Fighting to Reinvent Teaching and Keep Costs Down

Lissa Gotwalls for The Chronicle

Carol A. Twigg
April 29, 2013

Carol A. Twigg has been talking about reinventing college teaching for more than two decades, and for years she faced mostly resistance and skepticism.

She remembers trying to persuade professors at Empire State College to adopt computers in their classrooms and offices in the 1980s, for instance, only to have them accuse her of trying to turn them into secretaries.

These days, though, even her boldest proposals are getting a much more eager reception. Ms. Twigg says that as more and more educators turn to technology to help improve learning, she doesn't feel like bragging.

"People have to go through a process to change and learn," she says. "What's obvious to me isn't obvious to everybody."

Her National Center for Academic Transformation, which she has led since 1999, just completed work on the largest-ever effort to remake remedial math courses with technology, which affected 120,000 students.

THE INNOVATOR: Carol A. Twigg, National Center for Academic Transformation

THE BIG IDEA: Using technology to "flip the classroom" helps students succeed.

The project, supported by a $2.2-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, involves courses for 38 institutions. The center helped remake 114 courses with 4,531 sections. On average, the original courses cost $400 per student, according to the center's research. The redesigned courses were predicted to cost about $161 per student.

The redesigns were based on models used by the center over the past decade, Ms. Twigg says. Rather than being lectured at, students worked with interactive software in labs, receiving individualized help when they needed it and working through modules that could be completed only after a student mastered the material.

But not all of the center's projects involve that approach.

"We figure out what works best for each institution based on examples provided to them," Ms. Twigg says. "There's not a one way to do it. We've never been about putting courses online. We're not a MOOC. We really have a whole continuum of approaches. Some are fully online, some are face to face, and everything in between. The model depends on who the students are."

Before the project, the center had already worked with more than 100 colleges, redesigning more than 150 courses that have affected some 180,000 students annually.

A. Frank Mayadas, founding president of the Sloan Consortium, says he had been following Ms. Twigg's work for 15 years.

"She started at a time when the subject was simply interesting but stuck with it until today when it's become very important," Mr. Mayadas says. Even now, he says, interest in information technology tends to ebb and flow with the arrival of popular and hyped ideas like massive open online courses, or MOOCs. While some of these ideas stick and make a lasting impact, others don't and fade away, taking some professors' interest with them.

"In times when it's popular and in times when it's not, she's stayed true to her calling," Mr. Mayadas says.

Attitudes are changing, Ms. Twigg says, and some of the lingering resistance may be from a deeper problem. While she thinks the acceptance of information technology in higher education is much greater than 20 years ago, reducing costs is a different story. "Parents, students, legislatures are interested in that, but people in higher education are fundamentally not interested in dealing with that issue," she says.

And that's why Ms. Twigg and the center's approach is not just about adding technology to a course. They aren't technology advocates, she says, but advocates for improving learning and lowering costs.

"If technology can help do it, that's great," Ms. Twigg says. "If there are other ways to do it, we are interested in that as well."

Growing up in Alexandria, Va., Ms. Twigg, 68, wanted to be a teacher. After majoring in both English and history at the College of William & Mary, she earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. After that, she served in various academic-administrator positions at SUNY's Empire State College. While attending a conference in 1980, Ms. Twigg saw her first PC. It was a TRS-80, manufactured and sold by the Tandy Corporation. It was gray, boxy, and sold for a few hundred dollars at Radio Shack.

Ms. Twigg says she looked at the computer and thought, "This is going to change the world."More specifically, it was going to change the world of higher education.

In 1993, after serving as associate vice chancellor for learning technologies at SUNY, Ms. Twigg became vice president of Educom (now Educause), a nonprofit that promotes technology in higher education. It gave her a platform to spread her ideas across the country, but her center still faced resistance from professors throughout the 1990s.

"We talked about the impact of the Internet back then, and a lot of people thought we were nuts," she says.

Her center is not actually a physical place; the team is spread throughout the country. Ms. Twigg spends most of her time in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., working from home, where she writes essays and papers on information technology. A thoroughbred horse racer, Ms. Twigg says she reads design proposals in between races at her local track. Today, Ms. Twigg still finds herself face to face with a fair share of contrarians. She's still often invited to debate with them on campuses. But she spends much less time persuading people to use technology and more time helping those who are already on board.

"One of the things that makes our work so rewarding is that we're generally working with people interested in doing these things," she says. "There's much less naysaying."

When asked if she ever felt any doubts about her ideology over the years, she replied with one word: never.

Corrections (4/30/2013, 12:19 p.m.): An outdated photograph of Carol Twigg originally appeared with this article, by mistake. That error has been corrected, and the image above is a recent one. The article also originally contained outdated information on Ms. Twigg's center. Before it undertook the Gates-backed project, the center had worked with more than 100 colleges, not 30, redesigning courses that annually affected some 180,000 students, not 50,000. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.