Over the past decade the shift in the landscape of higher education has been profound. Where once professors stood center stage and lectured for an hour at a time, today’s student-centric approach requires faculty to take on new roles as mentors and guides. The “sage on the stage” model of higher education is morphing into the “guide on the side” model. This transition is, of course, not complete– it’s an evolution not a revolution. Where it is taking off, who is responsible for helping faculty adjust to the changes in their roles? The answer to that question is as complex as the nature of education in a society characterized by both established academic traditions and rapid technological change. The answer varies school to school. And the results are as varied as the academic frustrations and successes of faculty, staff, and students nationwide.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the answer is crystallizing around a remarkably innovative organization that’s bringing both solid data and fresh approaches to the task– the Faculty Innovation Center.
I recently visited the Faculty Innovation Center on my last day as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas. Housed on the far corner of the U.T. campus in Austin, Texas, the Faculty Innovation Center collaborates with the university’s various departments, schools and instructors to facilitate the application of new teaching styles and technologies in the classroom and thereby transform the learning process. Prior to my visit, I never knew it existed, and yet the evidence of their work had been in my classrooms all along, from the evolution of the U.T. campus learning management system to the increase in online course offerings and technologically growing libraries and work spaces around campus. While students attend their classes and hit the books, the Faculty Innovation Center works tirelessly to maintain their curriculum, educate their professors and ensure they are getting the best possible education experience, a behind-the-scenes force that ensures education at UT is up-to-date and progressing for the better.
The Center is headed by Hillary Hart, who is also a faculty member and lecturer at the UT Austin Cockrell School of Engineering. Hart has spent 29 years teaching industrial engineering and has seen firsthand how new technological forces shaped the way her students learned – or didn’t. She realized it fell on the faculty to modernize their teaching methods in order to help her students truly learn and moved to the Faculty Innovation Center to help other faculty make the shift.
Author Emily Kendrick (left) and Director Hillary Hart (right) outside the Faculty Innovation Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
“The role of the Faculty Innovation Center is to explore with faculty and administration how to use technologies to facilitate more collaboration among colleges, facilitate internships, encourage experiential learning and to develop better flow through a degree program,” said Hart. “We have to meet students where they live and learn.”
The Faculty Innovation Center conducts department assessments, analyzes student data to track progress and scrutinizes the curriculum of each major at UT Austin from biochemistry to social work. The Faculty Innovation Center has four initiatives; curriculum design, graduate student development, partnerships with faculty innovators and instructional practice, with curriculum redesign being their most significant effort.
“Our goal is to help faculty not just teach better, but also to develop better flow through a degree program,” said Hart. “We want to help the teaching match the degree plans, including how courses are related to each other.”
Case in point: the University has spent the past few years trying to increase the four-year graduation rate of its students. The Faculty Innovation Center’s curriculum redesign initiative was launched to assist this effort by ensuring that undergraduate classes within a given major build on one another rather than overlap in content. In addition to analysis, the Faculty Innovation Center partners with faculty to help restructure classes when necessary and even create interdisciplinary courses that allow students of different majors to take major classes alongside each other.
Data plays a large role in helping the Faculty Innovation Center with their work. By analyzing data related to students’ career paths, both during their time at the university and after, the Faculty Innovation Center is able to assess how well the university prepared students for the real world – insights that then help them hone their teaching methods and curriculum.
The Faculty Innovation Center is also a key partner of UT’s Project 2021. Launched in 2016 by the university President Fenves, Project 2021 is an effort to meet the educational needs of 21st century students by fully modernizing classrooms within the next three years. Project 2021 also addresses a special concern of UT Austin – the fact that the famous forty acres are full, leaving U.T. little space on campus to expand. The Faculty Innovation Center is joining Project 2021 to help find solutions this problem – including the development of more online classes for larger classes.
“The answer is never to educate less people,” said Hart.
One way UT is combating its lack of physical space is through an increased use of flipped classrooms, a model that reverses the standard lecture and homework elements of a course. Flipped classrooms rely on recorded video lectures that students watch on their own prior to their lectures. Scheduled class time is instead used for projects or discussions. U.T. also utilizes on-demand classes, an offshoot of the flipped classroom model that have no set class times. On-demand classes are online courses that incorporate video, quizzes and other activities and provide students with the flexibility to watch lectures and complete coursework at their own pace, while subject to deadlines established by instructors. As part of Project 2021, UT has created flipped and on-demand versions of several core courses that follow the flipped classroom model, producing and developing the video content with the university’s own development studios. Digital course models are also uniquely useful in the opportunities they provide for faculty to research and refine their own courses.
Maker spaces have also proven vital in successfully and thoroughly educating today’s crop of students. These are physical spaces that are specifically designed for collaborative work and often feature an array of tech tools. These spaces help students gain critical hands-on abilities in technological skills. UT’s largest maker space, the Foundry, provides access to 3D printers, VR headsets, micro-computing controllers, video and audio equipment and more. Maker spaces such as the Foundry allow students to collaborate, train and explore.
With increasingly technological focus comes more need for technical signage and learning tools. Classrooms have relied on AV technology since the days of projectors, but today’s learning environment allows for the implementation of more creative solutions, across classrooms and maker spaces alike.
When asked how AV consultants could best cater to the classroom’s needs, Hart had a simple and eloquent response: “First and foremost, our faculty are the consultants,” said Hart. While classrooms and teaching styles change, the faculty remains at the heart of it all; spaces are designed not just based on student needs, but also by considering what the faculty needs in order to successfully educate the modern generation of students.
Now a graduate of U.T., I look back and am amazed that I never knew how hard the Faculty Innovation Center worked to shape my college experience. While working on AVNetwork as an intern for NewBay Media has given me insight into the way modern technology is changing students and college campuses alike, I never thought of the work it takes to bring innovations into the classroom. While education continues to change as different generations of students come and go, the behind-the-scenes work of organizations like the Faculty Innovation Center will remain vital in helping the faculty address the needs of students and the way they learn.
Emily Kendrick is a 2017 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Public Relations and Radio-Television-Film. In addition, Kendrick interned with NewBay Media in her Senior year, writing, editing and posting news and features on AV in corporate and campus applications.