PATSS and the Importance of Engaged Learning

Change is difficult.  It’s complex, contentious, and time-consuming — but often very rewarding.

In general, higher education has been responsible for many of the world’s new ideas. However, in the vital area of transferring knowledge to new generations, we as an industry have avoided change.

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Since the time of Socrates in a Greek amphitheater, with adoring students crowded around, the idea of lecture-based teaching has stood the test of time.  But the world is changing.  Widely available new technology now makes it possible to change how we teach while increasing learning and lowering costs.

We live in a society where we talk to friends and family across the world in real time using a cell phone and a wireless data connection.  We shop online, play games with our grandchildren in other states, read books that are stored in the cloud, and keep in touch through social media.

This year’s traditional-age freshmen have never lived without cell phones and barely recall a time before Google.  Today’s students expect and demand information at the touch of a finger.  However, in a world where an almost infinite number of sources (reliable and not) are available on any subject, students still need guidance and encouragement from professors who are able to teach on a flexible schedule using the latest technology. Consequently, our teaching methodology must change, too.  It must change not only to take advantage of the added effectiveness and reduced costs of using new technology, but also because technologically savvy students demand it.

They want to have their professors’ lectures available on YouTube and Vimeo.   They want those lectures to come in natural lengths to fit different topics or concepts, not only in 50-minute blocks.  They want to be able to view material day or night, start and stop a lecture, rewind it, and even view parts of it again.

They want to be directed to the explanations available online from other world-renowned experts.  They want to be able to discuss the material with their classmates online, seek help on unclear items and offer help when they believe they understand.

This quick, and surprisingly deep, interaction with other learners (always monitored by professors and graduate students for accuracy) is particularly important to today’s students.  It is a powerful way to learn.

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Finally, students still want class meetings, but not only to hear professors lecture.  Instead, they want to interact with the professors and their classmates in a variety of ways that enable them to answer questions, apply the material and solve problems.  They want to be fully engaged in the learning process.

I am proud to say that at UT Tyler we are moving rapidly beyond the stale classroom lecture to fully engaged learning by implementing an exciting new project.  One of our newest projects, PATSS (Patriots Applying Technology for Success and Savings), allows us to join our students in the technology-based environment they inhabit and use every day.

This fall, our first PATSS classes are being taught across campus. Like many of the initiatives in education these days, PATSS is designed to help us maximize our resources.  That’s the “savings” part.  But it is the “success” part that is truly exciting.

To gain both major benefits – student success and resource savings, not to mention greater student satisfaction – we are “flipping” our classes and fully engaging our students in their own learning process.  In what we are calling Hyflex classes, students learn the material online and take quizzes online.  During class, they discuss.  They participate in activities where the material is used.  They engage with each other in groups.  In short, they apply the material.

UT Tyler offers a web resource specifically geared toward students looking for online options.

UT Tyler offers a web resource specifically geared toward students looking for online options.

Studies of real classroom data show that this learning process is better.  Students learn more per unit of time and retain it longer.  Using technology this way to engage students extends the range of professors and lowers costs.  And students are more satisfied with their learning given the greater interaction with others and given the much greater flexibility and control each student has over the timing of their learning efforts.

Nobel Laureate Dr. Carl Wieman confirms these results in his work on how students learn more physics in “flipped” classes that also use project-based learning to engage students.  He found that more students will succeed in gatekeeper courses such as calculus, chemistry and physics, lowering the withdrawal and failure rates in these tough courses.  Prof. Wieman came to UT Tyler at the beginning of the semester to talk to us as part of our long-running Distinguished Lecture Series.  His studies on learning were certainly an important inspiration for the PATSS project.

We expect that this engaged learning process will be good for our faculty as well.  With this model, after the initial extra work to change teaching styles, faculty will actually save time and be able to do more of what they love – teach – while enjoying it more.

In the fall of 2013, more than 750 students were enrolled in the PATSS project.  So far, the response from those students has been very positive.

Here at UT Tyler, we know the world is changing.  And we are working to embrace and lead that change with it.  We believe in innovation, and PATSS is just one example of how thinking beyond the usual will help us better meet the needs of our students.

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