Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Book is on its way!

 For almost five years now, I've been researching and writing Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education. It will be available as an eBook, softbound, and hardbound. To get a look at the table of contents, reviews, a video by me introducing key concepts, read the entirety of Chapter 1, and to order the book, check out

The book is based on the last 10-20 years of development of six institutions: Georgia State University, Governors State University, Guttman Community College, Southern New Hampshire University's "College for America" program, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Central Oklahoma.

What they all have in common: their pursuit of institutional-scale, sustainable gains in the quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability for students and their benefactors. Even more significant,  family resemblances across these institutions suggests a general framework that other institutions can use to chart their own paths toward transformation.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Should we promote "digital learning" as a banner for institutional transformation?

 Edward Maloney and Joshua Kim wrote a provocative blog post in InsideHigherEd. Here's my comment:

Eddie and Josh,

You wrote, "A model for digital learning is a set of integrated ideas, concepts and
frameworks that help us build hypotheses and make sense of data."

I think that, to advance digital learning, don't think of it as digital learning.

Based on my study of six institutions that have been gradually transforming themselves to improve quality, equitable access, and affordability:
1. Technology is essential for making such gains, e.g., as a tool for undergraduate research, as a tool to help institutions make sense of big data about their educational process, as a way for people to collaborate across barriers of time and space, as a platform on which students, faculty, and others can reflect about a student's achievements and learning; (and so on)

2. However, technology is not, and should not, be seen as THE way to describe educational transformation.

Advances in technology and increases in its availability are just one of many important enablers of transformation of higher learning, each helping reinforce the other. Some others include:
  • Pressures for institutions and degree programs to be more accountable for their outcomes, especially affordability, equitable access, and what graduates are now able to do;
  • Increased national and institutional attention to educational strategies such as high impact practices, essential learning outcomes, backward design, and authentic assessment; greater faculty comfort with such strategies;
  • Transformative leadership from many positions in the institution;
  • Changes in academic culture, e.g,, increased percentage of faculty who see evidence-based improvement of outcomes to be possible and essential; prioritizing continual improvement of outcomes; legitimacy and rewards for faculty and staff who invest significant time working with other faculty (including faculty from other departments) and with staff to achieve such improvements.
  • More learning spaces with lower density, furnished with movable chairs and tables;
  • Changes in accreditation practices so more attention is paid to quality, access, and affordability outcomes;
  • Changing public opinion about the goals and values of higher education (is digital learning the way to brand this change to the public?)
  • (and so on)

So should our announced focus be Digital learning? evidence-driven learning? culture-driven learning? improved learning through transformative leadership? accreditation-driven learning? or none of the above?

Analogy: if your family business were making salt, perhaps you'd write a cookbook entitled, "A Pinch of Salt." Perhaps that book would pay too little attention to other ingredients and how best to use them. So it wouldn't be a very good cookbook.

I've been engaged with improving higher education for fifty (?!) years, with special attention to educational uses of technology. I've seen way too many tech-driven educational improvements flounder because they were too siloed: they allowed technology spending to siphon budget and attention from other enablers; they suffered a fatal collision between rapid, somewhat turbulent rates of change in digital tools and resources versus human capital's comparatively glacial rate of change.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Make Transformation Possible by Changing Barriers into Assets

The headline could apply to lots of important topics today. In this case, I'm referring to the possibilities for the gradual transformation of our institutions of higher education.

I've been studying six colleges and universities for the last three years. Each has been working for five-ten years with some success to improve quality, equitable access, and affordability, simultaneously.

