Faculty leader seeks to give UT the advantage in creation of online classrooms

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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

Though he has never taught in a UT classroom, Steven Mintz has a presence in nearly every introductory-level course the University offers.  

Mintz is the executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning, an organization created last year by the UT System Board of Regents with the purpose of establishing UT as a world leader for online learning. He takes his job seriously and thinks in big terms. 

“I want to invest in pedagogical innovation,” Mintz said. “And I want the University of Texas to be the leader in this. Every major university and system is pushing into online education, and that realm is going to become much more competitive. I want to make sure we’re the best.” 

Mintz said a large part of his job is finding the best resources the University has and making them widely available for thousands of people outside of UT’s campus. For students already enrolled, he hopes to personalize education and focus on active, project-based learning. 

“The [massive open online courses], for example, are going to be what I’ll call next-generation online education, not going to be narrated PowerPoints,” Mintz said. “They’re really going to emphasize social learning — collaboration, project-based learning. They’re going to incorporate animations and simulations and interactive laboratories. And they are going to be cool.”

Mintz said he knows some faculty will be more hesitant to embrace his technological initiatives. At the UT Faculty Council meeting in March, he addressed those concerns head-on.

“If I were you, I would be a bit suspicious, and even cynical, about the System saying it’s going to help you out — especially if it’s offering to help you out with your teaching,” Mintz said. “But I have to reassure you, I’m an academic, a member of the history department. I’ve written 13 books. I’m one of you.”

At the meeting, Mintz said he wanted to debunk what he characterized as misunderstandings about his purpose.

“I’m not here to abolish tenure. I’m not here to replace flesh and blood teaching with screen time,” Mintz told faculty. “I’m not here to build a marble edifice in Austin.”

Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said Mintz’s energy isn’t always obvious at first. 

“He’s very unassuming, so he’s not the sort of person who’s going to dominate the room,” Keller said.

It’s when Mintz is speaking for his cause, technological innovation, that he comes alive. Music professor Martha Hilley, chairwoman of the UT Faculty Council, introduced Mintz at a recent meeting by highlighting this passion. 

“I got to a System Faculty Council meeting a little late last year, and when I arrived, Dr. Mintz was already speaking — I thought my goodness, I have come to a revival meeting,” Hilley told faculty in her introduction. “This man is an evangelist.”  

Mintz said he knows he is an intensely focused man. He said he typically wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin his work day and only stops when he falls asleep. Even Mintz’s hobbies reflect his passions. In his free time, Mintz runs two online discussion forums focused on slavery and contemporary family issues and writes about the history of American adulthood.

“They don’t sound like hobbies,” Mintz said. “I know these aren’t great hobbies. They’re just really what I do.” 

Mintz said ultimately, he feels adapting classrooms for the 21st century is critical work.

“The future of this country depends on our success in educating a highly diverse student body, and I believe we have that student body,” Mintz said. “Our experiments in student success are deeply meaningful.”