University Senate discusses teaching innovations


Thomas J. Yang

Valerie Kinloch, the dean of the School of Education, discusses the importance of education at the 2018 University Senate Council Plenary meeting. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Visual Editor)

Pitt faculty, staff and administrators gathered Tuesday afternoon to discuss innovation in teaching and making higher education more accessible to all.

About 50 Pitt faculty, staff and administrators attended the University Senate’s 2018 plenary meeting — an annual event held to discuss a pressing topic for each academic year. Four different speakers presented their own ideas and findings on how to transform teaching practices and make higher education more accessible.

One topic speakers discussed was the benefit of using Open Educational Resources — materials such as textbooks that are in the public domain or can be used with an open license.

Lauren Collister, a scholarly communications librarian and the final speaker, brought up a resolution passed by the Student Government Board in January advocating for greater use of OERs in University courses. It said SGB members would begin working with the University to encourage faculty design and use OERs in their courses.

“I think we can all agree that it is a bad situation when students must either go into additional further debt to pay for books we require them to have, or purposely undercut their own learning by going without them,” Collister said.

OERs can be freely shared among students, she said, and instructors can alter texts to suit their teaching needs. She said the quality of OERs is not affected just because they’re free, and they are often reviewed and evaluated.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, who was present at the plenary, said the University is open to all the ideas expressed at the plenary. But Pitt will first focus on initiatives that will have a higher impact, can be completed faster or are already underway — such as implementing OERs.

“We’ll be looking at all of the above, it’s just a matter of priority,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

Along with the cost of textbooks, the plenary addressed another popular student grievance — lectures.

Doug Landsittel — a professor of biomedical informatics, biostatistics and clinical and translational science — described how the lecture format of teaching is ineffective and needs to be replaced with an interactive approach.

He proposed using active learning methods instead, such as “flipping the classroom” so that lecture material is consumed outside of class and work which applies the knowledge learned is done within it. He also suggested more problem-based learning, which allows students to examine case studies and do self-directed learning.

Landsittel himself has done work with active learning methods before, including “flipping the classroom” for a course in statistics. He said such actions require time, money and effort.

“There’s no magic wand, changing models of education, flipped classroom, sounds kind of magical, doesn’t it? But it’s not magical,” he said. “It’s even more difficult than a traditional classroom.”

Nathan Urban, the vice provost for graduate studies and strategic initiatives, also spoke, focusing on how the classroom needs to become more focused on individual students’ needs.

Urban said students come to campus not sure about what they want to do and in need of guidance. He said the University can address these issues in three ways — by looking at collected data on student needs, improving advising systems and engaging the campus with specific activities.

“Students are growing up in more personalized ways now,” he said. “As an educational institution accepting all these young people coming to campus, our activities need to reflect that reality.”

Another speaker, dean of the School of Education Valerie Kinloch, said Pitt’s students and teachers should be more diverse. She also called for finding more ways to support faculty — including those not on the tenure track.

“We know we can cultivate and support diverse student and faculty populations,” she said. “And in order to do this kind of work, connections need to be fostered.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Valerie Kinloch would become dean of the School of Education in June 2018. This information was incorrect; Kinloch has been dean since the summer of 2017. The Pitt News regrets this error. 

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