Building A World Class Teaching University

Building A World Class Teaching University
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC)delivered this keynote address, titled “Building A World Class Teaching University” and delivered in the U.S.-China Distance Education Research and Exchange. Nanjing, China

Open institutions such as ours are by definition teaching universities… designed to educate the knowledge workers of tomorrow…by providing them with both the academic credentials and the 21st century professional skills they must have to compete in today’s highly fluid global economy.

But in order to call ourselves world class…we must reach well beyond our teaching mission to attain high levels of sustained performance…as measured by internationally accepted standards of excellence. We have to be among the best of the best at what we do…a distinction that my own university has worked diligently to earn.

As the largest public university in the United States and a truly global enterprise, UMUC has built a solid reputation for academic excellence…with distance education courses that are identical in quality to those we offer face-to-face.
And this excellence has been recognized time and again by many of the world’s pre-eminent academic and professional organizations in the field of adult and distance education.

In just the past year alone, UMUC was named one of the top ten best online universities worldwide…by Global Academy Online…the oldest and perhaps most highly respected international ratings guide for distance education providers.

According to the list’s author, we were cited for our trailblazing work in online learning…having now become a model that many colleges and universities are scrambling to emulate.

UMUC also received four outstanding achievement awards from the United States Distance Learning Association. As America’s first nonprofit association to support distance education research and development…USDLA has now gained international prominence…with more than 20,000 global sponsors and members.

Moreover, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association…another worldwide organization…awarded two of its highest honors in teaching and research to one of UMUC’s top-rated faculty members…Dr. Stella Porto…thus acknowledging her remarkable contributions in the field of online learning.

Needless to say, outstanding performance such as this requires tremendous vision, extraordinary discipline, and astute resource allocation. But it is also fundamentally grounded in a set of transformative attributes that I believe are common to all world class teaching universities.

To illustrate the point, I would like to tell you about an ambitious curriculum redesign initiative we have undertaken at UMUC…known as Supporting Educational Goals for Undergraduate Excellence…or Project SEGUE, for short.
Like any great teaching university, UMUC’s success is fueled by a relentless drive to be better…particularly when it comes to providing our students with workforce-relevant academic programs…comprehensive support services… and next generation learning technologies…which are as effective as they are empowering.

That said, we have developed a highly structured and fully automated process for data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement that enables us to track student achievement over time. And after conducting an exhaustive, five-year study on student engagement and persistence, it became obvious that we needed to take a long hard look at our undergraduate curriculum.
So in its relentless drive to be better, UMUC’s academic leadership team launched Project SEGUE…determined to create a transformational academic model.

In mapping its course…this team established a simple set of guidelines. To begin with, the model would incorporate research-validated “best practices” for teaching and learning. It would also redirect the emphasis away from contact hours and toward quality learning outcomes…in line with 21st century professional expectations. And by doing so…our students would be far better prepared to make the transition from coursework to real work.

With 33 programs and some 1,200 courses to re-engineer, this groundbreaking initiative has most definitely been the product of collective effort…which brings me to the second attribute on my list. World-class universities are also especially adept at harnessing the power of strategic collaboration.

In fact, hundreds of UMUC faculty members from around the world have joined forces with industry professionals and academic experts to redesign the undergraduate curriculum…using a systematic process that relies heavily on teamwork…as you can see from this illustration.

We began at the program level…by assembling our academic program directors. Working together, these faculty leaders identified specific gaps in program content…common barriers to student progress…and persistent problems with course sequencing and integration.

Using this information they produced a series of program maps…which, as you can see, outline a standard path for degree completion…as well as key points for student learning assessment.

After mapping each program…we then convened a group of outside experts…from among both our industry learning partners and our graduates…and asked them to help us articulate new learning outcomes for each program…based upon the 21st century knowledge and skills our students would need in the real world of work.

The revised outcomes subsequently became the foundation for a second series of program maps…from which our faculty teams developed Program Outcome Guides. These guides are essentially detailed blueprints for measuring the extent to which our students successfully master course content…while also meeting program objectives.

Upon completing the program portion of our project…we refocused our effort on redesigning each undergraduate course…by deploying an expanded group of faculty teams that included course instructors in each of our academic programs. These teams were then asked to match industry-driven program outcomes with such hallmark competencies as writing proficiency and technological fluency…cultural literacy and systems thinking.

Based upon that alignment…our faculty members went on to develop Course Outcome Guides…which delineate specific learning outcomes for each individual course…along with both appropriate learning content and best practice learning activities.

Moreover, to better support our instructors…these SEGUE teams created Course Teaching Guides…that serve as a roadmap for effectively delivering the new curriculum…whether online, face-to-face, or a combination of both.

To be sure…this has been an intensive process…but one that has produced phenomenal results…thanks to UMUC’s longstanding history of strategic collaboration. I am proud to report that in less than two years…we have mapped, remapped, and prepared program outcome guides for all 33 of our undergraduate degrees.

