Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What do we lose when we overlook the stories of students?

It is not a wise thing to make meaning out of coincidence. I'll do it here.

My daughter, about whose struggles I have written off and on, got home from her first semester at college the same day I turned in grades for my freshman seminar (about which I have written as well). My daughter's first semester grades were quite good, and after a difficult semester--for her emotions, her connections with others, and her sense of self--she got home with a bit of hope.

The day she got home I gave 3 failing grades in my seminar. They were for students who never attended or completed work, and who did not respond to my efforts (or those of others) to reach out to them. Those students, and the rest in my class, though, are registered for next semester. And so, they may stay at the college (I would bet against it). I can't know what their visits home were like.

My daughter and the students in my seminar have been, for the time being, retained. That fact will be recorded in the retention data we keep, and over which we puzzle. And that fact will be publicized, especially when the retention numbers are high. (The President of my daughter's college, in a letter at the beginning of his annual report, noted that 96.6% of undergraduates returned in the last year for which they have statistics.)

But having experienced my daughter's first semester so intensely, and having some insight into the experiences of my students, I can't help but feel the loss when those experiences are folded into "retention data."

Perhaps I have been too much influenced by my training as a historian, or my fondness for the writing of Wendell Berry and its reminder to tell local stories. And as I have been thinking about this post, a few lines from Zbigniew Herbert's "Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision" keep coming to mind.

Herbert was a Polish poet, and witness to many of the atrocities of totalitarianism. Mr Cogito is his alter ego. Near the end of a long poem on the violence of the 20th century, Mr. Cogito reminds us:

[...] in these matters
Accuracy is essential
We must not be wrong
Even by a single one

We are despite everything
The guardians of our brothers

Ignorance about those who have disappeared

Undermines the reality of the world.

(Commentary here and here.)

I know that staying in college (or not) is nothing like disappearing in Stalin's gulag. But being invisible to people who, for whatever reason, are supposed to be connected to you, is a failure. And if the stories of those students who stay, and those who leave, are lost, then in important ways our systems allow "ignorance about those who have disappeared." If Herbert is right, this is not just a small problem. It is a way of undermining the reality of the world, turning it from concrete to something abstract.

So at the end, here, let me put in a plug for gathering and using stories of retention (or of not-retention). The fact that 78% or 96.6% of our students come back tells us only a little. What will tell us more is if we know our students well enough to say for each one that he or she has stayed (or left) for good reason. And it isn't enough, probably, for student affairs staff, or a professor here or there, to be able to speak to the actual experience of actual students. Their stories need to be told, and remembered, by fellow students, and by administrators, and leaders.

Colleges imagine themselves as communities. We aim to build places where relationships lead to learning. If we are to be communities of learners, we must remember that we are, "despite everything the guardians of our brothers."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Learning about cost and quality from health care and agriculture

Atul Gawande has a great piece in the 14 December 09 New Yorker. "Testing, Testing" contains hints at two ideas that would help higher ed move ahead on the cost/quality issue.

First, he reminds us that for health care reform to succeed government has to mandate that nearly every American get health insurance. Or, put another way--the best way to ensure access to health care is to require that people get access to health care. Mandated access is important because it is only by expanding the market that the pool of the insured is large enough to make insurance a viable business.

Access to higher education is the sometimes forgotten key to cost and quality in higher ed as well. Millions of new potential university students aren't attending college. And millions more who have dipped their toes into higher ed are no longer pursuing it. Why? Cost is a big factor, along with cultural challenges, and the indifference of much of HE to their plight. So, if we want movement on cost, perhaps we need to move on requiring access. (I know the objections--not every job requires higher ed, many, many people can't afford it, it extends the power of the state well-beyond its current already-impressive reach, etc.)

And who knows--millions more adults, required to get higher education, might be a powerful force for reform of higher education. (Right now students and potential students have a very limited role in pushing reform--they act largely by choosing another campus, dropping our, or never joining up.)

Gawande then explains why access should be a requirement, but there should be no standardized approach to insurance and treatment. To make this point he turns to another mandatory practice--eating. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries food was expensive and access was limited. Farming was outdated, soils depleted, public health poor, life expectancy relatively low, farm work brutal.

Government did not mandate a particular approach to growing food, though. Instead it catalyzed changes through extension agents. One particularly influential agent, Seaman Knapp, traveled to Terrell Texas to try to get farmers to try out some new techniques. Not every farmer adopted them at first. Instead, community leaders (most of them farmers) encouraged one farmer, Walter Porter, to try the new techniques. Terrell's leaders provided support for Porter. In some ways they helped reduce his exposure to risk (of embarrassment, failure, financial ruin) while he experimented. When his changes made a difference, most of the farmers in the area adopted them. Food costs began to decline, access to food improved, as did quality and public health. Based on this success the US government created an army of extension agents, dedicated to doing what Walter Porter did.

Now the history of agriculture since then hasn't been all good. Small farms have died, natural growing techniques have disappeared, agribusiness rules the day.

But in that story there is an important suggestion for higher ed. Experiments on cost are risky when gone alone. But a consortium of schools can help spread risk. The consortium agrees that a particular approach looks promising. One school agrees to try it out. The other schools indemnify the experimental school. If things go poorly the consortium helps fix the problem ( by providing money, support etc.) But if they go well the consortium shares in the benefit and they all adopt the changes. The consortium comes to look something like a mutual aid society--a group of people or organizations committed to the well-being of their members by sharing risk and success.

Today there are plenty of consortia of colleges and university. But few of them collaborate in this way. Instead they gather for meetings, swap stories, produce papers, but when the chips are down members of the consortium are on their own. Perhaps it is time to look to the past when these cooperative organizations were the basis of our social safety net and civic innovation. Couldn't hurt.

or if the historical allusion doesn't work, consider a modern one--venture capital. Imagine 20 college presidents, each serious about cost/quality. They each pitch in $100K to a fund. They fund experiments, and get equity in the results. Something works, all benefit, something fails, no one faces a total crisis.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can all students have an honors-like experience?

Last week a group of us--faculty, staff, administrators--got together for a conversation about vision in higher ed. Most of us lead co-curricular programs. The premise of the conversation was that in a time where people feel constrained, anxious, etc. about the future of higher education it makes sense to think about what a better world would look like. So we talked about these questions: What would you do if you suddenly had many more resources to run your program with? What if you had freedom to lead your program where you want it to go. Where would you lead?

Though we all said it in different ways the group came to one agreement--if we had freedom and/or resources, we would spend more time working directly with students, and that work would look a lot like an honors program.

I should explain--most of the group has little interest in teaching honors classes--at Westminster small seminars team-taught by our best faculty for students with the highest academic profile. But there are components of the honors program, or athletics, or music students, that most of us enjoy and believe lead to good learning. Here they are:
  1. students strongly committed to the program--once students are admitted to honors they rarely leave. Instead that commitment becomes part of their identity
  2. long-term commitments and connections--honors students participate in two years of seminars and then complete an honors thesis. In other words, they commit to each other and the program for the duration of their time at the college. And the honors faculty return year after year, so the connections between faculty and students endure as well.
  3. freedom to give the program distinctiveness--honors students complete their liberal education requirements in the program. But their LE looks substantially different from that of other students
Not every student can be an honors student. (After all, honors is a way of drawing distinctions between some students and others.) And honors is an expensive program per-student. Small team-taught classes are expensive. So are scholarships for students. But the conversation got me thinking about what a school built around an honors-like experience would look like. Here are some thoughts;
  • the campus would be broken into smaller and longer-lasting groups--every student in a cohort of 20, say, for their entire experience at the college.
  • individual faculty/staff would connect with a group the entire time they are on campus.
  • the faculty/staff group leader would have a substantial amount of say on who is admitted to the group and what the group's program looks like.
  • groups might overlap, and they would share administrative support, but there would be no common experience for all students, except the experience of being part of an on-going group of fellow-learners.
  • within the groups, students would have heightened leadership roles, shaping the activities of the group, its educational experience, and its standards.
  • in short, the educational experience would be decentralized.
Is this the sort of thing you would like to see happen on your campus? Could it? What would be the result for students? For faculty and staff? For the institution? If not, why does it work for honors students but not the rest of the student body?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Learning Through E-Portfolios

This semester my class has been piloting a new e-portfolio project at Westminster. The overall goal of the initiative is to have all undergraduates create e-portfolios showing that they have achieved the college-wide learning goals. The portfolio would include artifacts and reflections from the student's entire time at the college, and from the co-curriculum as well as the curriculum.

