Can Higher Education Innovators Help Transform Teaching and Learning?

Universities in Idaho, Maryland and Florida, along with a nonprofit, have created innovative education programs and solved problems many colleges struggle with.

by / September 14, 2015
Boise State University's School of Nursing Boise State University is saving thousands on equipment, increasing access to training, and transforming the educational model through the creation of Oculus Rift virtual-reality simulations. Patrick Sweeney/Boise State University

"We're number 17!" doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well as the old victor's chant, but the U.S. will have to get used to it if sweeping changes aren't made in education. Today's mediocre students are tomorrow's unremarkable workers, and according to a 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. is struggling to keep up in math, reading and science.

But there is hope. America's higher education innovators can serve as an inspirational lantern that shepherds the rest through these grayish times.

For every score of humdrum college programs, there's a leader using cutting-edge technologies, slashing administrative costs and managing still to boost the quality of education purveyed.

Boise State University is saving thousands on equipment, increasing access to training,and transforming the educational model through the creation of Oculus Rift virtual-reality simulations. The University of Maryland is saving its students millions in textbook costs, and increasing the quality and variety of its materials by transitioning to open educational resources (OER). The University of Central Florida is using a new gamified digital advising tool to ensure its transfer students are better prepared and supported as they move toward the workforce. And the NROC Project and its EdReady tool are curating and creating new online materials to bridge the gap for an increasing number of would-be college students in need of remedial coursework.

These leaders all happen to be winners of the WCET (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) Outstanding Work Award (WOW), but such a recognition pales in the shadow of the revitalized monument the winners' efforts could make of American education.

Virtual Reality, Real Dollars

Boise State University has about 450 nursing students, but only 16 or so medical mannequins upon which students can practice procedures like the administration of a catheter. This is a major constraint for the school and students alike. Practice mannequins are expensive, costing between $15,000 and $60,000 each; they take up a lot of space because they are accompanied by monitoring and medical equipment; and the low mannequin-to-student ratio is further compounded by the high demand —students are required to perform a practice procedures, like the administration of a catheter, as many as 50 times before they do it to a real patient.

Inserting a length of medical tubing into God's most prized creation might seem funny to some, but it's actually a matter of life and death, said Anthony Ellertson, a principal investigator on the medical simulation project.

"Catheter insertion is a big deal in terms of maintaining sterile technique, because the secondary infection rate across the country is very high for that particular kind of procedure," Ellertson said. "So this is very important."

Enter the university's virtual reality catheter insertion simulation, which is solving all the mannequin woes. At $350, Oculus Rift is both affordable and requires less space to use. Students can use the system in a 10-foot by 10-foot office space.

Together with the research and development of the software and a pair of haptic-feedback gloves, a system like this can be developed for about $5,000, Ellertson said. And, he added, they can prove it works.

This past spring, the university ran a field trial in which nursing students got to test the technology.

"We had a lot of positive feedback," Ellertson said. "They liked working with the system, they liked playing the game. The first time they played the game, it took about anywhere from 15 to 18 minutes to go through the simulation. The second time, the times dropped dramatically to roughly seven to eight minutes."

While building the tool, the design and development team — Cameron Heikkinen, Sam Blomberg and Amod Damle — ran through the simulation dozens of times and found that they had learned how to perform the procedure, too, despite not having any medical training.

"Just to test, we had one of the developers do the procedure on a mannequin, and of course he's not a nursing student, No. 1" Ellertson said, "and No. 2, he's never seen a mannequin face to face in his life. He performed the procedure in a little over seven minutes correctly. It works."

In addition to providing the university with a lower-cost tool, the system also provides new data and insight not offered by mannequin testing. The virtual reality system tracks and logs the user's skeletal data to ensure he is using the correct hand holds and positioning. Traditionally, Ellertson said, these types of critiques are performed by recording the students on video and analyzing their technique manually.

Collaboration across disciplines was central to the creation of the new tool, Ellertson said. Co-principal Investigator Suzan Kardong-Edgren, who recently moved to Robert Morris University, provided the medical expertise, while Ellertson and his developers shared knowledge across their disciplines.

