Steven Mintz on Higher Education’s ‘Liminal’ Moment

What’s it like to teach an online class with 1,500 students?

Headshot of Steven MintzFor Steven Mintz, a leading educational innovator and award-winning teacher and author, it takes a coordinated team of well-trained teaching assistants and interactive courseware that he’s been developing for years. The transition to online learning in Mintz’s self-described “mega class”–an introduction to history at the University of Texas at Austin–came with many challenges, and also some silver linings.

“The great irony is that the change to online allowed us to do things that we couldn’t do in the past,” Mintz said. “In some ways it made it a better educational experience for the students.”

In this interview, Mintz also shares why teachers should think of themselves as “learning architects”, and the significance of teaching history in unprecedented times.


Higher education’s ‘liminal’ moment

SM: You often hear that a crisis is an opportunity, but I think this time is different. It’s forcing us to face up to some very difficult issues involving cost, staffing, instructional design, and student engagement and learning. Institutions are dealing with program consolidations and cutbacks, they’re making really difficult decisions about replacing faculty with nontenured faculty. We would have had to deal with some of these issues sooner or later. It turns out we need to deal with them now.

But this may be a moment to embrace the challenge. Anthropologists would say we’re in a liminal moment when transformational change is possible. That window will close, but this is a moment to think in new ways.


Focusing our ‘intellectual firepower’

SM: My understanding is that about 35 percent of our undergraduate enrollment is in about 25 classes, and we all know what those classes are. They’re the U.S. history, freshman composition, Bio 101, Psych 101, et cetera.

Some of these classes have very high DFW rates. The equity and achievement gaps in these courses is glaring. Some of our classes have very inequitable distributions of grades–often more along student profile lines than should exist.

We need to make these classes unbelievably great. That means we need to put every bit of our intellectual firepower into making sure students have great activities, great assessments. And it’s certainly worthwhile, I think, investing really serious resources into these 25 key classes. That’s not outside of our realm of possibility.


‘Professor as learning architect’      

SM: This notion of the professor as learning architect or learning engineer, I think, is a goal we need to cultivate.

And that changes the professorial role. You’re not a transmitter of knowledge. And you’re not just a guide on the side. It’s a lot more of a hands-on role to design learning experiences. It’s a very demanding role. But it’s a role that can pay off because then you can better engage them, guide them, mentor them, and inspire them. You can help your students construct their own knowledge.. That is a kind-of constructivist vision of education, a John Dewey-esque vision of education.

In some ways, that is what ACUE is doing. It wants teachers to rethink their role to be more guided by learning objectives, and then aligning everything–their activities and assessments–to those objectives.


The ‘real success’ of teaching history online to 1,500 students.

This semester [fall 2020], I taught approximately one-fifth of all the new students at UT Austin. So that’s 1,500 students.

Now, the great irony is that the change to online allowed us to do things that we couldn’t do in the past. In some ways I think it made it a better educational experience for the students.

The backbone of the class is this interactive courseware that I have been working on for several years. I am convinced that the next iteration of the textbook are asynchronous online activities that are multimedia-rich, contain simulations and animations and podcasts, but above all are inquiry-based. And they have embedded frequent assessments so that I can figure out what students are learning and what they aren’t.

So I had been working on this for many years and now I have the chance to do it at an incredible scale, for many students.

It turned out that the breakout sessions were the real success of the class. I had 18 teaching assistants who all ran the breakout sessions, and I was amazed by what they did in those sessions. They focused on student writing skills, on developing the students’ analytical skills, and providing students with opportunities to work with primary sources and do history.

At UT Austin, it is very difficult to have breakout sessions in large classes because there isn’t enough space. But online? It’s no problem.


Teaching history in unprecedented times

SM: Not since the late 1960s, or early 1970s, has history seemed so relevant. The issues that we’re dealing with right now–statues, inequities in our society, racism–these are the issues that a history class deals with. So it was crucial for me to connect past to present and to really center the class around issues that students are pondering outside of class.

Inequality is right at the top of the agenda, and having a class that’s dealing with those issues, I think, struck many of the students as deeply meaningful. And they weren’t doing it all by themselves, they were doing it with a big chunk of their classmates. That did create a community in ways that I have not seen prior to this.


Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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