During the semester we have been testing the e-portfolio software (Foliotek) as well as seeing if first-semester students care about things as abstract as our learning goals, can use rubrics, can reflect on ways that their artifacts are evidence of learning, etc. And we have been investigating whether this can happen in a freshman seminar.

I cannot speak for what the students have learned, but I've learned quite a bit about learning goals, definitions, rubrics, and e-portfolios. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Come around to the learning goals--my students are cool to abstraction, so when confronted with a learning goal like "global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness" they cannot get much traction. But start a discussion about how outlawing DDT preserved the environment in the US while heightening the impact of malaria in the developing world and they connect right away to the goal. Present them with a definition and the class becomes as interesting as a dictionary. Ask them to create a definition based on the DDT conversation and all of the sudden definitions are more interesting. Of course this is true, you will say. But a lot of the work on learning goals/outcomes, whatever its aim, comes across as abstraction.

2. When using a rubric, have students score the work of strangers first--one of our goals was to see if the rubrics for our learning goals made sense to students. So I asked them to use our rubrics to evaluate their work. As is almost universally the case, the students overestimated the quality of their work. Consistently. Through the semester. But when some students used the rubrics to analyze the work of professional journalists writing about science, the rubrics gave them a framework to point out the gaps in professional writing. The lesson? A rubric is a frame that makes sense of the world, not a window into your own soul.

3. Creativity is a good way into reflection--I had students write reflections about their work in critical thinking, ethical awareness, and communication. Their reflections tended not to show much self-awareness. But when I asked them to reflect on their creativity, the reflections were much more powerful. In retrospect, this is understandable. We understand creativity as being personal and internal--something emerging from who we are. Communication is external--a tactic rather than a trait. By writing about their acts of creativity students were much closer to who they think they are, good and ill.

4. A small barrier is all it takes--with something new like an e-portfolio, a small barrier was all it took to discourage students from participating. In the foliotek system a student can begin to create her e-portfolio only upon receiving a user name and password from foliotek. (Foliotek sends them out once we request the creation of an account in a particular student's name.) For students who deleted the email, or skipped it, or who never read their campus email account, the small obstacle of having to hunt down the email was very likely to keep them from getting started on the portfolio or doing good work in it. I know, I know--causation vs. correlation. But when I do it again I am going to make sure I lower the barriers as much as possible for students, because if you don't start you go nowhere.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mistakes in teaching--presentations

The semester is nearly wrapped up; its lessons are becoming clearer. One came clear to me last night--if your goal is to get students to determine the most important things they've learned, a presentation is a weak way to do it.

Last night students in my freshman seminar class gave final presentations. The purpose of the presentation was to get students to identify the key things they learned about science and ethics (the topic of the seminar) by asking them to distill their learning in a presentation.

The guidelines were simple--pick a scientific issue with significant ethical implications. Create a powerpoint that analyzes those implications using a set of questions from one of our readings. Submit the powerpoint as an artifact in their e-portfolio. In the presentation, focus on one part of the powerpoint--the student's view of how society should respond to the ethical issues. Five minutes to present.

The presentations were, in general, weak. Some students took the brief presentation time as a sign that they didn't need to prepare well. Others tried to fit their entire powerpoint into 5 minutes. Students who are confident in class discussion were tongue-tied by having more time to prepare and the attention of the entire class.

Many of these things are predictable--the result of students making decisions about how to allocate limited time, feeling under pressure in their other classes, etc. But there was one thing that I might not have predicted. The students indeed learned a lot about the issue and the ethics in their preparation. But that learning didn't come out in the presentation. Instead, it showed up in their responses to questions from the group.

For example, one presentation on the dangers associated with playing with the movement of subatomic particles made almost no sense and was alarmist (the student suggested that cooling an atom to absolute zero could cause a black hole to emerge on earth). But in response to questions from classmates, he clearly explained how super-cold temperatures affect subatomic movement and the implications of that for the stability of matter. In other words, presentation showy and not convincing; responses to questions thoughtful and measured.

The same thing happened with several other presentations/questions. So I am left wondering why. Why would a prepared presentation with clear guidelines elicit less thoughtful work than an unscripted question and answer session? What does this mean for the wisdom of assigning student presentations at all?

Friday, December 11, 2009

humanities and perspective

Anonymous wrote the following (thanks for the comment!) in response to my last post wondering whether perspective can be taught:

I think that is what the humanities are for! Think where we would be if we had to experience all of life's possible heartaches in order to understand them! Life would really be unbearable then. But the humanities are becoming less important, considered less useful, even in the context of the liberal arts. It's a shame. (Perhaps one day, the humanities will be back, along with friendship, and letter writing in long hand! What do you think?)

Anonymous' comments hit home for me. My family is an arts and humanities family--lots of books around the house, everyone a musician, and kids who like their courses in the humanities. I sit on the board of the Utah Humanities Council whose mission is to improve public life through the humanities. And I've done some surveying of freshmen about their views on the humanities as part of general education.

There are some interesting (and hopeful) things afoot with young people and the humanities. The bad news is that they are relatively uninterested in traditional approaches to the humanities--survey classes in history or art history for example, or public lectures by renowned humanists. (UHC is struggling to find ways to get young people to its programs, for example.

But my sense is that there is a flowering of "doing humanities" among young people.

  • Memoir, for example, is a simple thing using the internet or scrapbooks, and Facebook can be seen as an act of self-creation as significant as autobiography and journal writing.
All of these trends, and Anonymous' comment which linked them in my head, make me think that the humanities may be a key pathway to perspective for college students. They also make me think that we need to re-think our humanities curricula. Can courses in those key disciplines be as much about doing as about learning? If so, then they would link the experiential components of perspective with the educational components that we are established to provide.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Can perspective be taught, or is it only learned?

A couple of experiences in the last week have gotten me thinking about perspective. (Here I don't mean optical perspective, but instead the ability to place something in context, and by so doing, respond wisely to it.) My daughter is at the end of her first semester in college, with many of the concerns that 18-year-olds have: what will I do with my life? why do other people have more friends than me? why don't boys like me? why does college seem like such a drag?

At the same time, we have entered the complaint season on campus. Some faculty are unhappy about their students, others about the budget, others about administrative processes. Some students want to know why they won't pass their classes unless they do the work, others hate the food in the cafeteria, etc. We all need to unload.

In both instances, the dissatisfaction is predictable, cyclical. But the question is how to respond. With my daughter I have tried to gently remind her that she is only 18, and that many of her concerns will work themselves out, and her experiences are common among freshmen. But the words don't seem to salve the hurt. With people on campus, responses to the particular concerns, explanations of how things got to be the way they are, or re-assurances that things are actually fine don't always work either.

In both instances, providing perspective doesn't lead people to take perspective.

Why is this? After all, one of the assumptions behind education (and especially general education) is that perspective can be taught. Most liberal arts disciplines are at their core about perspective--ways of seeing the world so that it makes the present more comprehensible, or more tolerable, or open to fixing.

But a general education is no guarantee of perspective, and telling a daughter that she is beautiful and smart and things will get better is no guarantee that she will believe. Still, over time, she will come to that conclusion, just like over time the complaints will become workable, and students will learn perspective.

Is there something experiential about perspective? Must important parts of human life be experienced before they can be understood? And if so, what should schools and educators do? Can perspective be taught, or only learned?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

when do you reinvent the wheel?

I've written a few times about analogies and metaphors of education. One of the most common these days is "don't reinvent the wheel." This is the sort of advice that sounds wise on first listen, but becomes almost meaningless the more you think about it.

