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Cutting Costs, Improving Learning

Despite a decade-long track record, many academics are still skeptical of the technology-fueled course redesign movement.

Dr. Jennifer L. Hearne (center) and University of Maryland-Eastern Shore students who are in Dr. Hearne’s “Principles of Chemistry I” class for the spring semester 2009. The course was redesigned in 2007-2008.

As a newcomer to the Department of Natural Sciences at University of Maryland-Eastern Shore in fall 2007, assistant biochemistry professor Jennifer L. Hearne concluded from teaching “Principles of Chemistry I” that the introductory general education course needed a makeover.

“I knew there had to be a more efficient way. We had four people teaching the same class and there was no coordination. We all just did our own thing, which seemed like a huge waste of time to me. Not only that, there was no technology, so I was grading hundreds of papers every day, and it just didn’t make sense to me,” she says.

In addition to alleviating teaching inefficiencies, Hearne saw the potential “to improve student learning outcomes” with a better organized course. “We found that about 55 percent of our students were failing this course and that’s severe when you have that high of a fail rate in a freshman class,” she explains.

Hearne’s move to UMES, a historically Black university, coincided with the University of Maryland system having undertaken a course redesign initiative. The initiative, begun in 2006, had invited professors teaching introductory courses in math, science, social sciences and the humanities to use information technology and other efficiency measures to improve student learning outcomes and to lower academic department costs. Each Maryland campus was charged with “redesigning at least one pilot course during a three-year period starting in 2006,” according to University of Maryland system officials.

In the spring of 2008, a fully redesigned pilot phase of “Principles of Chemistry I,” utilizing an online tutorial and reducing weekly classes from three to two, saw the student pass rate increase from 55 to 66 percent from the previous semester among health and science majors, according to Hearne. She says the tutorials have played a critical role in helping students gain a thorough understanding of their progress and shortcomings in learning the course material.

“I thought by incorporating technology into their coursework we could promote their self-development and teach them how to efficiently learn chemistry,” Hearne says.

A National Movement

Putting an information technology component, such as the online tutorial, at the core of the course redesign process has made the UMES “Principles of Chemistry I” part of a growing movement in U.S. higher education. Currently, roughly 60 U.S. colleges and universities, as well as four university systems, are collaborating with the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) to redesign introductory courses that increase student learning and cut costs for academic departments. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based organization, launched in 1999 by Dr. Carol Twigg, a noted expert on instructional technology, has facilitated information technology applications development to help make cost-savings possible in redesigned courses.

Course redesign models urge the use of information technology in large introductory courses. Often, the number of lecture classes is reduced, and they are replaced by laboratory or lecture review classes. The lectures are often reinforced by students having to complete online tutorials in dedicated computer labs where they can interact individually with professors and teaching assistants.

These changes have enabled cost reductions for academic departments. From 1999 to 2004, 30 two- and four-year colleges, collaborating with NCAT, reduced the costs on redesigned courses by 37 percent on average. Twenty-five of 30 course redesign projects demonstrated increases in student learning, NCAT has reported.

Hearne recalls that once the redesign was fully implemented the cost of instruction per student in “Principles of Chemistry I” fell from $268 to $56, partly reflecting the fact that the redesigned course requires just one or two professors, instead of four. Hearne was the only professor this semester teaching “Principles of Chemistry I.”

Course development is “more labor intensive than it needs to be because the instructors are creating their own content or building lessons around different textbooks. So just having organized content is one of the backbone pieces of how you can create efficiencies in your course design,” says Dr. Deborah Everhart, a senior architect at Blackboard, Inc.

Not surprisingly, the emphasis on cutting costs through efficiency measures has helped the NCAT attract considerable attention from state and federal officials, college and university administrators, and college access advocates who have grown alarmed by the spiraling costs of tuition at public colleges and universities. In 2006, the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which urged greater accountability by U.S. higher education institutions, recommended that states and institutions “establish course redesign programs using technology-based, learner-centered principles drawing upon the innovative work already being done by organizations such as the National Center for Academic Transformation.”

