Powers works to lower costs, find funds

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UT administrators will continue to explore ways to incorporate technology into academics without compromising University values in the face of dwindling state funds, President William Powers Jr. wrote in an email Tuesday.

The efforts, including reworking undergraduate curriculum, pursuing energy efficiency measures and embracing alternative profit streams, began before the Board of Regents’ brief appointment of special adviser Rick O’Donnell opened debates among alumni, lawmakers, donors and administrators about how to move forward.

One alternative profit stream, the University’s “Longhorn Network” deal with ESPN, has already been assigned to fund new endowed faculty chairs in physics and philosophy, Powers wrote.
“We must cultivate innovation, exploring new, more effective pathways for how our students and faculty learn and create new knowledge,” Powers wrote.

Faculty Council chair Dean Neikirk said everyone involved in the debate wants to make things better, but an honest disagreement exists between some outside reformers and some faculty and administration within the educational system.

“I think faculty are very invested in continually improving. It’s something we do all the time,” Neikirk said. “Suggesting that we aren’t interested in change is incorrect and offensive, and I think some of these claims come from people who haven’t really bothered to understand what goes on in higher education.”

He said most faculty have firsthand knowledge of the efforts the president outlined in his letter, but seeing the efforts under way at UT summarized and contextualized helped quell some concerns over the direction proposed reforms could carry the University.

Vice provost for undergraduate education Gretchen Ritter said faculty began lowering some early hurdles for first-year students by re-structuring large entry-level courses through the Course Transformation Program that began last fall. She said despite the costs associated with developing interactive classroom and educational technology, the University benefits by increasing the number of students who complete courses.

“I think there is a deep appreciation of the importance of the in-classroom experience for student learning, and the way students benefit from being with peers and top faculty and engaging in inquiry experiences,” Ritter said. “We wouldn’t want to do things that would replace that experience.”

Student regent Kyle Kalkwarf said the Regents’ Task Force on Blended and Online Learning, of which he is a member, has heard presentations from two research groups collaborating with UT on the Course Transformation Program and from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The foundation supports the Open Learning Initiative, which offers free online courses in an effort to develop new education methods. UT and about eight other Texas schools are participating in the initiative.