Its meaninglessness is wrapped up in what it implies--that somehow a teacher can import something--the "wheel"--into a class and that doing so will save time and money. This is a key assumption behind the open content movement. But I've wracked my brain, and cannot think of any "wheel" that reduced my time commitment because it was so easily applied to the course.

Instead, in my experience importing something into my teaching means one of two things:

1. I simply shift the time and location of the effort from one place to another. So, for example, when I have incorporated a new textbook into a class, it shifts where I spend my time, moving it earlier in the sequence. Or, I re-allocate resources away from one thing (say, preparing class presentations) to another (becoming familiar with the textbook).

2. I take that thing--a textbook, a pedagogy, some technology, an approach to mentoring--and over the course of the semester my experience with students requires that I re-create the thing itself. I drop chapters that don't work, change topics, spend more time on working with students and less on course content, whatever. By the end of the semester, the "wheel" and the course look substantially different.

Now, I know it is possible to do neither. My dissertation advisor, for example, used the same lecture notes for his intro to US History course in 1995 as he did in 1969. But I expect that most good teachers re-invent the wheel every time they enter the classroom. Perhaps it is because they are guided by another phrase--"you can never step into the same river twice."

Is this a good thing?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Means, Ends, Cost, Quality

I've been wondering lately if the effort to reduce costs (while maintaining quality) in higher ed is an end in itself, or a means to something more important. I'm afraid that the cost discussion in higher ed is following the health care discussion, where the end has become passing a health insurance reform bill, not finding ways for Americans to be healthier.

In the same way, it appears that reducing cost has become an end in itself, not a pathway to something else. This is a problem for three reasons:

1. I'm not sure that the call to cut costs motivates the people in a position to do it. Instead it may put them--faculty, staff, and administrators--on edge, worrying about their jobs and pitting them against each other. ("The expensive part of education isn't what I do, it is all that extra stuff (fill in your favorite bugbear) the college does.")

2. When a reform movement becomes an end in itself, it tends to become isolated--it has its own center, or its own organization, but it struggles to spread throughout campus. Here, the cost/quality movement would be wise to learn from all of the other reform efforts--service-learning, assessment, etc. which got stymied on campuses where the goal was simply to "have one" (a service-learning center, an assessment office, learning communities, whatever) rather than to use that tool to stay interesting, alive sorts of places.

3. The notion of something being an "end" assumes a linear path to that end and a hierarchical organization to support it. But paths aren't linear, higher ed isn't hierarchical, and colleges and universities are systems, not pyramids. So thinking about cost/quality as an end makes such efforts butt up against the complex, interdependent way that things are. (On a philosophical level, I don't believe there are really ends anyway. All things are means; ends happen when you stop to look around and take your bearings...)

So if we thought of cost/quality as a means rather than an end, what difference would it make?
A huge one, in my view, because we could then connect the effort to values that are widely held and practices that are already embraced in HE or on a particular campus.

For example, most colleges and universities are inspired by a democratic vision--that access to education is a way of building just, wise, and healthy societies. Reducing the cost of education makes that democratic vision more likely and links it with other democratization efforts--civic engagement, retention, diversity, etc.

Most colleges and universities care that their students become part of a community of learners. Linking cost reduction to community-building is a powerful activity. Let's say that a campus wants to make college more affordable by hiring more students to work on campus. The act of hiring students to work on campus knits them into the campus community, makes them not just consumers of school, but producers of learning and stewards of place.

Most schools want to stay lively, to maintain momentum, to innovate, to encourage creativity among faculty and staff, to share those innovations across the campus. The cost/quality challenge, like retention, or civic engagement, or any of the other recent reforms, calls for innovation and creativity. Linking it there reinforces the campus culture instead of suggesting that the campus culture is an impediment.

All schools are committed to learning. Where innovation advances learning (or makes it more visible) and students understand that, they are more likely to stay, and to love their time in college, both things that make the cost of higher education seem like a value, not a punishment.

All of this is to suggest that while much of the conversation about the future of higher ed assumes radical changes afoot, perhaps the best way to succeed in their face is to preserve tradition--those values and practices that inspire, unite, and advance our core mission--to educate.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving week odds and ends

I've been away for the past week, visiting California and my oldest daughter who is 2/3 of the way through her first semester. A few thoughts piled up. Here they are, in no certain order (and without any promise of value):

1. Disneyland and the first-semester of college can have the same impact on teenagers. We spent two days at Disneyland along with about 20 members of my wife's family. Disneyland is an amplifier. It heightens things for good or ill. Food costs more, crowds are more crowdy, fun is funner, anxiety is more troubling. Everyone knows this. But being there with my college-age daughter, and talking with her about her feelings about college, reminded me that college, especially in the first year, does exactly the same thing. Disagreements escalate, uncertainty becomes paralysis, confidence becomes certainty. What should colleges do with the amplification?

2. Faculty need to make more mistakes. Neil Postman suggested in The End of Education that faculty could improve student learning by making mistakes on purpose when teaching. Students would learn by truth-testing their faculty. Just before break I gave my students an assignment but with the rubric for another assignment included. Interesting responses from my students--a couple tried mightily to fit their assignment into the wrong rubric. A couple pointed out my error. But most went along with the assignment as if nothing was wrong...

3. Student evaluations of faculty may become obsolete. As faculty focus more on student learning, student evaluations of faculty may make less sense. This is especially the case when faculty use student-centered pedagogies--problem-based learning, collaborative learning, etc. The student evaluation hardly touches at all on the work faculty do in these settings.

4. Gratitude is much more important for learning than we credit it for. Or perhaps more correctly, ingratitude impedes learning. Ingratitude locates obstacles outside of the learner--I can't learn because of the teacher, or the course, or the subject, or the school--and because those external obstacles can't be controlled, learning dies.

Thanks to all of you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Organizing on cost and quality

There are several parts of most institutions of higher ed that weren't around twenty years ago. First-year programs, service-learning centers, climbing walls (and other "frills" meant to attract students), technology-enabled learning, assessment, and undergraduate research programs all have become part of the infrastructure of American colleges and universities. Each took a different path to become part of the mainstream. And each provides a model of how higher ed might approach the problem of maintaining quality while reducing costs.

Here are the models:

Competition--Some changes have become part of American higher ed simply through competition between campuses. The most obvious is the improvement in the quality of student amenities--residence halls, fitness centers, cafeterias, bookstores, and, yes, climbing walls. Prosperous campuses invested in amenities; other campuses adopted them in order to keep up. Some schools (Elon comes to mind) have built themselves into outstanding institutions by starting with the look and feel of campus.

Vendor-driven change--All sorts of forces drove campuses to embrace technology-enabled learning, but the most significant (I would argue) was the power of vendors. Apple, for example, adcquired market-share and loyalty in schools by making great deals for educators. More broadly, EduCause, the leading national organization on tech and ed, got its birth from vendors seeking a way to entice campuses to adopt their products.

Faculty and government cooperation--Undergraduate research became a movement (as opposed to a common practice) by a combination of faculty interest, especially among science faculty, coupled with funding support from the federal government. The major national organization dedicated to undergraduate research--the Council on Undergraduate Research--makes this connection clear on its website, where it features its work in government relations.

Entrepreneurial faculty/campuses--The first-year experience movement would not exist in its present form without a couple of entrepreneurial faculty--John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot--and the support of the University of South Carolina. While FYE has now become an independent organization and is no longer directly affiliated with USC, its influence emerged from that handful of people who managed to organize just ahead of national attention turning to the problem of student retention and success.

Campus-based think-tanks--The assessment movement as we know it was born from two major campus think-tanks/research centers: HERI at UCLA and NSSE at the University of Indiana. Those organizations continue to provide both raw data, national research, and intellectual leadership to American higher ed.

