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From wheat field to innovator: how BYU-Idaho is changing the landscape of higher education

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 2:53 p.m. MDT

Professor Kent Davis at BYU-Idaho teaches student Myung Wha Park. (Michael Lewis) Professor Kent Davis at BYU-Idaho teaches student Myung Wha Park. (Michael Lewis)

Editorís Note: This is the second in a three part series on BYU-Idaho and the implications for higher education. Read part one of the series here. Read part three of the series here.

NEW YORK — J.D. Griffith walked off the subway and onto the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan. It was an April evening, cold and rainy, and he was a long way from home.

As he stepped into a church on Columbus Avenue, the din of the city — the honking cabs, the clattering of trains underground, the screech of brake lines on city buses — receded into silence.

Griffith had come to a special meeting at the LDS chapel with an unusual message. BYU-Idaho, the LDS Church's second largest university, was expanding its reach to students who had never considered college a real option.

Students flood the sidewalks of BYU-Idaho last fall. The college has seen its enrollment soar as it has made changes. (Doug Mckay) Students flood the sidewalks of BYU-Idaho last fall. The college has seen its enrollment soar as it has made changes. (Doug Mckay)

As he walked into the chapel, Griffith was surprised at what he saw. He had expected maybe a dozen people to show up to the meeting, advertised largely by word of mouth, but instead, the place was packed with nearly two hundred potential students. As he made his way to the front, he shook hands with a young Japanese immigrant who spoke halting English, a group of Latin Americans from Guatemala, and five or six young adults of Chinese descent. People had come from as far away as Connecticut and New Jersey.

Griffith was excited so many people had shown up, but he also felt slightly intimidated. He had come to recruit more students, but this group had such diverse and pressing needs. Could BYU-Idaho help them all?

"These people were seeking education almost desperately," he said. "It seemed as if they were just pleading and begging for an opportunity to start an educational program, and I felt this overwhelming sense of urgency to help them."

Karar Merkley, left, and Courtney Fuhrman study together. (Michael Lewis) Karar Merkley, left, and Courtney Fuhrman study together. (Michael Lewis)

Griffith had come at the request of Kim Clark, a Harvard educated academic who ran BYU-Idaho. Since taking over a few years before, Clark had defined three priorities for the school: raise the quality of education, lower costs and reach more students. This came at a time in which public universities across the country were dealing with declining state budgets, as well as competition from online schools like the University of Phoenix, which offered more flexible ways to college graduation. Standing at the front of the chapel, Griffith announced a new initiative at BYU-Idaho — called the Pathway program — that would allow a nontraditional student to attain a degree remotely, whether it was a certificate or a bachelor's degree. The program would allow the school to extend its reach, thus fulfilling one of Clark's three imperatives.

Just before the presentation, a fresh-out-of-high-school Jamaican girl approached Griffith. Dressed in a -jean skirt and sparkly Tee, she explained that her mother was sick, which required her to stay home to take care of her siblings. She couldn't leave home, she said, but she desperately wanted to study.

BYU-Idaho students compete in a game called battleship where they try to capsize each others' canoes in the indoor pool on campus March 25, 2010. (Joey Ferguson) BYU-Idaho students compete in a game called battleship where they try to capsize each others' canoes in the indoor pool on campus March 25, 2010. (Joey Ferguson)

Griffith told her that through the Pathway program there was a place for her at BYU-I.

"So you mean I can stay at home in New York and get a degree from BYU-I?" she asked, beaming. "You mean, that's possible?"

"Yes," Griffith said. The school had created the program for people like her.

Back in Rexburg, Griffith related the experience to Clark, the school's president. Clark said he wasn't surprised about the response, he had expected it. This is what he and many presidents before him had hoped to one day accomplish.

"Historically, we've brought students from around the world to BYU-Idaho," said Rob Eaton, associate academic vice president for Academic Development. "Pathway, on the other hand, brings BYU-Idaho to the students — wherever they live. For those who can't come here or aren't ready to come, it can be a blessing."

BYU-Idaho students now play a larger role in their own teaching through active discussions. (Michael Lewis) BYU-Idaho students now play a larger role in their own teaching through active discussions. (Michael Lewis)

A YEAR-ROUND COLLEGE

Before the university could ever look at reaching places like Manhattan, administrators had to first focus on sharpening their ability to increase the number of students they reached on their Rexburg campus ever year. One day in April of 2005, shortly after arriving at BYU-Idaho, university president Kim Clark was sitting in his office that overlooks the Rexburg campus, when Max Checketts, the then-academic vice president of the school, walked in with a stack of papers, a six-sided cube and an idea.

For the last four years, the school had grappled with a vexing problem: How could they bring more students to campus without raising costs? Clark's predecessor, David Bednar, had come up with a temporary solution. The school would adopt a year-round calendar, with two block semesters in the summer, and in so doing, would increase the number of students without having to build any new buildings.