Each institution wants to attain such gains on an institutional scale, and in ways likely to thrive into the future. So each has treated barriers to transformation as malleable, not fixed:

  • Many years ago, Georgia State began reorganizing so that a variety of administrative and academic units could work together smoothly to improve graduation rates while maintaining or improving quality. [The link in this bullet, and in those below, lead to more information about the institution's pursuit of 3fold gains.]
  • Governors State University has built close, long-term working relationships with area community colleges to increase transfer rates and prepare students for its challenging upper division academic program.
  • Southern New Hampshire University's College for America, an online project-based curriculum, educates working adults within their workplaces; the university-business partnerships help keep education grounded, motivating, and supportive.
  • Guttman Community College was founded to support a variety of kinds of experiential learning. Its scheduling system enables class meetings so long that, in the middle of class, students can spread out into the city, do brief fieldwork assignments, and return for an immediate discussion of their findings. Doing without academic departments has helped faculty collaborate across disciplinary lines.
  • The University of Central Oklahoma has implemented a Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR- pronounced stellar). In this ePortfolio, students can post achievements from courses, extracurriculars, and other experiences. They reflect on those experiences and describe how those experiences document their growing expertise and developing values in six crucial dimensions.
  • The University of Central Florida got in on the ground floor of online learning, committing in the 1990s to train and actively support every faculty member teaching online. Rapid growth of online programs has enabled major savings in plant, maintenance, and operations.  Meanwhile, a substantial fraction of all full-time faculty have received extensive education in how to teach well online and, indirectly, on campus.
That's a little taste of what has emerged from these six institutional case histories. In early 2020, Quality, Access, Affordability: Pursuing 3Fold Gains in Higher Education will be published by Stylus. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"Technology as Lever": the story of my most influential article is as instructive as the article itself

"Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever," written by Art Chickering and me, is undoubtedly my most influential article - cited thousands of times.

  • The article begins by listing the Seven Principles, in case you're not already familiar with them. They were formulated by Chickering and Gamson in the mid 1980s as a summary of teaching & learning activities that research showed were particularly powerful.
Personally, I've been influenced almost as much by how the article came to be written.


For technology to influence educational outcomes, it isn't enough to have and use the technology. That technology must be used to carry out an activity that is, even without that technology, educationally powerful. The question should not be"Does technology X improve learning outcomes." Instead it should be "When technology X is used to support a particular teaching and learning activity, does that activity improve learning outcomes?"

So what might those powerful teaching and learning activities be?

At conferences and in campus visits, I started asking faculty what technology-assisted activities seemed most powerful and most likely to have widening use in the coming years.

Eventually, I came up with a list of about seven such patterns of activity (e.g., active learning, working in teams on a realistic and motivating project). A little later, my colleagues Robin Zuniga and Trudy Banta pointed out that my list paralleled Chickering and Gamson's "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." So I started using the Seven Principles instead because of the extensive research showing their effectiveness.

Robin and I used that insight to develop an item bank for student surveys on their uses of technology for specific activity: The Flashlight Current Student Inventory. Thanks to Gary Brown and his colleagues at Washington State University, an early online survey tool was created to manage and extend those survey questions. Use of the Flashlight Online tool spread eventually to a couple hundred institutions.

In the mid 1990s, I bumped into Art Chickering. He knew of how I was using the Seven Principles. "Why don't we write an article together about how to use digital technology to implement them in undergraduate education?" he asked. .

I was highly skeptical. Examples of technology enhancing seven principle activities seemed so self-evident. I literally could not imagine anyone reading or valuing such an article. Chick persisted so I asked him to send me a first draft. If, when I'd read it, I thought I could help, I'd send him a rewrite. He did, and then I did.

Eventually, our article appeared in the paper Bulletin of the American Association for Higher Education, where I worked. It was 1996 and AAHE had just created its first site on the World Wide Web. There was very little content on it yet. I suggested to the websmith that they link the text of our article to the AAHE home page.  The initial URL:

Readership started strong and multiplied each month. For at least a decade, the article drew over 4,000 hits a month. Impressive for an article I thought no one would read!

I got some insight into why the article was so influential on a visit to the University of South Carolina (USC) in the late 1990s. In a talk, I described one way in which technology could be used to implement a Principle: giving rapid, useful feedback to students. When I was in high school, teachers had given the same comment on papers so many times that explanations and suggestions had disappeared. If a passage seemed awkward to the teacher, they'd write "K" in the margin. Not helpful!

