Spotlight on Innovation: How Jacksonville State University Plans to Boost Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

Expanding on Jacksonville State University’s Collaborative Regional Education (CORE) model, which is currently funded by a $12 million Investing in Innovation grant for PK-12, the First in the World grant will supports ongoing professional development for JSU faculty, focused on unlocking the potential of technology and of active learning. Their “Fast Forward” quality enhancement plan, aided by a more than $3 million First in the World grant from the US Department of Education, is focused initially on improvements for Jacksonville State’s college of arts and sciences, but with the intent to be scalable across disciplines.

Here’s some of what the initiative entails.

Realizing the iPad’s Potential

Jacksonville State freshmen will have access to iPads starting in Fall 2015. But that isn’t enough. Jacksonville State is working to make sure that these devices serve more purpose than simply as advanced note-taking tools. The focus is on finding ways that the technology can facilitate transformative, active learning both in and outside the classroom.

For example, beyond simply providing iPads, Jacksonville State has equipped classrooms with televisions with Apple TV, so that students can show what they’ve done on their iPads to other students in the class, and so that professors can use apps or share digital publications on those screens.

Faculty Development and Faculty Mentoring

The institution is undertaking a number of faculty development initiatives to equip faculty both at Jacksonville State and throughout the region to integrate technology into classes effectively:

  • An ongoing faculty development program that includes a series of expert speakers brought in to discuss emerging learning technologies.
  • Jacksonville State is designating a first cohort of 16 faculty mentors. These are faculty who teach core courses and who will undertaking a year’s worth of professional development on active learning pedagogies and integration of technology into their coursework. The hope is that these faculty can then mentor other instructors across the institution.
  • Following the old adage that the best way to learn is to teach, faculty are also mentoring local K-12 instructors on integration of technology and active learning pedagogies in the classroom.
  • Hosting a three-day conference in June that provides faculty with the opportunity to share pedagogical innovation and new findings with colleagues.

Steps Forward

Through the First in the World grant, Jacksonville State is also partnering with Civitas Learning, a company that provides predictive analytics. Through this partnership, Simmons hopes to understand better which variables are most predictive of student success.

The outcome of this research is something we’re very excited to hear more about, at Academic Impressions. Because of the degree of the technological integration at Jacksonville State and the degree of predictive analytics to be applied, we think that the Fast Forward initiative will be critical for many institutions to watch over the next few years.


You may also be interested in our 2012 paper on predictive analytics of student success:

Success Leaves Clues: Predictive Modeling in Higher Education

A Note of Advice for Other Institutions

Toward the end of our conversation, Simmons raised a key point that she feels other colleges and universities should take note of — and that is the shifting climate for funding higher education. Increasingly, both private donors, foundations, and federal agencies are more interested in funding projects that establish smart collaboration and partnerships between the university and other entities.

“Gone are the days,” Simmons remarks, “when one faculty member could say, ‘I have this great idea, let me write a grant and get funding for it.’ My advice is to start looking for partnerships now. Other universities, school systems in your area, technology providers…”

The challenges institutions are facing now are complex ones. The more brainpower you can bring to the table, the better the solutions you’ll find. And the more intentional you are in identifying potential partnerships, the stronger your case for funding new initiatives will be.



In this 2014 special edition, Ed Mason of EMNR & Associates maps out creative ways that academic leaders and development officers can partner to merge public/private funding for existing and new research initiatives. Mason has studied an array of collaborative partnerships between the two offices most focused on external funding (the development office and research & grants), and in this edition he shares some of the models he has observed, as well as directions for the future.

Special Edition: Missed Opportunities for Funding Academic Research