Presidential leadership--faculty have been teaching service-learning courses for about 100 years, but the civic engagement movement got its organizational birth from the leadership of a handful of presidents--at Brown, Stanford, Georgetown, and Rhode Island--who sat down to talk about the problem of student civic disengagement and the decline of higher ed's civic mission. Out of that small group came Campus Compact, an organization of over 1000 schools, each of which has joined because its president wanted to be part of the organization.

If you look at the cost/quality world today you can see these various models vying for supremacy. Vendors offer software to support learning, entrepreneurial campuses offer open course ware. Think tanks provide data. And campuses are beginning to compete.

But there is a huge gap, one that needs to be filled if the cost/quality effort is going to get beyond individual campuses--presidential leadership. By this I don't mean presidential leadership on individual campuses. (Westminster's president, for example, is leading out in this area.) I mean a coalition of presidents who pledge, as did the early Campus Compact presidents, to work together to bring about major change in higher ed. Without a coalition of presidents, we will likely default to a competition model, in which higher ed as a whole probably doesn't move at all (campuses either sink, swim, or get into another pool).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What goes in the backpack?

So what gets put in a school-in-a-backpack backpack? The answer turns, I guess, on what you think about the connection between curriculum and real life. I can imagine three options: a laptop, a journal, and a toolbox.

You take a laptop if your driving focus is to give students access to information from outside their experience. From there, curriculum goes one of two ways--to internet-based research, or to curriculum delivered via computer, and customized to respond to a student's particular knowledge and confidence. (On this approach, SatoriEdu is doing some interesting work.)

You take a journal if you think that your student's experience is rich enough that the main thing that a teacher can do is help students uncover their learning through reflection and analysis. This approach has a long tradition behind it. (When John Dewey visited Brigham Young academy in 1901 he suggested that "homework" was the work that students normally did at home--cleaning, cooking, farming, etc. Students went to school to learn from their homework, not vice versa as it is today.)

You take a toolbox if you want students to assemble or create solutions to real-world problems. Over the past couple of days I've been learning about synthetic biology--a branch of biology in which scientists try to create new living things (bacteria, viruses, etc.) to solve health or social needs. One interesting outgrowth of synthetic biology is iGem, a project in which groups of undergraduates work through a summer with faculty oversight to create new organisms out of a registry of component parts. The registry is essentially a toolbox.

What else goes in the backpack?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A school in a backpack?

Two of my favorite blogs, Dezeen and Ashoka have featured posts on modular solutions to real problems. Dezeen highlights the "OpenStructure" project by designer Thomas Lommee. Lommee has designed a group of modules that fit together into a number of forms--a bicycle, a kitchen, a cabinet. Ashoka gives attention to a project at Rice University where students fit several highly important toolkits (an ob-gyn kit, a diagnostic lab, and a community health outreach package) into individual backpacks, which could be carried into remote regions or those without access to health care. This sort of modular-ization extends to the hard sciences. The site Hackteria is a gateway into projects that re-assemble biological building blocks into new uses--a sort of DIY bio-engineering/art lab.

The core idea here--that highly important things can be designed into modules, assembled into different forms, and made portable--is an exciting one. It is also one that has a great deal of frequency in education right now. There is talk about students assembling modules of learning--youtube here, academic courses there, life and work experience appended--into their own version of education. (Westminster is in the process of making it easier for students to create their own majors.)

But while on the student end it is a moderately easy thing to do, on the school end it is much tougher. Even the easiest school to create--a private elementary school--is bound by enough rules, regulations, and complications to make the creation of a new school almost impossible to do at low cost and quick speed. The creation of a new, agile college or university is essentially impossible.

This is a big problem for people who love learning--because it is not clear that powerful learning comes from people solely schooling themselves. (Hence the fact that people go to teachers to learn guitar even though you can see hundreds of guitar-training videos on youtube.) And it is a big problem for people who love schools, because it makes it less likely that innovators will be able to create alternative models to existing schools. But I wonder if it would be possible to use the principles of these design initiatives to come up with a radically new form of school--a school in a backpack.

Lest you think this entirely crazy, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, such things flourished all over the US. Itinerant school teachers travelled from town to town, taking up residence for a time, contracting to teach local kids to read, and then moving on. (For Mormons, the most famous itinerant teacher is Oliver Cowdery, who came across Joseph Smith just as Smith began his work on the Book of Mormon, and became Smith's second-in-command for almost a decade.) Then formal schools, state mandates, professionalization, and inexpensively constructed school buildings put itinerant teachers and their schools out of business.

Today, many of the things that undermined itinerant schools may sometimes be impediments to learning. And the possibility of carrying a school in one's backpack is real--a laptop and the tools of the teacher's interests are about all one would need.

A school in a backpack could certainly provide the same sort of solution for rural people and slumdwellers that labs in a backpack do. And I think the logic is the same--education, like health, flourishes in the mix between technology and human interaction. High-quality, lasting improvements require more than simply sending in the technology. But I am particularly interested in what a school in a backpack could do in the developed world.

In the US we tend to believe that innovation emerges from entrepreneurs with drive and good ideas. But those innovations and the new businesses they birth almost always start small. There aren't good ways to start small with schools right now. Perhaps a school in a backpack would be the thing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Do we provide students a morally serious education?

A couple of thoughts on the eve of Veteran's Day, wrapped around a question on the moral seriousness of education.

My father-in-law, Klem Schneider, grew up poor in rural Idaho. He knew by the time he was 16 that he wanted out of Lewisville. He saved money from working in potato fields to go to college at Utah State University. At first he wanted to be an engineer, then a doctor. He and my mother-in-law, Linda, married while they were in college. Then my wife, Kristine was born. Klem decided that to become a doctor with a small family would cost nearly everything. He enlisted in the Army, which paid for his medical school and then sent him to Vietnam. He spent a year there, doing public health and general practice. He sent line drawings of water buffalo home to his kids.

He was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and as a result got cancer--Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma--for the first time while Kristine was a senior in high school. After two more bouts of cancer and chemo, he died at the age of 61, 7 years ago. I took his oral history while he was in remission. He was a serious man, and he made a morally serious decision about education while still young--that he would get enough education to ensure his family was never poor. If that meant signing on for a tour of duty in Vietnam in order to go to medical school, so be it. He never regretted his military service, not because he was particularly patriotic, but because it got him the education he wanted, needed.

C.S. Lewis fought in the first world war. On the cusp of the second he preached a sermon at Oxford on the topic "Learning in Wartime." This was his question--

As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to
start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called
clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or
historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to
do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task
which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we
ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or
military service, why should we -- indeed how can we --
continue to take an interest in these placid occupations
when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are
in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Lewis' answer was to put war into context. He told his listeners,

The war creates no absolutely
new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human
situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has
always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture
has always had to exist under the shadow of something
infinitely more important than itself.

The United States have been involved in big wars for 19 of my 44 years, and in little wars (Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada) for a chunk of the rest. More than half of my academic career has been during wartime. I wonder by what acts of denial I (by which I mean most of formal education) have managed to ignore the aggravation of the permanent human situation caused by these wars.

Last year I had 3 young veterans in my history class. One had recently been deployed in Iraq. They were no better students than the rest of the class. They shared the weekend binges and late semester declines with the rest of their classmates. But on big issues--the role of government, the purpose of authority in society, freedom, justice, race, and war--they spoke with conviction and complexity--that their classmates could not match.

Pointing to the weaknesses of higher education is a common practice today. It costs too much, it isn't accountable, students don't always learn, etc. etc. Let me add one to the list, on the day before Veteran's Day. Many students, most perhaps, don't get a morally serious education. Or to use the language of the previous post, they get very little to help them choose to pay the price of experience. Perhaps this is OK--a degree and a vocation and some personal growth are good things. I wonder if it is enough.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What is the price of experience?

The 18th century English poet and printer William Blake asked in a poem. Here is the first stanza:

"What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither'd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

(You can check out a song setting of the poem by the Irish singer Van Morrison here.)

