Monday, October 8, 2012

The High Costs of Course Re-design: Two Challenges

When I first began to think about flipping my Intro to Rome lecture class, I had no idea what a flipped class was.  I simply wanted to find a way to free up time in class for talking about and applying ethics.  The obvious solution seemed to be to shift some of the content delivery/analysis (of which I do a fair amount) out of the classroom via pre-recorded videos.  After much consultation with other instructors as well as IT folks, the project became more ambitious: I would, in fact, shift ALL pure content delivery outside of class.  This required that I spend 5 weeks this past summer, working very long days, preparing lectures and being filmed delivering them.  I've discussed this process in detail in an earlier post.  After much begging, pleading, and asking around, I was able to secure funding for this summer work via the College of Liberal Arts ITS Department and the Provost's Office.  I was paid 1/6 of my 9 month salary, so for about 6 weeks of work.  In fact, starting on 1 June, I worked nearly every day for most of the day on this project: preparing lectures (which had to be completely reconfigured for the new medium); filming and refilming; researching studies on the flipped class and blended learning; learning how to use and integrate iclickers into my class; and designing my in class case studies, including how to present each case.  Even with the start of the semester, the work has continued apace.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual challenge of redesigning a large lecture-based class to make it student-centered.  My class is far better for my efforts and my students are being given the opportunity to learn better and more deeply than any previous cohort of students I have taught this course to.  I find it stimulating to teach this course in a completely different way--but also exhausting.  I am very grateful that my second course this semester is one that requires little management: a graduate seminar in which the primary aim is to read a significant amount of Latin prose in order to improve speed and accuracy of reading.  If I were trying to teach this redesigned Rome class with a more demanding second course, I don't think I could manage.  I devote hours a day to course preparation, exam writing, and solving course logistical issues.  As well, I am trying to carve out some time for reflecting on what is working and what can/should be revised for the next version in Spring 2013.

I was very grateful for the summer support I received--about $4K more than if I had been teaching a 5 week class.  That said, it didn't come close to compensating me for the actual amount of work I ended up doing to make sure that the course design was sound and that it would run smoothly this fall (I didn't want to do a mediocre job and have a total disaster on my hands).  I received no extra support, financial or otherwise, this fall.  My chair, thankfully, gave me a relatively easy-to-manage second class; but this assignment had more to do with the fact that I also supervise 10 grad student Latin teachers.  I have appreciated the support from the CTP project when I have specific questions.  The CTL team working for the CTP were indispensable in the summer design phase.  Still, it is clear to me that UT needs to find a way to offer significantly more support--financial and otherwise--to faculty who are willing to put their research agenda on temporary hold and invest in redesigning their courses to reflect current research on student learning.  Currently, whatever the official story may be, it is research production and not teaching excellence which earns the most gold stars for faculty.

I have two challenges to put forward, one to the UT administration and the other to critics of the University of Texas (and other R1 institutions) who suggest that, as Jeff Sandefer did last year and as some of our regents and members of the Texas Public Policy Foundation continue to do, current faculty are lazy, overpaid, inefficient drains on the state's economic resources.  (Ok, my first challenge to the latter group would be to collect some real data about what labor faculty *actually* expend to keep the university running; this extends far, far beyond the time we spend in a classroom).

First, to the UT administration: create a program similar to CTP, but aiming at non-gateway courses; and focused primarily on designing an active learning environment in large classes (150+ students) that enroll at least 50% freshmen and sophomores.  Fund it generously.  Offer faculty who are chosen to participate support from CTL staff, extra TA/grading support, as well as course reduction for the first semester of teaching their new course.  This will be an enormous investment in the future of the university, not least because it will change the learning experience and expectations for new students.  They will take those lessons learned, those sharpened critical thinking skills, to their other classes.  More than likely, they will also graduate in 4 years at higher rates (assuming they can get into the classes they need for their major) because they will have better study skills, they will have a better idea of what interests them.  By investing in the design of such courses, it will be easier to add seats to already large classes without sacrificing student learning.  This ability is going to be crucial in the years to come, as we continue to be asked to do more, for more students, with fewer dollars to offer additional sections of courses.

Second, to the critics of UT faculty (and post-secondary education in general at R1 institutions): put your money where your mouth is.  Instead of funding studies that use bad and incomplete data to draw false and demoralizing conclusions about what is happening in classrooms around campus, spend money to help faculty devote the necessary time and energy to redesigning their courses.  Spend money to hire additional staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning to support us in our attempts to improve the classroom experience for our students.  Keep in mind that most of us arrive at UT with no training in how to teach a large lecture class.  NONE.  We learn as we go, and the vast majority of us work very hard to give our students a great learning experience even though we know those efforts will be largely unrecognized and unrewarded by anyone except our students.  Spend money to support professional development for faculty, especially those of us teaching large lecture courses.   Finally, more than anything, recognize that you are far more likely to achieve good results with honey than with a stick.  The stick is particularly ineffective when many of us are working our $#%#es off to keep our departments running, to keep our students advised, to teach our classes, to place our graduate students in jobs, to serve on ever larger numbers of committees--all while being portrayed as hiding out in the ivory tower eating cake and growing fat off the labor of hardworking Texans.

A thoughtfully conceived and executed course that teaches large numbers of underclassmen each semester has the potential to have a very swift impact on the intellectual lives and futures of tens of thousands of UT students.  The challenge is to find a way to support the time, mental and physical energy, blood, sweat, and tears that such a redesign requires.  This is going to take money as well as the support of staff trained in instructional design, IT, and assessment.

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