University of Texas System

Executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning Steven Mintz is behind innovating collaborative and personalized online classes to propel UT in becoming a leader for online education. 

Photo Credit: Yamel Thompson | Daily Texan Staff

Established by the Board of Regents in 2012, the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning has a bold mandate: to leverage technology to make a UT quality education more accessible, affordable and successful, especially among populations that higher education has too often failed.

The ITL’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for innovation.  To this end, the ITL has supported a number of initiatives at UT Austin including innovative online delivery of a large number of “gateway” classes and development of nine massive online courses, or MOOCs, that have reached nearly a quarter of a million students globally. These included the first MOOCs to implement adaptive learning, which tailors learning pathways to individual students’ needs, and project-based learning — in the case of Jonathan Valvano and Ramesh Yerraballi’s Embedded Systems MOOC, building circuits and programming a real microcontroller.

UT Austin is currently integrating MOOC assets and digital content into on-campus courses.

Right now, ITL’s energies focus on ways to better serve non-traditional students: low-income students, first-generation college students, part-time students, commuting students, working adults, family caregivers and students with some college and no degree.  

Our strategy is three-pronged. We are working with faculty across the System’s academic and health science campuses to: 

1) Develop transformational curricular and program designs that offer a clear value proposition, individualized learning pathways, anytime, anywhere access to course content, and wrap-around student support.

2) Design and implement next generation user experiences and infrastructure that will allow the UT campuses to deliver personalized, adaptive educational programming and support services at scale.

3) Harness the power of advanced learning analytics to better advise students, personalize instruction, and continuously improve teaching methods and student support services.

We consider the ITL-supported projects to be among the most exciting in higher education.  These include: 

1) An array of career-aligned, competency-based degree programs in areas of high employer and student demand.  The first of these programs, a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences at UT Rio Grande Valley, will launch this fall.

2) Degree pathways with an intentionally designed curriculum that can begin in high school and lead to graduate school or a rewarding career. UTRGV’s B.S. in Biomedical Sciences is part of a broader Middle School to Medical School pathway. 

3) Innovative medical school curricula that are competency-based and that emphasize experiential and project- and challenge-based learning; and 

4) UTxProfessional Health, a cross-institutional educational marketplace for health professionals worldwide.

Uniting these initiatives is an approach that is student-centered, outcomes-oriented, career-aligned and data-driven. Our projects emphasize high fidelity content and instructional design, personalization, powerful networking and collaborative experiences, high impact student services, sustainability and scale — which will provide the data needed to further enhance these programs and to better support student success.  

Faculty at UT Austin are among the country’s leaders in inventing next generation teaching and learning and conducting educational research. The ITL is staunchly committed to partnering with campus visionaries to support the innovations that will define the future of higher education.

Mintz is the executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a UT Austin history professor. 

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa speaks at the Student Government meeting in October. Cigarroa, who has held his position for over five years, is leaving his role as chancellor in January to return to medicine. 

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

The Cigarroa family has had a long and affectionate relationship with the University of Texas at Austin. My father attended UT in the 1940s and left when Harvard Medical School admitted him after his junior year. That’s a strong endorsement of UT’s academic preparation, even 70 years ago. He is still practicing medicine to this day, and he credits UT for his success and for inspiring him to be a critical thinker and lifelong learner. 

In the summer after my freshman year at Yale, I took a course in physics here at UT. It was the most difficult course I’ve ever taken. I wanted to do research on cell biology, so I looked at the syllabus and discovered that Dr. Guy Thompson was an expert in cell membrane physiology. I knocked on his door and asked if I could do research in his laboratory that summer.  Even though he didn’t know me, he was pleased by my interest and determination, and he welcomed me into his lab. He taught me the fundamentals of basic science research, and to this day, I credit Dr. Thompson for my love of biomedical research.

The lives of three generations of Cigarroas from South Texas as well as many other lives have been transformed by their educational experiences at UT Austin. What starts at UT truly changes the world, and that is one of many reasons this great flagship university is regarded with the utmost admiration and respect. It is also why one of my most important priorities as chancellor of the University of Texas System was to advance excellence at the UT flagship and strive to make it the best public university in the nation. 

Over the past six years, the System leadership team and I — in close collaboration with the Board of Regents and institution presidents — focused our attention on several important initiatives:

We worked on accessibility and affordability for UT students and their families, with a special emphasis on controlling tuition increases and student debt. 

