Thursday, December 30, 2010

How does age matter in education?

As I write my house is full of kids--three of my daughters (ages 12 to 18) and four of my nieces and nephews (ages 2 to 8).  I am the only adult here.  I've been watching the kids interact, and seeing the mutual pleasure they find in being together.  Much of their play is about learning--how to play a particular video game, how to make lunch, how to keep track of each other, how to make sure that everyone is having a good time.

Their presence (and a recent conversation with my wife where she pointed out that we are potentially grandparent age (since two of our own children are now over 18) and that she would welcome the presence of some little kids around the place--yikes!) has me thinking about age and what it means for learning.

When my kids were smaller they went for a year to a non-graded charter elementary school called Sundance Mountain School.  (It continues to this date, though under a new name, Soldier Hollow Charter School.) I was never sure how good the learning was in a formal sense, but in terms of practical experience, there was something wonderful about 5 year olds and 12 year olds learning science and math together.

In this now-famous talk, Sir Ken Robinson makes the point that among the industrial-era absurdities of schooling is that students are grouped according to their "date of manufacture" rather than some more educational commonality (or difference).  It is among the practices that squashes the creativity out of people.

It seems like colleges would be a place where we could learn about the roles of age in learning.  After all, most classrooms include students with different dates of manufacture, and particularly in schools where there are many non-traditional students, the age gaps can be quite significant.  But there is no reform movement or pedagogical approach (that I know of) that attends to age (with the possible exception of freshman learning communities which group students by age, sometimes to the frustration of faculty who think it makes the classroom "too much like high school.")

Is it the case that once a person reaches, say, 18, that age no longer matters and therefore we make nothing of in in higher education?  Are we losing potential learning by just assuming that the age system (which, for example, mandates that you have to be between 17 and 19 to start college) makes sense?  Is there some reason to accept things as they are?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Emergent education, or, Can friends start a college?

There is a long tradition in American civic life--one that I love.  It is the tradition of small groups of people, friends often, co-religionists sometimes, bonding together to respond to a social problem.  Many things might come out of that response--laws, for example, or organizations, or movements, or communities.  But at the core, these responses have always been organized around an ethos of friendship.

The intellectual history of the tradition runs from Tocqueville through Mary Parker Follett and Jane Addams to Jane Jacobs and Myles Horton and Ella Baker to Steven Johnson.  The organizational history runs from frontier towns to community organizing and social settlements and folk schools to the civil rights movement and into the movements of today.

Today some of the most important thinking and organizing in this tradition is coming out of evangelical Christianity under the umbrella of "the emergent movement."  Emerging Christian organizations have eschewed mega-churches and literalism and are focused on building Christian community out of questions and friendships.  Doug Pagitt puts it this way in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope: "The emergent imagination is at its most basic level a call to friendship--friendship with God, with one another, and with the world."

When we talk about trends in education today, we tend to focus on structure and infrastructure: charter schools, standardized testing, technology, for-profit higher ed, assessment and accountability.  There is some value in this.  But in doing so, it masks the cultural changes that are going on in schooling.

One major cultural tendency is towards standardization, efficiency, and systems.  That tendency runs through all of the structural trends in education--systems of charter schools, national tests, system-wide adoption of technology, etc.  It is largely about measuring outcomes to create a one-size-fits-most way of education. It values the involvement of parents, students, teachers; but largely as choosers.  Pick this school or that one; select this curriculum or that. Leadership is traditional--one person or a small group of experts in charge.  Elected or selected.

The other cultural tendency is towards emergence, relationships, and ecosystems as the basis of education. Where the systematizing trend focuses on choice as involvement, emergent education focuses on co-creation as involvement.  It  can be seen in charter schools, those started by collections of parents and educators who want better options for "their kids."  It underlies the way that home-schooling is no longer a parent teaching her/his own kids at home, but instead a network of parents taking that role, and meeting to share curriculum, go on field trips, or expand educational offerings.  It is hidden in some portions of the open learning movement  and in some versions of technology-enabled education. It is behind collaborative creation of curriculum, and behind efforts to improve advising. It creates flat organizations and has little organizational structure.  People lead where they can lead--they play the role they seek (and are best prepared) to play.

One wonders, though, if it has any chance in higher education.  One would hope so, since higher ed is the home to some of the worst results of big, efficient, standardized education.  But I know of no instance in the recent past where a group of friends got together to talk education and ended up starting a college.  This sort of thing happened a lot in the 19th century, where many small towns had their own locally grown colleges.  Can it happen today?  Can a college emerge?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 reasons why general education should come at the end, not the beginning, of college

Nearly every campus in the United States front-loads general (or liberal) education.  At many schools, students take all of their GE courses in the first two years on campus.  Even those schools whose GE programs include upper-division courses place most of the GE credits in the freshman and sophomore years.

Here are some key reasons why schools should consider reversing the GE/major sequence:

1. Students arrive with an inherent mis-understanding of GE.  Several years ago my colleagues at BYU and I polled freshmen on their views of GE.  Most thought it was a continuation of high school.  Of course, many students treat the courses as a continuation of high school.

2. More and more students bring AP credits with them to college.  Those credits routinely count for GE courses, thus causing havoc even with the best-designed GE curricula (or if a school decides to accept AP credit only for placement and credits toward graduation, then the AP/GE problem breeds resentment).

3. Passion leads to engagement and retention.  Most students coming to college have some passion in the curriculum.  Front-loading GE defers real engagement with a student's areas of passion, replacing it with courses that the student may not engage with.

4. Faculty mentoring is essential for engagement and retention.  And the more closely that mentoring is attached to a student's passion and major, the more durable and meaningful the relationship.  Some students find their mentors in GE.  Many more find them in their major.

5. Employment prospects depend on working in the field prior to graduation.  More and more employers expect that their new hires have meaningful work experience prior to hiring.  Placing the major at the end of the curriculum means many students do not get that meaningful work prior to graduation because they are not prepared for it.  Completing the major by the end of the junior year gives students a year to begin working in the field (be it in paid or unpaid jobs) prior to going on the market.

6. Employers want students with GE skills--communication, critical thinking, teamwork, etc. They are generally disappointed in what their new employees bring.  There are two curricular reasons why this is the case.  First, most of the GE skills get practiced in the first two years of college, but only vaguely or implicitly reinforced in the major.  Second, many of these skills are discipline-specific.  Placing a substantial portion of GE after the major ensures that the student will be able to connect their major to the GE skills they practice at the end of their college experiences.

7. GE is about making connections across the disciplines.  When students don't know the disciplines, they are hard to connect.  Students know little about the disciplines in their first couple of years.  And they certainly don't know enough to connect their area of passion--their major--to the disciplines until after substantial engagement with that major.

8. Students need an opportunity to sum-up prior to going into the world.  A key part of GE is reflecting on learning, summing up and taking stock of how one fits into the world.  With a GE-first model, that sort of purposeful, curriculum-based summing up is rare.

9. Colleges need a chance to make their case to students.  Most colleges and universities believe that important things happen to students in GE.  They become more mature, they join the human conversation, and they understand how life at a particular college helped shape them.  These beliefs are by-and-large true.  But if GE is doing this in the first couple of years, by the end of the college experience the student may not associate these outcomes with the college, but instead with the major.  If colleges want to hang onto their alumni, GE at the end helps.

10. Students are ready to engage with the big questions at the point of graduation.  Anyone who has taught a freshman seminar and a senior seminar on the same topic knows that the discussion and learning are richer at the senior than the freshman level.  If GE is in part about these big issues--justice, community, truth, beauty--then the time to focus on them is when students are ready.  Or in other words, at the end of their college experiences.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Generosity, debt reduction, and civic life

Rates of personal debt and corporate debt are in decline.  Rates of personal savings and corporate savings are up.  Banks are "sitting on" (whatever that means--odd phrase) over one trillion dollars of excess reserves; corporations 3 trillion.

The decline in indebtedness is generally seen as a good thing--a reassertion of the old American value of thrift, a marker of the end of "consumer culture."  I understand this. And I am pleased that banks are re-capitalizing. But I wonder what it means in the context of this fact: in this difficult economic time, rates of personal giving are down, (see also here and here) even while need is up.

Of course the simplest explanation is that people's budgets are tighter, and so they can give less.  Or its variant, that with unemployment at 9.6% there are simply fewer people who can share their wealth.  I am willing to accede to this argument.  But only up to a point.

