More than two decades ago, the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors adopted a report reaffirming a simple yet profoundly important principle: teaching is the primary responsibility of each of the University's 17 institutions, from Western Carolina University to Elizabeth City State University in the far northeast corner of the Tar Heel state.
One outgrowth of that 1993 report was the establishment of annual Awards for Excellence in Teaching honoring an outstanding faculty member at each campus. This announcement continues to be greeted with considerable fanfare across the system, and certainly was an event that I looked forward to each spring during my 1997-2006 tenure as UNC president.
Of course, I also knew that selecting just one recipient at each institution for recognition is an extremely difficult proposition. Students at campuses across the UNC system and at colleges and universities nationwide learn valuable lessons every day from tens of thousands of outstanding and dedicated teachers. Skilled and effective faculty members are at the very core of the academic enterprise.
That is why I did all that I could to support faculty professional development initiatives during my time at UNC. For instance, some but not all UNC campuses operated teaching and learning centers dedicated to helping faculty members stay on the cutting edge of teaching techniques and how to best spur student success. When we secured state funding in the early 2000s that allowed all of the campuses to open such centers, that made an enormous difference and improved the quality of teaching across the breadth of the system.
But the American higher education landscape has changed dramatically.
When I began at UNC, most students were still 18-22-year-olds entering college straight from high school. And a majority of faculty members were traditional tenured or aspiring tenure-track professors coming from traditional academic backgrounds and intending to make teaching and research their lifelong careers.
Now, most students have made some stops along the road toward their degrees. Some enter college after serving in the military or during their service. Others leave high school for a job, only to enroll later in life as adult learners seeking degrees or credentials to advance their careers. What these new, nontraditional students have in common is the frequent need to juggle the demands of work and family along with their classes.
Today, the majority of faculty members nationwide are contingent, non-tenure track instructors, many of whom enter the classroom from outside the academy and bring with them initially a wealth of practical knowledge from their professional fields but little, if any, classroom teaching experience. The question is how to apply that knowledge to ensure effective and engaging teaching and learning in college classrooms that can be filled with students of different ages and life experiences.
For instance, a first-time, full-time student may be in the same classroom as a person who, when a professor explains something in theoretical terms, is able to say, "Yes, this happened to me on the job and this is how I responded." What is needed is an instructor equipped to incorporate situations like that into a lesson, and thus to engage with different types of students in a way that informs all students.
In short, the role of university teaching and learning centers has never been more vital, and the need to help such centers and other faculty professional development programs employ new and innovative teaching tools and techniques aimed at reaching new types of students has never been more urgent.
That is why my organization, the American Council on Education (ACE), has formed an important collaboration with the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), a company founded in 2014 that is focused on providing state-of-the-art professional development and support services to college instructors.
ACE has joined with ACUE to work together on a set of teaching modules designed to improve student outcomes and advance ACE's nearly century-old mission to improve access to postsecondary education and help our institutions enhance student outcomes through effective college instruction.
ACUE and ACE's shared goal is to expand dramatically the use of effective teaching practices to benefit students, faculty, and institutions.
I believe that ACUE's work will prove of great value to teaching and learning centers. Indeed, ACUE's online, scalable faculty development and certificate program for college instructors helps expand the reach of those centers and other faculty development initiatives taking place on campuses around the country.
For our part, ACE, which has long made college credit recommendations for workplace and military courses, is applying our rigorous quality assessment expertise to ACUE's Effective Practice Framework© and Course in Effective Teaching Practices.
ACUE's first-of-its kind courseware is enhanced by this new application of the quality assurance work ACE has done for decades using subject matter expert teams to evaluate teaching that takes place outside a formal classroom for credit recommendation—since 1954 for military experiences and occupations and since 1974 for workplace courses. Those recommendations have been used successfully by students to earn credit at many institutions; and many of those students have done well academically at the more than 2,000 institutions that make it a practice to consider ACE credit recommendations.
What ACUE has developed offers higher education institutions a scalable, extensive opportunity to address how to assist new kinds of instructors by providing new tools and techniques to help new types of students succeed, sharpening their focus on both nontraditional faculty and nontraditional students.
Sue Henderson, the president of New Jersey City University (an ACUE partner institution), and James Muyskens, the former president of Queens College (NY), and Sue Gerber, assistant vice president of Institutional Effectiveness at New Jersey City University, put these issues into sharp focus in a recent op-ed in University Business, Redeploying Faculty for Student Success. Their topic was how to improve instruction in beginning general education courses in order to ensure that students persist in their studies and move on to complete their degrees. The picture they paint about the importance of effective teaching is a vivid one, and speaks directly to why ACE believes so strongly in the work being carried out by ACUE.
"Because of the high cost and labor intensity of 'high touch' education, it is tempting to embrace learning technologies designed to supplant the professor," they wrote. "In some cases, such as post-baccalaureate studies and job and professional development courses, the approach works well. The targeted students are motivated and ready for the rigors of the proposed course of study. But with the vast majority of first-year freshmen and sophomores, readiness and motivation are in short supply. They have yet to learn how to learn, to be able to follow and generate an argument, to witness the serendipity of discovery and the rigors of confirming a hypothesis. Few of us could acquire these skills without the expert guidance of an instructor or mentor."
And because both the students and the teaching faculty of today have changed, I believe that the student learning experience deserves more attention than ever. For nearly a century, ACE's mission has focused on advancing education and educational methods. ACUE's efforts in this regard point to the new directions in higher education which serve and support our institutional stakeholders, our students, and all those interested in the best possible postsecondary experience for the learners of today and tomorrow.