These lines came back to me yesterday while I was talking with my daughter Amelia. Her school encourages students to study abroad in their sophomore year--to have an international experience. She was accepted into a year-long program in Shanghai, and to a 2-month internship program in Lausanne, Switzerland in May and June. She's no longer certain about her major (international business) so Shanghai didn't make much sense. And she found out Friday what two months would cost in Switzerland--about $15,000 for room, board, and tuition. Learning that wasn't a crushing blow, since Amelia's expectation have shrunken for months and so this is simply another disappointment. But it is a blow nonetheless since there is no way on earth we can afford such a price, and so this opportunity, like many others, won't come her way either. (It is a galling thing to think that we--a two-income family earning far above the national average, are "too poor" to afford what is considered normal at a good but not world's-best university.)

If Blake is right, $15,000 is both too much and far too little to pay for experience. Too much because spending a huge pile of money to go to Switzerland is exactly the sort of behavior of the rich that he scorns (in the second stanza):

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

And too little because the cost of real experience, real wisdom, if Blake is right, is pretty close to everything.

Experiential education has been a catch-phrase for about two generations of higher education. When we use it we mean simply "learning by doing." And in that sense it is a useful pedagogy. But Blake (and Amelia) make me wonder if that is enough.

I don't mean to suggest that little experiences teach but little. I do mean to suggest, though, that one of the main problems with the high cost of education is that of inevitable disappointment--of students who ask themselves whether going to class is worth so much; and of humans, who wonder at the willingness of the wealthy to spend so much for what is really only a little--a couple of months, or four years, living among the privileged.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Have you got a rule for that?

Over the last couple of days our campus has hosted a minor kerfluffle of the sort common to complex organizations. About 18 months ago the library got rid of the "no cell phones" signs that once hung by the door and around the stacks. Instead, we now have a main floor where conversations, face-to-face and otherwise, take place all the time. We have even worked to support these conversations by setting up group work tables, computer stations with several chairs, and a coffee machine in the corner.

The library is certainly a more lively place than before--a good thing to be sure. But a couple of days ago a loud person talking on a cell phone in the library interrupted a faculty member working on a research project with a student. The faculty member then sent a note to the entire faculty, describing the incident and requesting a return of the "no cell phones" rule. Several other faculty and the director of the library weighed in. And the library director and I exchanged some messages about how the library might respond (one of my areas of responsibility is the library). We agreed that the library should look at the issue, and perhaps clarify its policy on phones, but that the library needs to be a place where people can talk to learn. Hence, a return to the silences of old makes little sense, esp. since there are other, silent places in the library.

I've been thinking about the situation since, and I'm worried about my default reaction to it. My first impulse was to think that we needed a policy clarification--some sort of more clearly understood and accepted rule about noise in the library. But the more I think about it, the more certain I am that a rule probably wouldn't help. In fact, the creation of a new rule (whatever it is) may in fact get in the way of the simplest solution to these sorts of problems--an informal conversation between the parties involved to try to work out the problem.

So I've been musing on this situation, and the broader question about the role of rules in organizations, especially those committed to learning. For it seems that many rules exist largely to give quick solutions to situations where slower solutions might lead to learning.

Take plagiarism, for example. What does a rule saying "any instance of plagiarism may result in no credit for the assignment or the course" do? It gives faculty ground to stand on, to be sure. And it defends a deeply held standard in academe. What does it do for learning, though, and especially that sort of learning that takes place between faculty and students? (I'm thinking of an instance in a class I'm teaching now, by the way.)

I'm becoming less comfortable with a rules regime. There are a couple of major influences on this change. The first the shift from "teaching to learning.' Most rules are teaching things--they tell someone what to do. We are ever less certain that telling someone math helps them learn math. Does telling someone how to behave help them learn to behave?

The second is a talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz in which he argues that wisdom is in decline in America? Why? Because we are becoming a regime of rules and incentives. Systems of rules crowd out moral skill--the ability to work to a solution of a complex problem in a moral but flexible way. And systems of incentives crowd out moral will--the willingness to work out that solution without external compulsion.

The third is my renewed interest in the writings of Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman on education and society. (OK, yes, this is evidence that I am an anarcho-conservative at heart. What can I say?) They both suggest that institutions swallow up the key parts of being human by encasing those things in a system of rules.

So how should rules get made if the goal of our organization is learning? Are there rules that lead to learning? It seems like there might be a few, very old ones: "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." And at the heart of those rules is probably a simple message--face the problem face-to-face.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A new April holday--Public Learning Day

If your campus is anything like mine, more and more events are getting loaded into the month of April. Our undergraduate research fair is then. Student capstone projects get completed that month. Awards are given out. Students take the NSSE, CLA, and other assessment surveys. Students take end of the year exams. (The list goes on.)

Nearly all of these things happen in isolation--in a single class, say, or for a single constituency. Doing so blunts their impact. Why not have a Public Learning Day, where the entire campus--all faculty, staff, and students take the day to show their learning publicly? Undergraduate research would get recognized alongside capstones. All of the assessments would take place the same day. Faculty and staff would show their work--research, model teaching, etc. The public--parents, funders, community members, would all be invited.

What would happen? Maybe nothing. But maybe we would be drawn into contact with each other. And perhaps we would begin to have conversations about what we take as evidence of learning and what our culture is. Plus, we could have really great refreshments...

Would more sabbaticals make higher ed cheaper?

Today we began a process going on in higher ed across America--creating an estimated budget for the 2010-2011 academic year. This is hard work, relying as it does on a mixture of prognostication, data, hope, and kabuki theatre.

At this point in the process, there are really three big questions on any campus: How many students do we think we can recruit? How much will tuition change? And how much financial aid will be give out? We've added a fourth this year: How can we improve quality and reduce cost to students.

I've blogged about this question before, but a new dimension of the problem came into view today. How can we innovate to reduce cost and improve quality in a very tight budget situation?

In some ways this seems like the wrong question. After all, we have learned the cliche that "Necessity is the mother of invention," and therefore believe that tough times lead to innovation. But I'm not sure that this is the case at all. It might in fact be the case that prosperity (or a return to prosperity) leads to innovation. (The New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik makes this point here).

Perhaps the best evidence of this is the way that leading corporations--Google, 3M, Intel--all provide generous sabbaticals or free time to their employees. At Google one day of 5 is given over to whatever project someone wants to work on, for example.

This excess capacity makes it possible for Google's engineers to innovate while still carrying out the work of the company. But in higher ed we don't have (or at least we believe we don't have) that sort of excess capacity. So innovation comes either by getting rid of a program ("drowning the kittens" in the memorable phrase of one of our board members) or more frequently by creating a new one entirely.

Neither of these models, though, reduces cost and improves quality. Dropping a program cuts the overall budget a bit, but hardly enough to make a dent in the tuition bill a student pays. And adding a new program adds ongoing costs that have to be met somehow--usually by adding new tuition-paying students.

So I left the meeting today thinking two things. First, if we want innovation to happen, we need some excess capacity somewhere. And if Google are right, that excess capacity needs to be recognized formally by the institution, and it needs to be widespread. It could be some sort of sabbatical system, or even the sort of professional development days built formally into K-12 (though I'm dubious about their impact there.)

Second, once innovations are tested, they need to be broadly spread throughout the organization. That is, creating and staffing a new program probably won't change either the learning or the cost for most students. However, funding collaborative work between existing programs holds some promise. Think, for example, how learning might improve and costs be cut if academic programs required experiential learning (for credit) that was provided by co-curricular units on campus. Faculty would teach fewer classes, students would get more hands-on learning, the investments into the co-curriculum would count in the credit system, and the overall expense of a degree could go down.

Friday, October 30, 2009

retention or friendship?

I've spent quite a lot of time over the past 6 years (the span of my administrative career) thinking about retention. I've studied it, built programs to improve it, and talked about it. From the perspective of higher ed retention is a good thing. Retention is important for students, especially if its opposite is dropping out of college, missing out on opportunities, and ending up on the outside of the economic system. And in the economic downturn, the ability for a private school like Westminster to retain its students is vital to the school's survival.

