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Why We Need Centers for Educational Innovation, Evaluation, and Research

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It’s time to replace teaching centers with centers for educational innovation, evaluation, and research.

Virtually every university now has a teaching center or a faculty development center to improve the quality of teaching.  The names differ – there are centers for teaching excellence, for teaching innovation or transformation, and for the advancement of teaching – but their missions are similar: To help faculty and graduate students with course design, pedagogy, classroom management, online teaching, inclusive teaching, classroom technology, academic integrity, and constructive feedback.

Their approach tends to be pretty uniform, consisting largely of teaching consultations, workshops, and classroom observations.

Circumstances have changed, and it’s now time to radically alter teaching centers’ mission, approach, and areas of responsibility.

Most teaching centers are products of a particular historical moment, when three developments – the rise of the accountability movement among policymakers, the growing visibility of the science of learning, and increasing college costs — converged and led campuses to devote renewed attention upon classroom teaching.

But teaching centers’ rapid growth masked certain disturbing realities. At most campuses, their services were voluntary, and their staff found it difficult to reach beyond the usual suspects, typically a subset of junior faculty and graduate students.

Their purview was highly circumscribed, existing separate and apart from instructional or educational technology services and offices of assessment and institutional research.  As a result, the analysis of student data related to engagement, learning, performance, and outcomes and, often, course redesign itself lay outside their area of responsibility.

To be sure, a few centers have a broader mandate than others, with writing or STEM tutoring, and, in a few instances, instructional technology, under their purview.  But most centers existed in a silo, and weren’t empowered to drive academic transformation.  Indeed, most lack the expertise to inform institutional strategies involving learning assessment or software and technology acquisition, let alone online programming.

Evidence-based teaching is now more important than ever.  But in our post-pandemic period of austerity, the responsibilities of traditional teaching centers are much too narrow.

Right now, a top institutional priority should be to redesign the high enrollment, high DFW gateway classes, with substantial achievement gaps.  These roughly 25 courses enroll about a third of all undergraduates and serve as the entry point into highly demanding fields including computer science, engineering, and the health sciences.  Rather than access points, these courses are, much too often, barriers to student success.

Another top priority is to address, systematically and at scale, a host of issues that the pandemic and overdue reckoning with race have revealed:  The need to train all instructors in trauma-informed and inclusive pedagogies; to help them better support students’ mental health and assist those with disabilities; and embrace mentoring as part of their responsibilities.

Only rarely are teaching centers expected to address these priorities.

The academic innovation challenges campuses face are not merely a one-off response to a unexpected emergency.  The future of higher education requires teaching center to reimagine their roles and responsibilities.

Here are three areas that require a new kind of center to take a more proactive role.

1. Academic Equity and Student Success
If our current crisis has a silver lining, it lies in a widespread recognition of the inequities that pervade higher education.  At no other moment in my professional career have gaps in funding and achievement been so glaring or well understood.

At most colleges and universities, retention and graduation rates remain too low, and equity gaps — in the proportion of students from various subgroups that succeed in high demand STEM and health science fields – far too large.

Currently, responsibility for addressing student success has fallen to advising, learning centers, and individual departments.  But it’s now obvious that the solution to issues involving persistence, academic momentum, and equity are as much related to curriculum and course design, pedagogy, and assessment as they are to student support services.

Our campuses need a unit that is responsible for using data to identify curricular roadblocks and classes with high DFW rates and achievement gaps, and to work with departments and dean’s offices to address these gaps.

The pandemic and the societal reckoning over equity should inspire campuses to rigorously evaluate students’ academic trajectories, obstacles to success, impediments to academic momentum, and to scale evidence-based and high impact approaches to teaching and learning

2. Scaling Innovation in Instruction
Medical schools, where the faculty are committed to 100 percent proficiency, have long been the pacesetters in innovation in higher education.  Competency-based, problem-based, and game-based education and a wide-range of technology-enhanced approaches – including interactive simulations, virtual rounds, cadavers, and laboratories, and virtual, augmented, and mixed reality – all have been widely adopted as effective, cost-efficient ways to ensure that all students achieve the level of mastery expected of practicing physicians.

In contrast, at most colleges and universities responsibility for educational innovation is not only highly dispersed, but adoption is voluntary.  Indeed, individual faculty are often personally responsible for evaluating and implementing new instructional techniques and technologies on their own.  Their experiments may be showcased at an annual teaching conference, but no unit charged with rigorously evaluating their effectiveness or driving wider adoption.

Our campuses have a pressing need to reduce achievement gaps, increase student engagement, facilitate differentiated instruction, expand students’ opportunities for authentic practice, and provide anytime, anywhere academic support.  A center for educational innovation should, in my view, be responsible for incentivizing the adoption of pedagogical approaches with demonstrated effectiveness and deploying technology in ways that better meet students’ learning needs.

3. Preparing for the Future of Higher Education
Currently, no single unit, outside of a Dean’s or Provost’s office, is responsible for designing, implementing, driving, managing, and supporting educational transformation – in programming, curricular design, or infrastructure – or for monitoring employment trends and the skills and credentials that employees will need or keeping an eye on innovations at peer and non-peer institutions.

The post-pandemic future of higher education will require institutions to be more nimble, innovative, data-aware, and entrepreneurial, but it’s unclear whose responsibility it will be to suggest and evaluate alternate strategies.

The current crises offer an opportunity to put into place the educational infrastructure designed for the 21st rather than the 20th century – one that will address systemic inequalities, facilitate data-driven, anytime, anywhere support services, and better equip students for the future of work.  A center for educational innovation would assume responsibility for implementing and overseeing the strategies that campuses adopt.

In short, our campuses need a unit charged with four interrelated responsibilities:

1. Educational Enhancement
This extends beyond improvements in pedagogy to include curriculum design, instructional design, educational technology, and assessment.  Its responsibilities would include not only faculty development, but driving the integration of technology, courseware, and open educational resources into instruction.

2. Educational Strategy
The proposed center would assist colleges or schools in program development (particularly degree and non-degree certificates at the post-bacc and master’s level), and partner with departments and individual faculty in expanding opportunities for experiential-, community-engaged, and gameful learning

3. Educational Infrastructure
The center for educational innovation would play a leadership role in deploying a system of learning analytics and assisting the advising office and departments to make effective use of these tools.

4. Educational Evaluation and Research
Finally, the center would be responsible for reviewing and assessing new and emerging pedagogies and technologies and undertaking research into the effectiveness of instructional experiments.

Let me be clear: In calling for centers for educational innovation, I am not criticizing existing teaching center, which are the victims of underfunding, understaffing, and a highly circumscribed set of responsibilities.  For teaching centers, the pandemic has been at once a blessing and a curse, a chance to showcase their expertise, but also revealing their limitations.

Sticking with the status quo won’t cut it in the post-pandemic environment, where institutions will confront deeply disruptive demographic and financial challenges and mounting competition. In a volatile, uncertain environment, colleges and universities need a unit that is acutely attuned to the shifts that are taking place in the workforce and across the higher ed landscape, that can identify opportunities, roadblocks, and challenges, drive innovation at scale, and assess program performance rigorously and in a timely manner.

Teaching centers, perhaps in combination with instructional technology units, are well positioned to take on this responsibility.  But if an educational innovation model is to thrive, it will need to build expertise in previously ignored areas and develop  levels of cooperation with senior administrators and faculty that has, up too now, been sorely lacking.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020
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