Thanks for Attending our 3/30/12 Workshop on the Future of Teaching in Higher Education (Summary of Discussions)

Workshop March 30:  What is the Future of Teaching in Higher Education?

Dave Mazella welcomed the participants to the final workshop of the Spring Semester, and urged everyone to share ideas they have about future workshops to be held in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Frank Holt opened the proceedings with a disclaimer. As an ancient historian, he might not be the best-equipped person to discuss the future. Still he offered a “water-cooler” viewpoint as a starting place for discussion. The vision he shared was somewhat bleak.

Pressures on higher education are growing to increase the ratio of college graduates in our population. There will be demands for more degrees, more access, more accountability, more relevance to employment, and less cost. (Pressures are already on us to create a B.A. that costs less than $10,000.) It is likely this will redefine the experience in institutions of higher learning.

There will be more part-time students, who will demand a self-service education with the speed and efficiencies of Ikea over Ethan Allen. There will be an increasing divide between research and teaching. The teaching function will be outsourced to for-profit retailers such as textbook and software vendors and online universities such as Phoenix University. Teaching will develop into a “Hollywood” model, where instructors become “stars” unaffiliated with any particular institution, and who offer their wares directly to the marketplace. Instructors will be expected to seek corporate sponsorship. The thousands of introductory courses now taught will eventually be serviced by a handful of star quality packages leased back to universities for use by their students. New entities will create institutions of higher learning with special slants on education, such as religious and government groups, corporations, and even political organizations. The ability to offer credentials such as the B.A, will end up in new hands. Brick and mortar universities will take on the role of the Grand Tour in Victorian England – a form of conspicuous consumption indulged in only by the very rich.

Holt ended his talk by saying that he hopes this vision is wrong, but processes that tend in these directions are already underway.

There was a lively discussion, which included the following points (not necessarily in chronological order).

President Khator’s call for UH to do a better job of servicing the needs of the City of Houston opens the question: what exactly does our city need?

The ability to offer credentials is beside the point. The real question is what exactly do our students need to do well in their lives? For-profit educators do a better job at focusing on education with demonstrable immediate payoffs. Maybe, but occupational training is not sufficient in an economy where needed job skills are rapidly evolving. What students need is training in general skills that can be applied to a fluid workplace.

At the moment, universities have a monopoly on credentials that blocks the development of independent global online educational sites. When this monopoly is broken, there will be a thunderbolt, and universities will be in deep trouble.

We need to learn how to partner with publishers and software vendors and ask for grants from them to create course materials.  Yes but we may end up becoming a service organization for our sponsors. Like food contractors, we will become contractors for educational services. Well, we are already dependent on courseware vendors to some degree. Adoption of grading systems is being heavily marketed by vendors offering perks like conference travel.

What really matters for an institution is not its competitive pricing but its ability to compete in the race for institutional reputation. This is how we attract good faculty and good students. But limiting admission to only the best students restricts access. The new emphasis on accountability emphasizes fast and cheap education, but the students we have are not ready to handle college level work. Of 2,000 students entering our introductory math courses, half of them know next to nothing. This is a problem all the way up to the graduate level, where we are forced to dumb down what we teach. So called “efficiency” and lower DWIF rates are near impossible to achieve when students come poorly prepared. Is it my fault if I must award an F to a student who never showed up to class in the first place? Students display a YouTube philosophy where education means taking the path of least resistance to a degree. American culture does not value knowledge. On-demand education means to students that they do not need to learn it now. What they do not realize is their short-cut strategy does not pay off in learning the skills they badly need.

UH probably has as many students now as it can handle. In the future, the state is more likely to pay us for degrees granted than for class enrollment. As the total state contribution declines, it is in our interest to abandon the old model where we let in everyone to see who washes out. Instead, we might improve our faculty to student ratio, and concentrate on quality in admissions. On the other hand, it is not likely that we will be seeing fewer students, nor will they be significantly better prepared. We have to face that reality.

The challenge is to do more with fewer resources. This raises the problem of quality management, where we are way behind. The reason is that academic freedom limits he degree to which demands for improvement get converted into reform. All that is left is continuous quality improvement, which some of us engage in, but which is not widely enough practiced.

Outsourcing has already imposed a massive cost to our economy. Outsourcing in education will be a disaster. Yes, but we already engage in outsourcing to community colleges, since their credits automatically transfer to UH.

We need to make clear what it is that we do that is different from community colleges. One answer is that we generate knowledge, another is that we offer higher quality teaching where students are engaged in research and come to understand the importance of research. Excellence in undergraduate teaching can be part of what makes us unique. It is easy to sell the idea that quality of teaching in for-profit institutions is comparable to ours, but this is false. We should emphasize the skills (such as leaderships, and writing) that are hard to develop online. Some students are happy to remain anonymous in large classes.  But students trained in small classes in basic skills are snapped up in the job market. There is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The very fact that class attendance is so strongly correlated with good grades shows the value of face-to-face learning.

