Friday, July 29, 2005

More on Hysteresis/What the Future May Bring

I'm headed out of town this morning for a long weekend with the family. The next post will be on Monday.

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Yesterday's post on the Academic Calendar was an example of institutional inertia and how historical effects can have durable impact. The technical term is hysteresis, which apparently was first used in the context of physical systems but which also can be applied to social systems. There are many other aspects of the university where one can whether the historical basis for the current structure is still approximately optimal given the current situation. If the answer is no, then new alternative structures may be viable and if given the opportunity might trump the current ones.

Here is another area in which to consider hysteresis in higher ed. The course is now the preeminent unit of learning. Clearly learning continues for research faculty after they have attained their degrees. Does that happen in courses? What about for professionals who work outside of higher education? If the focus is on the learning (and not the certification thereof) is the course the right way to organize the learning.

My experience is that research faculty learn in two ways that I think are appropriate to treat as separate. There is a very deep and narrow learning from participating in their own research projects. This is a specific type of learning by doing, where the word investigator is often substituted for the word researcher. The methodology of the discipline is applied in a manner where the investigator learns a la Sherlock Holmes. The other way is by being a member of a seminar or workshop. This is a somewhat broader form of learning where the researcher stays abreast of current developments in the field by reading papers and seeing presentations by others who are doing research and occasionally presenting their own work.

This may be somewhat unfair as a characterization but I would describe the work of professionals outside of academe also as research, in the sense that much of the work is investigation, but of a much more applied type aimed at getting more specific answers. There may then be structures analogous to the seminar to review the work and share it with peers. The commonality then is learning by doing and sharing of results.

While the Boyer Commission recommended bringing faculty like research into the undergraduate curriculum, bringing the practitioner type of investigation into undergraduate education might be more relevant for the vast majority of them. More to the point for this discussion, the course is in conflict with the investigation. The course ends at a time known in advance. The end time for the investigation is not predictable. It takes as long as necessary to pursue all the leads to solve the puzzle. If one wanted to emphasize investigation in undergraduate education, one would have to do this outside of courses (or, perhaps, have a series of courses that serve as an umbrella to house the investigations).

The current emphasis on inquiry-based learning will either be reduced to trivialities by restricting attention only to those subjects where investigation can be completed in a very short period of time or it will confront this inherent contradiction between the course and the investigation. Harder questions take time to resolve and after considerable thought and work may remain unresolved.

The current divide in undergraduate education is between "general education" on the one hand and "the major" on the other. The focus is on broad (what everyone should know) education early and specific disciplinary education late. This division is increasingly becoming non-functional because we are changing our view about our job as educators from teaching them "stuff" to teaching them "how to learn."

So my "prediction" and I base this on the type of reasoning above rather than on any trends I see emerging is that undergraduate education will cleave and become more like graduate education - - - courses for a while, then investigative research. The Ph.d. dissertation in my experience is more of a solitary quest. The undergraduate alternative likely will be done in project teams. The course part of this will be taught by non-research faculty. The investigative part might be taught by research faculty or perhaps by clinical faculty who have done more of the applied type of research that is appropriate for undergrads. The remainder of the research faculty will be engaged in graduate programs only and the size and the composition of the faculty overall will eventually adjust to this new structure.

The part of the current structure that would cease in this new world is to have research faculty teach stuff. This also points to the primary force that would block this vision from becoming reality. If the research and graduate education is being subsidized by the undergraduate teaching (my belief is that this is happening in departments which are not obtaining a lot of external funding) then the researchers clearly have an incentive to preserve the old way.


Pete Siegel said...

Your prediction (2nd to last paragraph) is very interesting and thought-provoking and I'd love to hear more. A few years ago now, I heard a talk by the (now-outgoing) president of UT Austin, Larry Faulkner, describing the seemingly necessary changes in education in state institutions that continuing budget cuts would force upon them. What I took away from his talk was that the loss of state funds would lead to a dramatic refocusing of traditional faculty onto research, with a shift in undergraduate education towards a "community-college-like" model, with courses taught by adjuncts and senior faculty available only to undergraduates who fit into a classical research environment. As I understand it, part of his point was to describe this as a foreboding disaster awaiting us, yet in some interesting ways the falling-budget scenario overlaps with yours.

What do you think of this notion expressed here that this bifurcation is being forced in two ways-- by state budgetary realities and by the need for research experiences for undergraduates to couple ever more tightly with the traditional research environments? If so, outside of the continued weakening of the core, is it all bad? For example, continuing excellence in research is a good thing, as is tying undergraduates to meaningful research experiences, as you point out.

Lanny Arvan said...

Pete - thanks for your comment and questions. I'll try to write more about bifurcation in a later post.

The budget pressure issues suggest two "obvious" candidate solutions. The first is to raise tuition to cover the shortfall, keeping programms essentially intact. This, in effect, will turn the public universities into private universities. A few places: UMich, UNC, UVA, and maybe a couple of others, can go this route and be viable.

The second is to lower cost to keep the place fiscally solvent. You can easily come up with the list of changes that have already been tried - move to adjuncts, larger class size, more deferred maintenance for physical plant, and, if we see some substantial inflation, decline in the real wages of faculty and staff. This fits the Faulkner prediction except perhaps on the class size prediction. Another possibility, also outside the scope of the Faulkner predictio, is that Universities with some state subsidy will admit fewer students, so the subsidy per student will be larger, in other words, downsizing.

On what is good or bad in this, it helps to keep in mind that the best students will likely do well irrespective of the regime. One has to look at the impact on students closer to the mean to get a sense of the utilitarian effects.

My sense is that the the cost issues are being addressed, if in a back handed way, but the student engagement issues are not being addressed much if at all. Both need to be addressed or we'll implode under the weight of the unresolved issue.