Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pop-up colleges

For at least the past seven years, retailers and restaurants have been attracted to the pop-up store model. Pop-up, or flash shops allow shop owners to try out new merchandise, new locations, or new designs.  And since they are cheap to create and temporary by nature, they allow for experimentation in a way that a traditional store would not.

In the meantime, most colleges and universities continue to offer academic programs in much the same way they have in the past.  This is not, by definition, a bad thing.  But the difficulty of radically overhauling an academic program, getting rid of one that no longer has a market, or starting a new one in rapid response to student demand puts colleges and universities consistently behind demand for new programs.  In the past this misalignment was not tremendously damaging for higher education because there were no external competitors.  But with the availability of free instruction and cutting-edge content on the internet, colleges and universities face the prospect of losing out on the intellectual leadership in new fields.

So why not create a pop-up college--a school composed of teams of faculty who create new academic programs, recruit students, run two or three cohorts through the program with the plan to close it down after, say, five cohorts, and then take a year off to develop a new program and another to recruit new cohorts into it.

The financial model would require that the school save enough money over the life of a cohort to survive two years without income from the particular faculty team.  The academic model would require faculty to be generalists and learning facilitators, not primarily disciplinary specialists.  The programs would have to be deliverable in generic spaces, not spaces that require a particular design. Accreditation would be tough. But the downsides from these criteria would be offset by the possibility for innovation, deep learning, and meaningful collaboration among faculty.

I am not suggesting that all (or even many) colleges and universities ought to pursue pop-up education.  But I  expect that faculty who get it right could create a new school that delivered high quality learning at reasonable cost and innovated in design, delivery, and administration of the school.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reflections as America's dullest higher education blog reaches 5000 page views

Learning at Westminster has reached a milestone of sorts--5000 page views.  Of course for the big league blogs 5000 page views come before breakfast.  For me it has taken since July 2009.

This is no surprise--I've mostly used this blog as a place to reflect on trends in education, make connections between my work and the non-education stuff I'm reading, and try to figure out what my future (and the future of higher education) looks like.  Over two years I've posted nearly 200 mini-essays, and written over 100,000 words.  Here is what I have learned:

1. Learning is in danger. Most of the major forces shaping higher education--technology, the cost debate, questions about access, funding danger, and the political climate--are focused on delivering information more efficiently, more effectively, or in a more relevant way.  And the force that has the closest link to learning--assessment--is in danger of becoming so rigidly focused on measuring a pre-determined set of outcomes that it overlooks both the importance of growth and the possibility that important things will happen to learners that cannot be predicted.

Fortunately, while learning seems to be slipping out of education, there are more and more ways to learn outside of school.  Blogs, mash-ups, the growth in social networks, the re-emergence of home-based manufacturing, the ease with which you can record your own music are all things that support learning and do it in a much more open, student-directed, verifiable way than what happens in schools.  What is happening in religion may be what is happening in schooling as well.  More and more people are spiritual seekers, fewer are going to church, so churches are in decline.  More and more people are learners; is the future of schools like the recent past of churches?

2. Schooling needs a metaphor that works.  A great deal of talk about education is built around explicit or implicit metaphors--schools are like newspapers, or factories, or businesses or price bubbles.  I'm not sure that any of them fit.  But without a way of thinking of ourselves that inspires some confidence and gives some direction, schools will be swallowed by their metaphors.

3. There is lots of room for innovation.  Technology isn't the savior, but it does make it possible to start or re-shape schools so that they focus on what the school does best.  I expect that the next major trend in higher education and high schools will be specialized schools where students complete general education online and the classroom focused learning is all about the school's specialty--the humanities or music or entrepreneurship or whatever.  Schools like that can be cheap, fast, and excellent.  And they can be started by subject-matter experts.  I'm not necessarily sanguine about this future, since I care deeply about the civic role of schools and about general education.  But I would love to start a school focused on innovation and creativity (which I think are two of the four  key civic virtues, along with contemplation and humility)

