Interdisciplinary Courseware to the Rescue?

In the midst of all the bling of media-rich, adaptive, personalized, [insert-buzzword-here] digital products, there is a lurking underlying problem:

The general education curriculum in higher education has barely changed. Today’s world is cross-disciplinary, culturally diverse, and team-oriented. There is almost no problem that can be solved in a silo content area with a team of one.

Map showing the interconnected nodes between a variety of subject areas in research.

Interdisciplinary Thinking, from New Scientist’s article “Open your Mind to Interdisciplinary Research”

We need new cross-disciplinary curriculum. We need courses that are more engaging and reflective of today’s real issues. We need courses like these (referenced from my 2009 post on Hacking Higher Education):

  • Trend Analysis (Math + History)
  • Biology and Human Enhancement (Biology + Philosophy)
  • Science of Exercise (Science + Health & PE)
  • Exploring Water Issues (Science + Politics)
  • Design and Digital Presentations (Graphic Design + Communication)
  • Data Analysis and Information Presentation (Statistics, Graphic Design, and Communication)
  • Exploring Recycling and Refuse (Science, Government, and Humanities)
  • Chemistry of Nutrition (Chemistry + Health & PE)
  • Poverty and World Culture (Humanities, Government, and Sociology)
  • Sociology and Psychology of the Web (Sociology + Psychology)
  • How Computers Think (CIS + Philosophy)
  • Art, Media, and Copyright (Fine Arts + Law)
  • Writing for the Digital Age (CIS + Communication + English)
  • Energy (Physics, Chemistry, and Government)
  • Information, Query, and Synthesis (Literacy, Logic, English)

The problem is that very few faculty can teach courses like this without extensive learning or teamwork, and very few authors that could write such a curriculum from scratch.

This is exactly the moment when “digital courseware” should rise to the occasion. Digital courseware could be built to support these kinds of inter-disciplinary courses with a well-designed learning experience (not just text, but formative assessment and designed interactions with students and faculty). It could be multimedia rich, adaptive, personalized, and all that good buzzword stuff.

With a solid digital courseware backbone to support the learning, faculty could be tapped from different disciplines to evaluate work, answer questions, and coach students in their learning. No one faculty member would have to learn all the nuances of the course immediately.

So why aren’t we getting that? Why are we just getting more Algebra, English Comp, and Freshman Biology courses? Because that’s what we keep asking for. We keep saying, “give us better pass rates for these courses we currently teach.” We keep funding the rebuild (and rebuild) of those courses that create retention and graduation pressure in higher education. What if the problem is not the delivery of the course, but in the course itself? What if students are never going to do better in these courses because deep at the heart of the issue, the student knows the course isn’t applicable to the world they live in?

The Big History course (funded by Bill Gates) is an admirable step towards creating a more modern and more interdisciplinary curriculum. MOOCs do not have to pay attention to credit counts, what “department” the course lives in, or how it will or will not count as an elective towards multiple degrees. Consequently, MOOC providers have the freedom to build interesting, modern, and cross-disciplinary courses like The Science of Everyday Thinking (from EdX) or Politics and Economics of International Energy (from Coursera).

But why is it outsiders to education that have to lead these efforts? Educators should begin asking for the “right” curriculum from courseware providers (looking at traditional publishers, digital platforms, and MOOCs). We need to ask for the curriculum we want to teach instead of that which we have always taught.

Of course, courseware providers aren’t going to build something they don’t think has a market yet – and so we have a classic “chicken and egg” problem. This seems like exactly the kind of problem that needs a funding push. If a beautiful digital course on “How Computers Think” or “Poverty and World Culture” became available nationally at a low cost, I’d like to think that institutions and faculty would be able to step up to the challenge of figuring out the rest of the logistics to offer these courses.

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Why prototype a digital course?

Very few of us would buy an unbuilt home without at least viewing a model home that conveys the look and feel of the interior and exterior of the rest of the community. We should be unwilling to build (or buy) an entire course (a “row” of units, modules, chapters, or weeks of content) without seeing at least one “model unit” first.



In the software world, a low-fidelity prototype is used to give the look and feel of a future product. With this prototype there is some hand-waving (mockups) to explain away missing functionality and potential users are asked how they would navigate and use the product. This happens long before the product build, and is iterative.