Because one thing underlies both debt and giving--the belief that making a promise to another entity about our future behavior is a good thing.  Taking out a loan is, at its most basic level, a wager that things will be better in the future.  You make that assumption by connecting with an entity--a bank perhaps, but as often a family member or friend--which is willing to invest in you on the assumption that things will get better too.  (After all, no one loans money on the assumption that it will not be repaid.)

Generosity carries the same assumption--that in giving, both the recipient and the giver will be better off.  The improvement takes place in three places: in the life of the recipient, in the life of the giver, and in the relationship between the two of them.

So when lending and giving are down, there are impacts beyond the economic ones.  And key among those impacts is the effect on civic life.  When there are fewer connections to other people, civic life becomes coarser, less intertwined, more selfish.  We certainly see this in politics; if the decline in giving and lending is being occasioned by a decline in the willingness to wager with others on a better future, we will soon see it in our communities as well.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

risk, risk management, and learning

Bryce Bunting, Derek Bitter, and I have been thinking together about the role of risk in learning.  In this midst of thinking about risk, I came across Peter Bernstein's book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

Bernstein argues that risk has a history, one that is tied up with the mathematics and concepts of probability.  Before the notion of probability, the future was either radically certain (you did what had always been done, you went to heaven if you were good or hell if you were bad) or radically uncertain (one day, unexpectedly, you died).  Probability allowed people from the renaissance on to predict with some certainty the outcome of an action, and then to decide whether to pursue that action based on how much risk they were willing to take on. 

When educators talk about the importance of risk in learning, they generally mean that by asking a student to do something with an unknown and potentially scary outcome, they get deeper learning.  In a recent TED talk, for example, Diane Laufenberg describes how she asks students to research, plan, and carry out projects that respond to real world problems.  These are risky activities--hosting an election debate, for example.  She makes a strong case that there is better learning in these activities than in rote learning, or in learning where there is a single right answer to a problem.

Well enough. But in thinking this way, educators take a pre-probability view of risk.  Or in other words, educators focus on the role of uncertainty or indeterminacy in learning.  Educators value uncertainty.

Students, on the other hand, live in a world of probabilities.  They are risk managers, constantly adjusting their priorities, time, and relationships in order to get the best likely outcome.  Hence the questions about what will be on the test, or whether there is extra credit; hence the requests for an extra point here and there.  In doing these things, students are managing their risks, gathering information that will allow them to more accurately predict the results of their actions. Students value strategy.

What does the strategic orientation to risk among students mean to teachers?  Do you derail the strategic orientation by doing away with grades?  Should schools offer only one course at a time so that course gets the student's entire attention?  Or are there ways to take advantage of student risk management to get good learning?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Can experiential education teach wisdom?

Real world experience teaches two things (at least)--how to do something and, over time, how to make sense of that thing in the world.  The "how to make sense" part, in morally complex settings, becomes wisdom.

So, for example, when a first child is born, her parents learn how to parent--how to feed and clothe and comfort and educate their daughter.  But they also learn harder things--how to discipline, how to choose between competing needs, how to suffer because of and with the child, how to find joy.

Or, as Confucius purportedly put itBy three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Experiential education (as separate from experience) focuses overwhelmingly on how to do things.  So, for example, if you want students to learn how to run a genetics experiment, then have them run an experiment.  They will make mistakes (because doing something is riskier than learning about something) and those mistakes, together with a smidgen of success and guidance from the teacher, will become understanding of how to do something.

But does learning in this way also make students wise?  I have been around variations of experiential education for most of my career, but I cannot think of a time when I, or anyone else, focused explicitly on wisdom as a result of our service-learning, or undergraduate research, or simulation, or group project (or whatever the experiential education happens to be.)

Occasionally wisdom shows through in student reflections, but it almost always has to sneak through whatever the assigned reflection is.  And increasingly, it seems, reflection focuses more on content acquisition than about the student becoming better acquainted with how she wants to be in the world.
Consider the typical reflection prompt: "What did doing X teach you about [the topic of the class]?  Or even the widely used ABC model of reflection; "How did doing X affect you? How did it influence your behavior?  how did it change your cognition?

I don't have good ideas about learning wisdom through education, let alone experiential education.  Outside of schools, wisdom comes from religious practice, or from failure, or from age.  Does it come from anywhere inside of schools?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Seeking the Vice Presidency of the United States in 2012

With Sarah Palin's new reality show and the posturing over tax cuts, don't ask/don't tell, and the START treaty, the election season of 2012 has begun.  And so I believe it is time to announce my candidacy for the Vice President of the United States.

Why seek an office that has been unfavorably compared with a "bucket of warm piss"?  Why not seek the "leader[ship] of the free world"?  For one, seeking the presidency is an act of tremendous self-regard.  For another, once a person declares for the presidency, then the focus is on that person's prospects and personality, not ways of working or orientation to the world.  And more significantly, by starting with the Vice Presidency and building a group--prospective Secretaries of State and Treasury and Defense--voters will have the chance to consider the entire team, not just its most prominent member.  So I'm recruiting for the "minor" positions.  We will get to the presidency when we have some time.

What will we do?  We will not speak of "the American [anything]."  No mention of the American people--there is no such thing, just shifting coalitions of people living in the United States.  No "American economy."  The economy is a complicated system stretching around the globe and focusing in towns and neighborhoods and homes.  There is no line where the American economy ends and others begin.

We will not suggest that the choices are "either/or".  Everything is "neither/and."  For example, the current debate is not about a tax cut for the wealthy or about creating jobs.  It is about both.  And about neither.

We will not take responsibility for anything that we are not responsible for.  Nor will we blame anyone or any other party for something.  The President does not fix or ruin the economy.  No one has that much influence.  We live in an interconnected world--at best we can shake one part of the web.  So we ought not to be too proud of our ability to actually do things, or too quick to claim that our opponents have done something.

We will not solve problems.  Problems, at least serious ones, don't get solved.  They get worked on, and the solution leaves other issues still to work on.  Governments don't solve problems, they pick their favorite version and struggle against it.

We will raise taxes and cut programs because our government is both too poor and too big. We will become increasingly unpopular and be happy with that.

We will point towards a future where groups of people can work on the problems that they favor at the level they can work on them.  We will be libertarian in politics and communitarian in organization.  We will expect that the government of the United States will remain a defender of the liberties of the people who reside in its borders and the setter of aspirations.  But it will not run the programs or make the decisions about how to get to those aspirations.  So we may want all 18-year olds to graduate high school.  Excellent aspiration.  Let communities and schools and parents start working.  In other words, more judiciary, more rule of law; fewer laws, smaller executive branch.  Government as accrediting body.

We will hope for a future where the United States is a big Switzerland--prosperous, free, democratic, neutral, and less concerned about its place on the world stage and the use of power than about helping people and nations work out their difficulties even if it makes us seem weak.

I am of course jesting--a person like me has no chance of becoming Vice President. A platform like this, that focuses on rhetoric and process, means close to nothing in our system. And a plan like this to circumvent the electoral circus and the hubris of the Presidency stands no chance.  But I am serious about the future I would like to see and the pathway to it.  Anyone interested?

what can a screaming doll teach a 15-year old?

For the past week my 9th grade daughter carried first a sack of flour dressed like a baby, and then a computerized baby doll with her 24 hours a day.  The experience is part of the curriculum of Teen Living, a course required in the Utah state curriculum.

The express purpose of this assignment is to make caring for the baby doll so onerous that teens do not get pregnant.  To this end,  caring for the sack of flour means the student has to wake up at 2 AM each night and carry it around the house for 15 minutes. The computer baby comes with a key that gets taped to the student's wrist.  At random times throughout the day and night the doll starts screaming.  When it does the student puts the key in a slot in the doll's back.  It immediately stops crying, but the student must hold the key there until the doll cries again (usually between 5 and 15 minutes) at which point you pull the key out and the doll quiets for another couple of hours.

The screaming doll anti-pregnancy project is remarkable for two reasons.  First, it requires an enormous accommodation on the part of the school, where all day long for months on end kids carry sacks of flour or screaming baby dolls to class.  In a school culture where a word out of turn or a t-shirt with an offensive slogan can result in suspension, the school's willingness to allow the dolls is incredible.  (The patience of parents and siblings is equally noteworthy.  We made our daughter sleep in the basement, since the noise of the doll woke the entire family each time it cried...)