A new school being led by Ellertson, called Gaming, Interactive Media and Mobile Technology (GIMM), will continue the trans-disciplinary tradition at the university. The school will launch this fall, but already they've begun development of several new Oculus Rift simulations, one of them involving several medical professionals — nurses and doctors — working together on a procedure. This way of doing research and teaching isn't just the university's way of saving money and pushing more students through more simulations, Ellertson said — they're reviving a centuries-old educational model.

"A long time ago, it used to be that scholars sat in a room and talked about knowledge from their various perspectives and students sat around and listened and they got into the debates and that's how knowledge is made," he said. "It also used to be the case that at some of the old colleges, the professors would basically move around between subjects."

Higher-learning institutions are in danger today. They run the risk of becoming obsolete, they're running out of funding, and they're slowly becoming marginalized by American society. But this, Ellertson said, is a way to preserve the American learning institution.

"An important part of our mission is to be what I would call 'the city on the hill.' And what I mean by that is we should be the place that solves problems for our communities, especially the problems that corporate structures are not going to approach, just for profitability reasons," Ellertson said. "We should be the place that they come. And if we can be that place, I don't think we ever have to worry about funding again, because I don't think society would ever let us go down."

Expensive Books Fail Students

In 2013, the University of Maryland University College launched an initiative to rid its schools of costly and slowly updating textbooks. It was called the Open Educational Resources initiative, and today the university's more than 700 undergraduate courses are offered to students with free, online resources. Undergraduates never need to buy a textbook again. Within another year, the university plans to have its graduate programs also be entirely textbook-free.

The transition away from textbooks was difficult, but worth it, said Kara Van Dam, vice provost for The Learner and Faculty Experience.

"It involved working very closely with faculty members, librarians, and instructional designers as a collaborative team to identify very high-quality resources in the open educational space," Van Dam said. "And in some cases it involved creating new resources. It was a process very driven by quality to ensure that we were not just replacing textbooks, but that we were actually providing students with even better learning resources. That was a very rich collaboration that continues to this day."

Paper is disappearing in general. Kindles are replacing traditional books. Wikipedia replaced the encyclopedia and many other books. Tablets are replacing spiral-bound notebooks. With the high cost and slow turnaround on content, textbooks too will go the way of the almanac within a generation. CollegeBoard estimates that two- and four-year university students are now paying between $1,200 and $1,300 on textbooks and supplies each year. For many students, that's too expensive, so they don't buy the books and end up failing their classes, Van Dam said.

"Just in 2014 alone, spring, summer, fall semesters, we were only about 60 percent of the way through the implementation, and we saved our students over $5 million," Van Dam said. "I think at the national level, this is going to really transform this notion that you have to go out and buy a textbook, that that is the only way to learn, that's the only way to build a curriculum. I think this disrupts that model of textbook-based learning in a significant way."

Digital resources are cheaper than textbooks and they can reach a wider audience, but universities that offer resources in modern mediums like online video, computer tools and digital documents are demonstrating that they're attuned to reality. The world doesn't run on paper anymore, so there's a discontinuity in that students are still learning that way.

"If we do not as educators leverage how our students are naturally accessing the information of the world and teach them how to carefully and critically evaluate the quality of the information that they can get from the world," Van Dam said, "not only are we going to make ourselves obsolete because it's how students learn everything else, but also we're missing an opportunity to leverage this great new way of learning and apply it to college and graduate education."

Digital Tools Smooth Student Transfers

The most useful technologies are ones that mimic knowledgable people. Google is gradually becoming an interpreter for the world's passing whims and requests, and a new generation of voice recognition systems deciphers human commands. Nothing would beat a human assistant who could just do everything for the user, but hiring an assistant for each student in a school would be beyond most budgets. That's why a decade ago, the University of Central Florida created a tool to help incoming transfer students make a smooth transition to their new school. The DirectConnect to UCF program eased an otherwise complicated and potentially overwhelming process. This January, the university launched a new tool under the program, called Pathway, that makes the process even easier through the offering of virtual advising tools like chat and video sessions, digital badges and 24-hour online access to advising resources.

