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.