Recognizing excellence in transforming learning?

Not long ago a friend asked me, in the context of the current debate about MOOCs and other forms of supposedly transformational educational innovations, who was awarding prizes to recognize excellence in the transformation of learning, especially in the large class environment?

My response was, “Well…hm…uh…there’s…no. I guess I can’t really think of anyone.”

I did manage to come up with the CASE-Carnegie US Professor of the year awards [I am an off and on judge for these], but these awards are not specifically targeted at innovation in large courses. Some of the past winners, such as Dennis Jacobs (2002) or Michael Wesch (2008), have done some very amazing things in their large classes, but that’s not the specific purpose of these awards. Finding “excellence in undergraduate education” is the brief of the panels reading the final application dossiers.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else relevant, I started scanning around the web looking for that national award for excellence in the use of technology in teaching large courses (or even for using technology in teaching college level courses). I found nothing.

Normally, I’d put that down to my inability to find what I’m looking for online (despite having pretty reasonable skills in that area), but it seems I’m not the only person looking in vain. In a comment on an earlier post on MOOCs, Dominik Lukes wrote:

“I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one.”

If you know of something that Dominik and I are missing, please let me know and I’ll publicize it here. Rather than seeing lots of time and money thrown at MOOCs, which are largely (but certainly not entirely) using existing technology to push content at students in an efficient manner, I’d love to see some sort of X-Prize competition for academics who want to create new learning opportunities for students that take full advantage of the creative potential of digital media.

5 thoughts on “Recognizing excellence in transforming learning?

  1. Katie

    What about that Plaid Avenger guy at Virginia Tech that teaches a buttload of students and turned himself into a comic book character? Does that count? I thought his angle was pretty creative and I certainly never experienced anything like that in my own education. I kind of wish I could take one of his classes just to see what it’s like.

  2. Dominik Lukes

    The problem is that it’s not difficult to find examples of “teaching excellence” (as appalling a cliche as it is). From what I understand of your “Lying about history” course, Mills, I’m sure you’d be a candidate.

    There are also a whole lot of approaches that have produced amazing learning at all levels. Montessori, Critical education, Problem-based learning, Project-based learning or even Synthetic phonics. When led by dedicated and enthusiastic educators, all of these can succeed. And there’s plenty of evidence of this. What I’m asking about, though, is an example of one of these turned into a system-wide reform, that at the very least, transformed outcomes and at best society in a way they set out.

    But the reason there aren’t any, I have begun to suspect, is because they are impossible. System-wide reforms are subject to different processes and factors than pilots or individual experiments. As I said, the only reforms that can succeed in this way are those aimed at funding, governance or access (which is the reason I’m so bullish on MOOCs).

    The problem with an X Prize is that it only works with problems that can be measured on a uni-dimensional scale. An electric vehicle will travel X miles, a shuttle with X per cent of private funding will deliver a payload. But any putative educational reform that would be worth such a prize would 1. not be measurable along a single scale, 2. take too long to see the results, and 3. could only be done one at a time in any one country (and if run in several countries at once would not be transferable).

    Of course, you could have an X Prize system for individual achievements but never with the assumption that the winning approach would be implemented system wide. But it seems to me what you’re talking about is some sort of a (micro) grant system for teaching parallel to the one for research. These exist in different forms already but it would be interesting to see how it would work if they became more of a norm rather than the exception.

  3. Mills Post author

    Thanks Dominik for this thoughtful reply. Had I not been out sick, I would have responded sooner.

    I don’t disagree with you about the problems posed by the challenges you list. But I also think that a great deal of change in higher education occurs organically and does not require system-wide funding (or even support). We are fortunate here in the U.S. (and in many other countries) in the post-secondary realm in that we have so much latitude in how we teach our courses. That means that individual professors can experiment with this or that teaching innovation and see what yields the greater, or at least more satisfying, result. The downside, of course, is that how students are taught varies significantly across institutions (and even departments) and so the learning opportunities they have are highly unpredictable.

    Nevertheless, innovation is very possible and it’s that innovation I’d like to see rewarded. Given that it seems unlikely that there will be a move away from large courses–either in person or online–any time soon, it strikes me that the most important place to look for and reward innovation is in the teaching of those large courses, in whatever format.

    I agree that the X Prize is not a perfect model for what I’m talking about for the reasons you cite. I merely used it as a well known example. But I also think it is very possible to find excellence in education without the sorts single scale metrics you mention. Admittedly, that puts more of a burden on the prize committee to establish some sort of rubric for evaluation, but that’s certainly doable.

    For instance, over the past several years I’ve been a judge for the state wide faculty excellence awards here in Virginia. We are tasked with comparing “excellence” across all sectors of higher education in the state. So, for instance, I end up reading dossiers from faculty at community colleges in the coal mining region and comparing them to those from full professors at our flagship universities. Using the rubrics we are given, it is actually rather easy to sort out who is deserving of the award, because those rubrics don’t depend on federal grant dollars or prestigious publications. They depend on demonstrated impact on student learning.

    Admittedly, developing such metrics for evaluating excellence are quite difficult. They just aren’t impossible.

    So, I think that if we want to reward organic innovation–innovation that can inspire change across the post-secondary sector by pointing to something that might look like a version of best practices–then I think some sort of national recognition is in order.

  4. Dominik Lukes

    Mills, I agree that you could come up with these kinds of metrics. But in a way, this award should be such that the winner would define new criteria. Maybe they should be modeled more on something like the Oscars or Nobels (with real rewards). Let the judging be more subjective (by some sort of informal and widespread grouping) but also more impactful. Let it be something to make people sit up and take notice. Maybe be inspired by it or maybe react to it in the opposite direction, use it as ammunition for their own experimentation or vindication of past efforts. But it should always be clear what particular thing is being honored – something tangible, that people can get behind.

  5. Derek Bruff

    I’m working on a blog post about MOOCs and the digital humanities, which led me to this post of yours from last year. I think your assessment last summer was correct: there was no big prize for innovation in higher education at that time. Last week, however, the Minerva Project announced a $500,000 prize for “a faculty member at any institution in the world who has demonstrated extraordinary, innovative teaching.” They want to be the Nobel Prize of teaching! We’ll see how that pans out for them…

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