BYU-Idaho President Kim B. Clark claps for graduates during commencement exercises. PHotos by Doug McKay and Michael Lewis. (DougMckay/Michael Lewis, LDS Church News) BYU-Idaho President Kim B. Clark claps for graduates during commencement exercises. PHotos by Doug McKay and Michael Lewis. (DougMckay/Michael Lewis, LDS Church News)

But this model presented a challenge. Students with the highest grades could pick what time of the year they wanted to come to BYU-I, and they typically choose to come during the fall and spring semesters. Moreover, the course offerings were not equivalent, so access for summer was very different than the fall and winter semesters. And while the summer months brought thousands of more students to the campus, this was minimal compared to what it could offer.

The six-sided cube Checketts held in his hands dated back five years and included the main principles upon which BYU-I had been built. To move forward, Checketts laid out a plan: BYU-I would move to three semesters.

For the system to really work, the school would have to make every semester equal, meaning they would need to offer every class, assign students of different backgrounds and academic ability to certain semesters and provide equivalent offerings across all three semesters. To do this would require professors to work year round.

BYU-Idaho student Alyssa McCarter helps her classmate Mike Cortez with a Manufacturing Processes Lab assignment March 17, 2011. They are taking part of  BYU-Idaho's schoolwide learning and teaching process of teaching each other. (Michael Lewis) BYU-Idaho student Alyssa McCarter helps her classmate Mike Cortez with a Manufacturing Processes Lab assignment March 17, 2011. They are taking part of BYU-Idaho's schoolwide learning and teaching process of teaching each other. (Michael Lewis)

For many long-time faculty members, this was a tough pill to swallow. Most professors at the school had already sacrificed greatly to be there, giving up salary and visibility at other universities because they believed in BYU-Idaho's faith-based mission. They didn't earn overly large salaries, and they had already been asked to give up tenure and research, something almost no other administrator at a four-year university would ask.

Now they were being asked to give up most of their summers — the most beautiful time of year in Rexburg, a place known for its long, cold winters.

"It was dead on arrival," Clark said of presenting the plan to the faculty. "People didn't like it."

Clark didn't give up.

He knew the three-semester plan didn't just mean reaching 50 percent more students, it also meant more savings since up until then buildings sat half-empty in the summer and counselors, administrators and salaried-personnel were still working during these months with many less students. The school could save 20 percent of these fixed costs per student while also raising teacher's salary by 15 percent and giving them the month of August off.

But Clark also wanted to build a shared sense of ownership with the faculty in making the transition.

So Clark and Checketts created a discussion board for faculty to submit ideas on how to implement the three-semester plan. More than a dozen faculty members submitted formal plans, and many more used the message board to hash out the implications of the different proposals. When Clark submitted the different proposals to the faculty for approval, 80 percent voted for the original plan Checketts and Clark came up with, with varying degrees of refined suggestions.

"In almost everything we do, there is a lot of discussion and debate and a lot of engagement of the faculty," Clark said.

The faculty was now on board; convincing students to switch to a three-semester plan had its own set of challenges. Betty Oldham, the assistant to the president, got dozens of calls from parents upset that their children had been assigned to summer classes. What about family vacations? What about summer jobs?

Today, there are far fewer complaints about the summer and spring semester from students. Before the implementation in 2004, total spring enrollment was 8,287. In 2011, it had risen to 14,296.

"I used to get letters and phone calls of people pleading their cases," Oldham said. "I don't get those anymore."

IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION

Just three months after finalizing the year-round schedule with faculty, Clark began rolling out the next project — changing BYU-Idaho's approach to instruction. He wanted to do so through what would prove to be a somewhat controversial proposal — giving students more ownership of their own education.

It wasn't an entirely novel idea. Clark had seen this learning model in action at other schools, principally at the Harvard Business School (HBS), where he had served as dean for over a decade. At HBS, many professors taught through the case method, which required students to prepare for the class discussion through by preparing a case study that could take hours to study and analyze. In the case method, students were asked to study a certain company or trend in business, such as how I-Tunes changed the music industry, or the ways in which the Internet had impacted the newspaper business. Before class, students were given study materials, which could include financial reports, or organizational charts of companies they would discuss in class.

Once class started, it wasn't really a lecture — instead professors called on students to open the discussion and then acted as a facilitator to help guide the students through a discussion. In this way, the students were teaching each other, but with a faculty facilitator.

Clark wanted to use similar principles of student engagement and participant-centered learning at BYU-Idaho. There was a growing literature that confirmed improved student learning outcomes when students were more engaged and had opportunities to teach what they were learning to others. For example, a prominent, cross-discipline study released by North Carolina State University found that students who participated in this type of learning environment were more likely to graduate, earn higher grades and develop higher critical thinking skills than those who did not. They also reported more fulfilling interactions with students in class, and a richer relationship with their professors.

