opinion

The 3 Instructional Shifts That Will Redefine the College Professor

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Twitter made news this summer when co-founder Jack Dorsey stepped back into the CEO job after Dick Costolo, a former stand-up comedian, quit. Problem was Dorsey already had a full-time job: CEO of Square, the payment processing company. In response, Twitter and other social media lit up with criticism and jokes worthy of former CEO Costolo: how can Dorsey do two jobs at the same time? It got the point where the Twitter board had to clarify that, in its search for a permanent CEO, it will only consider candidates “in a position to make a full-time commitment to Twitter.”

As faculty at colleges and universities are all too aware, it’s hard to do two jobs at the same time. Since the advent of the modern research university over a century ago, faculty have effectively held down two jobs: conducting (and publishing) research and teaching students.

Arguments for the dual-role professor seem logical. Knowledge production should make one a better instructor. Students should benefit from teachers producing the latest knowledge. But there’s precious little data to support that adding the research job to the instruction job improves student outcomes.

The downside is that both jobs require significant expertise and commitment to do well. And so I often think about this question: would faculty be better teachers and produce superior student outcomes if we asked them to focus solely on instruction? If today’s answer is “maybe,” tomorrow’s will be “probably” due to three shifts that will make instruction more complex and involved, requiring specialized knowledge and skills and unquestionably a full-time commitment.

1. The Dynamic Classroom

While colleges and universities continue to rely on lecture-based courses to serve the vast majority of students, one recent study found student outcomes improve markedly in classes where faculty do practically anything other than lecture. Failure rates decline by almost half a standard deviation and the improvement in exam results is statistically significant.

There is an emerging consensus as to what works best for onground instruction. It’s called the Dynamic Classroom, and it looks like this:

  • Flip classroom so “transfer of information” occurs ahead of class
  • Incorporate technology in the classroom (handheld clickers or smartphone apps) to quickly ascertain whether students have understood key concepts
  • Integrate active learning techniques to improve understanding of key concepts, including peer learning, group problem solving, project-based learning and experiential learning via studios and workshops
  • Include “perspective transformation” exercises wherein students change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions

Every aspect of the dynamic classroom requires more time and proficiency on the part of the instructor. Faculty not only need to redesign their courses for the dynamic classroom, they need to use the data to prepare for each class.

2. Smartphones and Apps

As a result of smartphones, online instruction will change as rapidly and dramatically as in-class instruction. The “Holy Trinity” of online instruction—the lecture, the discussion group, and the weekly assignment, a faithful replication of the onground lecture course—doesn’t translate to an engaging experience on smartphones.

First, navigating curriculum is challenging on a smartphone. Smartphone users are much more likely than PC users to abandon content that takes more than five seconds to load, creating a fundamental barrier to delivering engaging content over the duration of an entire course. Second, although discussion boards can work well on smartphones, smartphone posts are likely to be much shorter and more informal than what faculty are accustomed to. Third, formative assessments work very well on smartphones both in a classroom environment and out of class, but summative assessments do not.

The common thread is clear: anything that can be done in short bursts can work well on a smartphone. Mobile applications that offer digital learning experiences without the need for Internet connectivity may be the solution to the smartphone challenge. Smartphone users spend three times as long on apps than websites, and the total time spent on apps is currently growing at an annual rate of over 20 percent. And according to comScore, apps now account for more than 50 percent of total time spent with digital media.

In this environment, we can imagine one app for Economics 101 and another for Psychology 110. They are also the ideal platform for simulations and gamified learning and can tailor the user experience further by incorporating real-world inputs (e.g., location of the student) into the material. But, like the dynamic classroom, apps require an unparalleled level of development and instructional expertise—a full-time job for faculty who will be teaching online.

3. Competency-Based Education

The shift to competency-based education (CBE) adds yet more work to both onground and online instruction. The curriculum will need to be re-designed and data-driven. No longer will curriculum development be the first or even second order of business in launching a new program. Instead, faculty will need to learn the language of competencies and engage with employers to establish these skills at the program level. To do this effectively, they need to become much more facile with assessments; while faculty won’t be expected to have specialized assessment expertise, they will need to communicate with psychometricians.


Together, these instructional shifts paint a picture of a very different (and very full-time) job: teaching college professor. As colleges and universities evolve, they will need to lead the way in clarifying new roles and responsibilities. Dabbling in both teaching and knowledge production may be appealing to faculty. But it will become less and less tenable given emerging new demands of college-level instruction.

Ryan Craig is Founding Managing Director of University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education. Allison Williams, Analyst at University Ventures, assisted with this article.

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