A motivation for innovation

How does Binghamton stack up?

Obama's plan vs. Binghamton's reality



A motivation for innovation

Trading places

In flipped classes, the lecture is the homework



A motivation for innovation

Flipping isn't just for engineers

Anthropology finds time for hands-on work



A motivation for innovation

Mastering statistics

Self-paced option offers more time to learn



A motivation for innovation

Objects of interest

Art museum is lab for learning



A motivation for innovation

Art and academia merge

New uses for the museum



A motivation for innovation

MOOCs in our future?

Lack of interaction is a big concern



A motivation for innovation

She knows MOOCs

Alumna teaches one and takes one



A motivation for innovation

A motivation for innovation

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Fall 2013

A motivation for innovation
JONATHAN COHEN

A motivation for innovation

Center for Learning and Teaching offers ideas and resources


A quiet evolution in teaching is growing into a revolutionary way of thinking about education at Binghamton University, and the innovations already have the support of the president.

That would be U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Binghamton University on Aug. 23 as he traveled through upstate New York pitching his plan to make college more affordable to the middle class.

“The visit by President Obama, and his call for affordability and quality in higher education, reinforces our faculty’s commitment to finding innovative ways to engage students, make them active learners and teach them how to use the skills they master,” says Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger.

When Obama challenged colleges and universities to “embrace innovative ways to prepare students for a 21st-century economy,” he could have easily singled out Binghamton faculty members Mark Fowler in electrical and computer engineering, Laura Anderson in mathematics, Siobhan Hart in archaeology, Chesla Bohinski in Spanish, Amber Doiron in bioengineering, Subimal Chatterjee in the School of Management or Diane Butler in the Art Museum. They are some of the people using technology to teach — and reach — students using unconventional class structures: flipped, self-paced, hybrid and cross-disciplinary.

Until this year, however, none might have known what the others were doing. That is changing as the Center for Learning and Teaching becomes a one-stop shop for innovative teaching. The center ensures that all instructors — from professors to lecturers — have access to information, technology and support. The center will help streamline processes by taking care of technical and administrative tasks, leaving instructors free to concentrate on teaching. In addition, the center will track successes and failures, providing an institutional memory of what works and what doesn’t.

The enhanced Center for Learning and Teaching is a result of the University’s Road Map, a strategic plan for the future that was launched by Stenger when he became president almost two years ago. Its executive director is Assistant Provost James Pitarresi, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and among the first professors to “flip” a class at Binghamton.

“The focus is moving away from teaching the way we were taught, to why am I teaching this course? What do students need to learn? What’s the best way to teach the material?” Pitarresi says. “It’s not about me giving the brilliant lecture. It’s about whether students are learning the material they need to complete the course and move on to the next course.”

Amber Doiron, assistant professor of bioengineering, is among the Center for Learning and Teaching’s first “customers.” The center provided financial support for the resources she needed to “flip” a course this fall: software and a headset for recording and editing her lectures and a tablet computer to run the software. She also got help designing surveys to measure student satisfaction.

“This is not only my first flipped class, it’s my first time teaching. I’m trying to get as much response from students as I can,” Doiron says. It’s good to know there’s a place to go with questions, she adds. “I think they are being as helpful as they have the resources to be.”

Learning how we learn

Innovation and education have always gone hand-in-hand. The teaching of kindergarten is well into its second century, while “new math” lasted barely a decade in the 1960s. Why some innovations stick and others don’t can be influenced by variables such as cost, availability of resources and value to the student.

Less-obvious factors can come into play when innovation involves technology, says Surinder Kahai, associate professor in the School of Management. A study he did in 2005 illustrates the point.

Starting with two sections of the same course, Kahai divided students into two groups: those who would attend traditional classes and those who would attend hybrid classes, spending half their time in the classroom and the other half learning online. After four classes, the students swapped formats for another four classes.

When students were tested on their mastery of the subject matter, the teaching methods made no difference in their test scores, but the traditional classroom rated higher satisfaction scores. Kahai was frustrated by the study’s lack of an obvious outcome until a casual conversation with a neighbor helped him see what he was missing.

“He said, ‘Surinder, I can never learn from online. It’s because I want the instructor to be there, I want to ask questions.’ That rang a bell, because not everyone asks questions,” Kahai says. “My children, growing up in America, have no hesitation interacting in the classroom. When I was in India, I was taught to be silent. We don’t learn from interaction; we learn from the textbook. My son and daughter learn from the interaction.”

What Kahai found is that students from cultures that prefer interaction with instructors, such as Americans, had poorer performance with online learning than students from cultures that rely on notes and textbooks, not interaction, to learn.

Even among those who want online learning options, personality plays a huge role in individual outcomes because success depends on self-control, discipline and ethics.

Online education will never be right for everyone, and Kahai’s own research shows students don’t favor it. But, he says, universities that don’t offer it will begin to find themselves less relevant.

The explanation lies in the concept of disruptive technology: Students and schools initially perceive online education as being inferior to traditional education; they reject it as never being as good as what they are used to. But as more professors adapt online components to supplement and complement teaching — and the technology continues to improve — then classes eventually meet students’ needs and expectations, not to mention their schedules and locations.

Schools that don’t offer students the flexibility to learn where and when they want may have difficulty enticing them to live on campus and complete a degree. The challenge for Binghamton is to find the methods of online education that work for its students and make sure faculty are comfortable offering it.

“It’s not the medium, it’s what you do with the medium,” Kahai says.