College and university presidents, pressured to control costs and improve the quality of learning, can now look to an instructional redesign project in place at 30 colleges and universities across the country. The project offers compelling evidence that information technology can be used to improve student learning, raise the rate of college completion, and reduce instructional costs.
But though many institutions are using technology to enhance teaching and learning and extend access, most have simply bolted new technologies onto existing facilities, put a faculty in place, and have left unaltered the concept of classroom instruction. Used in this way, technology becomes a black hole of added expense.
Yet there is a smaller universe of IHEs operating in a different fashion in the Program in Course Redesign, initially funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and managed by the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY). The program encompasses research and comprehensive universities, independent and community colleges, and wide-ranging disciplines.
Using technology-based approaches and learner-centered principles to redesign their courses, the 30 institutions involved in this program are showing us a way out of higher education's historical trade-off between cost and quality. Yet, shouldn't the capacity and willingness to think anew be at the heart of all higher education?
Results of the program to date demonstrate improved student learning in 22 of the 30 projects, with the remaining eight showing learning of equal quality to traditional formats. All 30 institutions reduced costs by a remarkable 40 percent on average; cost savings have ranged from 20 to 77 percent.
Certainly, the alarmingly low rate of college completion in our country deserves far greater attention from policymakers than it has received. One highly effective way to address the problem is through instructional redesign of the large enrollment introductory courses that are often the first step toward failure and withdrawal. Many of the program schools have reported significant improvement in their drop-failure-withdrawal (DFW) rates. High failure rates in many of these courses (15 to 60 percent) are a major factor in high dropout rates between the first and second year.
The redesign projects are moving students from a passive "note-taking" role to an emphasis on reading, exploring, and problem solving. Demonstrable gains in student learning have been produced through continuous assessment and diagnostic feedback, increased collaboration among students, computer lab hours in which faculty 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 multiple 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. Of course, the major cost item in instruction is personnel, so reducing the time that faculty members and other personnel invest in a course--and then transferring some of these tasks to technology-assisted activities--are key strategies.
Among the most effective cost reduction strategies are online course management systems; automated assessment of homework, quizzes, and tests; online tutorials; shared resources for course development; the utilization of undergraduate instead of graduate TAs; and use of the Web to reduce classroom space requirements.
Efficiency is not antithetical to academic excellence; it supports greater opportunity for more students. We have clung to too narrow a notion of what is possible. We need to stop discussing technology as some esoteric preserve and talk about how to improve student learning, raise completion rates, reduce costs, and free up resources.
Carol A. Twigg is executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY). She is a recipient of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education.