Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is an educational frill?

My daughter leaves for college in a month. Yesterday she got a solicitation from the college, inviting her (meaning us, her parents) to hire the school's laundry service to wash, iron, and fold her clothes. For only $690 a year. This is a frill.

"No frills" education is all the rage these days. Pennsylvania is considering a no-frills college; Southern New Hampshire University has a no-frills branch campus. Arne Duncan recently suggested that students would flock to no-frills versions of higher ed.

These no-frills schools have the same formula--limited curriculum, no extracurricular activities, bare bones facilities, lower tuition. I understand their appeal, both as a parent facing costly college bills for the forseeable future, and as a historian whose classes would usually fit into a no-frills model.

But the more I think about a no-frills approach to education, the more I think that these pioneers have gotten it wrong on educational grounds. The no-frills models they propose are based in the "instructional paradigm" to use John Tagg's phrase. That is, they value efficient content delivery rather than a focus on student learning. So again, the cost may go down, but the quality may not improve at all.

So what would a no-frills college look like that valued student learning? I'm not entirely sure, but here are some ideas:
  • extra-curriculars would be at the center of student experiences, since it is in extra-curriculars where students say they learn the most and develop the most. Students wouldn't be able to choose any one of a hundred clubs, teams, etc. but they would be expected to be involved, deeply, in one extracurricular activity. (This report provides some evidence of the retention power of student services, an important point for a no-frills effort.)
  • the curriculum would be small, interdisciplinary, and project-based. Students would be required to demonstrate mastery of content and achievement of campus-wide learning goals to graduate. But they could graduate more rapidly than in a traditional or no-frills school because they could move faster, and because single learning experiences (a service-learning project, for example) would matter in many courses, not just one.
  • students would work closely with a single mentor, who would be responsible for helping that student reflect on her learning, solve problems related to schooling, and monitor progress toward graduation.
  • students would be required to demonstrate their learning publicly, and to the public.

What else?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Change over time

Folks working on reforming higher ed today rarely look to the past, except to deride it as something to escape by means of technology, pedagogy, etc. But there are some interesting implications in the broad history of American higher education for the effort to improve learning, lower cost, and reform institutions, if not the entire system. At the risk of betraying my roots as a historian, here are a few historical trends worth paying attention to:

  • Very few institutions have moved from high cost (to students) to low cost (to students). It seems instead that once an institution or sector of higher ed locks into a price model, it stays there. So you don't see private institutions cutting their tuitions hugely. Nor, interestingly, do you see many institutions based on low tuition moving to a higher tuition model (beyond adjustments for the cost of doing business as they see it). (This article, which encourages caution in cost-cutting, is evidence of the difficulty in reducing costs.)
  • Some institutions have been able to move from lower quality to higher quality. Elon University, for example, has received a lot of attention for raising its quality over the past 30 years (though truth be told it made that move in part by raising status). Earlier in the history of the US, several state institutions jumped into the highest echelons of higher ed--midwestern state universities, for example. Their move came at a flush moment for higher ed though, and depended in large measure on the ability to spend on the same things that Ivy League schools did.
  • Moves out of higher education have tended to be due to financial problems or obsolete missions, not diretly to cost or quality. The main example in this area is the recently secularized independent private schools who, in the 1970s, having severed their ties to denominations, found themselves too small, too poor, and too isolated to stay in business.
  • Moves into higher education have tended to be based on structure or approach, (or occasionally on mission), but not on cost or quality. So, for example community colleges emerged to meet demographic changes (though here low cost did matter to the mission) in post-WWII America, the University of Phoenix found a niche in providing education to working adults, and online universities followed in the same area.
Why does this matter? Because it suggests that changes in the cost/quality relationship may not be able to drive institutional change. Systemic change might be easier, but only if the issue can be tied to a broader educational approach which has the power to appeal to an underservd group. So the question should be "what sort of education is desirable and effective for first-generation students (or Hispanics, or any other group)?" not, "who wants to study in an open learning, low cost, high quality institution?"