But the project is also fascinating for the amount of trust it puts in experiential education to change teen behavior.  I have no idea whether there is any data on projects like these, but school superintendents and legislators must be confident enough in the doll's power to pay for the things.

One wonders why this is the case.  After all, aside from this and driver's ed, there is no other place where the school mandates that students learn by doing.  So is there something about danger (of pregnancy, or dying in an auto accident) that makes the schools trust experiential education?  Or is there something about the power of embarrassment, either by a screaming doll or a poorly driven car, that educators think will help students learn?

In a comment on a previous post, Derek Bitter wondered what risk in the classroom might look like.  Here is a real example--the risk of having attention drawn to you used to discourage risky behavior.  But it raises a further question--can risk teach what you want it to?  In my daughter's experience the answer is a qualified no.  When we talked about what she learned she mentioned that she learned patience and a bit about how tiring it can be to care for a baby.  Did she think it would keep kids from getting pregnant?  Not really, she said.

Carrying the doll went pretty well until one night at her band concert a fellow band member stole her doll.  he kept it from her, stuck it in his pants, humiliated her.  When I got to the show she was in tears.  Risk doesn't always teach the lesson we think it will.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Imagine there's no...leader

What if there were no Department Chairs.  Or Deans. Or, for that matter, Presidenst, Provosts, or any of the cabinet-level VPs that are part of today's higher education leadership.  Is it possible for a college or university to succeed without titular leaders?

In asking, I am not complaining about any of the leaders at Westminster.  Our campus is fortunate to have a leadership slate that is both hard-working and unusually committed to the institution. But it is the case that at one time or another most faculty and staff have wondered about the usefulness of the leadership corps, both here and on every campus.  And many have speculated that it is leaders, not faculty and staff, who stand in the way of real innovation and real quality in higher education.  So it is worth asking what conditions would be necessary for campuses to imagine there's no leadership.

The business school at Westminster is called the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  It is named after Bill and Vieve Gore, alumni of the college and later the founders of W. L. Gore and Associates.  Gore is renowned both for its products (Gore-Tex being the most famous) but also for its organization and culture, both of which are designed for innovation.  One of the features of the organization is a lack of hierarchy almost unheard-of in corporate America. There are a few "leaders" but most associates play significant leadership roles in proposing, designing, and building products.  So there is certainly no hierarchy. (For a great book on organizations like Gore and their strengths, take a look at my friend Jeff Nielsen's The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations or my colleague Melissa Koerner's blog, "High Performance Organizations." )

 When recruiting new MBA students we often run them through a case on Gore, both as an introduction to our pedagogy and to draw a connection between Gore and Associates and the Gore School of Business.  A couple of evenings ago I led the case discussion at the recruiting event.  Doing so evoked some of my own interests in self-organization and the ways that social movements can emerge without formal leaders.  (Take a look at Steven Johnson's Emergence or Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or, if you can find them, my obscure book chapters on educational change, "Neighborhoods and Networks"  and "Making Moral Systems of Education.")

That same day, the management faculty and I began to talk about how to select a new chair of their department--the existing chair is taking another assignment at the college.  Doing so is no easy thing, since all of the faculty are busy, some have other administrative loads, and few are interested in the combination of tasks that a department chair carries.  It is the overlap of these things--talking about Gore and looking for a department chair--that raised the question about whether higher ed institutions could flourish without leaders.

So how do you come at the question of whether colleges and universities need leaders?  Two ways come to mind--first by asking what those leaders do that would not happen in their absence, and second by wondering whether colleges and universities have the sorts of cultures that support leaderless-ness.

So what do higher ed leaders do?  They may be involved in providing vision or setting strategic direction, though in higher ed those things are usually set through a long collaborative process where "leaders" often take a behind-the-scenes role.  More frequently they resolve disputes, make decisions based on policy, build friends for the institution, serve as a sounding board for faculty and staff, watch over budgets, attend to academic and co-curricular programs, and most importantly, share information that advances the institution.  Without a long exposition on each of these roles, I will simply point our that nearly all of these tasks could be done without formal leadership, if the organization and systems and culture were right.

But are they?  Almost certainly not.  And here is one of the real ironies of higher education.  The cultures of colleges and universities are laissez-faire, especially on the academic side of the house.  Faculty have wide latitude to teach, grade, select courses, and make plans.  (In fact a big part of leadership in HE is to find ways to merge the individual interests of faculty into a more-or-less coherent education for students.)

We often think of this arrangement as an example of leaderless-ness, or at least flat organizations.  But it is exactly this culture that makes "academic leaders" necessary, for the laissez-faire culture of higher ed means that little of the work of academic leaders gets done unless someone is assigned to do it.  Information doesn't get shared, connections do not get made, programs get overlooked, etc. So the culture of higher education tends to be flat, individualistic, and disconnected; the culture of HE leadership exists to overcome that disconnection.

Now it is worth asking whether the current model of academic leadership enables disconnection or responds to it.  Likely both.  But given the external requirements on leaders--from donors, parents, students, accreditors, and others; it is unlikely that the changes in campus culture will be able to come from them.  So if faculty and staff are interested in reducing the leadership layer, perhaps the first step is for them to find more ways to work together, taking on more of the tasks of leaders so that the need for leaders falls away.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Risk, failure, and the relationship between student and teacher

A couple of weeks ago my friend Bryce Bunting argued that risk is essential for learning on his blog Musings from an Amateur.   Bryce's point is well-taken.  Risk often heightens learning because it demands greater focus from students.  And it is true that schools often avoid risky moments and so limit student learning.

It is worth wondering why schools are risk-averse, avoiding moments where students are held up for public scrutiny.  (Public scrutiny is a key part of risk in Bryce's formulation.)  I think there are two reasons: first, risk entails the possibility of public failure, and second, most students lack the sort of relationship with peers and teachers that make risk and failure into ways to learn.  In the absence of these relationships, failure leads to humiliation or to punishment.

As I was thinking about risk and failure, I came across this article at There, Bonnie Myotai Trace argues that:

In order to work with a teacher, there needs to be a student. We often skip over this: It’s easy to waste time going through the motions of entering the room for a face-to-face teaching, but to not really be a student—to just be someone who wants to debate, or to prove something. Often, a real spiritual meeting is not available even though the bows have been made. Yet once a student develops, it is inevitable that a teacher will appear in their life. They create each other.

This is an interesting notion--that students create their teachers by the level of preparation, focus, and practice they bring to the learning setting.  A poorly prepared students creates a teacher who focuses on that poor preparation.  A well-prepared student gives rise to a teacher who can guide and shape that student.

Of course the relationship works the other way as well--a prepared teacher can help create a prepared student.  So what does this imply for the possibility of creating risk that results in learning?  That teachers and students must both be practicing risk, and that that risk-learning must be done in public.

This is a rare thing in the classroom--faculty often take risks, but much more frequently in writing or among peers than before students or in the classroom.  So how do people who care about student learning create a learning environment that favors risk?  Is there anything to be learned from religious practice (the student-teacher relationship in Buddhism is the context of the quote above, and the rest of the article has plenty of suggestions about spiritual practice and learning)?  From innovative corporations? (WL Gore and Associates, the namesake of the Gore School of Business, celebrates failure as a key component of innovation.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Where there's mystery, there's margin"

A couple of days ago Bob Frankenberg spoke to Westminster's chapter of Delta Mu Delta, the business student honor society.  Bob is the Chair of Westminster's Board of Trustees, a venture capitalist, and an innovator in computers and networks who has been involved in most of the major shifts in computer memory and networking in the past 30 years.

His talk focused on the need for students to keep learning throughout their lives in a society where the half-life of information and skills is about 4 years.  But among his pieces of advice was this; "Where there is mystery, there is margin."

The mystery/margin insight is not a new one of course.  Anyone who innovates in a business has discovered a mystery--how to shrink computer memory, for example--and made money off it, because by understanding the mystery that others don't, they are able to supply products that others demand.