In the learning world, we should consider that course builds (especially large-scale digital courseware) need the same kind of prototype.  Before the time and money is invested to build the a full course, consider building one unit as completely as possible, and make sure your stakeholders (students, faculty, instructional designers, deans, customers) actually want to learn in this course.  Choose a prototype unit that is most representative of the majority of the learning in course; this is usually not the first or last unit.

When the model unit is being designed and built, this is the ideal time to collaborate iteratively with students, faculty, IT, assessment, and instructional designers. While it will take some time to change the model unit as opinions shift, it will not take as much time as remodeling every unit in the course.

After you’ve got stakeholder approval for the model unit design, make sure to carefully document what features this prototype contains, since your team will need to apply it consistently across the full development. Here are just a few of the learning features you might want to apply across your multi-unit build:

  • content: where did it come from? what quantity per learning objective?
  • examples: how often, how relevant?
  • interaction: how much, what kind, and how often?
  • assessment: what kind? how often? authentic? purely for practice? for learning scaffolding?
  • images: for what purpose, how often?
  • videos: how long are they, what stylistic elements are there, how often do they occur?
  • simulations or games: for what purpose? how often?

As digital learning becomes more accepted (thanks MOOCs) and blended learning becomes a more standard model at traditional institutions, I hope we’ll see much more collaborative prototyping, followed by intentional design, in these courses.

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The Road Back to Higher Education

In 2012, I left Higher Education to work in the software world. It was bittersweet, because I had finished a Ph.D. on Higher Education Leadership only one year before I left. My decision to leave was a hard one, but I couldn’t see an effective solution path to change learning within traditional higher education. I studied effort after effort to make changes within departments, institutions, and systems, only to see that potential innovations to higher education rarely moved the needle very far from the traditional steady-state.

Maria at PhD Graduation

A proud graduate, but disheartened by the decreasing funding for higher education.

The semester that I finished my Ph.D. was the same one that huge cuts to higher education were announced in several states, most notably in Pennsylvania, where the higher education funding by the state was reduced by 50%.  By 2013, per-student higher education spending was lower than pre-recession levels in 48 states.

From the software world, I have watched as MOOCs, Coding Camps, and Microdegrees have been hyped as the next great thing to disrupt higher education. There’s no doubt that higher ed has been disrupted, though I would say it is more because increased regulation, lower funding, and decreased student enrollments put significant pressure on colleges and universities to increase efficiencies. While innovation like MOOCs show us that there is a tremendous market for learning outside of degree programs, these innovations are not focused at producing more teachers, nurses, or doctors – we still need higher education and traditional degree programs. We just need more affordable ways to get that first degree as well as flexible systems to update post-degree training, and allow quick pivots into other careers as the pool of available jobs shifts.

Finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that our institutions of higher education needed to move faster. Rather than taking years to develop new courses and programs, we needed to find ways to do it in months and without affecting students already in-program. In many degree programs, the curriculum needs to be adapted to the changing world every semester, not every 5-10 years. When I left higher education, I had a plan to learn everything I could about how the software industry uses agile techniques to iterate on solutions and pivot fast. I hoped that one day, I’d find an educational institution that would see the value in this unique learning experience, and take me back so that I could put what I had learned into practice (both from software and leadership). It was a gamble, but I knew that I couldn’t mentally survive at an institution where the pace of change was measured in decades instead of months.

The software industry was an interesting place to learn. It forced me to start thinking about what an agile institution of higher education would look like. What would you “bug” in a college or university? What processes could you refine through iteration? How would you explain the benefits of agile methodology to the stakeholders (faculty, administrators, and students)? Where should an institution be agile and where should it be traditional? This thought experiment has been occupying a processor in my mind, quietly chugging away, producing ideas and working through the implications.

2015-07-20 06.17.58

After a stunning sunrise, I saw this rainbow on my first day of work at WGU. Perhaps it was a sign.

Now I’m excited to announce that I’ve rejoined Higher Education as the Director of Learning Design for Western Governor’s University.  If you’re not familiar with WGU, it is an incredible institution (non-profit and accredited). The degrees are competency based (no grades), the classes are all online, students can begin a program of study any month, learning materials are provided to students at no additional cost, and the tuition is affordable. WGU separates learning, coaching, and assessment into distinct branches of the institution, providing a very unique and flexible structure.