Is "transparency" the solution?

There is a good exchange at The Quick and the Ed about transparency, information, and the quality of higher education. On one side is the libertarian Neal McCluskey who argues that higher ed would be better off with less government interference and expenditure. Less government would lead to greater freedom, which would lead to greater innovation, McCluskey argues.

On the other are several authors arguing that cost will only go down if consumers have more information, colleges are more transparent, and the federal government sets the standards to which schools must respond.

The debate thus becomes the typical regulation vs. freedom set-to that pops up in American politics all the time.

Sometimes these debates are useful. This time, I think not. Here are the reasons why (based almost entirely on my experience in the past year, working on improving learning and reducing cost, while helping my daughter select a college):
1. in spite of liberal hopes to the contrary, information alone does very little to help people make good decisions. If anything, there is too much information, not too little.

2. parents and students generally have access to the information they use to make decisions about higher ed. A tiny bit of it is related to colleges (tuition, fees, access to financial aid, academic programs), but most of it has to do with the dynamics of the family--can we afford this school? do we have any connections there? do we feel comfortable sending our child to that school? does the school seem like a good fit with our values?

3. that limited information is probably fine, since the variation in student engagement and learning is bigger within a school than between schools. In other words, a student can have a great experience at nearly any school, and a great experience at Salt Lake Community College is often better than a lousy experience at Harvard.

4. there is no evidence that more information about what colleges spend their money on, or about rankings, or about student learning in general, drives parent decision making or cost containment at an institution.

5. responses to cost are driven instead by internal factors--the predilections of the leadership, the influence of the faculty, the value placed on innovation, and the types of information about the future that flow into the institution. So if more info is needed by anyone, it is not the public but instead college presidents, provosts, and faculty who are in a position to make changes with it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Is the college experience built backwards?

Today's Inside Higher Ed features an article titled "Bucking Conventional Wisdom on College Costs," by Dennis Jones, president of NCHEMS and Jane Wellman from the Delta Project on Higher Education Costs. It is a good piece--attentive to cost savings that come from efficiencies, aware that current educational models ensure ever-increasing costs, but determined to find ways to maintain quality while reducing costs.

The article lists a series of pieces of "conventional wisdom" on cost. Number 5 caught my eye. Jones and Wellman argue that the agreed-upon truth is that:

"Instructional costs rise by the level of the student taught – e.g., lower-division students are cheaper than upper-division students, graduate students are more expensive than undergraduates, and doctoral students who have been advanced to candidacy are the most expensive of all."

They suggest that this is not the case--that once you consider recruitment and other expenses, first-year students might actually cost the institution money. And, of course, there is lost revenue when first-year students quit after their first two semesters in college.

But where it is the case it is because first-year students require relatively little faculty time while upper-division and graduate students require much more. Consider class size--freshman classes are almost universally larger than upper division classes. (Freshmen seminars being the exception that proves the rule.) And junior faculty teach more first-year courses than do their more senior colleagues.

This arrangement--big first-year classes, small upper-division classes--is the classic "lower cost, lower quality" set-up. It is also educationally and developmentally incorrect. First-year students need closer contact with faculty and staff support. As they move through the curriculum, they need to become more independent, and can think and act at higher levels.

The problem suggests a solution. Switch ratios so that upper-division faculty are responsible for more, not fewer, students.

Of course, nothing good will come of this if upper-division faculty try to lecture their way through their courses. But if a campus is committed to students working cooperatively, then interesting things happen. Let's say faculty teaching first-year students are each responsible for 20 students. They form into four groups, and get close supervision, lots of feedback, good guidance on content, and strong mentoring. As students move through the curriculum, they stay in small groups, but their faculty supervise more of the groups. Let's say it is eight groups in the second year, twelve in the third, and sixteen in the fourth.

In this process, two things happen. First, faculty oversee more students, driving down costs to the institution, and potentially to the students. Second, those students are working more independently, judging the quality of content, making their own conclusions, etc--all prerequisites for work (and life) outside the halls of college.