In addition, we have developed course outcome and teaching guides for nearly 700 individual courses…while paring down our course selections by nearly 100. Even more impressive, this re-engineering initiative has brought more than 400 members of our faculty to the table…where they have devoted thousands of hours to completing each task…down to the very last detail.

Like any world class teaching university…UMUC continues to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to innovation…an attribute that not only propels us to new heights of achievement…but also allows us to set the standard for exceptional academic products and practices.

As a pioneer in adult and distance education…UMUC has always invested wisely in next generation learning technologies that engage students and faculty alike in collaborative and authentic knowledge creation…while providing plenty of opportunities to apply this knowledge in real-world scenarios.

So in true UMUC fashion, Project SEGUE is also focused on the many ways we might add value to our virtual teaching and learning efforts…using such proven adult learning principles as active participation and frequent feedback.
For example, the project implementation team is working with online course designers and multi-media experts at UMUC’s Center for Teaching and Learning to implement new standards for faculty training and virtual classroom development going forward.

We are also looking beyond our own university for new distance education methodologies and resources…such as the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative…or OLI. In fact, UMUC recently partnered with OLI to successfully pilot an online statistics course…with plans to introduce additional options over time, in an effort to enhance student performance in certain foundational courses.

This evidence-based approach to online course development uses a variety of such innovative strategies as supported practice, targeted feedback, and continuous assessment to foster a far more dynamic, flexible, and responsive e-learning environment.

And to ensure consistent results among all of its course materials…Carnegie Mellon has established a highly respected development team of learning scientists and software engineers…who work in consonance with faculty content and human computer interaction experts.

Of course, scientifically grounded innovation of any kind inherently promotes a culture of accountability…which I believe is at the heart of any world-class academic enterprise. Just as ancient Roman engineers once assumed responsibility for the arches they built by standing under them…so must we as stewards of the public trust be prepared to stand behind our programs and services…particularly when it comes to those we deliver from a distance.
Although educators have now begun in earnest to study the efficacy of virtual learning, we are still well behind the research curve. Thus, it is our responsibility as world class teaching universities to supply both the appropriate metrics and the verifiable data with which to assess the ongoing impact of online education on our students and our institutions.

At UMUC, we have developed one of the most aggressive and broadly based student learning outcomes assessments in the United States…incorporating both external assessment instruments and internal “value-added” reviews to document student progress in a number of academic areas.

So in redesigning the undergraduate curriculum…our SEGUE teams were careful to ensure the fidelity of this process…using a model we have borrowed from our friends at the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative.

As you can see from this diagram…the proposed assessment approach is both inclusive and fluid…using high-speed technology to establish powerful feedback loops for continuous evaluation and improvement.

That said, real-time data will mediate course design and instructional activities…ongoing student performance and the science of learning…thereby providing faculty members with the information they need to effectively modify or supplement instruction. But even more important…it will empower our students to consistently track their own performance…and improve upon it, as needed.

Finally, world class teaching universities such as ours always possess a talent for what we Americans call big-picture thinking. The kind that enables us to synthesize our efforts…however small they may seem…to realize our mission…however expansive that may be. And in doing so, drives improvement…sparks collaboration…fosters innovation…and encourages accountability.

Such is certainly the case with Project SEGUE.

As one of very few publicly funded universities in the United States dedicated to serving adult learners, UMUC understands that the vast majority of these students seek higher education for professional advancement.
And because their lives are already filled with work and family obligations, they are looking for flexible degree programs and delivery systems…with options that include prior learning credits…accelerated program formats…and targeted career counseling.

Consequently, we have become adept at framing every aspect of university life with an eye toward meeting these expectations…which is why initiatives such as Project SEGUE are so very essential to UMUC’s big picture as a pre-eminent, adult-focused teaching university.

By design, SEGUE is truly an exercise in synthesis in that it has enabled UMUC to fully integrate its undergraduate programs and courses with the other components our students must have to succeed…hallmark competencies…industry-driven knowledge…effective distance education strategies…and ongoing assessment.

And in doing so, we have created both a far more cohesive academic model and a workforce-relevant curriculum that better meets our students’ professional advancement needs…while also providing a structured system for ongoing revision.

This effort has also made it possible for UMUC to streamline its degree completion process…by redesigning all of its undergraduate classes…both online and onsite…to fit within a shorter eight-week term…yet another critical success factor for busy, working professionals.

Moreover, SEGUE serves as an impetus for distance education research and reform… as UMUC begins its trajectory toward a new and more sophisticated learning management system. One that better facilitates the interactive learning environments and effective learning practices we have identified as essential to student achievement.

Forums such as this one offer an extraordinary venue for big-picture thinking, as we pool our experience, our research, and our talents to promote a far more inclusive distance learning ecology. One that empowers us to identify critical interdependencies; integrate core learning technologies; and sustain commonly held values and principles, in setting the standard for world class teaching universities of the future.

And I truly look forward to a prosperous and productive relationship in the years ahead, as we continue to transform the very nature and purpose of higher education.