About 120 students from five partner institutions — Daytona State College, Eastern Florida State College, Lake Sumter State College, Seminole State College and Valencia College — have used the system during the pilot. The program will launch fully this month, ensuring that students are as prepared as possible for their continued academic and subsequent professional careers.

Through the traditional program, students meet with coordinators to ease their incoming transition, but they're now making big enhancements to that experience, said Jennifer Sumner, director of academic support services for Regional Campuses at UCF.

"[It's] not only meeting with coordinators, but we wanted to work with students from a foundational level to include career assessments, major declarations, getting them affiliated with UCF sooner so when they get there they're academically and socially prepared," Sumner said. "Students, wherever they came from, get transfer shock. We're such a big institution that they can often feel overwhelmed. ... We're getting them at the time they enter their state college and we're starting to work with them much more intentionally than we have in the past so they feel like they're a part of UCF even before they get here."

Pathway is integrated with the university's Canvas management platform, allowing both the students and administrators a close connection to a student's academic track.

"Each touchpoint on that Pathway that we developed had a module built within Canvas called learning modules," Sumner said, adding that they call each achievement a level because they wanted the system to feel like a game that was themed around the university mascot, Knightro, the knight. "Students pass through four levels of achievement, four levels of knighthood — page, squire, knight and golden knight."

Career assessment might net a student 300 points, declaring a major awards 500 points. Students are encouraged to share their achievements on social media, and the entire experience is oriented around getting students pointed toward the information and resources they need in advance of their deadlines.

"From an advising perspective, from a work perspective, it allows the Pathway team ... to be very intentional with how they work with students in a very fun and engaging way," Sumner said. "It allows the student to engage with other students in a technology format and meet with other students on the pathway that will transition with them into UCF. "

The project was made possible through a trans-disciplinary approach across institutions, Sumner said. By working with their partner institutions, they were able to spot the needs of the various types of students given the scenarios they find themselves in. They're very proud of their transparency and open cooperation, she said.

"Everything that we do at UCF, we invite our partners to," she added. "It's very much a symbiotic relationship that's going on back and forth between these partners, and ultimately we're all pulling together for the success of our students and making sure they have that smooth successful transition."

Technology Gives Students a Second Chance

Yet another weak link in America's education chain are the students who fall behind. Many students drop out or finish high school and find themselves unprepared for the requirements of college. Even in college, roughly half of community-college students take remedial classes, and only 10 percent of those who do graduate within three years, according to a Business Week report.

Bridging the remedial gap is the NROC project. For more than a decade, Gary Lopez, CEO and founder of NROC, has been searching for ways to smooth the path for students needing remedial education. A new tool, called EdReady, assesses gaps in student knowledge and compares them against the user's goals to provide a personalized study plan so students know what they need to do to continue their educations.

HippoCampus.org, another NROC project, is a clearinghouse for free online educational materials. Users can browse by subject and find links to resources provided by groups like Khan Academy, STEMbite and NROC itself. After developing remedial English and remedial algebra programs the last few years, NROC's members realized they needed a simple tool that would show students specifically what skills they were missing and how to sort through the resources available to meet their goals.

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and NROC members, EdReady is used by more than 100 organizations nationally. In one case study, Montana Digital Academy and the University of Montana used EdReady on a group of 63 incoming students and found that 87 percent were able to reach their target math remediation goals within six weeks.

NROC members pay $1 per full-time student equivalent, and that's proven to be enough funding to maintain Lopez's $2.5 million in annual operating costs indefinitely, he said. The organizations save on resources because they don't have to buy traditional learning materials, like textbooks, Lopez said, but they also get to be captains of the ship, steering the direction of new content and programs to come.

"Collaboration is the heart of what we do," Lopez said. "We have a membership organization where the members guide the investments, they guide the development to build the things that we're all needing to help students succeed. ... The fact that we have digital products now that we can modify relatively easily — and we have the Web so we can communicate with one another and work together to get things done — allows these new business cases where you can have educators and institutions from across the nation all collaborating, all working within the same framework to build these things we all need and really to customize around the needs of everybody. It's at the heart of everything we do. Without that, none of this would exist."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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