Lest you think this is crazy, consider Aalborg University in Denmark--an institution that does much of what I suggest.

Friday, July 17, 2009

a very short text for the common read

A couple of posts ago I wondered about the actual value of asking entering freshmen to read books before they come to campus, thinking that something much shorter might be much more powerful.

I've had the following quote sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks. It would be an interesting one to wrap a long-term, campus-wide conversation around.

"If the reconciliation of the common good with free persons in their weakness and division is one of the most crucial of all human tasks, we do well to heed the principles of lowliness. The most realistic solutions are not likely to be grand or lofty, but humble and concrete. Looking for them in the wrong place, or in the wrong mode, we are quite likely to miss them altogether. The principle of lowliness...is the most reliable guide in political philosophy."
--Michael Novak, Free Persons and the Common Good (Lanham, MD.: Madison Books, 1989), 73

At a time when we are talking about global crises, global citizenship, and people trying to fix the world, the question of lowliness is a really interesting one, especially in college where the reigning notion is not lowliness or humility, but pride and the desire to fix big things.

Follow-up on private higher ed; the future of CEU

Following up on two recent posts:
1. In this post I wondered if the expansion of low-cost private K-12 education in the developing world could be copied in higher education. Turns out the answer is yes. This story, which refers to this report from UNESCO, describes rapid growth in private higher education around the world. In some countries, more students are enrolled in private than public higher education. The article also points out that the fastest growth has come in schools focused on workforce development, and in schools started by religious sects. In the US, we tends to assume that starting new colleges and universities is almost impossible because of the bricks and mortar costs. It seems as though these costs aren't impediments around the world.

2. Here I suggested that Utah would be smart if it turned its struggling campuses into schools directly focused on innovation, but worried that instead the struggling institutions would be swallowed up by bigger ones. Looks like that will be the case, as the Utah Board of Regents are leaning towards Utah State University wholly owning the College of Eastern Utah. I see no good reason to do this, except for administrative efficiency.

If anything, the state would be better off if Utah State gave over its educational centers in Eastern Utah to CEU. CEU could over time become a regional university, similar in its scope to schools like Weber State, SUU, and UVU who have also made a relatively recent shift from 2-year to 4-year schools. Utah State could in turn tighten its focus on its key research focus (and its extension goals which seem to be conflated with its regional education efforts).

So, Utah misses an opportunity, Eastern Utah loses the chance to get the educational, civic, and economic attention it deserves, and efficiency triumphs over all education.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wondering about the "common read"

A group of us spent a couple of hours Friday putting copies of Three Cups of Tea into envelopes. We are mailing the book and a letter to all incoming first year students at Westminster College. We ask them to read the book before coming to campus. The book then becomes the center of a year's worth of common theme programming. (This year, our theme is The Mountains.)

In doing this we join with hundreds of other campuses who ask entering first-year students to do the same thing. I expect that their experiences are similar to ours--students have the opportunity to learn a lot related to the theme, campus benefits to some degree by having additional guest speakers, faculty get the chance to meet interesting guests, and there is some development of community as a result.

But we are also sure that many (most?) students don't read the book, or attend most of the events, or learn a great deal from the experience. Similarly, faculty and staff get some benefit, but the program can seem like one more thing on top of dozens of others. So the common read, like most other campus programming, does not reach it maximum possible benefit. And the annual analysis is whether this program is worthy of its small budget.

Part of me is fine with that. After all, the dominant way that HE works is to provide a ton of options and let students, staff, and faculty choose those options that best meet their needs and interests.

Another part of me wonders if HE ought to scale back some of its efforts, so that they have smaller, but more definite impact. With the common read, one promising (but odd) option would be to scrap the book, and instead have students read a single paragraph, or one poem, or even an aphorism. (Or you could go further, and ask students to listen to a single piece of music, or look closely at a single plant, or even a fish.)