But that formulation got me thinking about my previous post on making money on learning.   Educational entrepreneurs, by and large, are focusing on a single mystery--how to deliver schooling to a bunch of students in a way that makes money.  And they do it, by and large, through enrollment and systems management improvements.  So, if a school can enroll more students, or deliver schooling at lesser cost, then they can make money.  (Or perhaps more accurately in the k-12 environment, they can capture more of the education subsidies that make providing schooling financially feasible.)  This is the insight of nearly all of the new educational ventures that have sprung up in the past decades--the University of Phoenix, for example, or Green Dot and KIPP schools.    The biggest effort in this direction comes from the Gates Foundation, which is focused on improving the access and completion systems that get kids from high school into college.  Their attention is turned to the huge systems--community colleges especially--that school millions of students each year. Now in each of these instances, lots of learning takes place, it is true.  But the essential business model is around schooling, not learning.

I have no interest in criticizing any of the above innovations.  Their work is important and their successes meaningful.  But I do want to think more about the learning mysteries. So what are they?

1. How do you engage students in learning who are not engaged in schooling?
2. How do you reach those potential students?
3. How do you provide that learning in a way that is inexpensive enough to be welcoming to low-income students and families, but remunerative enough that you can make money off the learning?
4. How do you ensure that learning takes place?
5. How does that learning translate into the credits and degrees that the learners will need to show the educational and employment systems?

How do you provide learning that makes money by responding to these mysteries?  Here are some thoughts:

1. While there are tons of  people (many of them young) who hate school, most of them love learning about something.  For many of them, that something lies in the arts and humanities, or in sports.  They love music, or art, or writing, or dance or video games.  Or they love skateboarding and snowboarding and football and martial arts and dance.  Most schooling-focused efforts place these passions on the margins so they can focus on an academic core.  But a learning-focused effort would start with arts, humanities, and athletics, not think of them as a distraction.

2. Learning is an intensely social, relationship-focused thing.  Or at least, the sorts of learning above are like that.  So whatever solution you choose, it cannot be simply based on learners sitting alone watching clips on YouTube or taking classes on MIT's OpenCourseWare, or taking online courses.  It is not that learning fails to happen there, just that it is deficient learning.  or put another way, learning in isolation and schooling are close relatives.

3. The two key fixed costs in schooling are physical facilities and personnel.  (These are the major fixed costs outside of education, as well.) Innovators outside of education have gotten around these costs by using technology, it is true.  But they have also gotten around them by using franchises and distributorships.  Learning lends itself to this model as well.  If, for example, you want to find a business that reaches across ethnic and class lines, take a look at Amway or NuSkin.  They have representatives everywhere, who make money on selling but also on inviting new distributors into the system. If you want the reach of learning to be broad, and to get into communities where a representative of a college cannot speak authentically, then a distributor/franchise structure works better than building schools.  And it resolves some of the personnel cost issues associated with schooling.

4. Because learners will need to translate their learning into credentials, the formal evaluations of learning ought to be done in part using tools that help with that translation.  Here I am thinking about AP, CLEP, IB, and other sorts of tests that are accepted for college credit.  Such an approach both allows for systematic measures of quality across distributors and helps work around the accreditation problem and leads students into the formal systems of schooling, which I hope it is clear, I believe have substantial value. (Or put another way, a student can learn through a passion for video games, but cannot be learned unless s/he can do math and understand history and know how to learn and how to become what s/he hopes to become.)

What does this look like in the real world?

It starts with places that already make money (albeit only a little) on learning--people who offer piano lessons, or teach art, or host writing groups.  Martial arts studios and driving schools.  Their offerings expand and become more sophisticated so that they attract teens and 20 year olds.  The learning places then expand their offerings more to include formal instruction leading to AP tests.  So a music school would eventually offer music theory courses, a game shop eventually graphic design, etc.  As students succeed with those passion-specific tests the schools expand to offer more traditional topics--English or History example--that could also be assessed through standardized exams.

The central value would be in the connection of what are now disparate efforts.  The company--let's call it Play and Learn--would build a network of people offering the intro lessons.  It would also provide curricula, training, and the business infrastructure.  As learners became more sophisticated, their learning would be more centralized--so that Play and Learn corporate would offer the direct instruction on AP preparation, sparing the piano teacher from having to become an expert on music theory. That higher level instruction could easily be delivered remotely, with open content materials.  At the same time, expansion of the company be distributed--either through franchises or distributorships.

As students progressed pricing would rise (this is already the pricing model for these learning on the margins sorts of places), with substantial fees associated with the AP or other college credit granting exams, since they provide a cost -savings over having to pay tuition for college classes.

Let me close by saying that for me the ultimate benefit of this model is not financial but social and educational.  We know that there are millions of people who do not get the education they need because schooling does not work for them.  And we know that colleges and universities lack the capacity to serve all of those people who need college educations.  And we know that nearly everyone is passionate about learning something, and that such learning provides personal satisfaction and public good.

Any takers?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Can schools make money on learning?

Ask educators what their schools produce and they will answer "learning."  After all, any school worth its salt advances a set of learning outcomes, teachers teach to help students learn, tests try to gauge learning, and students say they learn.  But no school I know of makes money on learning.

I find this odd.  Nearly every viable business makes money on what it produces.  Stock brokers make money by buying and selling stocks.  Psychotherapists earn money by providing therapy. Fruit growers sell fruit.  But schools make money by enrolling students.

This is the case whether a school is taxpayer-supported or not. Public schools receive tax funds based on how many students enroll. Private colleges (like Westminster, for example) receive tuition funds based on how many students enroll for how many credit hours.  Both get additional money from grants and donations, but these sources of funding are not directly related to learning either.

You may respond that I am being obtuse--that a school cannot survive economically if it does not produce learning.  There is some truth to this.  After all, a student will stay to graduation only if she perceives that she is  learning, and if enough students fail to learn a school may fail.  But even in cases where failure is possible--under NCLB for example--many parents keep their children enrolled in schools that fail to produce learning (measure by standardized tests, I know--hardly a good measure but still...)  And even among colleges that disappear, death does not come because of an absence of learning but instead because of an absence of enrollment.

Why does this matter?  First, because if learning does not elicit income, then the economic incentives for the school are wrong.  (Interestingly, this is the case even for the most market-focused schools--for-profit colleges, for example, or those places where vouchers are available.)  One need only look at colleges who have increased enrollment through high discount rates to see that enrollment-focused income can impede learning.

Second, paying for enrollment sends the wrong incentives to students as well.  It indicates that the best unit of measure is full-time enrollment, since they get the most academic credit for their dollars.  But full-time enrollment may be the worst thing for learning, especially if it puts students at financial risk.

Third, it limits innovation.  If more learning led to more income, then the incentive for schools would be to try create more learning better and faster.

Fourth, it blunts reform.  Consider the four main reform efforts in American schooling, K-16--active learning, access to education, focus on choice, and focus on cost.  Each carries in mind a model of education where income to schools is based on enrollment. The active learning folks, for example, imagine that students will learn more but that they will stay in school for the same amount of time.  Cost-focused people call for quicker time to graduation or the reduction of frills without considering the effect on the viability of schools, etc. etc. And so whatever their reform ideologies, their efforts exist in the context of traditional schooling.

One has to look outside traditional schools altogether to find examples where learning is the source of income.    But there are examples.  Consider music lessons, where as a student gets better at the instrument (or put another way, learns more) the student pays more for learning--choosing a more skilled teacher, for example, and attending lessons more frequently.

Or consider dance and martial arts academies.  They often offer free lessons for the first month.  Students who learn that they hate dance or karate drop out early on.  But those who like it sign on for more.  Learning gets linked with success and pleasure, and before long, the student is part of a performance team and parents are paying a substantial amount of money for lessons, uniforms, and travel.  At some point the student becomes so good that he is invited to teach as well, starting usually with the beginners.

I do not mean to suggest that schools ought to restructure their sources of income so that they earn nothing if students don't learn.  But it would be interesting to see the effect of lower costs for introductory classes, or full tuition payment only coming after students demonstrate their learning, or a collaboration between reformers who are working to change the incentives in the system so that learning, not enrollment, is the heart of what any good school does.

Quality of life and the future of the academy

It is worth wondering whether anyone will want to be a college president in 20 years.

 (The same question holds for CEOs, college football coaches, and elected officials--all professions that are ever more stressful and ever less likely to feed the passion that led the person into the field in the first place.)
This is partly a demographic concern.  According to research by the Council of Independent Colleges, the median age of college presidents is 62, and of chief academic officers, 59. An ever smaller percentage of CAOs want to be presidents, and so the pipeline to the presidency is shrinking to garden-hose size.

