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.