In a March 4, 2019, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “How UT-Austin’s Bold Plan for Reinvention Went Belly Up: The rise and fall of one research university’s attempt to shake up undergraduate education,” Lindsay Ellis traces the attempted implementation of a radically redesigned curriculum.
Project 2021 was meant to be a five-year plan to create SMOC (synchronous massive online classes) at UT-Austin headed by research/professor James Pennebaker, who had success with his online students by testing them each and every class. His small survey showed that repeated testing in an online class “narrowed grade disparities between students from different socioeconomic groups in an introductory psychology course.”
Ultimately the benefit of studio-quality videos and frequent testing was called into question during the two years the school tried to implement the program. (The program was abandoned after the second year.) Not all classrooms showed improved results.
What I found most interesting about this article were the struggles Pennebaker faced attempting to radically change how students take classes. He found that many of his plans — like offering smaller, one-credit classes for students needing a prerequisite — set off a chain reaction that involved almost every administrative office, including financial aid.
Pennebaker said he thought he knew how the university functioned, but this project showed him how little he knew.
And, quite frankly, the article suggests there was a lack of communication between the Project 2021 crew and the vision expressed by the university. The article describes members of the project watching a university address to try to understand what the president’s vision for the project was.
Moreover, the university just wasn’t willing to invest the kind of capital the project needed to effect change without knowing if it would ultimately work.
Many of us have ideas about how the university might better serve students and professors, but this article is a good dose of realism. Drastic change can’t happen without all offices and departments moving together (and that might be like herding cats). But even if the university had a clear vision and plan, changing how universities offer courses would be something that takes a long, long time.