While other universities had implemented a shared learning model in certain departments or graduate schools, Clark wasn't aware of a school that had tried to use it in every class across and entire university, from 100 level to 400 level courses, from English to biology.

Clark wanted input from the staff, so he assembled a team from people across campus, including faculty members who taught Spanish, teacher education, business, religion and nursing.

With the team in place to create the shared principles behind a common learning approach for the university, they invited fellow faculty members to come up with ideas on what the model should look like — 400 ideas and 18 months later, the committee decided on three overarching ideas: students should prepare before coming to class, teach one another what they were learning, and ponder and prove that learning subsequent to structured learning activities.

"We wanted to create a climate for learning," said Fenton Broadhead, the academic vice president who helped develop the model. "In most places, academia is about faculty being a star and imparting all the knowledge. But the faculty should be the facilitators of learning and not the stars. It has to be about helping students learn how to learn."

At first some of the professors weren't sure how to implement the plan. Some worried that administrators wanted them to have students teach each other the whole time during class, others thought the new method of teaching only allowed for studying and discussing different scenarios in class and ruled out any lecture.

Sid Palmer, biology department chair at the school, was one of these professors who was leery of the model at first.

Palmer had grown up in academia — having spent 13 years of his life getting his undergraduate, master's and doctorate. He was a product of the traditional lecture style method. His favorite professors had taught this way. It was all he had known.

At the same time, he saw the logic of this new way of teaching and wanted to give it a shot. So he went to brown bag lunches and asked fellow teachers how they did it. One professor in his own department said he had had slips of paper with each student's name on it and would pick them out at random to teach aspects of the lesson they studied the night before. Another professor in history said he sometimes used case methods in classes to help students apply what they had learned.

Palmer decided to give it a try and within a couple weeks saw students engaging in class more, speaking out and sharing their insights. He also said by the end of the semester, students who did study before class and engaged during class were getting about half a grade higher than what he traditionally had seen.

"When you are calling on students to respond or engage in case study, it forces them to start thinking about the material before they come to class and to synthesize," Palmer said. "Reading assignments are not new, but traditionally professors rarely hold their students accountable to actually read them and students come to class and realize their teachers talk about the whole reading assignment anyway. But now students come to class with a baseline of knowledge on the subject, and we can build off this and use it as a jumping point."

Today, this approach is evident in almost every class on the Rexburg campus. During a 200 level class this June, Professor Jason Hunt led a discussion on in vitro fertilization in a course called Analytical Thinking and Moral Judgment. Prior to class, students had been asked to read about a couple having fertility problems.

To kick off the discussion, Hunt wrote the following on the board: Should they do in vitro fertilization?

He then turned to the students: "Tell me what you need to know to understand this question."

A young woman in the front of the class raised her hand. "The safety of the mother," she said.

Four other students scattered across the room followed suit before Jared Antzcak, a pre-med student who was sitting in the back left raised his hand "When is an embryo human?"

At this question, the professor stopped writing.

"Why would this be an important question?" Hunt asked the packed classroom. "Would you consider this an issue?"

Before he had the students answer, he explained how in vitro normally worked. The doctor fertilizes 24 to 30 eggs, lets them multiply for three days, freezes them, and then implants the best three.

"Now that you know this, argue the definition of human life."

By the end of class, almost every student had made a comment.

This kind of debate couldn't have happened without the students coming to class prepared and willing to participate, Hunt later said.

"We want them to feel like they'll let their colleagues down, their fellow students down if they don't prepare," said Rob Eaton, associate academic vice president who also teaches classes on campus. "So we try to create that type of environment in the class." While many who were interviewed admitted the school was still learning how to teach most effectively in a Learning Model environment, early data signaled that teachers who employed "Teach One Another" pedagogies had higher student engagement and improved student learning (see data).

Twenty-four-year-old, Carson Phillips, who sat in the back right of Hunt's class, admitted that taking more control of his own education takes more work — he studied up to several hours the night before coming to discuss in vitro fertilization. During class, other students brought up points that made him rethink his original stance. Then after class, he and his classmates argued and wrestled with the material further by making comments on a discussion board.

"Everybody has to participate and mull it over," Phillips said. "It's hard, but you get a much deeper understanding."

Antczak even said this way of teaching and learning was a main reason why he decided to stay at BYU-Idaho after being accepted to both the University of Utah and Brigham Young University in Provo just a semester in.

RETHINKING ONLINE EDUCATION

Clark and his team had now tackled two problems: they had saved costs by turning BYU-I into a year round school, and they had raised the quality of instruction by introducing a research-proven method of teaching. He now turned his focus to what was in some ways was the most important objective of BYU-Idaho — reaching more students.

