March 3, 2024

Engineering Learning

Author: Steven Mintz


In a series of recent articles, one of higher ed’s leading futurists, Michael Feldstein, predicts that the higher education’s future will be blended: combining the virtual and the face-to-face and melding guided inquiry with active and experiential learning.

Feldstein, who, at various times has served as assistant director of the SUNY Learning Network, a product and program manager at Cengage and Oracle, a partner at MindWires Consulting, co-publisher of eLiterate, and now as co-founder and chief innovation officer at Argos Education, is one of those surprisingly rare figures in higher ed who brings together thought leadership with real-world implementation experience.

In other words, his forecasts are grounded in a realistic sense of what is and isn’t likely.

Feldstein is, as his record suggests, convinced that technology will play a bigger role in instruction, not simply because of its possible cost efficiencies, but its potential to address some of the shortcomings in teaching today. These include the need to do a better job to:

  • Scaffold learning.
  • Tailor instruction to individual student needs.
  • Address differences in levels of student preparation.
  • Promote collaboration.
  • Monitor engagement and learning.
  • Provide more timely, substantive and constructive feedback.

Technology, in his view, can help accomplish all these goals, but this will require instructors to rethink their role and conceive of themselves as learning experience engineers, activity architects and assessment designers.

Why? Because instructors, especially those in the most challenging, high-demand disciplines, will be under intense pressure to:

  • Reduce performance and achievement gaps and ensure that all students in a particular course achieve a minimal viable level of competency.
  • Ensure that students acquire discipline-based modes of thinking and can apply discipline-specific skills.
  • Expand students’ opportunities to engage in inquiry, investigation and active learning by doing.
  • Make certain that their students remain engaged and on track.

I doubt that most instructors will have the resolve, competence or time to design the kinds of next-generation interactive courseware that Feldstein foresees as a key component in the future of teaching. But, then, individual instructors won’t need to reinvent the wheel. They could adopt courseware, much as they adopt textbooks, or could remix, edit and modify instructional materials, if licensing terms permit.

My own guess is that a path forward will involve partnerships between academic publishers, teams of specialists and foundations and other funders, with Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative or the Dana Center/Agile Mind and their Advanced Mathematical Decision Making course materials as plausible models.

All of which raises several questions:

  • Will faculty be willing to adopt courseware that will serve as the spine for a particular class? A textbook is typically a learning resource, usually combined with other readings. It’s a component of a course, not its backbone. Courseware, even if customizable, largely dictates the course’s organization, content and assessments. Currently, very few faculty members have adopted existing courseware, though there are some exceptions, like Pearson’s MyLabs.
  • Will faculty be willing to cede much of the responsibility for content creation and instructional design to external groups of professionals? Already, some instructors rely on PowerPoint slides, classroom handouts and test banks provided by publishers. I’ve also taught at prestigious institutions in which teaching assistants deliver courses and course materials designed and developed by faculty members. But I think it’s fair to say that this approach is widely viewed as shocking, as unprofessional and a dereliction of an instructor’s responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether mass-produced courseware will be viewed similarly.
  • Will courseware be a step toward standardizing instruction and reducing the personal touches that individual instructors provide? There is, of course, something to be said on behalf of standardized coverage. This ensures that all students who take a particular course should have mastered the same content and skills. It strikes me as likely that a heavy reliance on courseware could, potentially, constrain some of the individuality of courses. But since the courseware only provides a course’s online content, what occurs in class, in the actual interaction of an instructor and students, can remain highly personalized.

My personal view is that while interactive courseware holds out the promise of enhancing student learning and raising the average level of instructional quality—provided, of course, that the learning materials meet genuinely high standards of excellence—there is a real danger that it could reinforce already existing tendencies to:

  • Treat foundational and gateway courses unimportant, as literal service classes that are obligatory but perfunctory and undeserving of the serious attention of tenured faculty.
  • Replace expert instructors and scholar teachers with course mentors and teaching assistants, since much of the content delivery is shifted online.
  • Reduce the amount of required reading and degrade learning by transforming it into a process of simply completing various assignments.
  • Assess student learning in largely mechanical ways that can be automated. My review of high school Advanced Placement questions in history suggests that most do not test students’ higher-order thinking skills or conceptual understanding, let alone their research, analytic and writing skills.

Let me state right here that I myself, in collaboration with a team of graduate students and undergraduates, have developed courseware that I use in my very large U.S. history survey classes. The questions that I ask of other developers are the very questions that I ask of myself. I know full well that all too many students regard the courseware modules as my class’s only important component and treat the in-person portion of the course as inconsequential.

Here is the rub. I want instructors to consider themselves learning architects whose primary responsibilities as teachers are to:

  • Transform their course into a journey and a community of inquiry with a goal of bringing all students to success.
  • Design engaging, purposeful learning activities.
  • Track, scaffold and proactively support student learning.
  • Develop meaningful assessments that truly evaluate students’ knowledge and skills, including their higher-order and critical thinking skills.
  • Provide meaningful, substantive and useful feedback.

Interactive courseware can help us achieve those goals. It should, indeed, play a crucial role in the future of higher education. I, for one, have benefited enormously from my ability to keep an eye on student engagement and on the content and problems that students find confusing. Still, we must be wary of delegating too many of our responsibilities as teachers to others.

Teaching is, first and foremost, a matter of relationships—relationships of trust, support, encouragement. It necessarily involves improvisation, creativity, inventiveness and inspiration. Without those elements, education is nothing more than training.

So remember: while training is about the acquisition and practice of particular skills, education is about learning—acquiring the capacity to research, think critically and communicate effectively in any context. While a small number of autodidacts can learn on their own, most of us require something more: a guide, a mentor, a Virgil to guide us on our quest.

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

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