A 21st Century Leap for the ExCollege

live-1003646__340What is by far the fastest growing sector at Tufts?

No, not the number of national championship sports teams, although that would be a good guess. And no, not the number of Comp Sci majors, even though that’s another good guess.

The answer is graduate students. Yes, while their presence still may be hard to discern, in fact the graduate student population on the Medford campus has doubled in ten years — to nearly 2500. Now that’s a significant change.

And while grad students have always had a presence in the ExCollege as instructors, the sample has been small and in a certain sense accidental.

It was high time for us to get out ahead of the curve. So when the graduate school came calling early in the year, looking for our help, we jumped at the chance.

Three initiatives emerged.

The first, which in hindsight, seems like a no brainer, was perhaps the most “radical.” For fifty years the ExCollege’s governing board has been comprised of equal numbers of faculty and undergraduates. Indeed, when the ExCollege was given a permanent charter as a department back in 1979, this organizational structure was explicitly spelled out.

As the new director of the ExCollege, I felt it was the right time to add a graduate student to the board. So it fell to me to determine whether or not I would push to break with tradition or maintain our mandated status quo. Would there be “strict constructionists” among the current board members? Or would they be willing to interpret the charter in a manner that reflects the unforeseen changes in the student body?

Happily, there was nothing to fight about. The board quickly and unanimously voted to add a graduate student representative. And based on recommendations from the Graduate Student Council, Seth Rothschild, a PhD candidate in Mathematics, was accorded the honor of being the first ever.

The second and third initiatives both grew out of new trends in graduate education.

On the one hand, it seems that more and more PhDs are looking to build careers outside the academy, hoping to take their highly specialized skill set into every major profession one can imagine. For this cohort, the need to experience on-the-ground training has become critical. With this in mind, the ExCollege, in partnership with the Graduate School and Alumni Relations, started a new program, one designed to meet this need, called Professional Development Fellowships wherein advanced grad students will shadow a professional for a week over winter break.

On the flip side of the coin, those grad students who want a career as academics have found that, unlike years past, their experience and/or training as teachers has become a key factor in the university job market. Addressing this issue became, I think it’s fair to say, our most important endeavor this year. With the blessing of the Graduate School, we established the Robyn Gittleman Graduate Teaching Fellowship program for advanced graduate students looking to develop solid teaching skills.

Named in honor of our Director Emeritus, who devoted her professional life to furthering the cause of university teaching, the program attracted an impressive cohort of applicants eager for the experience. It also won a Tufts Innovates Grant (which is given to help kick start new ideas), secured additional funding from the Janover Family (who support our Voices from the Edge lecture series), and has already garnered gifts from alums who want to contribute in celebration of Robyn’s career and passions.

13255917_10153778740892572_2489340888281956062_nCome the fall, the inaugural class of eight advanced graduate students will teach courses in the ExCollege and will meet with me, individually and as part of a regular roundtable discussion, in what we’ve come to call “curated” teacher training.

Stay tuned for updates as to how this “experiment” goes!

Why Are We Still Lecturing?

university-105709__340Is the traditional college classroom and its main instrument, the lecture, under siege by the forces of change? Given all the research on learning in the last twenty years, how archaic does the classic image feel of an instructor at a podium, or pacing back and forth, with a series of overheads (or these days PowerPoint presentations) projected in large while he or she imparts wisdom to an audience numbering in the hundreds?

And yet, for all the talk of “disruptive education” and for all the estimable experiments going on at colleges across the country, change seems only to be nipping at the heels of tradition.

Take, for example, MOOCs, often heralded as the vanguard of a revolution in higher education. No one can deny their phenomenal growth. By one authoritative count there are over 4000 MOOCs being offered to a billion students worldwide. One must applaud the sheer numbers and marvel at the striking desire on the part of humans to educate themselves. However, if you scratch the surface, what do you have? A billion students being lectured to.



Is it purely a function of the medium, the fact that MOOCs are videotaped or streaming presentations? Perhaps. Certainly the signal from a single fixed camera is infinitely easier to set up and control — compared, say, to three cameras (one wide shot of the room, one audience shot, one close up of the speaker) and the requisite editing or live switching a multiple camera setup necessitates.

Or is it a function of cost? The typical single fixed camera set up is by far the least expensive and can be easily and cheaply reused for any number of courses. In a number of instances, such a setup is totally automated. The speaker simply pushes a button.

Clearly, common sense tells us that both these factors come in to play. And yet, I submit that they’re not the essential elements driving this deeply embedded reliance on lecturing.

So what are the drivers? For MOOCS and for much of what passes for teaching at brick and mortar colleges?

First of all, the lecture is a form of teaching designed for people who aren’t trained to teach. I know this sounds like a strange and perhaps harsh thing to say about my colleagues. But most university faculty are trained to write scholarly papers, articles, reports, and books. Few if any received guidance or critique on teaching when they began their careers. Left to their own devices, what did they do? They emulated their professors. From their training in research, they knew very well how to organize and assess information and craft an argument. And lecturing allowed them to package research as presentation. A perfect fit!

Even more central to the persistence of lecturing is its status as a “teacher centered” form of education. A power relationship is established, one that subordinates the student to the teacher. The teacher controls that which is of value, dolling it out in small pieces as he or she sees fit. Even when the teacher allows questions, they’re almost always sandwiched in after the end of the lecture for the day, almost always for clarification purposes, and almost never to call into question the teacher’s mastery.

Is there hope for the future? Will lecturing slowly give way to more interactive, participatory, and experiential forms of teaching and learning?


Perhaps so, if more educators take seriously the research being done on learning. For starters, there’s a 2014 study conducted by investigators from the University of Washington and the University of Maine that found “students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning.”

Sooner or later, rather than requiring students to memorize and then regurgitate information, shouldn’t we be teaching them how to think?