Why higher ed should be more like Formula One (and less like NASCAR)

Understanding why ownership of innovation is critical to faculty success with technology.

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As individuals who have taught in higher education classrooms, we know that when it comes to the next generation of innovative technology, professors are looking for two things: effective solutions that allow for meaningful learning experiences, but also tools that allow for their own unique pedagogical strategies.

The challenge comes in identifying the tools that are not only user-friendly, but also provide teachers with the freedom to create a learning experience (presenting material which may be significantly more sophisticated than just text or video clips), deploy it to students, collect information about student use, and analyze that data to inform progress toward learning objectives.

We think about this intersection of professorial preference, tools, and feedback asPedagogical Ownership”: The ability of educators to make a learning experience “their own.”  A more formal definition of the term may be:

The ability to exert influence over the materials, modalities, and methods involved in creating a meaningful learning experience, as well as the flexibility to modify component pieces based on analysis of observational or experiential feedback.     

In the traditional lecture setting, this means determining the lecture content (materials); choosing the demonstrations, anecdotes, or multimedia resources needed to bring the topic to life (modality); utilizing the teaching strategies needed to meet the learning objectives (methods); and reading the audience to gauge their level of understanding and adapting the lecture on the fly if necessary (modifications).

However, this becomes significantly more complex in the digital context.

To have the same level of pedagogical ownership over a digital tool (which students may use outside of class), professors must be able to control all of the same components. The tool most fit to achieve this control must be both powerful and easy to use– developed first and foremost to support professors, and create a synergy similar to that between a race car driver and his or her machine.

(Next page: What we can learn from racing)

What we can learn from racing

The Grand Prix circuit hosts some of the fastest auto races in the world, with higher speeds and twice the lateral g-forces of NASCAR. Unlike NASCAR, where individual cars are built to precise specifications (it is, after all, the National Association of “Stock” Car Auto Racing), Formula One cars are allowed room for customization and innovation.

In stark contrast to NASCAR, Formula One cars are built to give drivers maximum control—even during a race, drivers have the ability to monitor and modify the air-fuel mix, the aerodynamic wings, the oil level, and other components in order to adapt to the course, weather, or other conditions. In order to win a race—and part of the approximately $700 million in yearly prize money— Formula One teams must have both a talented driver, as well as a well-designed car that gives the driver the control he or she requires.

Professors require similar control over the technology they use to facilitate student learning, with similar abilities to make modifications along the way to adapt to the needs of their students.

From powertrains to pedagogical ownership

When seeking tools more powerful than Word documents or PowerPoints (to allow students to engage with interactive simulations, for example),  professors unfortunately find that the available online courseware or instructional media resembles a stock car—content, problems, solutions, feedback, and even adaptive learning pathways are all standard and “hard coded” (i.e. they reside in the program’s software code). As a result, these tools do not provide the flexibility that educators seek in order to exert Pedagogical Ownership.

Dror identified this challenge as part of his PhD thesis, while working to develop interactive lab simulations at the University of New South Wales.  He and his team realized that despite building innovative courseware (with cutting-edge simulations, intelligent feedback and sophisticated adaptive learning pathways), as soon as professors began engaging with it, they wanted to tweak it, change it, adapt it – or in other words “make it their own”.

The type of “ownership” that his colleagues were seeking was not technical control (“I want to be able to code that simulation myself”), but rather, pedagogical (“I want to determine what feedback students receive, and if students get this question wrong, I want to take them down a different learning pathway”).  His colleagues didn’t want to drive a stock car; they wanted to be Grand Prix professors, modifying aspects of the student experience to better meet the learning objectives they had set for the course.

Responding to these requests, Dror and his team quickly realized that playing pit crew to other professors, manually editing content and structure to meet their individual pedagogical strategies, would be neither efficient nor scalable.  Instead, they built what eventually became Smart Sparrow: an authoring tool that allowed professors to deploy simulations while incorporating their own questions, explanations, and learning pathways. Smart Sparrow’s mission is to support professors by providing control over how and what they teach, as well as giving them data to reflect on the outcomes and make changes as needed.

The tool allows students to “learn by doing,” while also supplying immediate intelligent feedback.  It offers reporting capabilities (via a purpose-built analytics dashboard), providing professors with the data necessary to meaningfully reflect on the learning experience they created and gauge its efficacy. This reflection is a critical component of Pedagogical Ownership. If a question or explanation is not fulfilling the pedagogical intent, a professor can modify or delete it, or choose to present the material again in a future class to clarify misconceptions.

Both inside and outside the classroom, professors need to fully own the teaching (and, therefore, learning) process. However, just as a great driver will never win a Grand Prix in a Kia, so too are great teachers limited by the constraints of technology that doesn’t allow them to exert pedagogical ownership.  Technology has many opportunities to impact higher education; we want to use it to put professors back in the driver’s seat.

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an ed-tech startup in adaptive and personalized learning technology. Peter Cookson is a principal researcher at AIR and teaches in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University. Peter is also a senior advisor with Whiteboard Advisors, which works with Smart Sparrow.