It is also a quality of life concern, I would imagine.  At least half of the presidents and CAOs who talked to our Senior Leadership Academy group said that a cabinet position is a 24/7 job.  The other half intimated the same, and the fact seems to be borne out by the lives of the college presidents and provosts I have observed.

Most of the changes in higher ed over the past 10 years seem to have added to the workload of senior leaders.  The intense focus on fundraising eats into evenings and weekends.  The broader range of services offered students demands more attention and adds more complexity.  Financial problems add more worry, accountability more stakeholders, technology the expectation that senior leaders will be always accessible.

To date the main response to this situation in the US has been to pay academic leaders more as compensation for their additional workload.  One doubts, though, that ever-higher salaries will provide strong enough incentives to give up ever greater chunks of time.  And even more seriously, one wonders whether a 24/7 lifestyle for the president, provost, cabinet, Dean of Students, center directors, counseling staff, and others across the campus is a sign of a healthy institution.

In saying this I am wondering about two things.  The first is whether it is healthy for individuals in these roles to work in this way.  There is no evidence that an institution gets the best work out of employees who are constantly on-call (a fact borne out in conversation with these people, who often note that they are exhausted, stressed out, and under-prepared for the issues at hand). Nor is there evidence that the generation that follows mine will be willing to work 70 hour weeks for a college or university.

 The second, though, is what work cultures like this say about organizations.  Can they cultivate the sorts of people and learning that they claim to do?  By expecting this level of commitment are institutions losing out on the sorts of employees would would in fact add the greatest value to the institution?

These are pressing questions if only because we are apparently at a moment of great change in higher education and so the question of work is as much up in the air as are the questions of cost, learning, and the legitimacy of higher education.  So perhaps the best way to come at the question of quality of life in the academy is to imagine a new institution that both responds to the future needs of higher education and is host to a healthy work culture.

What would a good learning/good work college look like?  Here are a few notions:

  • rituals will matter--rituals mark key moments in learning and development.  They also signal breaks--changes in practices that renew people and institutions.  Consider, for example, Lent and Ramadan, and the way that fasting creates meaning for communities.  Colleges could consider their own fasting rituals; all courses but general education courses would be suspended for a month, for example, or all staff would take a meaningful retreat.  Sabbaticals will be briefer, but they will also be more common and more significant.  Skip your sabbatical at your peril.
  • mentoring will be more important--when you talk to people about what they love in education they always mention two things: working with students and learning themselves.  Mentoring relationships do just that.  In fact, it may be that mentoring, not courses or credit-hours, would be the core competency of good learning/good work institutions.
  • more planning at the beginning--by this I mean that students in a good work/good learning school would need to choose and commit to a course of study, a way of learning, and a set of outcomes early on.  (For example, I want to study history through a series of individual research projects that will be measured by the publication of my work in a scholarly journal.)  This sort of planning both allows for more mentored learning, but also opens the possibility that students will complete their course of study in a briefer period than they do in a regular institution.
  • more community, less campus--every college employee I know values the opportunity to work from home.  They are more productive, and often more connected during that time, even if they are present for less time.  As learning is more easily facilitated by technology, and as people build richer connections with colleagues, it seems likely that college and university staffs will be able to work remotely more and more effectively.
  • more lectures--if students will learn more on their own, and work more on their own, then the number of things that need to be conveyed to students will decline.  Those that remain--the rich traditions of a place or a discipline, the institution's body of common knowledge, etc.--can be presented more efficiently, through larger lectures delivered by eloquent people.
  • more co-curriculum, more focused--I am a big fan of learning in the co-curriculum.  I think it is routinely more important than classroom learning for the human and humane components of higher education.  A good work/good learning school will demand student participation in the co-curriculum, but will not offer the whole range of co-curricular activities.  If the school is focused on environmental sustainability then the co-curriculum focuses there.  If it is faith-based, then the co-curriculum is faith-centered.  
  • learning, not the institution at the core--There are a number of "leader-less organizations" out there.  They all lack a person in ultimate charge.  Higher ed may want to try such a model, organizing around distributed leadership.  In many ways HE is primed for this, in that shared governance is already decentralized.  But there are workload and learning implications here as well.  The workload implication is that you don't need the president or the provost to be at everything or to vaidate everything.  The learning implication is that it is consensus on outcomes, not the authority of the institution, that validates learning.  Such a model shares responsibility for leadership and learning more broadly. But more importantly, it puts a common definition of learning at the core of the learning enterprise.
  • more mission--Ultimately, good quality-of-life institutions will have to make decisions about what matters and what doesn't.  Only clear missions can do that.  In their absence, colleges and universities are tempted by every new trend.  Or they temporize making decisions about what to cut.  Or every decision about every new thing has to be vetted as a one-off, unique opportunity.  All of these things take time, and all of them carry the likelihood of expanding the amount of time it takes to manage a successful college.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Searching for the future leaders of higher education

A week ago the search consultant coordinating the hunt for a new Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business was on campus.  He spoke with the faculty, the staff, administrators and students about what they were looking for in a new dean.  In the middle of last week we posted a job for an Assistant Professor of Strategy.  Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I attended the Senior Leadership Academy, a year-long seminar for mid-level administrators hoping to take cabinet-level positions in the next few years.

We are by all accounts in the middle of a huge restructuring of higher education, as demographics, economics, technology, and advances in pedagogy replace higher education as we have known it with a new higher education--one more focused on outcomes, on learning, on accountability, and on engagement--all delivered in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.  If these changes are to be guided in some way by leaders of higher education, one would think that the discovery, recruitment, job descriptions, qualifications, training, compensation, and expectations of leaders would reflect those changes.  In key ways they do--for example, our position description for the faculty spot is more attentive to diversity and sustainability than it would have been even five years ago.  But in more important ways, the search for future leaders of colleges and universities seems to be unaffected by changes in higher education.

Consider the qualifications expected of Deans, Provosts, and Presidents.  In nearly every instance, the expressed qualifications are the same--lengthy experience in a discipline, steady movement through the ranks, and increasing familiarity with key components of the college--fundraising, budgets, athletics, personnel, assessment, etc.  In sum, leadership in higher ed is a combination of academic expertise and leadership experience.

This would be a perfect combination if higher ed was unchanging.  But in fact the leaders of the future are likely to dwell less on content and more on pedagogy, less on traditional divisions in the academy and more on connections across the academy, less on fundraising and more on revenue creation, less on advising and more on mentoring, less on teaching and more on learning, less on rules and more on processes.

Who is likely to have these skills?  Student development people who have spent their careers managing residence halls, mentoring students, and creating learning outside the classroom.  Civic engagement types who have learned to collaborate, develop partnerships, and link learning to public purposes of higher education.  Entrepreneurs who know how to make money from an idea and some human conncetions.  Tech folks and process people who have figured out how to be both efficient and flexible.  Lumpers, not splitters.  Systems people, not institution people.  Mission people not market people.  Global folks and local folks, not state folks or national folks.  People who have moved around in their careers, trying out lots of different things, not people who have moved up in their careers, following a straight path to the top.  People, in fact, who disavow the notion of a "top" in higher ed, be it in the power of the presidency or the prestige of the Ivy Leagues.

The good news for the future of higher education is that a lot of the people I met at Senior Leadership Academy have exactly the skills I described above.  The bad news is that the academy produces relatively few of those people even today.  Or rather I should say that those people may emerge in the academy but they struggle to find a home.  They are outliers in their departments, the work on the margins between divisions, they are prone to move from one initiative to another.  So perhaps the first challenge for today's leaders is to look out for such people, to give them space to flourish in the institution, and to acknowledge their work.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Face the future, don't fix the past

From time to time one of my bosses or colleagues will point out that I have made (or presided over) a mistake. I have discovered that I have a not-always-healthy response to such a discovery--I try to fix the past before (or rather than) facing up to the future which includes the error.
Of course fixing mistakes is not a bad thing in itself, especially when it can be done easily and when the fault for the error lies entirely with me.  But when the error comes out of a process that is appropriate, fair, and agreed upon, an effort to fix the past implies not just that an error has happened, but that the process and by extension the people involved in the process, have some failing.  This may or may not be true, but it is hardly a good thing to imply.
I read a book a few years ago called Turn Towards Everything.  The book ended up being a pretty abstruse discussion of Buddhist philosophy and practice, but the title has stuck with me as a way of facing up to the future.  And so I have begun to wonder what it would look like if rather than defaulting to fixing the past our (my) first step was to face the future that includes the result of the error.  It may not be so bad.  A face the future response would focus on (1) improving systems, (2) developing the skills of people, and (3) communicating more clearly--none of them bad things.  Conversely, a fix the past response would include (1) going back on an agreed-upon process, (2) implying that participants in the process were underprepared, and (3) imagining that the outcomes of all errors are (or should be) fixable.  I am certain that this last list is less desirable than the first.