Earlier this week I spent an hour in a webinar about a software system that would allow schools to track data better in order to understand who is retained. Once we determine the characteristics of the retained student, we can build programs to retain the others, the software sellers proclaimed.

That same day I spent a couple of hours on the phone with my daughter, who halfway through her first semester at a small private liberal arts college in California, is as unhappy as I have ever seen her. She is uncertain about her major, isolated in her classes and her dorm, and lonely, despondent.

That school (which I won't name because I don't think it is a problem with the school itself) has the whole retention apparatus--freshman seminars, residence assistants, an advising center, and a culture committed to student well-being. But those things may as well not exist for Amelia.

Why? Because she doesn't want to go to the counseling center, or talk to her RA. She is afraid that by doing so she will be branded as a loser. But even more, because she will probably be retained. Certainly the signs all point to retention. She is getting A's in her classes. She comes from a family that values education. Finances are tight, but not a crisis. So she appears not to be "at-risk."

So what this means is that she is invisible to the school. She feels that way--that she has no friends in her classes or her dorm. That she is, ultimately, alone.

Ivan Illich, in an interview in Jerry Brown's book Dialogues, argues that the most important parts of being human--love, care, help, health, learning, politics--have become so systematized that their human component has been lost. All we can do, he says, is develop friendship, because by developing friendships we might find ways to re-inject human connection into the systems that have chased it out.

His words are ringing in my head as I talk to Amelia. For her, right now, all of the systems are useless because she has no friends.

How would colleges be different if they measured the success of their first year not by retention rates but by friendships made. I'm not talking about Facebook-style friendships, or sorority friendships, or hook-ups. I'm talking about real friendships, the kind that are at the basis of argument, and love, and compassion, and learning.

I would guess our friendship rates are well below retention rates. As educators and institutions we know much less about how to be human together than we do about erecting systems. But as I think about my friendships, and the holes where they should exist, I would much rather be-friend than retain.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Who is responsible for the "integrating" in "integrative learning"?

I'm at the AACU conference on integrative learning in Atlanta. There have been a couple of great talks (especially about the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, and about a film/history course at Gallaudet). But the conference has been confusing, because there are some key unanswered questions at the core of it.

Here are a couple--How is integrative learning different from learning? As the term is being used here, integrative learning is actually about changing the campus educational infrastructure and processes. Or at least when people talk about it they tend to refer to building ties between disciplines, and between general education and the majors. Or they talk about e-portfolios, in which students do that sort of connection-building. These things are great, and I think we ought to do them, because they might make it easier for students to learn. But they, themselves, are not integrative learning.

If we think about it from what we know about learning, then all learning is integrative. For someone to learn something, they have to connect it to (or integrate it with) what they already know. This happens intellectually, and it happens in the brain. So what sort of thing are we hoping that students will do that goes beyond this?

Is integrative learning really learning about a particular sort of thing? Based on presentations here, complex problems are a possibility. But very few campuses that I see are building their curricula around complex problems. (One bright star here is Lynn University, which has a new GE built around questions...) Instead they are trying to find connections between the disciplines.

But it seems more likely that integrative learning is really about developing skills. I'm all in favor of students having certain skills--critical thinking, problem solving, etc. But skills without context are not integrative. Nor do they lead to learning (they lead to habits).

So the big question for me at this conference is this: who is responsible for integrating in "integrative learning"? The assumptions in old models of higher ed is that the student would do this. They would find ways to connect what they were learning with their home, work, family, intellectual, civic, and religious lives.

The assumptions in this new model is that integrating is an institutional imperative, or that institutions are responsible for helping people to do this. Is this true? Is there something about students today that make them less likely to draw connections between things they learn and the things they know and do? If so, what is it?

I've been reading Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society. In it he raises the same question (which is probably why I'm wondering.) He argues that modern society works to institutionalize activities that previously existed outside of institutions--service, for example. Or education. The result is a reduction in the range of activities that people can participate in freely. And, as a result, a decline in the ability of people to freely do things.

As educators work on "integrative learning" we would do well to keep this matter--the ability of education to liberate people, not tie them more permanently to institutions--in mind. Our goal should be to have students leave our institutions better able to make satisfactory meaning out of their lives, not to find meaning only in institutions.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Over the weekend I had to teach a lesson at church about self-reliance and care for the needy. To prepare (for truth be told all preparation is putting off the performance) I spent a bit of time re-reading Emerson's Self-Reliance.

Emerson is one of those writers to whom I keep returning because his work annoys me. (Thoreau is another.) And Self-Reliance is full of annoying ideas, many about education in one way or another.

Take this line: "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide..." Now Emerson isn't talking specifically about formal education. But this notion, that education is about finding the ways that one is a unique individual, is one that leads to all sorts of selfish, relativist pap. (Perhaps best exemplified by the oft-repeated schoolhouse fib: "You can become anything you want.")

But the rest of the sentence turns the sentiment around: "...
that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."

All of the sudden Emerson is calling for education to do something much more significant--to help people discover their uniqueness by working to uncover connections to their surroundings. Looked at this way, Emerson is describing how much can be learned by rejecting generalities in favor of specifics, even if those are specifics about a place that may not seem important. Studying abroad may be important; but studying home certainly is.

And then, later in the essay, this: "
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." What might we learn, how might our public culture be better, if we didn't derive our thoughts and actions from what we have always done? (And how much harder would it be to grade papers without being able to write "you contradict yourself" in the margins?)

The Best Schools for Student Learning

In response to a post last week, Lionofzion asked for more schools that had remade themselves in order to focus more intensely on student learning. I'll list some here, but I am interested in which schools you think are doing a good job with student learning, and why.

College rankings don't really get at student learning in any meaningful way, so you won't see many of these schools on those lists. And this list is idiosyncratic--just the ones that I know of and like. So weigh in...

Focus on student learning in response to crisis:

Portland State--Portland State was struggling to maintain enrollment and serve its urban population. They remade their curriculum to include huge amounts of service-learning and civic engagement. They are leaders in all sorts of other learning practices, as well as assessment.

Alverno College--Alverno, a private, Catholic women's school in Milwaukee was losing enrollment. The faculty re-made the curriculum around competencies. Students now all cerate portfolios as evidence of their learning. That act, along with revitalized student services, has brought Alverno back.

Focus on student learning from their creation:

CSU-Monterey Bay--CSUMB was created to serve underserved populations. They've done so through an innovative mix of general education and professional education. Again, service-learning and civic engagement are at the core of campus culture.

Evergreen State--Evergreen is the grandaddy of learning focused schools. From its creation in the 1970s it has been willing to constantly remake itself to focus on learning. No school is as willing as Evergreen to do this.

Roskilde University and Aalborg University--Roskilde and Aaborg are new-ish Danish universities, created in response to student activism in the 60s and 70s. They are intensely student-centered. Faculty play mush more of a consultative than teaching role. The curriculum is build around problem solving. Incredible schools.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vertical integration, or, making TR roll over in his grave

Teddy Roosevelt built some of his reputation on trust-busting--breaking up monopolies or alliances that controlled large sectors of the economy. At least since that time, Americans have had a healthy skepticism about too much alignment in a sector.

Perhaps that (and more seriously the history of local control of public education) has something to do with why public schools and public universities have such a hard time aligning their curricula and systems so that a student who graduates from high school can succeed in higher education. It is true that there is some effort to align curricula in some states, and a bit of overlap in administrative systems, but truth be told, creating K-16 alliances in public systems still looks like a pipe dream.

But why not try it in private education? After all, private schools trumpet the distinctiveness of their educational models--small classes, focus on active learning, etc., etc. And then they bewail the fact that many students coming out of public schools aren't prepared for their approach to learning. So why not vertically integrate?

There could be two models for doing this. The simplest would be to create alliances with high schools (public or private) where the college guarantees admission slots (say 10/year) to students who the high school deems to be best prepared to succeed in that particular college. The college and the high school would work together to make sure expectations are aligned, but in the end the high schools would pick enrollees, and those students would go, together, to college. (The Posse Foundation does this a bit, making it possible for groups of students from underserved populations to attend the same college together, creating a ready-made community for them.)

