September 19, 2011


C. Report on Course Transformation.

Vice Provost Gretchen Ritter (undergraduate education and faculty governance, government) said the postponement of her report from last spring to the September Council meeting allowed additional progress in the transformation program to occur. The PowerPoint slides of her presentation are included as Appendix B. She said she had prepared a brief overview of the efforts currently underway to transform large, lower-division, gatekeeper courses that serve at least a thousand students each year. As examples of the courses being addressed, she mentioned English 316K, Government 310 and 312, as well as introductory Calculus, Biology, and Economics.

The objective of the transformation effort, according to Vice Provost Ritter, is improvement in student learning and academic success in both the restructured courses as well as in advanced follow-on coursework. The program was initiated in January 2011 in three subject matter areas: the introductory biology sequence, the introductory chemistry sequence, and an introductory statistics course that is related to the other two sequences. Pilot work began this fall semester with some sections being taught using part of the newly designed curriculum and others being taught as before.  This trial effort will provide an opportunity to evaluate the initial success of the work underway, which would provide guidance for the next group of courses scheduled for development in January 2012. The provost’s office is providing funding for the project, which is being directed by Vice Provost Harrison Keller, and the Center for Teaching and Learning is providing considerable staffing resources.  External partners in the project are the Mazur Group at Harvard University, a leader in science education, and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, a producer of highly regarded online courses and educational materials.

Vice Provost Ritter showed slides that presented maps of two of the redesigned courses being piloted this fall—Biology 311C and Chemistry 301. Faculty teams had first determined the “big ideas” for the courses and then further developed supporting concepts as well as learning objectives, activities, and assessment methods for each. These major ideas were signaled to the students from the very beginning of the course.  In addition, the one-page maps also included the core competencies or outcomes that students were to accomplish during the course. The redesigned courses utilized a hybrid approach to learning that combined lectures with online course materials for the students to use for review, practice, and self-assessment. Faculty members could then assess the output from the online activities to determine how well students in these large lecture courses understood the basic course concepts.  This information would allow the instructor to know if students were ready to move on to more advanced concepts in the course.

Vice Provost Ritter said it was desirable that the redesigned courses also contribute lifelong learning capabilities for students in reading and writing skills, problem-solving, quantitative reasoning, and cultural understanding that would cross disciplines and extend beyond graduation into successful careers. She reiterated the importance of mastering the material in these foundational classes for continued success in more advanced, upper-division coursework. Partners in this approach to learning have provided research regarding best practices for in-class and online technologies that are based on cognitive understanding about the learning process. The pedagogies being used are designed to increase the engagement and active learning of students, but the program is “driven from the ground up by faculty,” according to Vice Provost Ritter.  Faculty, she said, provide the vision, creativity, innovative ideas, and hard work, with the administration providing support and assistance as needed. 

The vice provost cautioned that there is considerable debate about the additional cost of this new approach and who should bear that cost, which is estimated to run between half a million and a million dollars per course.  UT Austin and other institutions involved in the process need to be concerned about the sustainability of this approach, because it will require on-going resources to update information and materials. Important issues involve whether students should be assessed a fee, comparable to what they have paid in the past for textbooks, for the use of the educational materials and whether a mechanism to return resources to faculty in departments, where materials are developed and updated, should be provided. Vice Provost Ritter said shortcomings in past efforts have included the lack of support and training for instructors using the educational materials as well as the lack of flexibility in their use. She said it is important to remember that these educational resources and technologies are merely tools, and they may not work well in all areas of the curriculum.  The key is to measure success by how well students are learning important concepts and not by how many tools are being used in the process. 

Vice Provost Ritter said this approach to redesigning the curriculum and coursework to improve the academic success of students was exciting and truly the appropriate way to address increasing four-year graduation rates. In the future, she expected increased resource sharing among institutions and efforts to improve the academic preparation and success of students as they enter higher education programs. Flagship institutions are increasingly aware that better articulation and coordination are needed, with more students taking college-level courses in high school and more students transferring to four-year institutions after attending community colleges than in the past. She thought the effort would have greater success if institutions were working together and sharing resources rather than relying on a system where an external body mandated the standards for articulation.

