Institute for Transformational Learning

Marni Baker Stein, UT System chief innovation officer, unveiled UT System’s new learning platform at the SXSWedu event Tuesday.
Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Institute for Transformational Learning introduced a new learning platform that uses competency-based education in an attempt to more actively engage students.

The institute developed the platform, known as TEx,  to support competency-based education throughout the UT System. The program was unveiled at SXSWedu on Tuesday. According to a statement from the UT System, competency-based programs are meant to allow students to advance based on their abilities and mastered skills instead of time spent in a classroom.

Marni Baker Stein, chief innovation officer at the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said the new platform is meant to work for students of all backgrounds.

“It is a unified user experience that connects to lots of different technologies and services and applications,” Baker Stein said. “That gives it a lot more flexibility for [students]… where you really want to create lots of different types of learning experiences for different types of study pathways.”

The program will be launched at UT-Rio Grande Valley in fall 2015, said Amy Shackelford, director of strategic partnerships at the institute. 

The platform will then be used for students in continuing and professional education, such as health care, beginning in spring 2016. The program will be expanded the following year to include 10 degree programs for fall 2017, which is when it will be first introduced to UT-Austin.

Steve Mintz, executive director of the institute, said the platform has the potential to reduce the cost of textbooks aside from making material easier to access.

“By creating these ‘textbooks on steroids,’ we can dramatically cut the cost of textbooks because we can create, at scale, using open resources, using other resources, using resources that we create and pass the savings [to the student],” Mintz said. “There is an expense, but that is being picked up elsewhere.”

Baker Stein said the creation of a personal profile that remains with students throughout their educational experience sets TEx apart from other platforms.

“From the moment that you start in a program — even before, perhaps, in affiliated high schools — you have a profile in the system you are building,” Baker Stein said. “You are setting your goals; you are collecting your network; you are collecting, in a sense, credits or badges or certificates or degrees.”

Shackelford said students would have a coach who watches their progress and checks in on them aside from the ability to contact faculty and teaching assistants.

“You have a coach who is not academic, but this coach is actually monitoring your progress,” Shackelford said. “So, if something is going wrong, and they see you are behind, they can proactively reach out and say, ‘Hey, is everything okay? I noticed that you’re behind for this week.’”

Mintz said developers reworked the learning platform to make it more attractive for students to use.

“Our view is that if we are going to give [students] electronic resources, they need to be as engaging and as interactive as the best materials that you interact with,” Mintz said. “That’s what this is about — it’s creating a user experience that is elegant, intuitive, exciting [and] addictive.”

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

Established by the Board of Regents in 2012, the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning has a bold mandate: to leverage technology to make a UT quality education more accessible, affordable and successful, especially among populations that higher education has too often failed.

The ITL’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for innovation.  To this end, the ITL has supported a number of initiatives at UT Austin including innovative online delivery of a large number of “gateway” classes and development of nine massive online courses, or MOOCs, that have reached nearly a quarter of a million students globally. These included the first MOOCs to implement adaptive learning, which tailors learning pathways to individual students’ needs, and project-based learning — in the case of Jonathan Valvano and Ramesh Yerraballi’s Embedded Systems MOOC, building circuits and programming a real microcontroller.

UT Austin is currently integrating MOOC assets and digital content into on-campus courses.

Right now, ITL’s energies focus on ways to better serve non-traditional students: low-income students, first-generation college students, part-time students, commuting students, working adults, family caregivers and students with some college and no degree.  

Our strategy is three-pronged. We are working with faculty across the System’s academic and health science campuses to: 

1) Develop transformational curricular and program designs that offer a clear value proposition, individualized learning pathways, anytime, anywhere access to course content, and wrap-around student support.

2) Design and implement next generation user experiences and infrastructure that will allow the UT campuses to deliver personalized, adaptive educational programming and support services at scale.

3) Harness the power of advanced learning analytics to better advise students, personalize instruction, and continuously improve teaching methods and student support services.

We consider the ITL-supported projects to be among the most exciting in higher education.  These include: 

1) An array of career-aligned, competency-based degree programs in areas of high employer and student demand.  The first of these programs, a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences at UT Rio Grande Valley, will launch this fall.

2) Degree pathways with an intentionally designed curriculum that can begin in high school and lead to graduate school or a rewarding career. UTRGV’s B.S. in Biomedical Sciences is part of a broader Middle School to Medical School pathway. 

