Outlook on teaching: Academic return-on-investment

The way in which students develop their skills will continue to shift away from the traditional lecture-based model

What college students are learning—and how—has become a mainstream talking point across the political spectrum.

Much of this talk concerns dollars and cents—namely, cost and payoff. As a result, 2015 may be a year in which many institutions do a gut-check of their own value propositions, as pressure to increase affordability—and return on investment—pervades all of higher education. College graduates’ debt and unemployment rates also will continue to garner close attention.

“Institutions will have to do a better job of linking students and graduates to the workforce,” says Michelle Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She predicts that more collaboration between colleges and employers will emerge, particularly in high-demand fields seeking specialized skills.

Meanwhile, the way in which students develop these skills will continue to shift away from the traditional lecture-based paradigm toward blended models that deliver content through multimedia platforms, while prioritizing experiential learning in the classroom.

Competencies at the core

An extension of the shift in focus toward measuring student learning will be the growth of competency-based education. This model allows students to progress toward degrees—outside the typical semester track—by demonstrating mastery of skills and content.

The federal government threw support behind competency-based education in 2014. The Department of Education approved it as one of its “experimental sites” initiatives for the 2014-15 school year, offering leniency around federal student aid regulations to any college that applied and was approved to test competency-based education programs without losing aid eligibility.

Outlook on Teaching & Learning


  • Skills-based assessment and competency-based education
  • Workforce education and employer collaboration
  • Data-driven interventions
  • Open educational resources
  • Blended learning/flipped classrooms
  • Peer-to-peer and experiential learning
  • Video integration in courses


  • The hype around MOOCs
  • Emphasis on mobile apps for teaching and learning
  • Sole dependence on LMS for online courses

In a separate measure, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014 passed in the House and is pending in the Senate, legislation which would allow up to 30 institutions to offer competency-based projects with similar leniency around federal regulations.

Separating learning from seat-time is a “huge step” toward a more student-centered approach, Weise says. She believes “upstart innovators” currently working on the margins will gain traction in 2015, putting pressure on more traditional institutions to follow suit.

The University of Wisconsin is among the first of these, as it rolled out its “Flexible Option” on select campuses in fall 2014. The program allows students to earn bachelor’s degrees and certificates through an “all-you-can-learn” option costing $2,250 per three-month period, or at $900 for one skill-set learned in that same time frame.

Flipped classrooms, evolving MOOCs

While hype may be growing around competency-based education, it is clearly waning for MOOCs.

The MOOC movement is no longer seen as “the unrealistic panacea that would solve all of higher education’s problems,” says Cathy Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Despite their flaws, however, Davidson believes MOOCs have spurred more creativity in teaching. “Every time people need to protest that they cannot be replaced by a computer screen, they are forced to say, basically, that teaching matters.”

Beyond the notoriously low completion rates—in the range of 5 to 10 percent, on average—the trouble with MOOCs is an inability to track what students have learned.

“Watching all the videos doesn’t equal learning,” says C. Edward Watson, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. Furthermore, there’s a lack of faculty support and intervention when students need help. Yet the financial implications of delivering courses at scale, Watson says, “will encourage institutions to make meaningful use of MOOCs” and leverage them in the for-credit context.

Shawn Miller, director of the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University, says some MOOCs will become more modular—“smaller in overall size, but perhaps easier to form sequences out of.” As MOOCs mature in form, he adds, the focus will shift beyond them to a “diffusion of possibilities” in online learning.

This means more use of tools beyond the traditional learning management system—including WordPress, Dropbox and Google Apps such as Google Docs, Sheets and Slides as well as other education-focused tools—that could eliminate the use of an LMS all together.

Online learning will be everywhere in 2015, says Barbara Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Faculty will need help incorporating online learning into their pedagogy, more than they need training on the various tools and programs, Kurshan says. “We’re seeing a lot more peer-to-peer learning. Faculty need to embrace that, and I don’t think they’re quite ready for it yet,” she notes.

Watson agrees this is a potential pitfall. In terms of the flipped classroom, he adds, “the worst-case model I see out there is assigning students to watch a video lecture, and then coming to class and talking at them some more.”

The best models require students to read and take a quiz or write an assignment that has weight on the syllabus—what he calls an “entrance ticket” to class. This encourages active learning and helps establish foundational knowledge for in-class discussions and activities.

Data and metrics

Data will play a prominent role in 2015—in particular as a way to increase graduation rates, says Watson. As pressure mounts to raise these numbers—particularly at public institutions seeking state funding—he expects this data will be used to identify students struggling academically and enable early interventions.

But Watson fears an overemphasis on graduation metrics may take away from teaching goals. “If four- and six-year graduation rates become the bottom line, it may become more about how we allow students to accumulate credit versus how they learn,” he says.

Departments and programs may find themselves competing for funds by trying to prove they can usher students toward completion. The challenge is to support students on the path toward graduation while maintaining high standards and rigor.

Better advising can help, explains Watson, as can the use of open educational resources (OERs)—free or inexpensive textbooks and course content that can help to reduce student costs and, therefore, lower drop-out rates.

OERs are the educational technology Kurshan of UPenn is most excited about in 2015. She expects to see the growth of systems and apps that help aggregate and distribute open content for student use.

She says the trick is getting schools to support the creation and use of these new technologies. “Universities tend to be very conservative about innovation,” Kurshan says. “They’re worried that they need to own everything. But more schools are realizing now they have to change their conservative rules and embrace the new environment.”

Overall, Miller of Duke expects to see more people—both in and beyond academia—interested in teaching and learning in 2015. While this additional scrutiny may create tension and high demands, the hope is that it will lead to positive growth.

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Conn.-based writer and educator.


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