It is crucial to our mission that we do not decouple teaching from research, and that we make clear to the public the importance of research. But the reality is that the main value at UH is research and relatively meager resources are devoted to integrating research with teaching. Furthermore, the ratio of tenure track jobs is decreasing, so that more and more teaching is done by instructors without a research mission. Workload policies may take us in the same direction, by shifting the teaching load to faculty who are not productive enough researchers.

We could partner with high schools and community colleges to better prepare the students who come to us. The best students are ones who do not come directly from community colleges, but who have had a year or to get ready.

Most of the forces that will change higher education are out of our control, so let’s think about what we can control. We need communicate with people who will be making the crucial decisions, the people who are in control. The question was asked: how many people here belong to the AAUP? Almost no one did.

Another suggestion for what we can control is to refuse to cooperate with publishers who convert education into a commodity. Yes, but we need to learn how to use online instruction and other techniques in the best ways to teach large numbers of students well. We are not going to have the small classes that would be found in an ideal university.

The best argument to those in control is to cite events like this workshop. This shows our commitment to teaching, improves our reputation, and is something we can control.

Dave Mazella closed the session by saying that he hoped that the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) could take a more active role in communicating with administrators. As faculty, we tend to operate in splendid isolation. It is better to band together than suffer in silence. We are not alone. There are many universities like ours who are facing the same issues, so research on what they are doing can be helpful to us. You are invited to participate in the CTE blog, not to just to gripe about the issue, but to develop solutions to the problems that face us. We need to organize at the department and faculty levels to improve teaching at UH. Revising a course here or there is not enough. We need to work together in a committed and systematic way. If you are interested in helping by joining CTE, please get in touch, as we are opening up the membership of CTE.


DM postscript: On the subject of Distance Education and Hybrid Education models in the high-quality education of the future, I am going to quote myself from earlier blog posts, and ask everyone to consider Ed Glaeser‘s highly useful dictum about online interactions:

My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley [Brint et al.]).

The study by Brint et al. linked above contains a description of online education that constitutes a warning, I think, for any institution that embraces online education as a means for cost-control and swelling enrollments:

Eventually a new “digital divide” will likely separate institutions that can afford to maintain control over the means of their online production and those that cannot. This divide will correspond to two educational cultures: one oriented primarily to training (“learning just the skills and content you need”) and the other to higher education in the traditional sense – with its stress on creative activity, capacity development, theory and methods, contexts for understanding, and critical approaches to existing knowledge.

It is imperative, then, to maintain quality in online programs as in all other forms of content delivery, if we wish to remain competitive with other institutions in reputational terms.

UPDATED: This Moody’s Higher Education Sector Outlook report for 2012 provides plenty of fodder for both optimists and pessimists.  (Found in our Division of Administration and Finance’s remarkably useful Budget page)

Look particularly at frames 12-13, which talk about the “broken” Higher Ed Model, and the declines of governmental support.

Having highlighted all the challenges we face, I still think that questions of quality and reputation, especially in regard to instruction, are paramount for institutions like ours.  See, for example, this quote: “Student demand and net tuition growth remain strongest for those that are most affordable, reputable, and programmatically diversified” (frame 7).  The question becomes how, and for whom, we define “quality.”


A Response to Friday’s Panel from Peter Bishop (TECH)

[Editor’s note: Peter Bishop, of the College of Technology and its program of Future Studies, of which he is Coordinator, had this email exchange with Frank Holt.  He later agreed to share these thoughts on the CTE blog. We thank him for his interesting comments during the session, and for giving permission to quote his email here.–DM]
Thanks for your session today.  Since I came late and had to leave early, I’m assuming that were teaching the session!
Can you send me your slides?  I just came into the last one, which is also a favorite theme of mine.  For-profit universities almost always have central development and distributed delivery, almost all with para-professionals and part-time adjuncts who are usually working in the field full-time.  It’s a much more efficient model.  I know Phoenix could price their courses much lower as a result, but they price it just below state university rates in order to leave their healthy profit margins intact.
And yes, the rest of the system could move toward central development through the licensing arrangements you mentioned.  I’ve offered to license our futures curriculum many times since it is unique and very few colleges could mount such a course on their own, but so far no takers.  But maybe someday.
It occurred to me, however, that we do have a form of central development in the textbook market which is now expanding its effect on the course through CDs, DVD, test packs and now websites
And I found the discussion following your talk very interesting.  One tendency we have in thinking about the effect of trends that are changing an institution (like higher ed) is to believe that the new will completely replace the old.  That does happen, but much more often it reduces the old as it grows and gobbles up parts of the market, but rarely does the old go away completely.  And I love your analogy of college as the grand tour.  The undergrad experience will remain for many, but it will be expensive so smaller than it is today.
I found the rest of the discussion a study in dialectics.  Attached are the many either-or problems/dilemmas/dichotomies that people were bringing up.  I tend to be a both-and person myself.  Most of the New stuff is definitely on the rise, but it doesn’t mean that all the Old stuff goes away.  The task is to maintain balance and not let either, the New or the Old, take over completely.
So thanks again for holding this session.  Should be a lot more of this type of discussion…
So what do others think?  What would a “both/and” model of past, present, and future higher education look like?

