Technology allows for global access to UT classes, personalized education

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The UT classroom is coming to the web, and the web is coming to the classroom. 

“In the next 18 to 36 months, some really profound changes are going to occur in public higher education,” said Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System Institute for Transformational Learning. “Nationwide, universities are going to move aggressively into the online space — students are consuming education in multiple ways.” 

The University’s new approach focuses on two primary goals: making its resources available to people outside of the University and making the educational experience more personal for students. Part of that initiative is massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are courses that anyone in the world can take online for free. Earlier this month, the UT System debuted four of these courses on the edX platform. Within three days, nearly 15,000 students had enrolled. 

“MOOCs are aimed at large audience around the world, to showcase some of the strengths of the University,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research.  

Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said he feels this reflects the System’s role on the forefront of education innovation.

“There’s a paradigm shift going on in higher education in America,” Powell said at a recent board meeting. “The UT System is leading it.” 

Personalized learning initiatives largely rely on data analytics, which Mintz said he hopes will make the educational experience more effective. For example, some online courses will anonymously track students’ keystrokes, using speed as one factor for calculating understanding. 

“Students have different pathways and trajectories, so let’s tailor education to suit that,” Mintz said. “We’re going to use a lot of diagnostic software to figure out when students don’t know something, and we’re going to be able to create more personalized modules that will strengthen students in precisely the area where they need help.”

Keller stressed the faculty-driven nature of educational experimentation, as well as the wide variety of new techniques being tested out. 

“Our professors are asking really interesting questions about how we can improve individual student learning in large courses,” Keller said. “Some faculty are experimenting with systems students use on their phones, in order to collect information in real time about what students are understanding or not. Others combine online elements with face-to-face engagement.”

Keller said it is important to remember that some techniques have been around for decades. He cited “flipping the classroom,” an approach where students listen to lectures and study content before class in order to do hands-on learning once class begins, as an example.

“We frame ‘flipping the classroom’ as a novelty, but we’ve had faculty doing versions of it for a long time,” Keller said. “One professor said he supposed he’d been using the practice for years — but he just called it homework.”