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A Promising Path for Education : Technology

The capacity and willingness to think a new ought to be at the heart of higher education.
University Business, Nov 2004

College and university presidents, buffeted by swirling pressures to control costs and improve the quality of learning, might well be dreaming of a deus ex machina to descend upon the quad. Before seeking the guidance of the classics or drama department about how to arrange such an intervention, these campus CEOs can look to an instructional redesign project now in place at 30 colleges and universities across the country. This project offers compelling evidence that information technology can be used to improve student

learning, raise the rate of college completion, and reduce instructional costs. Many colleges and universities are using technology to enhance teaching and learning and to extend access to new populations of students. Yet most institutions have simply bolted new technologies onto an existing set of physical facilities, a faculty already in place, and an unaltered concept of classroom instruction. Used in this way, technology

has become a black hole of additional expense. We find a smaller, parallel universe of higher ed institutions operating in a very different fashion in the Program in Course Redesign, which was initially funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and is managed by the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The program encompasses research universities, comprehensive universities, independent colleges, and community colleges, and disciplines ranging from statistics to Spanish, from

biology to English composition. The capacity and willingness to think anew ought to be at the heart of higher education. Using technology-based approaches and learner-centered principles to redesign their courses, these 30 institutions are showing us a way out of higher education's historical trade-off between cost and quality. Results to date show improved student learning in 22 of the 30 projects, with the remaining 8 showing learning of equal quality to traditional formats. All 30 institutions reduced costs, by a remarkable

40 percent on average, with cost savings ranging from 20 percent to 77 percent.

The redesign projects are moving students from a passive "note-taking" role to one with a greater emphasis on reading, exploring, and problem-solving. As one math professor recently put it, "Students learn math by doing math, not by listening to someone talk about doing math." The redesign project has resulted in demonstrable gains in student learning through: continuous assessment and diagnostic feedback; increased collaboration among students; computer lab hours in which faculty and or/peer tutors provide one-on-one assistance; and online tutorials. These instructional techniques are hardly revolutionary. What has changed dramatically is our capacity to incorporate good pedagogical practice into courses with very large numbers of students-a task that would have been impossible without technology.

At the same time, the instructional redesign is helping institutions achieve substantial cost savings. At many community colleges, it takes students an average of about two-and-a-half times to pass introductory math courses. Enabling students to pass key courses in fewer attempts generates considerable savings in institutional resources and in student time and tuition. The major cost item in instruction is personnel, so reducing the time that faculty members and other personnel invest in a course and transferring some of

Demonstrable gains in student
learning have been produced.

these tasks to technology-assisted activities are key strategies. Among the most effective cost reduction techniques are: online course management systems, automated assessment of homework, quizzes, and tests, online tutorials, shared resources for course development, utilizing undergraduate learning assistants

instead of graduate students, and using the Web to reduce classroom space requirements. Efficiency is not antithetical to academic excellence. In fact, it supports greater opportunity for more students. Those of us in academia have clung to far too narrow a notion of what is possible. We need to stop discussing technology as some esoteric preserve and start talking about how to improve student learning, raise completion rates, reduce costs, and free up resources. That is the path for retaining American leadership in higher education and keeping the American dream alive for college students of all backgrounds and all ages. Surely this is more than an academic exercise

Carol A. Twigg, Ph.D., Executive Director, Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is a recipient of this year's prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education.

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