The more radical approach would be to create an entire K-16 system under the same private umbrella. Here, if they choose to do so, students would take an entire primary, secondary, and tertiary education in the same system. College would be a natural result of graduating high school. College faculty would have a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their students; and students would know clearly what to expect. And the system, by attending to its outcomes, would be able to say with a greater level of certainty whether or not its approach to education does what it promises.

Such systems, in a much less formal fashion existed among religious communities in the 19th century. But the secularization of higher ed, the expansion of the public school system, and the divergent purposes of K-12 and HE made those older systems collapse. Perhaps good riddance. Or perhaps we have lost a model that would serve some institutions, some schools, and some students well today.

Climate change and higher ed--a clarification

Lionofzion made an excellent point in response to yesterday's post about the possible implications of climate change on higher ed. LoZ wrote:

Maybe there are good reasons schools don't change with immediate social concerns. If all schooling had been reformed entirely by the Cold War, adjusting to a post-Cold War world would have been even more difficult than it already is. The fact that our institutions maintain a core of stability while adopting some changes for the times is a strengh, not a weakness.

Why try and build a school around every new thing? Climate change is a large and important issue, it will no doubt impact people for a long time to come. But it's not the only thing out there, and we shouldn't focus everything around it. That would be a way to guarantee failure in many of our worthy endeavors.

My short response would be "you're right." That is, it would be a mistake if every college (or even many colleges) re-worked themselves in response to issues arising outside of higher ed.

My slightly longer response would go like this: It is true that it would be a mistake for many colleges to re-work themselves in response to climate change. But as a sector, higher ed is pretty unresponsive to change, and particularly change that improves student learning. The schools that have earned a reputation for innovation and quality in learning (setting aside the wealthies...Harvard, Yale, etc.) have done it by re-creating themselves in response to a major crisis.

Re-invention might be particularly useful for some private institutions, who could be priced out of existence in the future unless they become more distinctive. So, can climate change and the things we are learning through it, be a catalyst for an institution to remake itself, become distinctive, and create great learning for students?

There is sort of a case study out there in Sterling College. Sterling's curriculum is built around sustainability. That has led to some very interesting learning opportunities for students there. For example, all of them spend much of the first semester in a cohort tending an organic farm.

Sterling is also a very small college, and seems destined to always be one. So perhaps climate change isn't something around which a college could remake itself. But I would argue that some schools would be well-served to search for a metaphor or an issue that can be the basis of thorough-going change.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change and Higher Ed

Today is Blog Action Day, a global effort to turn the attention of bloggers (and blog readers) to a single topic. The topic this year: climate change.

Climate change has had two notable impacts on higher education.

First, it has turned campus processes green. AASHE tracks sustainability efforts in higher education; every week the list is longer of schools with LEED-Certified buildings, carbon neutrality pledges, and revised purchasing, sourcing, and food policies. This is a major change, and it is driven in many instances by students.

Second, it has influenced the curriculum. The number of academic programs in sustainability, environmental engineering, green technology, etc. etc. is swelling. Of particular interest is the way in which climate change has revived field work in science (particularly biology), after years in which the trend was ever more towards lab-based practices. Bio-engineering, bio-chemistry, neurobiology will continue to grow no doubt. But it now appears that field and environmental biology will not become a backwater.

These are major changes. But they leave me wondering if deeper change is possible. After all, lots of public issues have led to curriculum and policy change. The Cold War sparked foreign language study and the militarization of academic research; the decline in civic engagement provoked service-learning. But higher ed seems to have absorbed these impacts, and continues along much the same trajectory as before.

So, questions. Could you build an institution around climate change? How big would it be? Would it have a campus? Is there something about the nature of climate and environment that would shape relations between students, faculty, staff, and administrators? Would there be a hierarchical org structure, or a networked structure? Where would the humanities fit in Climate Change U? What would be evidence of its effectiveness? How would students be different leaving than they were coming in?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the value of intangible things

This TED Talk by ad man Rory Sutherland, is laugh-out-loud funny. (Especially good from 13:00 on). But his main point--that in a world of scarce resources, we ought to do more to increase the value of intangible things, and the intangible value of real things, is profound.

Education is currently awash in the practical --trying to demonstrate tangible value, develop real skills, create new things--programs, patents, technologies, etc. All this stuff is important, but as Sutherland points out, it may not make people happier. What is more, if its main message is about consumption (come, buy our new thing, earn more money, etc. etc.) it may be doing harm.

There are things that add intangible value to education though. Ceremonies and diplomas, for example. (If you have ever been to a graduation event of students who had to work hard, the ceremony itself is enormously important. Or visit the home of a first-generation graduate, and see the diploma in a place of pride.) And gifts--of time and books particularly. And perhaps most importantly, perspective. One of the most effective ways to deal with any current problem, personal or societal, is to be able to put it in the context of human trials.

Of course, there are anti-democratic sorts of intangible value as well. Education at Harvard is no better than lots of places for most students. But the brand itself is of huge value, and that value endures through the life of the graduate. So the challenge for educators everywhere is this--how do we increase the intangible value of education, but do it democratically, so that education has an egalitarian impact on society?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is it possible to focus on learning as a president of a state university?

Sometimes it takes the convergence of two events to make the obvious, well, obvious. For me it was the publication of Wannabe U. an account of the effect of "the market" on administrators at an aspiring state university (U Conn, speculates Inside Higher Ed) overlapping with the inauguration of my friend Matt Holland as the new president of Utah Valley University.

Matt is my age (early 40s) and looked at one way, an unlikely president. Only two years ago he was named Associate Professor of Political Science at BYU. He has essentially no administrative experience. And he is an inspiring teacher, one of the few able to really make learning happen in BYU's largest classes (900 students at a time). He is from a prominent education family though, well connected in higher ed, state government, and the LDS Church, and a really fine guy.

He was hired at UVU largely because of his academic credentials. Given his lack of administrative background, and his solid academic bona fides, one might think that his inauguration would focus heavily on the learning goals of UVU. No such luck.

Instead, the charge from the Board of Regents, the talks by the Commissioner of Higher Ed (and Matt's own talk) were put almost entirely in administrator-speak. Build the brand, be efficient, raise funds, make students feel comfortable, strengthen the economic infrastructure, attend to the interests of local business, be relentlessly positive, pretend that it is possible to do everything, etc.

I'm an administrator and I heard a lot of my own rhetoric in the inaugural talks (especially that it is possible to do everything simultaneously). But at least at Westminster, a private school, the rhetoric of administrators and faculty share a focus on student learning. If we can't convince students that the education they get here is worth the cost, they won't come here. And if their learning isn't worth the cost, they will go someplace else, perhaps UVU.

UVU is a good school--the most innovative in Utah Valley, with great faculty, strong community connections, and satisfied students. And it is deeply committed to making higher education accessible to low-income, first generation, english-language learners and others who otherwise might not get a degree. But it seems that these students, more than any other group, deserve an intense focus on learning, from faculty, staff, administrators, regents, and the President. I hope Matt is able to do that. Given the remarks from his bosses, it will be an uphill climb.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A pathway to reduced cost and improved learning

This article outlines the ambiguous results of the National Center for Academic Transformation's efforts to redesign courses to improve learning and reduce costs. With an 8.8 million dollar grant they were able to rework many courses to be more cost-effective and provide equal or better learning to students. But even key participants didn't see cost reduction as a key outcome, and while the article isn't clear about it, it seems that students saw few, if any, reductions in cost to them.

Why is this the case? Because the project focused on redesigning courses, which, I will argue, is a late rather than early step in the effort to reduce costs while maintaining quality. Why? Because it does not foreground the cost to students, and so cost reductions do not make it back to them.

