Like many universities across the country, The University of Texas at Austin is seeing a misalignment between what high schools students think they need to know to be prepared to succeed in university work, and the reality of what it’s really going to take. “We see far too many students come into UT Austin who have done everything they were asked to do in high school, and it’s just not enough,” said Dr. Harrison Keller, Vice Provost for Higher Education Policy and Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning.
“Students have reported to us that many of the dual-credit courses they completed left them with a false sense of security about how well prepared they were,” said Keller. “There are gaps. This misalignment translates into an enormous amount of inefficiency in the system, loss of credit hours, loss of time. Even more important, it takes a huge toll on students’ motivation and confidence. We must become more transparent about the expectations we have of students.”
OnRamps: Accelerating Success
A year ago he formed a hypothesis about a solution he believed could target this misalignment, and his team is acting on it in 2014 after pilots showed tremendous potential. The program — OnRamps
— is a blended-learning dual-credit initiative led by the Center for Teaching and Learning featuring courses and professional development training for teachers in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, with additional courses planned for future development.
Facilitated Network Model
Courses can be taken as dual credit or dual enrollment courses with transferrable credit from UT Austin or from another college or university partner. The program is deliberately structured as a facilitated network model to establish close partnerships with school districts and community colleges. “There are two key design elements,” said Keller. “The first is all courses are designed for blended delivery with high-end course support using the same kinds of pedagogy and technology we deploy here on campus, regardless of the school district. The technology infrastructure facilitates sharing information and providing data back to the instructor about their students’ learning and progress in the course,” he said. “The second big piece is that all instructors’ online course materials include authoring tools.” UT Austin faculty members originally design the course, in partnership with subject matter experts from higher education and K12. Then, the vision for OnRamps is for the course to be open to continual redesign, including the innovations of teachers on the ground who know how to help their students best.
Strong Starting Points & Real-Time Data
“The idea is to put our best hypothesis on the table. We begin at our strongest starting point in terms of pedagogy and curriculum, then iterate continually as faculty and instructors improve the materials based on the data generated in the courses.” Keller said the model enables faculty and staff housed at UT Austin to work in tandem with instructors in the field to address challenges as they come up, and create more personalized learning experiences for students. Instructors and professors are trained in the learning management system, course module creation, and ways they can apply real-time data to help students succeed in school and career.
OnRamps features evidence-based pedagogies such as project-based and inquiry-based or discovery learning. Often high school instructors to have limited hands-on experience with such pedagogical methods, so UT Austin hosts the OnRamps teachers for a two-week professional development institute in the summer. “What goes on in the classroom is very important to this model,” explained Keller. “We’re not fire-hosing students with content. We are creating scenarios with problems and challenges they have to work through as teams using creative and critical thinking.” A project from the computer science course illustrates the model. During the course students do much more than computer programming. In one scenario, a fictional student, “Leandro,” is accused of cyber-bullying. Leandro maintains he is innocent. Using platforms mimicking Facebook and YouTube, students must deconstruct interactions and comments to determine if Leandro was hacked, or if he is, in fact, a bully.
Keller said feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. “I had one instructor recently tell me she had been in the classroom for 25 years and the OnRamps class made her feel like scales were falling from her eyes. She said it made her hope she can continue to teach for another 25 years.”
Original challenges in the pilot made clear a need for more advanced data visualization than what the shared learning management system originally offered. With support from the National Science Foundation, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Legislature and others, the Center is working to implement advanced technology interfaces that illustrate student success and challenges with clarity. Project staff are charged with looking at the data, monitoring challenges, and providing just-in-time, one-to-one support to teachers online and in person.
Launched this year, OnRamps will be working with about 30 schools by Fall 2014. The cost for the course is substantially less than a 3-credit-hour course at UT Austin, which averages about $1,000. Courses are also less than Extension offerings that average $550 per 3-credit-hour course. “We are only charging $180 per course, and the student can earn transferrable credit from UT Austin. With the support we have, we are only charging what we need to fund the basic infrastructure for the courses,” said Keller.
A Network of the Willing
Keller was originally concerned how the courses would be received. “I’m delighted that one of the earliest project learnings was to see the tremendous openness and willingness of the instructors and professors who are joining the network created around each course. Everyone involved is driven to improve student learning experiences and outcomes through collaborating and trying new things in an experimental, but scientific way. “ The advantages to the data and dashboards shared by instructors and course coordinators in each course are bountiful. “If we see students struggling with a particular piece of content in certain sections of the courses we can dive in deeper and see if any participating school is having success. If they are, the coordinator will engage and find out what the successful teacher is doing, then share it back out to the network,” he said.
“The course design is never done,” said Keller. “We will continually assess the effectiveness of each newly-added piece of content from participating instructors and professors.”
For more information about OnRamps, vist onramps.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. This video provides an introduction to the initiative being led by Dr. Harrison Keller, Dr. Julie Schell, and this team. Infographic and Course Design screenshots courtesy of OnRamps.