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.