The Course of Innovation: Using Technology to Transform Higher Education

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On a cool, gray evening in October 2009, a group of University of Idaho students began trickling into the basement of a multistory brick building tucked off to the side of a sloping, grass-covered quad. They were there to learn math. But there were no math professors to greet them.

Instead, students quickly spread throughout the room, finding spaces in front of the room's 94 computers or open spots at several tables where they could use their own laptops. Some put on headphones and began scribbling notes as videos and animated diagrams played on the computer screens in front of them. Others studied graphs and worked through problem sets, periodically clicking a mouse to answer questions. No two students were looking at exactly the same thing or working in exactly the same way. But as heirs to their school’s pioneering venture in course transformation, they all were sitting at the forefront of 21st century higher education.

The room is known as the Polya Mathematics Center. It opened in 2001, on the site of a discarded anthropology lab, as part of a now decade-old movement to marshal the power of information technology to simultaneously improve student learning and reduce skyrocketing higher education costs. There are now dozens of sites like Polya scattered across the country, at small community colleges and huge research universities and in subjects ranging from Spanish and English composition to chemistry, history, and engineering. And the number of sites is growing every year, as an increasing number of colleges manage to crack the code of higher education productivity by helping more students advance toward degrees while cutting costs in the bargain.

With universities under pressure to increase degree production at the same time that endowments are shrinking and cash-strapped state legislatures are cutting public funds, this would seem to be the kind of innovation that would quickly be adopted far and wide, resulting in hundreds or thousands of Polya-type learning environments, instead of just dozens. But this is not the case. Even those colleges that have used technology to successfully transform some of their courses have left most of their other classes alone.

The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), a small nonprofit considered to be the intellectual center of the technology-based course transformation movement, has labored mightily and with much success to help more colleges bring their undergraduate courses into the modern age. But it has labored precisely because 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.

The Idaho center, one of NCAT’s earlier pilot projects, showcases many of the virtues of course transformation. Students taking intermediate algebra and pre-calculus meet for just one class per week, where an instructor reviews the toughest concepts from the assigned homework and discusses specific math problems. The rest of the time, students take charge of their learning by spending at least two-and-a-half hours in the Polya lab, which is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the week and for 13 hours on the weekend. There, they complete computer-based learning modules that present material through short videos, interactive diagrams, and problems to solve. The computer provides immediate feedback, giving hints and guiding students back to relevant course materials when they get stuck. If that's not enough, undergraduate teaching assistants and graduate students are on duty 82 hours a week to provide personalized assistance at a moment’s notice. Using a decidedly non-technological system, students place plastic cups on the top of a monitor when they need help. Students come to Polya when it fits their schedule, rather than all assembling at an appointed hour. And they can move through the material at their own pace, rather than in lockstep with their peers.

Before Polya, introductory math was a significant problem for many University of Idaho students. More than 21 percent of students failed or withdrew from intermediate algebra without completing the course, and only 62 percent passed the course with a "C" or better, creating a major barrier toward college graduation just after enrolling. Today, 70 percent pass the course, and the number of students who withdraw from or fail the course has dropped by 20 percent, all at a per-student cost to the university 30 percent lower than traditional courses, saving the university over $1 million over the last eight years. And that was before changes introduced this year reduced the costs by 50 percent more.

With the help of NCAT, other colleges have had similar success. Ohio State University saved $127,200 by transforming an introductory statistics course, with students averaging 8 percentage points higher on a common exam than peers who took the same course in a traditional format. Virginia Tech redesigned a 2,000 student linear algebra course, reducing course costs from $182,000 to $42,000 without any decreases—and some modest, but statistically insignificant, increases—in student academic performance. Carnegie Mellon University developed an electronic tutoring system for its introductory statistics course, which saved more than $23,000. Students in the transformed course correctly answered questions testing statistical concepts at a rate 30 percentage points higher than those in the traditional offering.

Course transformation, moreover, is not just for math and statistics—public, private, two-year and four-year institutions have improved courses including visual and performing arts, college composition, and introductory Spanish and cut per-student costs by as much as 74 percent in the process.

But despite the worst fiscal environment for higher education in a generation and mountains of evidence that NCAT-style reforms are effective, just over a hundred colleges out of nearly 7,000 nationwide have worked with the center to transform a course. This failure has broad implications for the way state and national leaders should think about the pressing challenge of helping more students earn an affordable college degree.

Education Sector thanks Lumina Foundation for its support of this project. Lumina Foundation for Education is an Indianapolis-based, private foundation dedicated to expanding access and success in education beyond high school. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lumina Foundation for Education, its officers, or employees.