3) Innovative medical school curricula that are competency-based and that emphasize experiential and project- and challenge-based learning; and 

4) UTxProfessional Health, a cross-institutional educational marketplace for health professionals worldwide.

Uniting these initiatives is an approach that is student-centered, outcomes-oriented, career-aligned and data-driven. Our projects emphasize high fidelity content and instructional design, personalization, powerful networking and collaborative experiences, high impact student services, sustainability and scale — which will provide the data needed to further enhance these programs and to better support student success.  

Faculty at UT Austin are among the country’s leaders in inventing next generation teaching and learning and conducting educational research. The ITL is staunchly committed to partnering with campus visionaries to support the innovations that will define the future of higher education.

Mintz is the executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a UT Austin history professor. 

It’s been a year since UT launched its first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and, despite low completion rates, Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said they are part of building a learning platform for the future.

After looking at data from the University’s first eight MOOCs from the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, Mintz said a total of about 281,000 people from all over the world enrolled in the courses. Of this number, only about 1-13 percent complete the MOOCs.

Mintz, who is also a history professor at the University, said there might be several reasons for the low completion rates, including the age of MOOC students and their motives for taking the free online courses.

“Your parents aren’t paying $10,000 for you to be sitting in a class, and they expect you to finish,” Mintz said. “It’s a very different experience. Also, most MOOC students are older. They often have degrees. They’re doing it either out of interest or because of professional credentialing. They’re not there to get a BA for the most part.”

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million into edX, an online learning platform and provider of MOOCs and allocated an additional $5 million to be used for course development. Only $1.5 million of the additional funds have been used for course development. Founded in 2012, edX first offered MOOCs created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before expanding to offer content from other universities.

Mintz said UT is increasing the spread of its international image, and its ability to compete with other top colleges by being one of the first universities to use MOOC technology.

“We play football in the big leagues, and, academically, we need to be in the big leagues,” Mintz said. “Faculty members of the caliber that UT-Austin has need to feel that they have exactly the same opportunities as a Princeton professor or a Harvard professor, and I want to make sure they have those opportunities.”

Engineering associate professor Michael Webber, who taught the “Energy 101” MOOC, said teaching these free courses is beneficial for the University because professors become better at teaching through learning how to internationalize their content and prepare it for a digital format.

“It forced me to think about how the course I taught works around the world,” Webber said.

While University students don’t directly benefit from MOOCs unless they take the online course, Mintz said materials are currently being developed for MOOCs that can be used in UT classrooms.

“Instead of having a textbook, the MOOC might be the textbook,” Mintz said. “A lot of money is being spent to create interactives, virtual laboratories, virtual reality environments and immersive learning experiences. Even if you never take a MOOC, some of the materials we have developed for the MOOC will be used in classes you will take.”

Mintz said there is also potential in the future for MOOCs to be offered for credit, but Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said there are still problems to be worked out before this can happen.

“One of the problems with offering MOOCs for credit center around being able to authenticate who is taking the MOOC,” Keller said. “You don’t know if it’s the same person every time.”

In addition to making sure the person who registers for the MOOC is the same person taking their exams, Webber said MOOCs are bad at being able to see whether students have mastered the material.

“I don’t think MOOCs should be offered as course credit until assessment in general gets figured out,” Webber said. “This is a solvable problem. We’re just not there yet.”

Editor's note: Mintz's comments and the amount the UT System has dedicated to the program have been updated for accuracy.

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

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are seemingly always making headlines across the nation. Conflicting reports of their success and failure follow each other in the same publications. Unclear and unqualified completion rate data color public opinion surrounding these innovative approaches to education. Overall, the paradigm remains the same that MOOCs are intended to be traditional courses designed for traditional students. This belief could not be farther from the truth.

Negative press aside, MOOCs retain the capability to transform the traditional model of education. Instead of relegating expert knowledge to the upper echelons of society, online opportunities democratize education. Through this developing model, content experts are distributing their expertise to the masses. MOOCs enable a freedom to learn by connecting underserved communities with the finest professors and institutions from around the world.

The University of Texas has been and always will be a university of the first class, but the diffusion of information and communications technologies in the 21st century has redefined the role of the University in research and education. The UT System established the Institute for Transformational Learning to prepare for the future by fostering innovation, producing best-in-class resources and pioneering new cost-cutting programs across the state. This Institute launched UT Austin’s MOOCs and supported this first round of research and development. 