Service (to the college) as a way of learning

There is no more basic assumption in service-learning than that serving is an act of learning.  By this we mean two things--that serving is a way of developing both the server and the recipient of service, and that service is an act of humility, an acknowledgement of one's own lack, not an act of pride, or capability, or abundance.

On campus, though, we tend not to think about service (as a category of faculty work) in this way. Instead,  service is both a sacrifice and a demonstration of skill.  To be asked to sit on a search committee, for example, implies both that you will give up your time and/or that you have very particular skills to contribute to the committee.

This assumption about service to the college has important implications for the role of the dean, who is often the assigner of tasks like committee service.  It is nearly always the case that when I assemble a committee, i am seeking the most highly qualified people to serve there. (I am not alone in choosing in such a way.  Every administrator I know does the same.)  I have realized in the past couple of weeks that in doing so I am both impeding faculty from learning about the workings of the college and from improving their own set of skills.

This is a particularly troublesome mistake to have made, since our college offers very few systematic opportunities for development.  There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the life of the campus, to be sure, but they are nearly all based on interest and by extension expertise. So, if I have interest in sustainability I am a prime candidate for service on the sustainability task force.  But we do not have a system by which all faculty and staff face tasks that fall in the "service" category for which they are underprepared.  As a resultthe institution fails to help faculty and staff develop the campus-wide perspectives,  new sets of skills and the humility that comes from such service.

(The final irony in my oversight is that in serving as Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business I am in the midst of one of the rare cases of  service as an opportunity for growth available on our campus...)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

the perils of pithyness; more on capacity and technology

On pithiness
 Having long prided myself on running a dull blog doesn't always protect me from saying dumb but dull stuff.  That is what happened in my last post, which I started as a way of thinking about capacity and infrastructure issues, but which I ended by trying to be pithy.  An anonymous commentator caught the enormous holes in my "cheap schools + cheap technology = deep learning" formulation.  That person wrote:

Your equation lacks one main thing. Quality teaching. And as soon as you add words like quality, the price goes up. So then it is not cheap.

Add to all this the difficulty one has with determining quality. Quality as posed by the other author could be about time on task. But some would argue it is about content knowledge (which is why k-12 teachers now must pass Praxis content tests) or about engagement or community based.

If we could borrow from some of your other posts I would develop a new equation that looks like this:

quality teachers + appropriate contexts + useful technology = deep learning 

to which I can only say "Anonymous, you are absolutely right.  Thanks."

 On capacity
I have been thinking more about the capacity problem in the context of my own community.  Three things are true: 1. we need more educational capacity to reach anything like the goal of having a fully educated workforce; 2. there are no empty campuses sitting around waiting to be populated; 3. there is lots of excess capacity sprinkled throughout the community.  Given these three facts, we ought to think about how to take advantage of the capacity.

Here is what I mean.  In my town, there is a perfectly serviceable theatre that sits empty in the downtown area.  Across the street here and there are unoccupied offices and an un-used gym.  Every town is the same, especially in those areas that were once small towns but have been swallowed up by sprawl (or passed over by it), leaving the downtown area decimated.

Why couldn't a college or university take up that excess capacity, even as it is sprinkled around?  After all, the one thing that technology can surely do is connect disparate places.  So while good learning almost always has a face-to-face component, that doesn't mean that a college has to be contiguous to get that learning.  Offer a theatre program in Pleasant Grove, business classes in the empty space on Main Street in American Fork, and humanities courses in the meeting rooms of the Orem Public Library.  The result is that higher ed fills in some of the excess capacity (in much , the way that Clay Shirky thinks we can leverage the small bits of excess capacity in the days of busy people to jointly solve big problems), expands its reach, and still provides the sort of face-to-face interaction that many potential students desire.  In this scenario, higher ed flows into the open spaces, the unused buildings, and the openings in people's lives, rather than forcing them to flow into ours.  And higher education does its part to strengthen both the intellectual and built infrastructure of our communities.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cheap schools + cheap technology = deep learning

This piece at Slate is a reminder of how a particular breed of techno-enthusiasm sometimes runs roughshod over experience in American education. Amanda Ripley notes that the best-performing students in the world go to school in classrooms that look a great deal like classrooms in America only, well, less-snazzy.  That is, students in South Korea, or Singapore, or Finland sit in rows at desks oriented toward the front of a classroom where a teacher stands.  In Ripley's telling, most of these classroom include little, if any, technology.  And what technology they include is used for assessment and providing instant feedback to students and teachers, not for learning.  Ripley argues that the main distinctions between excellent schools and poor schools are the skill of the teachers (in leading countries most teachers come from the top third of academic performers, in countries like the US the percentage of teachers at the top of their classes is much smaller), and the amount of time spent on task, not access to technology or the design characteristics of the classroom or school.

Now there are a number of ways to explain away Ripley's insights.  They may apply only to k-12 settings, not to higher education.  Or she may be taking a snapshot of a practice that has worked exceedingly well up until now but is about to collapse.  Or they may work well for educational systems focused on performance on tests, but not for those focused on creativity.  Or it may be the case that classroom design is largely irrelevant, and that students in the right culture and context could learn as well seated cross-legged in the grass as they do in rows of desks.

I'm not sure any of these explanations really tell us anything, in part because they overlook the key problem with classrooms--we don't have enough of them.  That is, the problem facing education in the US (including higher education) is a lack of capacity.  In Utah, the state has set a goal of having 66% of adults with a higher ed degree or certificate by 2020.  To do that, colleges and universities will have to not just account for the ongoing growth in the student population but also add capacity to graduate an additional 190,000 students. (Given retention rates, the number is actually much higher.  Something like 250,000 additional students will have to enter the system to get an additional 190,000 graduates.)

Some people hope to use technology to increase capacity, and that may be part of the solution.  But the findings about the settings where students learn well should remind us that technology-driven learning won't do the trick alone. The capacity issue is a huge one because schools are big, expensive, and permanent; and colleges and universities are even bigger, more expensive, and more permanent.  What we need is some sort of compromise--technology and capacity together.

Fortunately, the two could align in higher education.  The future might look like this--colleges and universities build cheaper, plainer, more temporary buildings, or they take over unused space in the community--warehouses, empty office plazas. (At the extreme you could imagine pop-up schools in the most capacity-challenged areas--schools designed to last only a year or two and then move to other areas of need.)  They build no technology into the building except wireless.  Then professors and the students go at it, constructing the courses and the learning out of the content available on the web, and building the sort of relationships essential to good learning in any setting.

Cheap schools + cheap technology = deep learning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is it possible to be an intellectually serious administrator?

I'm not sure this is the right question.  I don't mean, by asking it, to imply that the administrators I work with are intellectually un-serious, or that intellectual seriousness is an important characteristic of administrators.  (In fact, if one were to rate it, it would have to fall somewhere below "flexible," "tireless," and "good-natured" on the list of desired qualifications.)  Nor am I sure that "intellectually serious" is exactly the thing I am wondering about.  That thing might be closer to "intellectually wise"  than intellectually serious.

The thing I am wondering about is the virtue or characteristic that allows administrators to put things they face into perspective and context, and to make decisions based both on immediate demands and that perspective and context.  And it is also the thing that allows administrators to weather their own inevitable mistakes, expedient compromises, failures to communicate, and flights of fantasy in a way that maintains the respect of the faculty, staff, and students.  This cluster of virtues I am calling "intellectual seriousness."

The day-to-day life of an academic administrator works against this these things in two ways.  First, it demands an intense, sun-up to sun-down focus on the job itself.  Most days the first thing I think about is work, and the last thing I think about is work, and in-between it is thinking about work that lurks in the interludes between episodes of actual work. 