According to the vice provost, the restructuring of curriculum and reformulation of all the large introductory undergraduate courses would take years to complete and would require patience.  Much of the effort was experimental, which means there will be failures and retrials along the way. She said this effort would require ongoing discussions with faculty in departments and administrators in the colleges/schools about their values and priorities as the project moves forward. She concluded her presentation by saying she strongly believes this effort “is a bet that we ought to be making, because the potential impact, both for us as an institution and for our students, is great!” She said that she welcomed comments, thoughts, and suggestions from the faculty.

When Professor Brian Evans (electrical and computer engineering) asked if all the chemistry sections would be following the new model, Vice Provost Ritter responded that they would not. Some would retain the traditional instructional approach so comparisons in student performance could be made, and not all new ones were fully redesigned at this time. 

Professor Phillip Barrish (English) asked for further information regarding the vice provost’s comment that the redesigned courses would likely work better in some subject matter areas than others.  She responded that faculty would determine the direction of the development effort, but that she realized there was considerable debate as to whether or not these new technological approaches should be used to support assessment in writing. She added that the project might work better in areas where assessments are more objective than in those where they are more subjective.  She emphasized that the effort was not being undertaken to reduce in-class instruction and said she would be strongly opposed if that were the goal. She re-emphasized that the objective is to improve learning by making the experiences positive and engaging for students.

Professor Staiger asked what the University’s position was regarding intellectual property rights for the contributor to the transformation initiative. The vice provost responded that the University will likely be the primary owner of the rights to the degree that the University sponsored and developed the project and materials. However, there was concern that faculty and departments contributing to the development of the transformations should be recognized and rewarded for their work. Projects would need to cover their costs to be sustainable, but revenues beyond that should be considered for return to the faculty and departments that produced them.

When Professor Evans asked what UT Austin’s policy was with regard to ownership of educational content developed by a faculty member, Vice Provost Ritter said the traditional model for the University was that it had no ownership rights over a textbook written by a faculty member.  She added, however, that the course transformation program had caused the University to look at the American Association of Universities’ models regarding this matter.  She said the University is also looking at what should occur when a faculty member builds additional proprietary material on top of open-source systems.  This effort, she said, has involved faculty input, with the University seeking ways to encourage further innovation and collaboration.  For example, if a faculty member were licensing a product or design, the University might encourage licensure at a lower level than that normally undertaken with a private commercial partner to allow educational partners to more easily contribute and collaborate in developments involving that faculty member’s work. Professor Evans asked if there was a private commercial partner involved at present in the reformulation project. The vice provost responded “no” but said she wanted openness retained for that possibility.  She added that she did not think UT Austin would want to be required to offer technical support to users if the project was hugely successful and hundreds of schools wanted to use the online materials.  Professor Evans said that one approach would be to write a book in order to export the ideas, but he wondered who would own a textbook that grew from this project. Vice Provost Ritter said the issue was complex, because there were various aspects to intellectual property rights, including content, approach, software, platform, and analytics. Historically, she thought that faculty members tended to believe that the ownership rights pertained largely to content, but she said the value of content had been diminished greatly by sources like Wikipedia. When Professor Evans asked if the University had disclosed to the faculty, who are currently involved in the transformation project, that it had the ownership rights, the vice provost said she had no prior knowledge about intellectual property prior to becoming involved in this project, but the University was “doing a much better job of signaling this for the next round.”

After noting that much of the heavy work on this project was being done by non-tenure track lecturers teaching introductory courses, Dr. Blinda McClelland (lecturer, biological sciences) said this group of faculty would appreciate the support of the Faculty Council in any debate about the merits of teaching versus research. Vice Provost Ritter thanked her for the comment and agreed that senior lectures were heavily involved in the project and their work was greatly appreciated.

Professor Robert Abzug (history and American studies) asked how much consideration had been given to students in terms of their need to purchase hardware and software, even if textbook replacement resulted.  He was concerned about the way in which technology develops and that this project might end up raising costs for students as well as the University. The vice provost said students were engaged in the process, and the project included an ongoing effort to get their feedback; in addition, she said a student member was on the review panel for project selection. She said ongoing feedback was essential, especially if the direction for a course turned out to be wrong and redirection became necessary. With regard to technology, she said it was important to maintain flexibility and to not over-commit one way or the other.  She reported that much of the technological needs assessment discussions thus far had centered on developing a common platform for all the courses that offers flexibility in supporting various application programming interfaces through plug-ins. Lastly, she added that she thought future development would need to increasingly provide capability for mobile access.

Chair Friedman thanked Vice Provost Ritter for her presentation, and the Council did as well through its applause.


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