Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning

When I attended the Frye Leadership Institute two summers ago, we went through a rather extensive, team based exercise to come up with our own fictitious university and then within that structure try to solve the various issues that universities face nowadays – satisfying research faculty who may see the mission quite differently from the administration view, recruiting students and ensuring programs that provide value to them, generating sufficient revenue, etc. As I recall, each of these mock universities was designed to address some specific concern, e.g., continuing education for senior citizens. (My group focused on giving students a north-south perspective as in North America and South America.) It really is a good exercise to go through to make one aware of all the cross currents that must be addressed in running a university. If you can find a cohort all of whom are interested, I’d recommend you try it yourself.

My next several posts will be about designing such a university which like mine has a research orientation that it wants to preserve yet it also has numerous undergraduate students that it would like to serve well and do so at a reasonable cost. Furthermore, the design of the institution must make a frontal assault on the student engagement issue.

My pie in the sky idea is to make inward looking service learning the centerpiece of this hypothetical university and then to explore how it might come to be as well as to try to bring out as many issues as I can reasonably articulate about where progress really is and where we might be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

So starting with this post we move from the concrete to the speculative. All of this is hypothetical and needs to be considered as such. (Better to criticize the post that there is a way to do things better or that what I’m suggesting can’t work for such and such a reason than to simply argue what I’m proposing is not realistic.) The focus of the discussion, something that needs to be kept in mind throughout, is to consider how students can be employed in a set of dual roles – learner and teacher, apprentice and content creator, novice and mentor. The duality is critical to the conception. Thus I want to break the mindset where the student is the customer and the instructor is producer. The student wears many hats. And perhaps the instructor and the institution must do likewise.

Let met begin by noting why I think this has a prayer of working. At my own campus we attract a comparatively high caliber student that is evidenced not jut by the SAT/ACT scores reported in US News and World Report and elsewhere but also by the relatively high graduation rate (tied for third in the Big 10). These kids are talented and most have been reasonably well prepared for college. So I think they are ready for the type of role change I will discuss and to a large extent I believe that institutions such as mine have erred by not conferring sufficient responsibility on these students. Also, as residential students, they are more or less captive and one can reasonably expect to divert their time from one activity to another that is seemingly more beneficial. I can’t see this idea working on a commuter campus or a residential campus with less able kids.

In this particular post, I will content myself with counting beans, to show why this might work on a different dimension, from a business point of view.

Let’s begin with the following observation. Many students work. When we did the evaluation work for the SCALE Efficiency projects, seven or eight years ago, the finding at the time was that in Freshmen level courses mean hours worked per student was low but in upper level courses that number was 8 or 9 hours per week, roughly the equivalent to the time we expect students to put in for a 3 credit hour course. If anything, the evidence and the practicality of the situation (higher tuition with financial aid not keeping pace) suggests that students work more now.

Let’s envision that this work time is redirected toward the university. (In some cases the university may already be the employer, but in other cases not.) Let us assume that the work these students had been doing can be done by other unskilled or semiskilled labor in the workforce at a comparable wage so that the impact on this other work can be ignored in a first pass. Instead, we can concentrate on the new use of this work – supporting the learning of other undergraduate students on campus.

Let’s also envision that after the first year experience students start up in this service learning enterprise and apart from redirecting their work time, we also redirect their course time, so that say 20% to 25% of that time is now engaged in a university sanctioned service learning activity.

In other words we envision about 18 – 24 hours a week being spent on the service learning and that the reward and recognition that students get for this work will be partly in terms of cash compensation and partly in terms of credit. Let’s do some arithmetic on each of these.

Suppose the “hourly wage” for these students is $10/hour and suppose that 10 hours per week is the time that is compensated by cash. Then it takes 4 such students to get a full time equivalent compensated on wages, with the cost equal to $400/week and over two sixteen week terms that costs 32 weeks x $400/week = $12,800. That number surely is lower than what we pay two half time graduate students in stipend for an academic year (and the university has to pay the grad students fringe benefits on top of that) and ditto for adjunct instructors let alone tenure track faculty. (Note that the students get the fringe benefits as part of the services covered by their tuition, so it is not a cost here.) In other words, undergraduate labor is inexpensive and part of the argument is that it makes sense to use that inexpensive labor in more circumstance that we have done heretofore. I’m not arguing that we do away with graduate teaching assistants or adjunct faculty, but I think on the former that in many cases they are being used as slave labor primarily and that we have too many if justified only by the need to train them for a future career in the discipline. And it seems to me that the latter are anathema to preserving the research character of the place or, flipping the argument, that tenure is not a necessary institution to promote research and that all faculty can be adjuncts. I can see the argument, especially in a place where all research activity is sponsored externally, but it is orthogonal to what I want to discuss, so I’m keeping tenure in.

The other arithmetic point, and I hope it is obvious, is that if students do one course worth of inward based service learning in each semester after the freshmen year, then this must be one less course these students are taking per semester. (After all, the time must come from somewhere.) Thus, the service learning reduces the demand for instruction in sophomore to senior level courses on the order of 20%. Of course, these students require supervision and mentoring while they do their service learning. The supervision is an added burden on faculty and support staff. So a key to the whole thing is how much of an added burden that is.

And the argument I want to put forward is that it is less of a burden than some skeptics might think, because the activity will be directed to supporting the teaching that instructors continue to do. That is, it is not just mentoring; it is also a productive activity that makes the instructors teaching burden lighter. Here again is the duality.

If this underlying arithmetic is wrong, say the supervision really is time consuming for faculty, then the thing doesn’t work. But if it is right, we are now seeing the ingredients for a scalable solution to keep down the costs of instruction and yet provide a decent education.

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