 Today, I said, USC faculty can ask for student work to be submitted electronically. Then they can use the "Comments" feature to type detailed feedback about specific elements of the student's work. Better yet, the next time you want to make a similar comment, you can copy the initial version of the feedback and, if necessary, adapt or improve it. The more times similar feedback is given, the better and more helpful it can become.

Here's the kicker: Later in my visit, Bill Hogue, the CIO, introduced me to another audience of faculty. Bill remarked that he'd heard my talk the previous day.Then he explained the time-saving idea for improving feedback on student work. Bill added that he'd never considered using a computer that way.

The ideas I'd thought too obvious to need explanation were in fact 1) powerful, 2) easy to comprehend, 3) easy to spread from person to person by word of mouth, and 4) could be useful to the listener no matter how much or how little relevant experience they'd had.

I'm writing my first book in quite a few years. The hidden assumptions beneath my draft may well be the most important ones for the book to explain. Perhaps those insights will be simple and powerful enough that readers will want to share them with their friends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When it comes to feedback about faculty or courses, one size does not fit all

Considering the Design of Evaluations of Faculty or Courses

I saw yet another item in the POD listserv whether and how to ‘grade’ teaching, student feedback.  Obviously, any such system requires collecting best evidence and in several different ways, "triangulating" from them to get a more valid, reliable sense of what's been going on. 

The fallacy I see in most such discussions is the assumption that one procedure must fit all kinds of courses and faculty.  (The IDEA Center is a noteworthy exception to 'one size fits all.')

Before getting to judging faculty, let's be clear: the most important target for intensive evaluation is the performance of academic programs (e.g., degree programs, general education, writing or other essential learning outcomes as they are mastered across the curriculum).

  • What should students have learned by the time they leave (not just in content and capabilities but also in motivation and perspectives)? 
  • What did students learn by the time they left? Compared with the goals? compared with students graduating five years earlier?
  • Have equity gaps increased or decreased for students who have been in the program?  
  • Has the program made responsible, effective uses of its resources including students' time and money?

Now, let's talk about making judgments about faculty. We can learn more, and waste less time and money, by having different inquiries for different situations

Purpose -Formative
Purpose - Summative
Sample criteria
The top educators  (or courses) (~5%)
Cross-fertilization among most engaged innovators, SoTL practitioners. Forge direction and leadership cadre for future programmatic improvements
Rewards of distinction
In what ways has your work benefited the practice of other faculty and staff, here and at other institutions?
Broad middle
Provide feedback useful for faculty growth and course improvement
Use evidence of growth or no growth over the years as one of many inputs into personnel decisions
Use highly engaging practices? With desired effects?
Bottom of the scale (~5%)
Identify and then fix problematic teachers/courses if possible
Identify teachers/courses performing at unacceptably low levels, term after term.
Is instructor showing up? Providing feedback in a timely fashion?

The "broad middle" is the most important group because they do most of the teaching and have far more impact, collectively, on students. Because so many faculty are in this group, any central committee or office will be able to spend comparatively little time with each instructor, teaching assistant, and learning assistant.  So these kinds of feedback need to come from standardized processes (e.g., standard data about course performance; standard review from peers who have been educated about what's worth noticing and how to coach).

The bottom of the scale is the most important for a "high touch" approach because of the risks that the intervention might make things worse.  Each case requires sensitivity and a unique approach.

The top of the scale is also worth high touch, to harvest, interpret and disseminate important lessons and new challenges arising from the work done in these very best courses.

Does your institution have a faculty/course improvement program that treats the worst performers differently than the others -uses different criteria to judge them, gathers different data about them?

The Book in Progress

As you might know, I'm working on a book tentatively titled, Quality, Access, and Affordability: Pursuing 3Fold Gains in Higher Education.  About 2/3 of the planned book is in at least first draft shape.  The book describes 5-6 institutions that have been working for years to enhance how well students learn, to make access more equitable, and to control affordability in time and money, for the students, the institutions, and their benefactors. Even more important, these institutions have all been trying to accomplish such gains in ways that are scalable (engage more than boutique numbers of students) and sustainable for many years to come.