Second, within that focus on the job, the actual work is undisciplined.  It is almost impossible to focus for extended periods of time on a single issue.  One hour a meeting may be about curriculum, followed by a quick talk with the college attorney, and then on to a budget discussion, followed by recruiting a student and then lobbying for resources from the Provost.  Tossed in may be hallway questions from faculty, and a quick unexpected discussion about assessment, and a call from the CTO.

In contrast, a life of intellectual seriousness is structured in exactly opposite ways.  While the administrator's life is narrowly job-focused, an intellectually serious person is curious, her life focused on asking questions, on determining context, on learning the literature.  And while the day-to-day practice of an administrator is undisciplined, the life of an intellectually serious person is disciplined--blocks of time put away for teaching, for research, for intellectual attention.

Of course an intellectually serious approach to the life of the college may not do much good for keeping the college flourishing.  But given that most administrators were once intellectually serious in their fields, it is worth thinking about how to bring aspects of that former life into the practice of administrators. Much of the weight will fall on those administrators to be sure.  I, for one, am appallingly poor at setting aside time for disciplinary focus.  So are all of the administrators I work with.  I don't know where their minds are before they get to work and after they get home, but my sense is that most of them keep mental companionship with their jobs all the time.  These may not be bad characteristics.  In most instances colleges and universities get a lot of good work out of people like these, who give themselves over to the hard work of running the institution.  I wonder, though, how many institutions miss big opportunities because their administrators have embraced undisciplined focus as a way of work.

Writing this has put me in mind of Kermit Hall.  Hall was an important legal historian whose work I studied when I was working on a curriculum revision for the American Heritage Program at BYU.  I stepped down from that role to become the Executive Director of Utah Campus Compact.  The state Board of Regents invited me to speak to a meeting one spring, and I found myself sitting next to Kermit Hall, who had the year before become President of Utah State University.  In a quiet moment I told him how much I admired his work, particularly the Oxford Companion to American Law, which had come out during his presidency at USU.  He told me that when he began his administrative career he also began to set aside half a day every week to work on scholarship.  He maintained that practice through his presidency at Utah State and through his time at SUNY-Albany where he went after leaving USU.

Hall died of a heart attack while swimming at Hilton Head at the age of 61.  He was on vacation at the time.  I never worked closely with him--I have no idea what sort of a President he was to work with, or what his institutions missed because he was a scholar.  But he was an intellectually serious as an administrator, and that, from my perspective, was a good thing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Struggling students are like...

If you have been around higher ed for long you have been through the debate about whether we should think about students as customers.  The debate (like most on-going topics) usually provides more heat than light.

But I've been thinking about that metaphor as I have spent time in the past few months working with students who have gotten cross-wise with the college (be it because of academic dishonesty, grade disputes, or any of the myriad other ways that students and campuses have a falling out).

In these instances, the student as customer metaphor just doesn't work.  It doesn't imply the sort of commitment on the part of either the student or the campus that makes it possible for the parties to work out their difficulties.  Other typical metaphors aren't any better.  Thinking of students as learners runs aground because most of the disputes are about the failure of students (or their teachers) to achieve learning.  For this reason, thinking about students solely as learners ends up in a determination that one party or the other has failed--hardly the sort of outcome that leads to a solution (as opposed to a resolution) of the problem.

So I have turned increasingly to thinking about students as employees. (Perhaps it is a sign that working with the Gore School of Business has influenced my orientation to education.  (Not a bad thing at all, in my view.))  On the surface this is a stupid metaphor, since students pay us to go to college, not the other way around.  But the student as employee metaphor is an old way to think about education--it is the apprenticeship model of education for an apprentice-less age.  And given that at most institutions, student tuition doesn't cover the full costs of educating the student, it isn't far fetched to consider that the institution (or the state's) investment in the student's learning enables us to think that students work for the college and its funders as much as we work for them.

Thinking about a struggling student as an employee forces us to consider what we can do to both raise the quality of his/her work and to fix our own problems.  (At least at businesses with a quality employee development program this is exactly how they think about their relationship with employees.)  It implies a long-term commitment  (interestingly, the median time to graduation and the median time at a certain employer is about the same).  And thinking about them as employees requires us to consider where they fit best in an organization, moving them around until we get the best use of their talents and they make the biggest contribution, and ensuring that opportunities for growth are available to all of them.

All of these things--raising the quality of the student's work and the institution's work, making a long-term commitment to their well-being, and finding the right place for them--happen to be hallmarks of good student development practice as well.  So perhaps by borrowing a metaphor from the business world we can strengthen the practices of colleges and universities that are already aligned with getting the best out of a student by giving that student our best in return.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A traditionalist case for e-portfolios

Most proponents and opponents of electronic portfolios are future-oriented, focusing on how e-portfolios meld technology, assessment, learning, and employment into an education tool for the coming decades.  Their only difference is over whether this coming future is a good one or a bad one.

It strikes me that whenever opponents and proponents agree on the nature of a thing, and differ only on the value of that nature, it is time to question the agreement.

So here goes.  In my view, the real power of e-portfolios has not to do with the future but instead with the traditions of higher education, and because I value each of the following traditions, I support the use of portfolios to achieve them.

Here are the traditions, with the ways that e-portfolios make them more vital:

Tradition 1: Education is about more than developing narrow disciplinary or employment skills.  Westminster like most institutions has a set of college-wide learning goals, rooted in the traditions of the liberal arts in the US.  We desire students to become critical thinkers, to communicate well, the be reflective and creative, to be able to work with others, and to develop a sense of their place in the world.  These are old aims, but for the past 50 years or so, they have been out of vogue in higher education, replaced with narrower goals tied to the major and career.  E-portfolios (at least in the way Westminster hopes to use them) make the old, pre-disciplinary goals real, because they require students to make connections between their course work and the broadest aspirations of the institution.

Tradition 2: Education is about the formation or development of students into their full humanity. Not only do we hope that students will see beyond narrow boundaries, but we also hope that a college education helps them develop a sense of themselves as human beings, as actors in a complicated but rewarding world.  But in much of American higher ed, the focus on the development or formation of students as humans is in decline, replaced again by a career focus.  E-portfolios are a tool to remind students of their development, since portfolios track student growth across time, and require students to reflect on that growth as demonstrated in and outside the classroom.

Tradition 3: Student formation should take place in conjunction with mentors who nudge them to be wise in their development.  The oldest images of education are of a students linked with a mentor who, having been through the process, can provide guidance to students in their growth.  But in most institutions that mentoring, at least for most students, has been replaced by advising--by employees of the college helping students select classes, get internships, and stay on the course to graduation.  Nothing wrong with any of these things, but if they constitute the whole of the mentoring relationship, then that relationship hardly does as much as it ought.  Because the evaluation of an e-portfolio (at least in our proposed system) should take place in conversation with mentors, e-portfolios can be part of the mentoring that was once at the heart of human formation.

Tradition 4: The previous traditions ought to take place in a democratic setting. One of the great innovations of American higher education has been to link the first three traditions with democratic aspirations--that those things ought to be part of the lives of all people, not just the rich, white, well-off people who tended to have access to them in other settings.  But in higher ed today, the first three traditions are part of the experience of a limited group--honors students, students who pick traditional liberal arts majors, those who are savvy enough to tie into the informal system of opportunities that flow to the "best" students.  E-portfolios, though, if they are done well, are an expectation of all students.  And so they are democratic, making it more possible for all students, not just the privileged, to participate in the broad, formative, mentored learning that is as significant today as when it was created long ago.

So whatever else e-portfolios do for the future, my hope is that they do something important to revive the past, a past that holds out the hope that education is more than a functional, narrow, career-focused traipse through a series of discipline-focused classes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do college dropouts really cost the nation billions?

The Salt Lake Tribune  recently reported under the headline, "College dropouts cost taxpayers billions"  that many students who receive federal grants or financial aid in their first years fail to graduate.  The article and the study suggest that the money is thus poorly invested.

Really?  After all, college graduates also cost taxpayers billions.  The truth is that money spent to help students in college is only returned over time in taxes and contributions to community well-being. 