Part of the benefit would be that all students would do it, and that by doing it, campuses could certainly have a campus-wide discussion about that thing. I am more intrigued, though, by the potential for some deep learning. In Catholic religious settings, this is called lectio divina; it is akin to koan study in Zen Buddhism. The notion is that by deep reading, meditation, and discussion over a single reading, people discover a great deal about that reading and about themselves.

Since so much of education, and so much of American culture, takes place at a superficial level, an experience of deep engagement with a small thing might be a powerful experience for students. And it would certainly be cheaper for the college...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Beyond models?

At a meeting today my friend and colleague Peter Ingle argued that in such a rapidly changing educational environment, finding a "model" for an innovation on campus might be too slow. We talk about models all of the time in HE. When we do so we usually mean that we are seeking someone who does pretty much what we want to do so we can copy it. Peter's notion is that by the time you find, copy, tweak, and approve a model, it may no longer apply to the situation.

I like Peter's notion a lot (in an earlier post on scale I wondered about a similar problem--"scaling up" small programs). He suggested that colleges need to do a lot to streamline decision-making and implementation processes. True!

He got me wondering what might take the place of the thirst for models though. What could provide a framework for change, without being as slow at the beginning as models. Here are a few options:
  • Guiding questions--what if a campus decided that there were a few questions that it wanted its work to respond to? The focus would then become--does this new thing respond to our questions, not, is there a model for this problem?
  • Metaphors--an acquaintance at Naropa University once told me that their curriculum was organized around the metaphor of breathing--first year, breathe in, second year breathe out, etc. Are there other metaphors that could provide guidance for new ideas on a campus?
  • Stories--Could a campus have a few stories that served as guideposts for innovation? Could a standard for new ideas be that they must match and extend the story? Sounds far-fetched, but there is lots of evidence that humans are story-making creatures, and narratives are now key components of disciplines as diverse as nursing, psychology, organizational behavior, and theology.
I know these things aren't solutions to the problem of responding to rapid change in a way that remains true to educational mission, but they might be the beginnings of a response...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Who Wants to Start a Junior College?

NPR ran a story this morning about the struggles of community colleges. The down economy has pushed up enrollments even while states are cutting budgetary support. The result is over-enrollment, long lines, larger classes, and (likely) further declines in completion of Associates Degrees or transfer to 4-year schools. (These numbers are already dismally low.)

This is a huge problem, given that community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher ed, and given that a large proportion of those students are first-generation, low-income, or from underserved populations.

It is also an opportunity for innovative four-year schools to serve a new body of students. I'm suggesting that private (see my previous post) colleges start new junior colleges. Here are the components of the model:
  1. open enrollment with a twist--students for the new school, (let's call it WJC) would be eligible for admission with a HS diploma, but would have to apply in order to make sure they are a good fit for the institution.
  2. a tight, well-defined curriculum--community colleges have sprawling curricula, as they aim to serve all students. WJC would have a liberal education curriculum only, pointed at learning outcomes--critical thinking, excellent communication, and civic engagement. Courses would be interdisciplinary and problem-based, so that liberal arts disciplines are clearly connected to the real world.
  3. open-source content--faculty would facilitate learning, not provide all of the content. That content would be culled from the world of open learning. As a result WJC wouldn't need traditional academic departments, but instead faculty comfortable in a range of disciplines, skilled at getting students to drive their own learning, passionate about education, and willing to mentor and guide students. An additional benefit of the open-source content is that courses wouldn't meet on the traditional schedule, 3 times a week for 50 minutes. Instead, courses would meet less commonly, for longer periods, to accommodate student schedules.
  4. no PhD requirement for faculty--most good private schools have a pool of long-term adjuncts, skilled in the classroom but lacking the PhD. These teachers would be the core of the faculty.
  5. rich academic and social support--many students leave community colleges because of problems at home and work, not because of academic difficulty. WJC would provide a rich landscape of support--face-to-face and online--to ensure that students stay enrolled and succeed. Much of that support would come from the faculty, to ensure that the school cares for the student, and the student doesn't feel that s/he is being shuttled from one place to another, as they do in large institutions.
  6. low cost--tuition could be pegged at the tuition rate of public four-year schools. That might mean that students pay $4,000 a semester. If there were one faculty member/advisor for every 20 students, the economics would work.