UT arrived about five years late to MOOC experimentation. The delay both benefits and curses these initiatives. On one hand, investment in experiments that seem to be in twilight informs public opinion and curtails interest. On the other hand, the University is able to leverage data from completed MOOCs all over the country to improve course development. Both the Center for Teaching and Learning at UT Austin and UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning engage students, researchers, content experts and media professionals at the forefront of innovation in higher education.

Preliminary data, even from UT Austin’s record-breaking MOOCs, should quell any remaining fears regarding disruption in higher education. Students are not replacing traditional institutions of higher learning with MOOCs. Graduate students at this University are not choosing between registering for Michael Webber’s Energy Technology & Policy course or completing all the assignment to earn an edX certificate for Energy 101, a MOOC created from the same material.

However, motivated learners, and more importantly teachers, around the world can supplement traditional education with this expert-level content. Energy industry professionals, international policy researchers and general interest audiences tap into the content to expand their personal knowledge beyond their respective worlds. High school teachers effectively employ MOOC content and structure in their STEM classrooms to cultivate knowledge and interest beyond state-mandated curricula.

These are the virtues of free and open education. Learners can connect with content aligned with their interests to meet unique learning goals instead of chasing cookie-cutter learning objectives. Individual accomplishment, while difficult to quantify, should be identified as the new standard for MOOC success.

Accordingly, online learning initiatives like MOOCs will never disrupt brick-and-mortar educational institutions. Instead, they open the virtual doors of such institutions to the whole world. Since launching the first four MOOCs, UT Austin has expanded its footprint onto every continent. Geographically isolated individuals are joining virtual communities in online spaces based on their common interests and expertise. Quite simply, students from around the world without easy access to high quality education are connecting directly with UT’s professors. 

Take, for example, Amanda, a 13-year-old Brazilian Energy 101 student who expressed her appreciation this way, “Energy is so important for me … I’ll take these lessons for the rest of my life.” 

Profit margins and completion rates aside, it appears this UT Austin initiative is living up to the university’s tagline, and is in fact changing the world. 

Tharpe is an anthropology and radio-television-film senior. 

UT Government Professor James Henson and Texas State Representative Dan Branch hold a panel on education in the state of Texas at the downtown Hilton hotel on Monday afternoon. The panel was part of SXSWedu.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

Higher education institutions can graduate more students by shifting the landscape of college classes toward innovative technological learning models, according to a panel of higher education officials who spoke Tuesday, the second day of SXSWedu.

UT-Brownsville president Juliet Garcia and Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, were part of a panel on teaching new educational methods to old colleges. They discussed integrating technology into the higher-education model and making changes to the roles of faculty members.

The panel was part of SXSWedu, a four-day event that hosts education panelists and speakers and is part of the annual South By Southwest conference and festival. 

“When I advocate for online education, I’m not advocating for it instead of small seminars,” Mintz said. “I’m talking about courses like the ones I’ve taught with 592 students with no break out sessions, totally impersonal relationships between faculty and students and a 30 percent failure rate.”

The institute, which Mintz heads, was founded in 2012 as part of a System-wide initiative to enhance student learning in an innovative way and increase graduation rates.

Last October, the UT System Board of Regents voted to offer massive open online courses. Starting this fall, UT-Austin will pioneer this venture within the System and offer six free online courses through edX, a nonprofit distributor of interactive online courses.

Garcia said some faculty members are willing to use online platforms, adapt to technology in the classroom and accept their changing roles. This wave of technology also comes at a time when faculty who are resistant to change are retiring, according to Garcia. 

“The most important thing is that no one’s job will look the same in a few years,” Garcia said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable for a while, but that’s okay.”

Mintz and Garcia also spoke about increasing graduation and retention rates by offering nontraditional courses.

Garcia said retention rates can be increased by finding programs that work well and scaling them up with technology that didn’t exist before.

UT-Brownsville currently partners with nearby high schools to offer a math and science pathway for high school juniors and seniors, but the program is limited to 140 students each year.

Garcia said technology can help increase this figure and reduce the time it takes these students to graduate.

Online interactive courses and accelerated courses that don’t fit into the 18-week course calendar can serve as solutions, Mintz said.

Mintz said 50 percent of UT-Austin students will fail at least one science course and 20 to 25 percent of students will “fail out” by the end of their second year.

UT-Austin spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said these figures only apply to those students who take six years to graduate.

More than 80 percent of students at the University graduate within six years, while about 50 percent graduate in four years.

Published on March 6, 2013 as "SXSWedu panel urges education innovation".