4. The barriers to entry for higher education are falling.  There are really only two that matter any more--the certification of learning (that is, proving that the learning that takes place in some new schooling venture is real), and the matter of accreditation.  These barriers are two aspects of the same characteristic of higher education--social prestige.  That is, the diploma and accreditation bear weight because they have social standing.  It is assumed that a diploma from the University of (insert your preferred state or private institution here) is better than a diploma from Bob's Start-Up University; and that regional accreditation guarantees that fact.  I am not suggesting that that is not the case.  I am saying, though, that if I were a registrar or an accreditor I would be pushing for my peers to do more to show evidence that those things are true, because I predict that the social status on which diplomas and accreditation rest will crumble in the coming years.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What makes us think that education can solve global problems?

On his blog, Ian Symmonds muses about how higher education is responding to global problems. The list of issues, drawn from Jean Francois Rischard's book High Noon is heartbreaking and incomplete. The assumption behind Ian's question--that colleges and universities ought to prepare students to fix the problems of the world--is both commonplace and reasonable.  And almost no one argues that education ought not take on these problems.

But what makes us think that they can be tackled by colleges and universities?  In asking this I do not mean to suggest that higher education is ineffectual.  I am simply wondering two things: Are colleges and universities the sort of organizations that solve problems?; and Can these problems be solved?  I think the answer to both these questions is no.

Here is what I mean; colleges and universities excel at helping students resolve certain sorts of problems--narrow problems in disciplines, problems that respond to experimentation, and personal problems.  None of the problems listed in Symmonds post are these types of problems.  Instead they are all wide-spread, multi-causal problems without simple solutions.

This is not to say that colleges and universities ought to do nothing.  Instead, they ought to focus on three things: (1) helping students to resolve their own problems, (2) framing the problem so that it can be worked on in smaller, more local pieces; and (3) trying out local solutions to certain components of the problem at hand.

So, for example, it is unlikely that colleges and universities will solve poverty.  It is too widespread, too intransigent, and too complex to "solve."  But colleges and universities can help resolve poverty in their own neighborhoods.  And they can help their students avoid poverty.

To do these things, though, higher education will have to be more focused and less given to grandiose rhetoric.  While we may live in a global village (or some other version of the "flat earth" world) but our ability to influence society is decidedly narrow.  There is nothing wrong with this fact, as long as we acknowledge it.  Unfortunately, few colleges and fewer universities do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who needs to be oriented?

This week all four of my children start at new schools.  One begins junior high, another high school.  One is a freshman in college, and the other a new transfer student.

Of those four, only the freshman in college has an extensive orientation--four days of small group meetings, info sessions, activities, meals, friend building, instruction in rules, assessments, meals, and a convocation with speeches and a gantlet of faculty in academic robes.  Parents are part of two days of these events, where they are wined, dined, and oriented themselves to how to be the parent of a freshman.

On the other hand, the transfer student gets half a day, the junior high schooler gets one day where her grade is the only one in the school, and the high schooler gets a two hour assembly punctuated by pizza.

Why is this?  Is there some reason to believe that the transition to college is a more significant step than the rest?  Is there something about being 18 that needs more transitional guidance than being 20 or 15 or 13?

As a dad, knowing my own kids, their needs, concerns, strengths, and fears, and as an administrator, knowing the goals of orientation, I would certainly assign orientation differently, and according to the actual kids, not their generic transition from one stage to another in life.  I think my high schooler needs a slower, longer transition.  The transfer student could use a period of guided reflection on how to move ahead at a new, different college.  The freshman told me herself that the longer the orientation the more anxious she feels, so I would skip her orientation until after a week of classes.  And my youngest, most gregarious daughter would get a couple of parent-teacher conferences one-on-one before launching into her new social life.

Asked more simply I wonder this: if we oriented students according to themselves, not to their grade or school, how would orientation be different?  Would it be more effective?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Compromise and reconciliation, democracy and civic engagement

Whatever you may think about the debt ceiling compromise or the debate leading up to it (and I know most people dislike them), they are less important for the quality of our civic life than what comes next.

This fact seems to have been lost on commentators, who continue to debate the wisdom of the compromise, or the economic impact of the Standard and Poors credit rating downgrade, or what it means for the United States' place in the world.  But for our civic life, what we would hope to see after compromise is some sort of reconciliation.  In fact, in both religion and civic theory, it is the reconciliation--the ability to recognize changes in oneself, and to work more effectively with others in the future, that is the real benefit of compromise.

Consider this teaching from the Christian tradition:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
   23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
   25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.

Or consider the work of truth and reconciliation commissions the world over who have helped countries emerge from periods of tyranny into something like democracy. (For an old but still moving work on these commissions read Lawrence Wechsler's A Miracle, A Universe.)

In both instances the injunction to reconcile is the basis for future relationships.  That is, civic life cannot function with citizens who are unable to talk to each other, or who are trying to overlook (ignore) real gaps between them.  And both instances demand that some individuals not just agree to the compromise, but reconcile with their enemies.

Now consider the way we talk about compromise in America.  It is widely acknowledged that compromise is essential for democracy.  It is also assumed that compromise means that both parties fail to get what they want from the agreement.  This is usually true in terms of policy.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans got what they wanted in the debt ceiling negotiations.

Our discussions of compromise, though, entirely overlook the need for reconciliation.  In fact, all of the sides in the debt ceiling compromise told their constituents that the compromise was a short-term solution and that they would still work to reach their big goals.  Or, in other words, compromise was but a short detour from winning their long-term battle.

If you know history you know that this view--compromise now until you can win enough public support to avoid compromise--has a long tradition in American politics.  And traditionally it has led to some horrible compromises.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, which gave birth to a mini-civil war prior to the real one.

Our civic life needs two things if it is to avoid the sort of poisonous, ineffective compromises that litter our history: First, a civic movement that is committed to reconciliation in public life, that pushes for relationships and repentance before and after compromise.  (Imagine, for example, a law that requires party leaders to meet with a mediator (or play golf together) after every law that passes with a party-line vote.)  Second, leaders who are publicly committed to reconciliation as a goal of their public service. It is here that the irony lies.  With so many legislators who are publicly Christian, why are so few of them publicly committed to Christian behavior?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The temptations of distinctiveness

I've been thinking a lot about institutional distinctiveness lately.  The nonprofits whose boards I chair are both trying to find their niches in complex sectors of the non-profit world (culture and K-12 education); a big chunk of marketing colleges revolves around crafting a distinctive image of the institution; and job ads for college administrators consistently tout the distinctive characteristics of the school. Distinctiveness is everywhere.

I understand the importance of distinctiveness--potential customers, friends, and colleagues can only find you, and you them, if there is something that distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd.  And no organization wants to find itself unable to articulate a vision  (think about this tagline: "We do lots of stuff pretty well"), or a niche ("We do pretty much the same stuff as lots of other organizations.")

But the quest for distinctiveness carries with it three temptations that can be as damaging as the absence of distinctiveness.  Here they are:

  1. An "arms race" for new stuff: One of the critiques of American higher ed is that it would cost less if campuses stopped thinking they needed the newest or the most unique stuff. That stuff could be buildings (LEED certification anyone?), or programs, or activities.  The now-ubiquitous climbing wall is the symbol of this sort of problem--once a campus built a climbing wall.  Now no self-respecting campus seeking active students would be without one.  (We have two--one indoors and one out).
  2. Imprecise language: The search for distinctiveness leads us to suggest that certain things are evidence of distinctiveness when in fact they are not.  Every school I know of touts its small class sizes.  Small class size is a proxy for lots of things: faculty-student interaction, welcoming environment, and care for individual students.  But when the local Research I, community college, and liberal arts college all tout small class sizes, that distinctiveness marker means almost nothing.
  3. A loss of community: students who are attracted to one thing--a program, a professor, a building--are both more likely to be at-risk, and less likely to be engaged than students who engage with many things.  And engaging with many things means that students become part of a community, where they are connected in many places and to many people.  Distinction, in other words, can mean isolation.  And isolation is neither good for the student nor good for the institution.