Why would a private college do this? Civic reasons to be sure--for they would be serving students who will make up an ever larger portion of the citizenry. Educational reasons--for a school like this would be a source of innovation. But financial reasons also--for this model would bring a whole new group of students into the fold. Some portion of them might transfer to the sponsoring private institution (let's call it WC), but even if they don't, WC would have a way to bring income from a couple of hundred new students into its coffers. As James Tooley points out in The Beautiful Tree it is this combination of motives that causes low-cost private schools to flourish across the developing world. Why couldn't it work here?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Private Schools, Public Education

I'm reading James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree, an account of how low-cost private schools are flourishing in the developing world, outpacing public schools in enrollment and student learning. Parents in Ghana, India, China, and Kenya have chosen to pay to send their kids to school rather than send them to free public schools, because they expect that their kids will learn better and more, and in settings that they favor. Their desires are being met by entrepreneurs, who establish the schools both to make money and to serve these families.

Tooley's book is a reminder that private schools can play an important public role. The reminder is important because in the US private K-12 schools have a reputation of serving private ends. The reputation is due to three things: first, most people think of expensive schools for rich kids when they think of private schools. Second, during the civil rights movement private schools popped up throughout the US as mostly white parents withdrew their kids from rapidly integrating public schools. Many private schools still have this tinge to them. Meanwhile, private schools that do serve the poor and minorities, such as many parochial schools, struggle to keep their doors open. Third, advocates for private schools often frame their arguments in terms of choice, regularly seeking tax vouchers to pay private school tuition.

But if we look further back in American history, private (mostly religous) schools met important public purposes--providing education for religious and ethnic minorities as well as innovating in education. The result was an improvement in American civic life and American education.

Today both private and public schools tend to focus on private ends--job training, personal or family satisfaction, etc. But that doesn't mean it has to be that way. The Beautiful Tree then may have some lessons for school reformers in the US. It suggests that it is possible to create successful private schools that regular people can afford. And it reminds readers that the ownership of the school is less important than its purposes. People concerned about the civic role of schools, the improvement of communities, and equity in education and society ought to remember that.

So, a question at the close--how inexpensive could a private school be, while providing quality education and a living wage for its teachers? Are these inexpensive schools already in existence? And could higher education follow the examples of the school builders in Tooley's book?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does Free Content = Cheap Education?

Wired editor Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (article-length summary here) argues that the future will be shaped by "free" products--digital versions of things that cost almost nothing to produce and can be had for free by consumers. Profits will be made by getting people to pay for the things that surround the "free." So, for example, Red Hat makes money not off its linux-based software but from providing support. Or Google makes money not from search, but from advertising that exists around free search.

Malcolm Gladwell published a critical review of Free in this week's New Yorker. Gladwell points out that many things that appear to be free, actually cost a great deal of money--YouTube, for example, which is losing a half billion dollars a year by providing a free site to post and view video.

There are at least two key reasons why free isn't free. For content providers infrastructure to provide the free costs money. So even though storage is almost free, YouTube spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on storage. For consumers, the absence of price drops a key indicator of quality. So a free video or piece of software may be good or it may be horrible. Without price, the market cannot indicate its value. (Of course there are rating systems on sites like YouTube--they seem to provide very little meaningful guidance on quality, though.)

These two points are essential for thinking about the educational implications of "free." We are now at the point where enough content for an entire education can be had for free. Many people, myself included, are hoping that free content can reduce the cost of education.

But educational cost won't go down unless we can figure out the infrastructure problem and the quality problem. Right now, most free content is actually heavily subsidized. MIT's OpenCourseWare project, for example, is only free because MIT is willing to pay faculty and staff to post their courses for free, and cover the storage costs. Higher education is providing a real civic service by providing "free" content, but that doesn't mean the content is actually free.

