It doesn’t take a doctoral degree in statistics to understand that if the passing rate for a single university class increases by 78 percent in two semesters, something quite powerful is at work.
That radical improvement is precisely what happened in an entry-level engineering course at San Jose State University (SJSU), made possible in part by a technology initiative that increases interactive learning opportunities as a means to improve academic performance.
San Jose State’s adoption of Next Generation Learning Spaces, which feature a host of technologies and applications, including video capture of lectures for later playback, online presentations, telepresence, wireless communications and whiteboards. The university is also investing in higher-capacity network infrastructure to support multimedia communications, and access to lectures, videos and other course materials online — anytime, anywhere — is now taking place.
Terry Vahey, the university’s associate vice president for IT services and deputy CIO, says the five-year, $28 million project to provide advanced learning spaces has several goals.
Improve career preparation.
Provide hands-on access to technology platforms and apps so that students will be well prepared for jobs in Silicon Valley.
Facilitate learning for non-native English speakers.
San Jose State University attracts a growing number of students for whom English is a second language. Opportunities to further review material after a class will increase the chances of success while lowering language barriers.
Tailor teaching methods to suit students’ learning styles.
A variety of teaching methods are needed, including face-to-face, online and hybrid approaches, because one size simply does not fit all.
“Students really like the hybrid approach of adding technology — some online aspect — to their classes,” Vahey says. “They feel they learn the material better when they have the lectures online to review before class, then have the discussion during class. They like it better than the traditional chalk talk.”
Eliminate distance as a barrier to instruction.
Students will be able to more fully participate in classes and see and/or hear lectures firsthand, even when tuning in remotely.
Create a progressive model of education.
San Jose State and its leadership aim to serve as a lighthouse of educational strategies and practices, which is especially important, given the university’s location within California’s high-tech corridor.
Repeat After Me . . .
One of the highlights of the Next Generation Learning Spaces project is the ability to record classes on video, which can be securely accessed and streamed on demand after the classes have ended.
“Lessons can be repeated as often as needed, and that’s helpful, particularly when it’s the first time you’re trying to learn a new concept,” Vahey says. “If you’re hearing content-dense material, you can have it explained five more times, or until you really get your arms around it.”
Officials at SJSU want to reduce the average time it takes to graduate — currently six years — and believe next-gen learning spaces are contributing to that objective.
If the results of the electronic-circuits class are any indication, the university appears to be on track: The average passing rate using traditional face-to-face methods was a less-than-stellar 51 percent prior to incorporation of the new teaching approach. Over the past two semesters, students were asked to read material before class, watch a video and then answer questions. During class, students participated in problem-solving discussion groups that focused on the materials, and 60 shorter tests were given rather than the four longer tests that had been administered in earlier semesters. The passing rate resulting from the modified approach was 91 percent, Vahey says — a 78 percent increase over the existing benchmark.
“The engineering faculty is pretty excited about the results,” Vahey says.
At the University of Southern California (USC), 180 general-assignment classrooms are being upgraded to include new technology and furniture designed to enhance student experiences, says Susan Metros, USC associate vice provost and associate CIO.
“We’re trying to help students become the producers of their knowledge instead of just passively assimilating it,” Metros says, adding that students can choose to plug in their personal devices and work in small groups around plasma television screens. USC also has a full-time director of learning environments on staff.
Other experts agree that such tech-driven initiatives have the potential to enhance learning outcomes broadly. “The hope is that the sum is more than the parts; the gestalt from collaboration fosters deeper engagement and enhanced outcomes for all students,” says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project.
Green cautions that such projects will vie heavily for funding at budget-constrained universities, particularly within the IT department. “Many institutions find themselves challenged in doing triage on all the wish lists and priorities — security, access, support for mobility, instructional support,” he says, “so learning spaces represent one more source competing for time, attention and resources.”
Given the results at institutions like San Jose State, which found the resources and means to deliver such measurable improvements, advanced learning spaces could emerge as the greater investment priority in higher ed.