“I think the most important thing we’ve achieved is to demonstrate conclusively that it is possible to improve learning while reducing costs simultaneously. And that is something higher education never believed was possible, and a lot of people still don’t believe it’s possible,” says Twigg, president and CEO of NCAT.

Improving Student Performance

Dr. Ronald Henry, the provost of Georgia State University, says the promise of increased student learning while cutting academic costs in introductory courses initially interested him in NCAT’s work early this decade. “It was debunking the old myth that if you want to increase quality you have to increase the costs. That is something in the academy that is a well-believed axiom,” he contends.

“At Georgia State, significant challenges were in our introductory math courses. I had seen very good results [from course redesign] that had occurred at the University of Alabama and then subsequently Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and also the University of Idaho. I thought it was something we could do here and so I got some of the faculty members of the math department interested in trying this,” Henry says. The progress that the University of Alabama achieved when it saw disparities between Black and White student performance in redesigned introductory math courses disappear also intrigued Henry. He says Georgia State undertook course redesign efforts in its introductory math and science courses following the first wave of pilot course redesigns by other schools. The goal was to have 75 percent of students earning at least a C.

“We’ve managed to do that in biology, chemistry and physics; we’re not there in math. The introductory math courses used to have students at a 50 percent rate getting A, B, or C. It’s now around 70 percent,” he says, adding that the achievement gap between Black students and others has narrowed.

Dr. Tor A. Kwembe, the chair of the mathematics department at historically Black Jackson State University, says that this semester his department is piloting four mathematics courses — three sections of college algebra and one section of intermediate algebra — that have undergone revamping as part of a course redesign initiative by the Mississippi public university system. Kwembe believes the online instruction will prove a decisive factor in improved student performance.

This semester, the Jackson State math department allowed students in college and intermediate algebra to voluntarily take advantage of online math instruction, which is a requirement for those in the pilot program. “What we found was that students who were using the computer frequently were doing better than those who were not. So now it is required for those in those courses,” Kwembe says.

Eight Mississippi universities are participating in the Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative, including the state’s other two historically Black institutions: Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. Those campuses expect to report on the progress of their pilot courses following the semester’s end.

The Road Ahead

Observers have been skeptical about the claim that course redesign improves student academic performance while reducing costs, a stance Twigg readily acknowledges as widespread in higher education despite the project’s decade-long tenure.

“I think that what continues to be the primary appeal is improving student success — improving learning, improving quality is the primary appeal. The fact that you can also change your resource picture, for those who have gone through it, is something they very much appreciate. For those who haven’t done it, they’re skeptical,” she says.

At UMES, Hearne reports that some faculty members have viewed the efficiency gains achieved by the chemistry course redesign with unease. With one professor teaching the course, the redesign has freed up “instructors’ time for professional development while reducing the institutional cost.” However, Hearne says, not all of her colleagues are eager to teach a class with 100 students when they have long been used to teaching less than half that per class.

Skepticism partly arises from the negative perceptions around the U.S. higher education’s labor pool having undergone massive growth in adjunct faculty and college administrators in recent years while there’s been relatively flat growth among tenure-path and tenured faculty. Higher education’s drift into what many consider serious labor inequities has invited skepticism toward projects such as the course redesign initiative.

Twigg, however, says the course redesign movement should be seen as one that strengthens opportunities for tenure-path faculty. “Many of these redesigns have no reliance on adjuncts and the full-time faculty (members) do all of the teaching,” she notes.

In recent years, NCAT has evolved course redesign collaborations from not only enlisting individual schools on a one-by-one basis to it now targeting university systems and other institutional groupings, such as community college systems, as a way to accelerate the movement.

“Even though we’ve been doing this now close to 10 years, it’s still fairly new on the higher education scene,” she says.

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