If you'd like to hear more, write a comment below or email me (ehrmannsteve gmail).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Progress on quality, access, and affordability in higher education

For much of the last two years I've been researching and writing a book: 
  1. To describe how some colleges and universities have been (re)shaping themselves in order to make sustainable gains in educational quality, access, and affordability at scale, and 
  2. From their experiences, to suggest a conceptual framework and implementation principles that can be used to pursue such 3fold gains more effectively and efficiently.
There's a lot of research and writing still to do. The book probably won't be published until late 2018 or early 2019.

Recently, the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group invited me to give a webinar on some of the most important findings and suggestions emerging from the book.  A video of the event is on YouTube at  My talk begins at 6:37 into the video, pauses for 20 minutes at 50:16, picks up again at 1:10:48 and concludes at 1:22:15.  In the talk itself lasts less than an hour.  The book analyzes a number of case histories; some points about Georgia State University's recent history and achievements are included in the talk.

Some Tentative Findings:

  1. Pursuing three gains (in quality, access, and affordability) as three independent agendas is probably not the best way to actually achieve such improvements in institutional and program outcomes.  
  2. Instead create a single constellation of changes over the years that, as a group, cumulatively improves elements of quality, access, and affordability. ("pursuing 3fold gains")
  3. There are three major ways to conceive of how how learning should be organized.  Each suggests a different, incompatible way to pursue 3fold gains. 
  4. Institutional case histories also suggest that, for 3fold gains to be sustained at scale, the constellation of changes needs to include targeted improvements aligned across: 
    • Educational strategies, 
    • Organizational foundations (including culture), to better sustain those strategies at scale, and 
    • Interactions with the wider world that also influence the sustainability of the institution's educational strategies. 
I hope you'll take a look at my talk.  Post your reactions here or contact me at ehrmannsteve at gmail.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Improving Course Outcomes - Uses of Undergraduate Learning Assistants

Trained “undergraduate learning assistants” (ULAs) can provide invaluable support for faculty seeking to redesign or enhance their courses.  In 2006-2014, the USM redesigned 57 courses spread across eleven of its universities.  About two-thirds of those courses used prepared ULAs in a variety of ways to improve learning outcomes, including:
  • Making it more practical for faculty to use research-informed teaching and learning strategies, such as more active and collaborative learning in the classroom;
  • Monitoring computer labs where students used interactive courseware;
  • Coaching particular students who were having trouble in the course;
  • Helping grade quizzes and online participation;
  • Providing indirect ways of saving faculty time; and
  • Advising the instructors on how to improve the course.
ULA-enabled course redesigns appear to have been more successful in lowering DFW rates than were redesigned courses that did not take advantage of ULAs.  Redesigned courses using ULAs cut DFW rates by an average of 8 percentage points as compared to only 2 percentage points on average for courses that did not make use of ULAs.

For the full report, written while I was with Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation at the University System of Maryland, click here

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Flipped Classrooms" versus "Blended Courses" versus "Hybrid Courses"

Many faculty and staff take“flipping the classroom” to mean that they should make recordings of  lectures, assign them as homework, and use the vacated lecture time to more interactive work in the classroom.  

Will that work? What if students aren't investing enough time in homework now? Will it help or hurt to add video lectures to that load?  And if students continue to come to class unprepared, won't the instructor feel compelled to drop the interactive work in class and lecture instead? The more things change, the more they may stay the same.

Improving learning outcomes requires more than swapping the same activities into different contexts.

And using the term "classroom" as a synonym for "course" tends to divert attention from what goes on outside the classroom. That's not good. Think of typical classroom lectures as exercise videos. How strong do people become from watching exercise videos? Their new strength comes from the practice they do after watching the video: the homework.

"Flipped classroom" has displaced an earlier, more suggestive term: "hybrid courses."  By hybrid, I mean a course whose design gets its educational power by making the most of what's possible in and out of classrooms. Drawing on those two sources, hybrids can be different and more effective than either of those sources.

