From the Dean: Rethinking educational models

This past Tuesday there was a fun virtual event sponsored by Governor Burgum. It was a Virtual Summit on Innovative Education. During the time I was able to be online, I saw that there were about 800 other attendees, presumably from across the state. The Governor mentioned that there were over 1,300 registrants in all. The summit consisted of many breakout sessions and four plenary talks. I particularly enjoyed the one by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. As you probably know, the Khan Academy, formed in 2008, is a not-for-profit organization that provides free educational material online, mainly to K-12 and early college students. One of the key points that Mr. Khan made related to his approach to helping students who have knowledge gaps in their educational background, regardless of the cause. He emphasized that traditional educational models don’t directly address these holes in the “Swiss cheese” and just continue to build on what clearly is an uneven educational foundation for many students. The Khan approach is to specifically identify and address those areas of deficiency but without holding the student back. He used as an example a student in, say, fifth grade who had some gap areas that should have been learned in, say, second grade. Clearly it wouldn’t be good for the fifth grader to put him or her back into second grade. But what we normally do (apparently) is fail to address those deficiencies and keep advancing the student. Khan’s approach, it seems to me, is much smarter—advance the student with the student’s peers, but identify and address knowledge gaps so that the student’s foundational base is augmented, strengthened and solidified.

These concepts likely are more important in the K-12 or early college setting than in professional schools, but I could see how they might still apply in higher education at UND and even in the graduate education that forms the majority of the School’s activities. In reflecting on this, I distinctly remember my own experience in an accelerated six-year undergraduate/medical school program where some of my classmates (who were just as smart as the rest of us) hadn’t had the opportunity to have college-level calculus in high school as I and most of my fellow students had (so-called advanced placement or AP courses). These students were thrown into a rigorous physics course in college that assumed a knowledge of calculus. They had a hole in their educational foundation that wasn’t their fault, but a result of where they happened to go to high school. And since the Khan Academy wasn’t available then, I and several of my fellow calculus-trained classmates tutored our other classmates in calculus at the same time as they worked their way through the physics course. I really like the Khan philosophy that students with these gaps aren’t to be stigmatized or looked down on in any way, but helped in order to address the educational gaps in their background even as they advance with their classmates.

Pedagogy aside, the big issue we are dealing with at UND is obviously the COVID-19 situation and the effort to bring in-person education back to the UND campus. Coronavirus continues to be a challenge, especially with the troubling trend of new cases here in North Dakota over the past two weeks or so. Hospitalizations and deaths are up too, and anyone who thinks that the pandemic is just a problem in other parts of the country or just limited parts of North Dakota should go to the North Dakota Department of Health website and look at the map. More than half the counties in the state are experiencing an increased number of cases.

So the School, UND and the North Dakota University System (NDUS) are working hard to try to enable an in-person campus experience while at the same time working to make that experience as low-risk as possible. For an institution like UND that draws students from far and wide and also has a good deal of congregate living in residence halls, apartments and the like (even if residence hall rooms are single-occupant), the challenges are substantial. One important component of our approach includes widespread testing of students, faculty and staff, and then aggressive tracing of any contacts of individuals who test positive. The final touches are just being put on the testing plan developed by the North Dakota Department of Health for the NDUS (including UND), and the specifics of that plan will be released very soon. For now, please stay safe, stay connected, wear your mask as appropriate, wash your hands frequently, and avoid crowds, especially indoors.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences