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...)