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Faculty’s Role in Higher Education Innovation

February 09, 2015

The shift to a new student majority in higher education—first-generation college goers; students from low-income families; and adult learners juggling school, work, and family—demands nothing short of transforming the postsecondary system. Few people realize that faculty are leading many of these necessary innovations. And where faculty are not the lead, they are essential partners in making change happen. So, it’s vital to better understand the views of faculty and what supports they say they need to continue to advance student outcomes.

To that end, we commissioned research from FTI Consulting to help us better understand how different factors influence faculty willingness to learn about and incorporate new ideas and approaches in their teaching, particularly approaches that personalize learning (such as courseware) in undergraduate education, and spread these new ideas to peers and campus leaders. The results are inspiring on a number of levels.

Most notably, the report:

  • Shows that a significant proportion of faculty is open to using courseware and other innovations to improve their students' success;
  • Demonstrates very specific obstacles that faculty face in evolving their practice; and
  • Illuminates approaches that colleges and others can take to help reduce or overcome those obstacles.

The study is helping to guide our thinking inside the foundation about the role we can play in efforts to sustainably scale and spread the adoption of proven innovations, such as online and blended learning. We also seek input from partners, higher ed leaders, grantees, and others who work directly with faculty through focus groups and discussions to explore the barriers that stand in the way of innovation and how they can be overcome.

 This report is a rigorous and comprehensive national study that provides a foundation for action to improve higher education.Douglas Walcerz, Essex County College

We don’t hear enough in the postsecondary education conversation about the role faculty already are playing to address these new challenges for today’s students. Consider Ariel Anbar at Arizona State University, who is reconfiguring how to teach general education science. Using sophisticated adaptive technologies, Ariel’s students learn science fundamentals by way of exploring questions such as, “Is there life on other planets?” And Constance Elko who, in her 19th year at Austin Community College in Texas, is leading a group of instructors who are transforming developmental math. Elko’s work allows students to proceed at their own pace, while ensuring that faculty are available when students need direction and support. The program has reduced by half the number of students who withdraw from remedial math before completion, enabling many more to proceed to the college credential that will change their lives. This new report puts America’s college teaching force back where it belongs: at the center of our effort to move the nations’ college completion agenda forward.Martin Finkelstein, Seton Hall University

These are just two examples of the countless stories that inspire hope in those of us seeking to reinvigorate higher education and maintain its promise of a pathway into the middle class for all Americans. These types of successes are why the Postsecondary Success strategy invests in faculty-led innovation, in the use of courseware in improving student learning outcomes, in technologies that help faculty and advisors support and guide students toward completion of their credentials, and in the careful design and implementation of guided degree pathways.

Giving more students the opportunity to succeed not only lifts up individuals, it ensures an educated citizenry that strengthens our economy and our democracy. Increasing the number of our workers with a postsecondary degree or credential is essential for addressing the growing inequity in this country. For the new student majority, a college degree is a ticket to a sustaining career and, for low-income students, a ladder into the middle class.

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