As Director of Learning Design, I am responsible for the design of the student learning experience (from course design to software ease of use). It is an opportunity to help an already innovative institution incorporate agile processes throughout the learning and course design process. I think I’ve landed in the right place and I can’t wait to see what our design team is going to accomplish in the next few years!

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What does Math Teaching look like in 2020?

This is from a presentation today looking at the future of teaching math from a K-12 perspective. Here are my predictions for math teaching at the K-12 level in 2020:

(1) Learning math becomes a team activity, where technology is one of the team members.

(2) Teachers shift from the role of an instructor to the role of a learning coach.

(3) We solve the mobile devices and assessment problem.

(4) Students can move seamlessly between in-person and digital experiences.

(5) Teacher planning periods shift from lesson planning to examining analytics and choosing digital / in-person learning activities.


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Adding Future Proof Skills to Course Syllabii

There are many college-level courses that are required but not beloved by students. Math requirements, in particular, are particularly disliked by most students. I believe that we teach mathematics to help students develop logical thinking, attention to detail, and a method for attacking problems of all types. The subject of mathematics provides a common language and structure to allow the development of these skills. Unfortunately, in our zeal to explain “when we are going to use this” we wander into the dark land of contrived application problems and ridiculous problem constraints. But what if there were another way to frame the value of the skills developed in learning mathematics?

During my last year of teaching, I began to reframe the syllabus in a way that focused on the general skills that would serve students well in the future, rather than the standard answers to “when am I going to use the specific learning objectives of this course?” The six skill categories are: Focus, Explain, Flex, Interact, Analyze, and Learn. They are explained in more detail in the original post: What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Beginning with an empty template with the skills and more detailed descriptions, I walked through all the activities in each course I taught, and outlined how the course would help my students develop the skills they need to be prepared for future jobs.

You can find the empty template as a Word Doc here: Future-Proof Template for Course Syllabus. It looks something like this for each skill:


Some skills were not covered in the course. If that was the case, I just removed that line of the table.  However, a surprising number of the subskills were covered in every course I did this exercise with.

The syllabus section about the “future-proof” skills begins with a general description of what the students are about to see:

This is a list of the skills we believe will make you a valuable worker even as careers and technology shifts. These skills are not particular to any discipline – they are skills that overlay the content that you learn. To prepare for an uncertain economy, you should strive to practice and improve on the skills listed below. In this class, you will practice and improve on many of these valuable skills. These are outlined below.

Here is an example of the future proof skills applied to a Calculus II course:

Note: You can see the entire Calc II Future Proof Skill list here.

When framing topics like Techniques of Integration as a skill like “learning to change your bearings” it is much easier to justify the learning objective to Pharmacy students (let’s face it, they won’t ever use a technique of integration on the job, but most do have to take Calc II).  Pharmacy students will have to be able to determine when a chosen treatment plan is failing, and adjust course to suggest an alternative approach.

So now a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend we reframed the college experience as a way to gain and improve on these types of skills while also gaining subject-matter expertise. Suppose freshmen came into the system with a way to measure their current skill levels in these areas. Students could make goals to improve on specific areas in specific courses (I asked my students to commit to specific improvement goals in each course).  At the end of the semester, students could write a self-evaluation for areas they think they have improved on and ask instructors to “endorse” (or disagree) with the written evaluations. During their college experience, these students could graduate their real, measured, and endorsed abilities into a system like LinkedIn or Degreed.

It’s important for students to gain subject matter expertise in college, but equally important to gain skills that will make them valuable employees and colleagues, and surface those skills to potential employers.  As a fresh graduate entering the workforce, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to provide proof that you can “write so others understand” or examples that show you can “adapt to new situations”  even when they made you uncomfortable. It is my belief that these are the skills that are not being measured and surfaced in higher education.

There are rare examples of schools that provide this type of unique focus at the core of their educational structure (e.g. Alverno College), but a college doesn’t have to be restructured in order to provide this focus. The educational technologies we have today could be adopted to track a students’ successes and failures at improvement on the future proof skills. Each instructor could evaluate their own unique approach to courses to assess which skills might be focused on as the subject-matter is delivered.

An initiative like this would have to be championed at the leadership level by a President, a board, or a Dean of Academics and jointly supported by the faculty. But can you imagine? An entire institution devoted to helping students not only become subject-matter experts, but also to prepare for the employment world of the future? Well, I can dream. It is, after all, a thought experiment.

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