We improved student advising. 

We provided greater safeguards for campus security and addressed a growing need for mental health counseling in the university community.

We developed and implemented best-in-class blended and online learning and greatly expanded access to online educational tools.

We supported a flurry of new state-of-the-art centers and complexes that are indicative of UT Austin’s growth and national stature in a wide range of fields, including the Belo Center for New Media in the Moody College of Communication, the Engineering Education and Research Center, the Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex and Dell Computer Science Hall and the Liberal Arts Building.

After several years of planning, the UT System, working in close collaboration with President William Powers Jr. and his leadership team, are building the new Dell Medical School at UT Austin, which will educate and train new generations of doctors and health professionals and give the University a major biomedical research component. It will also solidify Austin as a world-class center for research, technology innovation and entrepreneurship. 

And we are funding the establishment of major institutes which will benefit UT Austin in the fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology, engineering education, energy research and computer science.

As I leave the chancellor’s office and return to transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, I see a very bright future ahead for UT Austin and all UT institutions across the state. Retired Admiral William McRaven will serve as the next chancellor, and he is an experienced and effective leader with impeccable integrity and a long and distinguished career of service to our nation. The System is in excellent hands. 

Serving as chancellor has been an extraordinary experience. People have asked what motivated me most, and it’s a very easy question to answer. What inspired me most every day was my interaction with remarkable people and the knowledge that, while the daily work was challenging, the end result was eminently worth it. My days were enriched by getting to know students, alumni, presidents, donors, faculty and staff members at UT institutions spread across this great state. I cherish those many interactions, and I will carry their memory with me for the rest of my life.   

University of Texas students — you are our future, and you will shape the intellectual and economic landscape of our state and nation in the years ahead. I have complete faith in you. If your educational experience on this campus has been like my father’s and mine, and countless others for more than a 130 years, then UT has instilled in you a love of learning that will lead you toward an abundant and fulfilling life. Embrace this experience. It is a rare and wonderful thing.

As I prepare to step down from this truly extraordinary job, I want to take the time to thank you, the students of the University of Texas, for entrusting your education to us. Education is an investment that will never fail you. I know that sometimes pursuing higher education takes great personal sacrifice, and being a part of your journey has been the honor of my lifetime. 

Cigarroa is the outgoing chancellor of the UT System.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Rick O'Donnell | Daily Texan Staff

The University of Texas System will pay $70,000 as part of a settlement with a former Board of Regents adviser who officials say was planning to sue the system following his dismissal in April.

Former adviser Rick O’Donnell was employed from March to April and was dismissed by UT administrators following controversy over statements he made criticizing university research efforts. According to the terms of the settlement, the UT System will pay O’Donnell $70,000 and issue him a letter from the Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell stating O’Donnell was inaccurately portrayed by his critics.

“Much of what you were hired to do ... was, as you know, mischaracterized by some and the subject of controversy that was not of your making, a controversy that deflected attention from the mission of your important work,” Powell wrote in the letter.

O’Donnell indicated he had plans to sue if he was unable to reach a peaceful resolution with University officials, UT System Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Barry Burgdorf said in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman Monday.

“It was very clear that he was going to sue the UT System and he had the backing to do it,” Burgdorf said to the Statesman. “It would have cost me a lot more to defend that lawsuit and get it dismissed than we ended up paying.”

Under the settlement, neither O’Donnell or University officials will admit any wrongdoing and both parties agree not to take further legal action against one another.

Powell’s decision to hire O’Donnell on March 1 sparked much controversy as he was set to receive a $200,000 yearly salary during a period of budget cuts and hiring freezes in the UT System. The Board of Regents later shifted O’Donnell from his role of advising University administrators on efficiency and effective teaching techniques to a temporary position scheduled to end on Aug. 31.

O’Donnell’s affiliation with local think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation also received public criticism. In 2008, O’Donnell wrote a policy paper for the organization criticizing publicly funded academic research and claiming it has “few tangible benefits.”

“I looked at the return on scientific research as measured by available data such as income royalties and licenses on patents,” O’ Donnell said in a letter to the Board of Regents on March 25. “Whether we want the attention or not, it seems clear that questions on productivity, efficiency, and accountability for our research universities and research expenditures are being asked.”