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Dean Kate VandenBosch

It’s the Year of Innovation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—and a big part of innovation concerns how we teach our students.

Our college already is home to highly innovative teaching that includes hands-on experience in labs and in the field, independent research opportunities for undergraduates, effective use of distance learning, international experiences of every size and scope, and growing opportunities for cross-disciplinary study (examples: agroecology, global health, environmental science).

But there are no limits on innovation, and we are looking at ways to keep it flourishing at CALS.

I had the good fortune of experiencing some new teaching models as a professor of plant biology at the University of Minnesota when I taught in what is called an active learning space. Rather than have a lecture with all attention directed at the professor—“the sage on the stage”—students worked together in small groups at tables around the room on everything from problem sets and case studies to web-based research, with multiple screens providing elements (PowerPoints, data, drafts of student projects) that everyone needed to see. In that setting the professor becomes a facilitator, visiting groups and talking with students about their work.

I often had as many as 100 students, but rather than feeling overwhelmed by competing discussions, what I noticed most was how much more I could engage with each student individually and how much more actively each of them participated. Their excitement about learning was much more palpable than it would be in an ordinary setting.

In addition to active learning, we’ve been hearing about such innovations as flipped classrooms and MOOCs. In the flipped classroom—already being introduced at CALS—lectures are made available online for home viewing and class time is used for the kind of active work described above. The intention is to save in-person class time for higher impact interactions that further a student’s learning.

And Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which are now being piloted at UW–Madison, could offer CALS several advantages. First, they could serve as a showcase for the excellent quality of our programs and attract more students to come here. They would allow access to our expertise to people who otherwise might not be exposed to it. In addition, we could repurpose the high quality materials prepared for a MOOC for teaching in all kinds of settings. A number of our faculty members have expressed interest in preparing a MOOC for the second pilot round at UW–Madison.

That such innovations will come to CALS is not a question of if but how. And the concept we’ll be thinking about a lot is “blended learning,” which draws from all of these modes of content delivery. They each have valuable components. What offers the best experience for students in a given situation? What will best enhance their learning?

These are the questions we’ll be asking as we continue to grow innovation at CALS.

For additional information on MOOCS at UW–Madison, visit: edinnovation.wisc.edu/MOOCs/