The school had used online instruction in some manner for nearly a decade, but it had been ad hoc, operating as an auxiliary to the university, with pockets of innovation scattered throughout campus. Few students on campus actually took classes online and those who did used them when a class they needed was full, or when work conflicted with schedules.

For several years, faculty had been looking at how to make online education more cost-effective and of better quality. Clark and a few other administrators met regularly about it after he came to the university, but in 2008, a novel idea surfaced that would change their approach to online learning. What if the faculty on campus didn't teach the online courses? What if qualified instructors, those with master's or doctorate degrees in relevant disciplines who were out in the workforce taught the classes remotely?

Every class would be offered online, and every student would take an online course. This, more than anything else, would allow the university to expand its enrollment and reach.

"When I first heard about it, I knew it was right," Clark said. "If you looked at the number of courses we wanted and the number of faculty, it just made sense. Our campus faculty were already swamped, and we hired them for their skill and excellence in [classroom] teaching and in developing courses."

But Clark also wanted to maintain quality. Traditionally, colleges that offered online courses had individual professors create the classes themselves. Sometimes, the results were brilliant. And sometimes, the magic of in-person teaching didn't translate to the computer.

BYU-I tried something different. They teamed up faculty who were experts on a subject (say, molecular biology) with experts on building online courses. They then tested the classes with remote adjunct faculty who were asked to teach the course online.

What they came up with was highly collaborative. Rather than self-paced online courses, the BYU-Idaho courses would need to be build in a Learning Model format that required collaborative learning and cohort-based progress. Professors developed online courses with online instructional design experts in ways that allowed students interact, with each other and with the instructor, through online study sessions, Skype, message boards and instant messaging. Not all classes naturally translated from the classroom to the computer screen. The art department, for example, wasn't sure how to teach painting online. But they were asked to try so they did.

They decided to start with an introduction to drawing class, which was one of the most popular offerings on campus, and thus a class that typically filled up fast. And they found there were actually some advantages to teaching the course online.

Traditionally, the class had been taught in a studio, and there were only so many studios in Rexburg, which reduced how many sections of the course the school could offer. And the truth was, teaching a large group how to draw in a studio, with one teacher and one easel, wasn't exactly ideal. Students in the back of the class, or those positioned at an odd angle in relation to the easel, had to crane their necks to see what the instructor was drawing, and once a certain part of the drawing was complete, he or she moved on.

But online, the experience was different. Every student had a front row seat, and could pause and rewind the video until they completely understood the concepts. They could also provide peer review and feedback by sharing their other with others.

Today, nearly everyone at BYU-Idaho takes an online course in addition to traditional classes, and nearly every course is offered online. The school is even experimenting with a live broadcast from the cadaver lab for its anatomy and physiology online course.

"I felt initially that it would be a big challenge to put classes online," said Palmer, the biology department head. "I had always thought online was going to be inferior to face-to-face — it just seemed like a removed process from teacher to students. That couldn't be the further from the truth. With the learning model as a guide, students and teachers are well connected. It has also opened up possibilities of different ways we can educate. I am now a fan of our online courses. It helps us reach out to more and more students."

In 2009, the equivalent of 880 students took full semester loads online. By last year that number had jumped to 2,140.

FULFILLMENT OF A VISION

It's a warm summer afternoon in Rexburg, and Kim Clark is sitting in his office. Outside, yellow bulldozers idle beside big heaps of dirt that will soon be used to build a new courtyard. Clark only has to look out the window of the conference room to see BYU-I's future moving forward.

The school is a very different kind of university today than it was 10 years ago. Enrollment has grown 60 percent, the university has gone to four years, and its entire way of teaching has changed. Faculty members expect students to take charge of their own education. The school has also found ways to radically lower costs and expand its reach, primarily through online education. Last spring, 6,500 students on campus took online courses that were taught by 222 remote faculty from around the country.

"By not paying for office space, classrooms, and benefits, it's safe to say that it costs us less than half as much to teach courses online as it does face-to-face," said Eaton, associate academic vice president for Academic Development.

The Pathway Program, which officially launched in May, is allowing the university to reach even more students.

Already the program, which is meant to serve young adults who would not otherwise have access to an education, is in place in 22 cities across the country and in two locations outside the U.S. The school plans on adding about 10 more sites each year.

All of these changes date back to a vision former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley had for the school in 2000. It's something Clark thinks about often.

"With relatively modest resources you can do a lot," Clark says. "That is what we have learned, and that is the story of BYU-Idaho. The things that matter most typically don't cost very much — the learning model, the three-track calendar, the Pathway Program. They are brought to pass by ideas and committed people; you can't buy passion and commitment. As long as people are respected and taken care of, you get compassion and commitment and ideas. In the end, you can be very innovative and very frugal."

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