Does Innovative Teaching Work? A New Effort Aims To Help Faculty Find Out.

Higher Education

Does Innovative Teaching Work? A New Effort Aims To Help Faculty Find Out.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 15, 2019

Does Innovative Teaching Work? A New Effort Aims To Help Faculty Find Out.

Many professors try new teaching approaches or new digital tools in their classes, but few actually study whether the changes work any better than the old way.

One reason boils down to a technicality: such research usually requires the approval of a college’s Institutional Review Board, or IRB, the office that makes sure any research involving human subjects follows legal and ethical guidelines. Getting such approval can be tedious and time consuming, and the green light might not come until a course is already underway (or over).

A new effort announced today hopes to ease that bureaucratic burden. Two universities—Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University—are releasing templates and best practices for getting IRB approval for classroom research and are encouraging other colleges to use them.

Leaders of the effort admit that templates alone are unlikely to lead to a revolution in self-study by faculty. But the tools are the first output of a nationwide effort to spread teaching innovation in higher education.

That broader project, called the Empirical Educator Project, was started a year ago by e-Literate, a blog run by two longtime edtech consultants, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill. The group held an invitation-only summit where they encouraged participants to identify projects that they can share with colleagues elsewhere.

The IRB hack at Duke was something that emerged there about six months ago as a project of a Learning Innovation team, says Kim Manturuk, associate director of research, evaluation, and development at Duke University.

She says the templates for doing research on class practices have drastically cut down approval time. An IRB approval that used to take two months now takes seven to ten days.

“That makes it easier for faculty members to go from the idea phase to actually collecting data and doing research very fast,” she says.

Here’s one example of research at Duke that already used the IRB template: a professor got approval to collect data about the effectiveness of a tool developed at Duke called Nudge. The day after each lecture, students in the course would receive a text message with a one-question multiple-choice quiz about a fact presented during that lecture. The hypothesis is that doing so will improve retention of the material, something that other learning science studies suggests will be effective. (The university is still analyzing the results.)

The templates at Duke, and similar IRB templates developed by Carnegie Mellon, will be released by the universities under Creative Commons Licences that allow others to freely use them.

More to Come

Leaders of the Empirical Educator Project say there will be more releases like this one in the near future. The group is planning another invitation-only meeting in May, where it expects to gather 75 to 80 leaders from 25 to 30 institutions.

Feldstein, one of the leaders of the project, said the group hopes to encourage a culture similar to the open-source community, where each participant builds something they need for their own campus, shares it out to others, and grabs tools developed by peer institutions as well.

“We really want to create a world where it’s easy for educators to both learn from and contribute to learning science and effective evidence-based teaching practices—whether or not they happen to be learning scientists,” he says.

He argues that colleges aren’t currently “wired” to do this kind of research on their own pedagogy. “Most institutions do have some kind of center for teaching and learning but it’s often seen as a kind of an optional resource that instructors go to occasionally,” he added. “We want to weave the kinds of conversations you can have at a center into the daily fabric of instructors’ lives.”
Trying to change the culture of teaching at colleges is a tall order. Can sharing projects and practices possibly do that?

Feldstein argues that one important factor is timing. Colleges are under immense pressure to improve their outcomes for their own survival, he says, noting as one example the financial crisis at Hampshire College, where his daughter went to college. “For the first time colleges and universities have institutional incentives to support faculty at becoming excellent at enabling student success,” he says.

The Empirical Educator Project does not plan to be the central repository for tools and practices, but will instead encourage members to work together or to share their own resources directly. “I think of us more as connective tissue” than as a “hub,” he says.

“The ones that are leading innovation, they’re not aware of each other,” he says. “Each one of them is in their own network, and these networks don’t talk to each other. The ones going to LAK [the Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference] who are using data science to innovate in learning science, they don’t go to the OLC [Online Learning Consortium] conference.”

That said, the EEP, as the new group calls itself, risks adding just another network to the mix.

Unlike philanthropic groups that have large grants to give out, the Empirical Educator Project plans to focus on surfacing ideas that the foundations might want to support, says Feldstein.

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