven principles “encourages contact between students and faculty” and says that “frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement.” Fifty years of past research, however, did not take into account how information technology can both contribute to student learning and enable radical redesigns of student learning experiences.

While there is little doubt, in the words of Chickering and Gamson, that “knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans” and contributes to students’ overall positive collegiate experience, there is now a substantial body of evidence to show that student success can be achieved in class without increased student-faculty contact. Indeed one can argue that one way to increase student-faculty contact out of class would be to reduce their contact in class, especially by targeting those courses where it is possible.

Does this suggest that full time faculty are not important in class? Of course not. We need to allow faculty to use their knowledge and skills beyond simply teaching classes. Faculty are the architects and managers of these new learning environments and the ones who ensure that students have a high-quality experience.

Readers of this newsletter will know that we believe that one cannot separate discussions of educational quality from discussions of educational cost. When most people in higher education think about greater student-faculty interaction, they think about small class size. Advocates of small class size often fail to consider the financial implications. Let’s consider one example of what it would cost to implement this design principle.

It used to cost Virginia Tech $137,970 to teach linear algebra to 1520 students a year in the traditional format, using a mix of tenure-track faculty, instructors and graduate teaching assistants. Were the same course to be taught only by tenure-track faculty in small classes of 25, the cost would more than triple to $453,264. In contrast, Virginia Tech’s redesigned linear algebra course costs $40,555, saving the university $128,180 each year.

On Election Day, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to mandate maximum class size in K-12 by 2010. Classes in kindergarten through the third grade will be limited to 18 students. In fourth through eighth grades the limit is 22; and in high school it is 25 students. Cost estimates to implement this plan range between $6.7 and $9.6 billion for construction of new classrooms and between $1.45 and $2.2 billion each year to hire new teachers. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the increase, Florida’s overall state budget is $51 billion. No matter how much you care about quality education, you will not be thrilled by this amendment if you pay taxes in Florida (as I do). But more importantly, Florida has tied its hands for the foreseeable future in implementing innovative designs that take advantage of information technology. Because the K-12 educational system was unable to reform itself, the voters did it for them.

Surely we in higher education can be more thoughtful about these issues than the average Florida voter.


[To learn more about how faculty project leaders are redesigning new learning environments that improve quality and reduce cost, please join us at our upcoming seminars, “State-of-the-art Learning Environments: Lessons from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign” described below.]

Election years come and go, but many issues remain the same. Bob wrote the following column in the November 2000 issue of The Learning MarketSpace. Unfortunately, it is still timely.


It's the silly season again—that month before the general election when the airwaves are full of political commercials on behalf of congressional and presidential candidates. Setting aside the negative or "attack" ads, each candidate is attempting to encapsulate his or her solution to a local or national ill with a fifteen-second sound bite. Sadly, or happily, depending upon your level of optimism, many have turned their attention this year to education.

There is a common theme this election year. All the candidates seem to believe (or think the voters believe, so they patronize us) that the cure to our educational problems is smaller class sizes. To be sure, they are primarily focused on K-12, but the theme is the same for all forms of education. Smaller class size will lead us back to those halcyon days of quality education.

The first rumblings of a "crisis" in education occurred over a quarter of a century ago. That was back before the Dow Jones quadrupled, unemployment virtually disappeared, and productivity, fueled by information technology, reached unparalleled heights in most business enterprises. Our candidates don't appear to want to connect what drives our economic prosperity with our schools. They seem to miss the obvious that education (even more so than health care) has been a laggard in the application of information technology to its various enterprises.

Instead, they propose a solution that is labor intensive in an incredibly tight labor market. Fifty years ago our K-12 schools reaped the benefit of a society that offered few employment opportunities for bright young women other than as teachers in primary and secondary schools. The pay was mediocre but the perks and prestige were reasonable. The intervening half a century has changed all that. High-prestige, high-paying jobs are available to bright young women in all businesses and professions. The captive labor market of the 1950s is no more.

To attract the best and the brightest, what do we do? Microsoft, like tens of thousands of other businesses, offers high pay, stock options, attractive and flexible working conditions and a host of other job perks from corporate day care to on-site fitness centers. And what do our schools offer? Subsistence pay, low prestige, long hours, deteriorating physical plants and a host of other negatives.

In higher education there are still many institutions that promote a "small-class-size" agenda. Many of our finest liberal arts colleges are among them. One can argue that the nature and quality of education in them is not much different than it was 50 years ago. What is different, however, is the price. These highly labor-intensive educational endeavors cost 6 to 10 times as much as the local state university or community college. Typically, tuition and fees amount to about half the median family income in the state in which they are located. These institutions represent an economically viable option for only a very small portion of the population seeking post-secondary learning experiences.

Other types of higher education institutions have attacked the labor-intensiveness problem by use of graduate teaching assistants and adjunct faculty (reduced payroll costs) or by large lectures (reduced faculty requirements). Still others have begun experimenting with forms of self- paced learning in studio environments or, increasingly, in some Web-enabled learning environment that may provide a mixture of faculty lecture/discussion and self-paced learning. What is clear is that the only route to avoid $20,000-a-year tuition is to find some alternative to small classes taught in the conventional manner.

So why are our politicians promoting a "solution" to our ills that seems certain to bring with it a set problems that will be worse than those they set out to solve? If our current teachers are generally not of the quality we desire because of low pay, how will making more hires from the bottom of the labor pool improve our situation? If a year's high school "tuition" for an inner-city student is already two or three times the cost of a year's tuition at the local community college, how will further increasing those costs help? Laying aside the sarcasm about their motivation, which is increasingly difficult to do, we have to conclude that most of our politicians are both mis- and ill-informed.

As to higher education, most politicians appear to have little if any realization that only about a quarter of our student bodies are full-time, residential students. Unfortunately, the same criticism can be leveled at many within the academy itself. Few appear to recognize the demands that a labor force in need of constant re-skilling imposes on our institutions of higher learning. Most likely none of these politicians have ever looked at the copious literature dealing with student learning and alternative learning strategies.

Undoubtedly, the residential campus environment is an important experience for many in the 18 to 22 year old demographic. No one—at least not any one that I know—suggests we should dispense with it. But equally, if not more, important to our society is the group of post-secondary learners, three to five times as large, who find that the demands of a residential experience seriously inhibit, if not altogether prohibit, their access to education.

Even for the residential student, alternative-learning strategies that take advantage of the power of information technology can significantly enhance both the speed and the retention of learning. Not incidentally, application of these technologies can also reduce the cost of instruction. Better retention, faster accomplishment and reduced costs—what's not to like? Why do we have politicians proposing equal retention, equal time to accomplishment and higher costs?

It's the silly season.



December 6, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia
February 24, 2003, Dallas, Texas

Co-sponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology at Virginia Tech

This seminar will present results from the third of three rounds of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Learn from faculty project leaders how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology. Faculty from four institutions will talk about their models of course redesign, including their decisions regarding student learning objectives, course content, learning resources, course staffing and task analysis, and student and project evaluation. These models provide varied approaches that demonstrate multiple routes to success, tailored to the needs and context of each institution.

These seminars provide a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Learn firsthand how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology from successful faculty project leaders.
  • Find out how to design learning environments for the future by tapping the expertise of those who have done it.
  • Talk with experienced faculty from multiple institutions about how and why they made their redesign decisions.
  • Move beyond "today" and learn where on-line learning is going . . . find a model that will work for your institution


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

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Copyright 2002 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.