Please join us for a faculty workshop on the future of teaching, Friday, March 30, 1-2:30pm

UH CTE announces new pilot program in faculty-to-faculty peer mentoring: Project TEACH (Teacher Evaluation and Classroom Help)

Project TEACH

Prof. Frank Holt and the CTE Division of Faculty Resources are pleased to announce a new pilot program in peer mentoring called Project TEACH.

The purpose of this CTE initiative is to improve teaching and learning by providing free consultation and support services for UH faculty on a confidential case-by-case basis. The process is entirely voluntary and is conducted on a first come, first served basis. UH faculty members may choose a number of options, from a targeted assessment of one or more specific issues (course and syllabus design, lecture skills, managing group dynamics, testing, active learning, etc.) to a full evaluation of all aspects of teaching and learning (including observations in the classroom) followed by a personalized action plan to address all needs.

The process begins by contacting the current Project TEACH coordinator for an initial brief discussion and assessment to map out a services plan. Depending on individual needs and available mentors, this plan may require only a few sessions to complete, or it may stretch over an entire semester if, for example, a preliminary and follow-up classroom observation is warranted. Assessments of each element in the consultation process will be used in order to measure in detail the program’s effectiveness.

The current Project TEACH coordinator is Frank Holt (History).  If you are interested in a consultation for yourself, or further information, please contact Prof. Holt at or 713-743-3127.

Please attend our “Making Technology Work For You, Not Against You” workshop this Friday, 2/24, 1-2:30

For more information, please contact Frank Holt ( or James Garson (

See you then,


Thanks for coming to last week’s faculty workshop on “Rules, Rules, Rules”–1/27/12

Professors Frank Holt and Jim Garson, of the CTE Faculty Resources Division, led an interesting discussion last Friday on the question of rules in the classroom.  This topic was chosen because there had been strenuous disagreement at the last faculty workshop about how instructors should treat rules: were they indispensable for maintaining order, or a distraction from the real work of learning?

Dr Holt kicked things off by asking attendees to answer each of the following three questions:

–What are some rules you always enforce, and how?

–What are some rules you’d like to enforce, but don’t know how?

–What were some rules you hated as a student?

The most popular rules among this group were policies about late work and cell phone interruptions, followed by “no quiz makeup” and classroom civility policies.

The most difficult rules to enforce seemed to have been about late work, tardiness, and attendance.

Interestingly, many of the attendees could not remember a rule they hated as students.  At most, they identified the inconsistency of their old teachers as the aspect of rules they disliked the most as students.

Here are some of the topics that came up in the midst of a lively discussion:

  • Plagiarism: among the English profs attending the session, this was considered one of the gravest offenses students could commit in their classes, and the penalties were routinely severe.
  • The double-edged nature of technology: there was extensive discussion of the role of technology to enhance classes and the classroom experience, but this was always offset by students’ tendency to use them to distract themselves and their classmates.  Cell phones, web surfing on laptops and tablets, all these possibilities also made it harder to decide whether to allow technology into the classroom or keep it outside.
  • Clickers were mentioned as a device to enhance engagement through on-the-spot questioning of students on discussions.
  • Consistency: Consistent enforcement is necessary to sustain engagement, because  students hate the possibility of other students getting advantages from an oversympathetic professor.  Yet every course, especially in a school with adult students, will feature some students with real-world circumstances that have to be addressed.  What to do?  Flexible but minimalist rules seem key here, with some allowance for unforeseen circumstances.  One faculty member for example allows students to drop three quiz grades, so that factors like sickness, traffic, etc. do not interfere with a student’s grade.
  • Large vs. Small classes: As in so many other things, rules seemed to become far more important for success in large classes than in small ones, because of the need to maintain order and consistency for larger, less homogeneous groups.

One of the closing comments was that much of the discussion seemed to circle around the problems of engagement again, where instructors were confronting the problem of disengaged student behavior manifesting itself either in the form of passive (inattention, cell phone surfing) or active (aggressively, disruptive) behavior.  Yet rules, if they focus on compliance at the expense of real learning, can also create or reinforce their own forms of disengagement.

The workshop broke up at 2:30, with the promise to pick up on some aspect of the engagement issue on Feb. 24th.


Please attend our Faculty Workshop, “Rules, Rules, Rules” next Friday, Jan. 27th, 1-2:30

As noted above, if you have any questions or suggestions, please send those to Frank Holt at, or hit the “Comment” button here.  Thanks, DM