The quality problem is two-fold. Right now, a lot of the free content is poorly done, or provided in educationally useless formats. And, very few of the free content providers also provide the sort of service around the content that ensures that learning takes place. Or put another way, few providers have followed Red Hat's model of excellent free content and rich, useful, top quality support.

So it seems the real area for innovation is not in open source learning content. Instead it is in re-building educational institutions so that they can respond to the infrastructure, quality, and service challenges out there.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Utah's Missed Opportunity?

Schools that are on the cutting edge of student learning--Evergreen State, Cal State Monterey Bay, Alverno College, IUPUI, Portland State, etc.--got there either as newly created campuses or because a period of crisis required the campus to re-imagine its work.

This fact matters because the state of Utah has two campuses--Dixie State and the College of Eastern Utah--that are facing big challenges. The challenges are large enough that the Board of Regents in each instance has requested proposals for the campuses to become branch campuses of larger universities.

In doing so, the Board of Regents and the state of Utah are missing a huge opportunity. Rather than imagining how these campuses could be changed to become sustainable and create powerful learning, the state is instead imagining ways that they can become part of big, slow, unwieldy institutions already in the state.

That wouldn't matter if the University of Utah, Utah State, or the state's system of higher education had everything figured out. But this report suggests that the state has a long way to go, especially in the area of student learning outcomes, governance and stragetic planning--exactly the areas that have led to CEU and Dixie's problems.

So what if Utah used the crises at Dixie and CEU as an opportunity to create new, innovative institutions? It could do so if it focused on the following:

1. putting learning outcomes at the center of the educational experience as Alverno and IUPUI do;

2. taking advantage of open learning resources to move the role of faculty from content experts to experts in facilitating learning, as Evergreen does;

3. revising the curricula to meet the actual needs of students and the communities in which Dixie and CEU reside; as do Portland State and CSU-Monterey Bay;

4. actively recruiting students who are poorly served by the current educational system, as all of the cutting edge institutions do.

The result would be the sort of institutions where students would be guaranteed excellent, low-cost educations. In turn, those educations would serve the economic, environmental, and educational needs of communities with significant economic, environmental, and educational needs. And the rest of the institutions in the state of Utah could learn fron Dixie and CEU, rather than swallowing them up.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cost, Quality, and Textbooks

I learned yesterday about a new federal regulation that will require electronic course schedules, generally posted before students register for classes, to list the textbooks that the class will require. Its purpose is to make college textbook buying cheaper for students, since they will know which books they need well before the semester begins and can get them online.

The announcement of this regulation met with some groans at a meeting I was attending. Since generally faculty don't select books anywhere near that early, the conversation went, the college will have to figure out a way to change faculty behavior. Or, we'll have to figure out how to comply with the regulation without "inconveniencing" faculty.

Sine the meeting I've been thinking about the cost/quality issue as it plays out with this regulation. We're spending a lot of time trying to change the typical relationship between cost and quality, which is that as cost goes up, quality goes up as well. So the question here is this: does this regulation, whose purpose is to reduce cost, have the potential to improve the quality of learning?

The answer is maybe. It certainly has the potential not to improve quality. It could simply have no effect on student learning. It could also have a negative effect, since by requiring faculty to select textbooks so far in advance it forces them to put content considerations will ahead of pedagogy, objectives, or student learning. The result would be a quiet shift towards instruction and away from learning.

But it might improve quality. Here is how. Let's say faculty balk at selecting textbooks 6 to 8 months before a course is taught. This natural reluctance could be the way to nudge them away from textbooks altogether. Instead of building classes around a list of books, deans, administrators, faculty developers, and other faculty could use this regulation as an incentive to build courses around problems, or open source learning, or service-learning, or any of the other activities that shift the focus away from instruction towards learning (without requiring a textbook to do it).

The result would be the creation of the right relationship between cost and quality. Cost would go down for students as they bought fewer textbooks. And quality would go up, as faculty worried less about providing canned content and more about providing a rich environment in which students can learn.