The bigger point is this: the education discussion is so fixated on college graduation as preparation for employment that politicians, researchers, and policy wonks overlook this single fact: going to college is about learning.  If students learn in their time in college, then they (and the rest of us) benefit, even if they don't graduate.  And if they don't learn, graduation gets us nowhere.  I am in total agreement that more students need to succeed in college to ensure our future well-being.  But I disagree with the related notion, floated in this article and at the core of the recent Obama Administration announcement of support for community colleges, that a college education is foremost about employment.  Education is first about learning, and second about becoming.  The act of learning and the act of becoming an educated person are prior to employment, not eclipsed by it.

Which exceptional students get our attention? Which deserve it? Why?

As Dean I met two types of students--super-achievers who because of their grades, or their interests or their insights have become prominent, and struggling students who because of their grades or their challenges have become prominent.  Both groups of students share a characteristic--they become visible to administrators because they are exceptional and seek exceptions.

Colleges are good at working with the first group of students, and not always good at working with the second group.  I have been wondering why that is.  The answer is probably straight-forward--the first group of students are good at school and so are good at getting the attention of schools.  But some of the reason turns on the ability of students to fit into standardized ways of working with them.

Take the curriculum, for example.  High achieving students by-and-large flourish within the sort of curricula we offer--academic programs that include lots of pieces and require lots of student-directed choices about electives.

Or take policies on exceptions--high achieving students build connections with faculty who tend to be leaders, and who therefore understand things like exceptions policies, opportunities for withdrawal from academic programs, or ways to discover research or job opportunities.  Struggling students don't routinely build connections with faculty (in fact they often say they don't want to bother their professors or ask for special help) and so when it comes time to seek some sort of leg up, they don't always get it. Instead, their interaction with faculty or administrators often comes ex post facto--the opportunity has been missed, the exception not granted, the course failed--and then the student wants to know why.

There are plenty of solutions to this set of problems, but the thing I am most interested in is how the sort of experiences we provide send signals to various types of students.  As I suggested above, high achieving students work well in standardized systems--they learn how the systems work, and they learn how the system builds connections that can be then used to deal with exceptions.

Struggling or isolated students don't work well in standardized systems.  Instead they work well in systems with two components.  The first is perhaps obvious--personalization.  Struggling students need individualized attention.  Brochures mapping out the curriculum aren't particularly useful; personalized conversations with real human beings are. 

The second is less noted--such students flourish in a school that values common experiences.  Limit the curricular choices, or ensure that all students participate in learning communities, or require that all students read a particular book, or achieve a set of learning outcomes, and you establish a system that values common experiences.  Note that common experiences are different from standard systems.  In standard systems the focus is on the well-being of the system--completing or waiving prerequisites for example, or ensuring that students complete a particular number of credit hours.  In a common system, all students are expected to have the same experiences.

There is a final point to be made--personalized and common experiences are deeply connected.  Require all students to study abroad and they have both a powerful common experience--learning in a foreign setting--and a powerful personal experience--making sense of who they are by learning in a foreign setting.  Put them in a standard system, and the range of personal learning decreases, because the point of reference is the requirement, the system, not the experience.  And when all students have both powerful common and powerful personal experiences, the struggling student becomes center stage as a person, not just as a seeker of special favors from the administration.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflections on interim leadership and willingness

Since the beginning of June I have served as the Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business.  Doing so has given me plenty of opportunities to think about (and experience) interim leadership.

Interim leadership raises all sorts of questions--about knowledge (how much do you have to know about something to provide leadership there?), change (is an interim period of leadership a good time to bring about change or a bad time?), and the value of an outside perspective (when is an outside perspective good?  what is it good at?). 

But for me the most interesting question, and one that I understand only in limited ways, is "where does the authority of an interim leader come from"?  This is a real question in politics, where a "lame duck" President or Congress is considered weak and ineffective at best, and prone to self-dealing at worst.  And it is a real question in business and higher ed as well, where the tenure of most leaders is brief enough that they can be considered "interim" whether or not their title includes it.

Non-interim leaders seem to get authority in several ways.  Their position gives them authority because of their location in the organization and the official power that comes from it.  Their permanence gives them power because their colleagues all know that in most instances they will have to deal with the leader again in the future.  And their experience brings them power, as they amass knowledge, connections, and stories that allow experience to buttress their institutional influence.

An interim leader has none of these options--their position is by definition brief and limited ("interim" means "meanwhile" or "in-between" in Latin, a perfect description of the location of the interim leader), they have neither permanence nor experience.  Instead, it seems that an interim leader's authority depends overwhelmingly on the willingness of other members of the organization to create it.

I fell this everyday in my role, where my colleagues, for many reasons, are willing (in the active sense of the word "willing") to have me in the interim dean position.  I am deeply grateful to them for this willingness, both because it makes my work much better, and because I think it is a key component of healthy organizations.  Flourishing organizations rely on the impetus of their members to move.  When those members willfully work with an interim leader they are granting their energy to the organization, trusting that their efforts will extend beyond the interim leader's term of service.  Not a bad thing at all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obama and the Tea Party

A large group of citizens, not traditionally engaged in political life but angry at a sitting President who does not face re-election, form a grassroots movement.  As they gain power a young, relatively inexperienced politician becomes their spokesperson.  The movement raises a ton of money, and consistently defeats establishment candidates from the party they are most closely aligned with. The movement has ill-defined policies, but is generally seen as more extreme than the party's traditional constituencies. By the time the party realizes it, the movement has eclipsed it, so all the party can do is come along for the ride, preferring some victory at the polls to defending its more traditional policies and actions.

The paragraph above describes the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.  But it also describes Barack Obama and the movement that carried him to power.  I do not mean to suggest equivalency between Obama and Palin.  Nor do I believe that this is a case of history repeating itself.  But it is part of a broad trend in civic life, where it is easier than ever to engage and connect with like-minded people to bring about short-term change.  The case of Obama suggests that this sort of change may not be durable, but nonetheless we ought to realized that the Tea Party and the Obama revolution are part of the same thread in American life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The fortune at the bottom of the higher education pyramid

Daniel Griswold, Director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, spoke at Westminster last week about his new book, Mad About Trade.  The talk was part of our Weldon J. Taylor Executive Lecture Series, and it was pitched perfectly for the audience--a mixture of students, faculty, and community members interested in global issues and connected to the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, our partner in the lecture series.

Most of Griswold's talk focused on the benefits of global trade, but he made a passing comment that has had me thinking ever since.  He noted that while the cost of many things produced in a global system has declined rapidly (think TVs, computers, etc.), the cost of things impervious to global trade has risen rapidly. And of course the two industries that make this case are health care and higher education.

The general recipe for driving down the cost of things in global trade is the reduction of trade barriers.  And there are certainly barriers to trade in higher education, most particularly the quotas and visa system that make it difficult for international students to study in the US (and vice versa) because they cannot get access to higher ed here.

But it is my sense that the main barrier is the unwillingness of American higher education to look at the right markets.  Where American colleges and universities do make international partnerships, they tend to target the upper third of the pyramid--those people who have already become part of the global middle class and can therefore afford something like a full-ticket American education.

You can see this approach both in the partnerships that US universities make globally--the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, for example; or Yale's foray into creating a liberal arts college in Singapore--and in the international students that US campuses recruit.

In doing this American higher ed overlooks the huge changes in the developing world.  There are dozens, but four that stand out are these:
  • the pace of urbanization is picking up in the developing world, and with it the amassing of millions of people in close proximity to each other,
  • the cities of the developing world are showing signs of increased vitality and creativity, most particularly in those sections settled by squatters,
  • squatter cities have shown themselves to be tremendous economic engines--that is there are fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid-- and to be much greener than older cities, small towns, or suburbs--that is, a sustainable future depends on the ability of humans to live successfully in cities (see Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-pragmatist Manifesto for a clear account of the vitality of squatter cities),
  • and one engine of economic improvement and social well-being are schools in those cities, organized and paid for by parents.
 Last year I highlighted James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World's Poor are Educating Themselves. Tooley's story is that of the emergence of educationally and economically successful primary schools in the developing world.  American higher education ought to be asking itself if it can play a role both in advancing those successful primary schools and in helping to develop low-cost colleges and universities for the same people.

Such schools would both help colleges and universities live out their commitment to helping people and their communities build better lives, and help colleges and universities figure out how to do their work less expensively, while maintaining the quality that we are justly renowned for.