[It's true that many hybrids also adjust the amount of time students spend in and out of classrooms as part of their design. But in my view a well-implemented hybrid gets the most value from its way of multiplying what can be done in and outside classrooms.]
For this blog post, let's just focus on interpersonal interaction in hybrid courses.  Many research-based practices for effective education rely on heavy doses of interpersonal interaction, far more interaction than in most lecture-based courses.  When designing a hybrid course, what kinds of interpersonal interaction are best done online? face-to-face?,

Interaction better done face-to-face

  • The virtually instantaneous judgment needed for some kinds of coaching (think of using prepared learning assistants to help facilitate student discussion and collaboration in the classroom);
  • The quick back-and-forth that can resolve some misunderstandings (think of using clickers to support peer instruction);
  • The sharing of emotional responses that can help further motivate students and introduce them to different ways of perceiving and valuing. ("The equation of simple harmonic motion" is an earlier blog post on that potential.)
  • (add your own suggestions)

Interaction better done online:

  • More thoughtfully paced interaction that’s important for novices just learning to think and communicate in the terms of the field they’re studying (see Smith citation below);
  • More options for students to study and discuss different things, according to their interests  (ditto about Smith)
  • Greater ease of communication, especially for students who’d rather not interrupt, students (and instructors) whose native language is not English
  • More visual forms of peer-to-peer communication (e.g., students using video clips to help explain a point)
  • (add your own suggestions)
For online discussion to work well, instructors had better coach the students in how to make constructive contributions. Then instructors ought to use simple rubrics to give students simple feedback (and fractional points toward their grades) – this week have you shown evidence understanding the contributions of others? Are your contributions helping to move the discussion and the work forward? When I taught an online course a couple years ago, I was staggered by how the intelligence of student contributions improved when I took those two steps.

Here's an research report from Karen Smith  on the importance of asynchronous discussion to learning a new language. The language is Spanish. However, if you think about it, deep learning of any content involves entering a new community and mastering at least the rudiments of a new language. The study of literature, of social work, and of mathematics all have their own ways of thinking and communicating.   The sample size in Smith's study is small (different sections of one class at one university) but the findings ring true to me.

  • Smith, Karen L. (1990)  Collaborative and Interactive Writing for Increasing Communication Skills, Hispania, LXXIII:1, pp. 77-87.

To sum up: let's take a fresh look at how the best use of out-of-classroom work can enrich learning done within classrooms, and vice versa. And let's call the results "hybrid courses."

PS. No, I haven't forgotten "blended courses." For me, the word "blended" suggests that faculty mix some face-to-face with some online, shake the result, and serve. Yug.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Barrier assumptions

While working on my book on academic transformation, I've been looking back over a 40-year career engaged with innovation.  The news isn't all bad.  Islands of improvement have multiplied and some have grown to be quite large, even though great swaths of academic practice remain unchanged.

For the book, I've been noting assumptions that hold many of us back, especially when these assumptions reinforce barrier practices. Here are a few of the most important of these barrier assumptions:

