By Alyssa Aber
The Next Generation Course Redesign project at UNT is supported by UNT's Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. CLEAR, which is directed by Patrick Pluscht, was the product of a merger between the Center for Distributed Learning and the Center for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. It provides technology and professional support to faculty members participating in the N-Gen project by helping them move away from traditional educational methods and toward more innovative methods. The CLEAR team also produces the web- and technology-related content for N-Gen courses.
For information and videos about course redesign, visit www.unt.edu/untresearch.
In 1860, a series of fires burned several North Texas communities. Rumors began that slaves lit the fires as part of a terrorist scheme hatched by northern abolitionists. Fears were exacerbated by the pending presidential election featuring Abraham Lincoln, who was nominated on a platform opposing the spread of slavery.
Students in "U.S. History to 1865," a course designed at the University of North Texas, are familiar with these "Texas Troubles." They are asked to assume the role of 1860s reporters and investigate whether the fires were accidental or the work of abolitionists. Along the way they gain a better understanding of the political climate that led to the Civil War.
This role playing module is just one example of how UNT is changing the way that students and faculty think about learning.
As enrollments and class sizes have grown across the nation, universities are increasingly looking for ways to improve student learning. Five years ago at UNT, Philip Turner, a professor of library and information sciences then serving as associate vice provost for learning enhancement, recognized the growing need to make large-enrollment courses more engaging for students. The result was the Next Generation (N-Gen) Course Redesign project.
Now a national leader in course redesign, UNT is known for creating courses that incorporate technology and encourage student engagement. These courses are leading to improved student learning and stronger critical thinking skills.
By the end of the 2008-09 academic year, sections of 22 of UNT's core undergraduate classes will have been redesigned, which means students will have the option of taking a course in a traditional format or a new format that blends lectures with technology and other teaching methods. Although each course is different, all apply innovative active learning methods, such as small groups, debates, computer simulations and interactive projects in the community.
To date, the project, which includes a variety of disciplines in the arts, humanities and sciences, has received more than $3 million in state and federal funding. The grants support development of courses that can be piloted at other universities and colleges across Texas.
"In its devotion to effective principles, its pragmatic support for the creative efforts of faculty and in the depth of its commitment, UNT is one of the best I've seen in this arena. Its work deserves international attention," says Steve Ehrmann, vice president of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Group, a national not-for-profit corporation committed to improving teaching and learning.
Turner says that blending online learning with high-impact classroom lessons provides optimum learning potential for students. And capitalizing on technology to provide students with online materials and information that typically would have been delivered in a lecture frees face-to-face class time for applying that new knowledge in creative, interactive and analytical ways.
"Universities nationwide have struggled with how to maintain high-quality learning as enrollment figures break records and class sizes continue to grow," Turner says. "UNT was no different, and for many years, we had been grappling with how to make sure all of our students truly learned the higher-level thinking skills that attaining a bachelor's degree requires.
"Finally, technology gave us tools that allow us to truly break our classes apart and rebuild them in a way that lets students experience intense, intimate instruction and learning."
"Technology gave us tools that allow us to truly break our classes apart and rebuild them in a way that lets students experience intense, intimate instruction and learning."
- Philip Turner
In 2008, the Next Generation Course Redesign project was selected as a Texas Education Star Award finalist. The award program was established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to recognize exemplary contributions toward closing the higher education gaps that challenge the state. UNT is planning to co-host a conference on course redesign with the coordinating board this spring.
One of the innovative courses during UNT's redesign pilot program was the "U.S. History to 1865" course, which was designed and taught by Kelly McMichael, now associate director of UNT's Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. Focusing on active learning, the course uses historical role playing simulations, like the one in the "Texas Troubles" module, to bring the subject to life. The students prepare for their role play outside of class using a customized web module and then meet one day a week with a small-group facilitator to perform the simulation. They also complete weekly online lessons.
"The point is not to present the material once and then test to see what they've remembered," McMichael says. "Instead, we want the students to do what they need to do in order to learn, so they come to class prepared to discuss and analyze and make connections."
The success of the course led to UNT expanding its emphasis on redesigning courses to incorporate more active learning methods. Versions of the history course now are being taught at Texas A&M at Commerce, Texas A&M International, West Texas A&M, North Central Texas College and Weatherford College.
The history course is not the only success that has emerged from the N-Gen project. Denise Baxter and Kelly Donahue-Wallace revamped their "Art History Survey II" course, abandoning the tradition of studying a litany of artwork from the 14th century to the present. Instead, they adopted eight two-week units that each focus on a representative piece of art, which allows students to fully explore a particular movement.
Donahue-Wallace, author of Teaching Art History With New Technologies: Reflections and Case Studies, and Baxter also incorporated local art and interactive trips into the community to apply art history concepts. For instance, in the course's web-based unit about 17th century art and architecture, the students take a virtual walking tour of the palace and grounds of Versailles, illustrating how Louis XIV used the architecture of the palace and the design of the gardens to communicate themes of power and absolutism. The students are then asked to visit a local university and design a similar walking tour that explains how it uses art and architecture to effectively communicate the themes of education and democratic values.
Sections of "Fundamentals of Algebra" and "College Algebra" also were redesigned to be more active. Neal Brand, Marc Grether and Mary Ann Teel applied a variation of a model that has been used successfully at other universities. It requires that students spend at least three hours a week completing problem sets in a computer lab, where they have access to immediate tutor assistance.
In keeping with the N-Gen course redesign approach, the team added an experiential learning component in which students apply what they are learning to real-life math problems. The model was piloted at UNT during the fall 2008 semester.
Brand says the pass rate for these traditional math courses, both at UNT and nationally, is typically between 40 percent and 60 percent, but institutions with the new model have seen significant jumps.
"The percentage of students receiving A's, B's and C's in the two sections of Math 1100 that used the emporium model was above 60 percent, which was higher than the average for all sections of 1100," Brand says. "We will be tweaking the courses this spring to make them even better, and we are confident that we will achieve a 70 percent pass rate for the courses by fall 2011."
The newest faculty members to join the UNT N-Gen effort are in the process of redesigning seven additional courses this academic year, assisted by the faculty members who have completed the rigorous redesign process in prior years.
McMichael says about 75 percent of students in N-Gen classes report that they prefer their active learning style courses to traditional lecture-style courses. Faculty use a variety of assessment tools to determine the success of their courses, including pre-testing and post-testing student attitudes toward specific courses and subjects, and analyzing and comparing the number of students who receive low grades and the number who withdraw.
Some faculty members go farther, completing their own studies, publishing results and presenting findings. For instance, Scott Warren, assistant professor in the Department of Learning Technologies, has done extensive research on the success of his redesigned computer education class, and Turner and McMichael both have books in progress designed to help other universities replicate the N-Gen project.
"Our current educational system is not preparing students for what lies ahead," McMichael says. "The N-Gen Course Redesign and similar programs hold the promise of transforming today's college classrooms so that our students are prepared for the 21st century."
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