Here is a process that, by putting the cost to students first, has as a by-product the improvement of student learning and course redesign:

1. Hold the line on tuition. This is a no-brainer. Tuition is the biggest bill that students pay; this is the place to start. Holding the line might mean several things depending on the campus--no tuition increase, tuition increase at the level of inflation, a guarantee to every student that they will not pay more tuition in any year than they pay in the first year. I've advocated before for greater transparency in tuition as well by cutting tuition by the amount of the discount rate and then not discounting. Holding the line also has the benefit of bringing positive publicity to the college at the beginning of the process--essential if the campus wants to increase its overall budget by increasing enrollment.

2. Push back on other fees, especially the cost of "board"--Even very good students who get essentially a full-tuition scholarship fall into financial hardship because of the other costs of higher ed. The cost of "board" (eating on campus) is especially obvious. Why pay over $1000 a semester to eat on campus when you could grocery shop and spend much less? The cost of food in campus cafeterias is set by the food service (Sodexho here). Visit any cafeteria and try to find any meal for less than restaurant costs. It cannot be done. (There is an opportunity here, btw, for Sodexho and other food service providers. Be on the cutting edge and lower your costs. Or, provide lower-cost options. Or open an on-campus grocery store where students can shop for themselves. Any of these things wins market share in this climate.)

3. Institute a 4-year guarantee--I know that there will always be exceptional programs where it is impossible to get through in four years, or reasons why students choose not to complete in four years. But a four-year guarantee should be the default, not the special case. A by-product of the guarantee is curricular reform--not reworking course content (this comes later) but re-thinking course sequences and other learning experiences affiliated with the major.

4. Innovate in cost/quality by starting with new programs--Any new program ought to be able to deliver an education at a cost below the campus average. And it ought to be able to attract new students to the campus by virtue of its lower cost. Here the guiding rule should be to think big. I proposed the creation of a new, private junior college in a previous post. I've been running the numbers and I think it could be done by a private institution at the same cost as at a state-run community college (and provide a decent salary to faculty and a better education to students) if students could earn an associate's degree or complete their GE requirements in 3-semesters while paying the equivalent of 4 semesters of community college tuition. Westminster's BBA program costs students half of what regular tuition costs here. The power of requiring new programs to cost less than existing ones is that it gives faculty the opportunity to design better, less costly learning with a blank slate rather than refining what already exists (something that has rarely worked.)

5. Work on curriculum reform in the mainstream--Once a 4-year guarantee is in place, and new programs are designing innovative, excellent, and low cost education, then it is time to turn to the campus mainstream. Here, I recommend curriculum redesign, not course redesign first. Why? Because curriculum redesign will already have begun due to the 4-year guarantee and the new programs. And because it is key to passing reduced costs to students. The best way to go at it is to focus on redesigning the general education curriculum, the curricula of big academic programs, or the curricula of programs most similar to the new, low-cost programs. I would also encourage folks to think about the ways that the co-curriculum could fit in here by bringing students powerful learning entirely outside the classroom. This is the place also for technology to be inserted. The question becomes how might technology allow us to reconfigure the entire learning experience of students, not how can technology make a course different.

6. Course redesign--once costs are constrained, new models are flourishing, and the campus community is working on redesigning curricula, then faculty can turn to the work of redesigning particular courses. Why do this here?
  • Because faculty tend to be late adopters (this is the virtue of a discipline and faculty tradition--you are disciplined to not follow every whim of fate or time or culture).
  • Because course redesigns have a context in which to flourish.
  • Because the campus infrastructure is already in place.
  • And because faculty can see that a focus on cost has not hurt them or intruded on their academic domain--the classroom.

In a setting like this, redesign will flourish and it will already be the case that students are enjoying the benefits of reduced costs. Or, it will be clear that the process doesn't work, and the learning that takes place in the classroom will have continued without significant interruption. Either way, the outcomes have a greater potential for good than by starting with course redesign and seeing what happens next.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blogging Outliers : "The Roseto Mystery"

I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I've taught The Tipping Point and written about its application in education settings. I'm finally getting around to reading Outliers: The Story of Success, his most recent book. In Outliers Gladwell tries to suss out the combination of genetics, individual effort, and community structure that leads to excellence. I'll blog chapter-by-chapter, trying to draw out implications for education.

The question I have in mind is this: If you wanted to design a system of education that would lead to success, what would it look like? (No cheating by pulling a Harvard and relying on the best inputs in the world.)

The Introduction to Outliers describes a small town in Pennsylvania that by measures of public health, was one of the most successful communities in the US. Death rates from heart disease were will below those at the national level, even though risk factors (smoking, poor diet, genetics etc.) were close to the national average. Why so healthy? Gladwell identifies two types of factors:
  1. Common culture--nearly all of the settlers of Roseto were originally from Roseto Sicily. They shared religion, language, and family ties. Common culture created a common set of expectations, among which was the belief that successful people had some obligation to the community, and that those who were struggling at one time or another could expect support. (Gladwell calls the culture egalitarian. I'm not sure it was in the way we tend to define egalitarianism today. People weren't financially equal, but their inequality did not have major social or health implications. And the gap between rich and poor was not huge.)
  2. Rich connections--Rosetans were connected to each other in many ways. It was common for three generations of a family to live together; for extended family networks to cut across the town. Most worshipped at the same church. Many belonged to civic groups--22 civic organizations in a town of 2000. The sociologists who studied the town noted informal connections as well--people cooked for each other, visited each other, and maintained their common culture by means of their connections.
Lessons for education? Gladwell doesn't talk about schools in this chapter, though given how Catholic the community was you can guess that there were public and parochial schools in town. But you can see how certain community characteristics--common expectations, mutual support based on connection not obligation--would make it possible to host schools with the same values. It is interesting also that the community became successful in public health without that being an explicit goal of the community. It was a by-product of how they lived, not a result of a plan.

A key question for school-builders is whether in the absence of common culture and rich connections in the community, a school could help create them. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is trying to use schools to build a healthy community in Harlem, and then use that community to strengthen schools. The schools in HCZ have had some success. Less is known about the impact of the schools on the community.

In cities and towns there are likely still these clusters of good communities--perhaps not the whole town, but rich connections and common cultures that stretch across the geography. IF that is the case, school-builders ought to seek them out, and locate schools at the intersection of culture and connection

Friday, October 2, 2009

Build to think

Over at Musings from an Amateur, Bryce Bunting wonders why students love to learn but don't like school. He tells the story of coming to like writing not from taking writing classes but from blogging. His explanation of why he learns this way? What Prof. of New Media Clay Shirkey refers to as the "architecture of participation."

Shirley suggests that old media had only one model--comsumption. Experts produced, the public consumed. New media, on the other hand is built around a three-part model: consumption, production, and sharing. In Shirkey's view production and sharing are ever more important, because people are willing now to spend a bit of their "cognitive surplus" on exactly those things. We don't only watch (consume) TV. We also make it.

The analogies to education are pretty clear here. The old model of education was consumption based--experts produced knowledge, students consumed it. When they had consumed it well enough, they demonstrated it by producing something of their own.

I hope we are moving towards a "new media" model of education, where consuption, producing, and sharing all take up major proportions of student and faculty time. (After all, one of the main complaints of faculty is that they don't get time to consume (i.e. read, do research, take a sabbatical) because they are always producing stuff.)

But how to do it? Tim Brown suggests that "design thinking" can make it possible. His ideas are far bigger than I can describe here, but one phrase in his talk stood out to me--that designers shouldn't "think about what to build" they should "build in order to think." (This turn reminds me of William Carlos Williams' line "no ideas but in things.")

If education is based on the idea that we build to think, it has several implications:
  1. No need to start with giving the background--start with doing. Write a paper to discover what you know and don't know; learn to play an instrument by playing it.
  2. Do the same thing several times in order to get better.
  3. Build trust, because when it isn't possible to know the outcome in advance, the project depends on trust (or community) not a promise of success down the road.
  4. Trust grows when work focuses on real human need.
  5. The realm of real human need is huge. Working on needs isn't, then, just about hunger and poverty. Instead it is about being honest in public about one's own weakness and showing patience with those of others.
  6. Work in public, revise in public, fail in public.