1. Relying mainly on experts explaining things to students (for example, lectures, demonstrations, textbooks) works well enough.  Learning can't be improved by altering teaching. Students learn more or less because of their talents and problems.  Attempts to increase grades are almost always illusory and result in watering down the curriculum.
  • Counter-assumption: the vast weight of evidence supports the finding that  relying primarily on explaining things is not very effective, not an equal playing field for students, and not a very good use of anyone's time.  Changes in teaching can result in improvements in learning.
2. Faculty jobs are about working alone, especially where teaching is concerned. Reward systems reinforce working alone, with each instructor working alone to teach a course or section, having his or her own advisees, etc.
  •  Counter-assumption: Learning that results in lasting changes in student capabilities, perspectives and direction emerges from a constellation of experiences in many courses and experiences. In order to intentionally improve those graduation, faculty need to invest significant time and effort in working together, as a regular part of their responsibilities as teachers.
 3.  Any inquiry into how time, money and facilities are used by students, faculty and programs is a disguised and illegitimate ploy by the administration to restrict academic freedom and to fire people.
  • Counter-assumption: To improve learning requires rethinking the organization of academic work in smaller or larger ways (rather than adding new practices and expenses alongside the status quo).  This rethinking involves how people spend time and how the institution allocates resources.  Assuming that the starting point is that people can keep spending time and money as they have guarantees that the status quo remains the norm. (See myth #1)
4. Innovations are a completely new beginning (and a leap into the dark), especially technology-based innovations.  For example, research on libraries has no bearing on using the Web as a library.  Research done on the instructional software of the 1980s can't possibly suggest any useful insights in dealing with this year's adaptive tutoring systems. 
  • Counter-assumption: the most important determinants of student learning are what students do. Technologies - whether they are textbooks, computer software, classrooms, or learning management systems - exist to make it easier for students (and instructors) to do certain things.  Lecturing, textbooks, and streaming videos from the Khan Academy all offer students explanations of content. Therefore their potential and their limitations are likely to be similar.

In your experience, what barrier myths hinder our efforts to keep improving access, quality and affordability? 

Friday, April 15, 2016

What is "academic transformation?" (no, really...)

I need your help.

Like some others, I define "academic transformation" as making  gains in selected facets of access, quality and affordability in higher education.
  • Access: How many people can learn? what kinds of people can learn?
  • Quality: What are the outcomes? how effective are the practices aimed at fostering that learning?
  • Affordability: Is a particular type of stakeholder willing and able to invest a particular resource over the long term?  Stakeholders include students, faculty, units such as academic departments and teaching centers, institutions, and benefactors.  Relevant resources include time, money, and facilities.
These three goals have been called an "iron triangle" because of the widespread perception that to make progress in one or two of these goals, one must make sacrifices in another.  For example, if budgets remain constant (affordability), people may assume that all efforts to extend access pose a threat to quality and all efforts to improve quality must be limited to a subset of students, unfairly penalizing other current or potential students.

In practice that triangle can be stretched.  For example, the shift from hand-copied manuscripts to printed books in higher learning enabled gains in certain aspects of all three goals.  More recently the growth of the Internet offers a wider range of more affordable resources to a larger number of learners.  Flipped courses offer potential gains in all three spheres.

A lot of people are talking about this kind of threefold transformation.  I am beginning to study:
  • Who's trying to do it? 
  • How? 
  • How's it going?  
  • Are there lessons to be learned from their experiences about how to conceptualize and implement academic transformation?  
I'm looking for real-world cases of attempted academic transformation.  Can you suggest any efforts that I should study?
  • Perhaps people at an institution are trying to transform a crucial teaching/learning activity such as coaching,  assessment of higher order learning, or capstone courses. 
  • You might know of an effort to energize students, get them to take personal responsibility for assessing their own learning, or to become more resilient so that they can get more value from their academic programs;
  • Perhaps a college or degree program has taken on a form that makes it more effective in all three areas than many of its competitors.  
  • You might recall a particular course with an unusual design that happens to have strengths in all three of these areas. 
  • The work that occurs to you might focus mostly one of the three goals but potentially have benefits in the other two as well.  For example efforts to make education more affordable might potentially have implications for both access and quality.
  • Maybe you know of an effort to make gains on a scale beyond that of single institutions - a new policy, or consortium, or mediating institution helping sustain relationships between distant learners and distant institutions.
  • You might be aware of an effort to help programs judge how well they're doing in one, two or all three of these goal areas.
Whatever the particulars, I'm looking for cases where people are:
  • Making a serious effort to be strong in some aspects of each of these three goal area;
  • Paying attention to what's actually happening in each area, so that the goal doesn't devolve into a marketing tagline ("We're a quality program!!!!"
Notice I'm not insisting on success.  We can learn at least as much from efforts that flopped or withered.  You don't need to have any connection to the instance you're suggesting.  Just point me in the right direction and I'll take it from there.

Please email your suggestions to ehrmannsteve at