College tuitions are rising. Seat space—especially in community colleges—is often scarce. University endowments are shrinking. State institutions are facing enormous cuts in state funding.
While colleges have fewer resources, they are admitting students who present greater challenges. Increasing numbers of students arrive on campus without the preparation to do college-level work. An estimated 42 percent of students at public two-year institutions and 28 percent of all students nationally take at least one remedial class.
Yet at too many universities, classes are taught in much the same way as they were 50—or even 500—years ago. Students crowd into lecture halls to hear long uninterrupted lectures. Later, they discuss the course material in smaller sections taught by faculty or graduate assistants.
Some institutions, however, are finding new ways to teach students. A new Education Sector report, The Course of Innovation: Using Technology to Transform Higher Education, highlights the ways that colleges and universities are using technology to simultaneously improve student learning and reduce skyrocketing higher education costs.
Policy Analyst Ben Miller notes that many of the most successful innovations are the result of efforts by the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT). Since it was established in 1999, NCAT “has amassed a growing and increasingly complex portfolio of transformation-related projects,” Miller says.
- The University of Idaho, where the Polya Mathematics Center allows students to work on individualized learning modules to supplement their in-class instruction. Today, more students pass introductory math classes, and the university has saved more than $1 million over the last eight years.
- Austin Peay State University, which set a goal of eliminating remedial classes. Through the use of technology and additional academic support, two-thirds of the “remedial” students passed the same for-credit classes they previously would not have been allowed to take.
- Tallahassee Community College, which moved some of the content from its freshman composition classes—grammar and reading comprehension—online. The result is more class time for analysis and critique of student writing.
Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently called improving or reducing remediation the best way to improve completion rates at community colleges, which hover at around 25 percent. “If you start a remedial class, the odds are that you will never finish a credit-bearing course in that subject,” she said. The foundation has made a substantial commitment to improving the effectiveness of remedial programs.
Clearly, conditions are right for reform. Yet Miller finds that “colleges have yet to decide, en masse, that adopting a proven method to produce better student learning outcomes for less money is the kind of thing they should naturally do on their own.” He notes a number of barriers hindering innovation. Many department chairs are reluctant to support innovations that might lead to reduced staffing levels (and thus, a reduction in perceived power). Decentralized governance systems mean there is almost no way to enforce compliance, even with instructional formats that will raise student achievement and reduce costs.
The Course of Innovation: Using Technology to Transform Higher Education highlights promising instructional models that can reduce costs, while maintaining or increasing student achievement. The report outlines examples of success and creates a road map of policy recommendations that will encourage and support colleges and universities seeking to transform learning for students.