Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Flying is for the birds. Actually, the trip from the Sea-Tac airport to O’Hare on Alaska Airlines was comparatively benign. We had the Jet Stream working for us in that direction so the trip took under 4 hours. And the plane was a fairly new Boeing 737-900, with reasonably comfortable seats and adequate leg room between rows. They even served Macadamia nuts along with the usual soft drinks. So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, how about a two hour layover in O’Hare? I had my le Carre novel, Absolute Friends, which I was enjoying and my iPod Shuffle to block out the outside noise and get into my own personal space. And I tried to break up the time a bit with a Starbucks. But even with the creature comforts, hanging out at airports is disorienting. I was baffled by why American Airlines has no flight to Champaign near when I arrived but then two flights 20 minutes apart around 7 PM. (Select ORD for From and CMI for To and then choose early evening.) I was on the earlier one of these and it was on time, no small blessing. Yet for those of you who have not experienced the delights of an ERJ 145 jet with 3 across seating, insufficient headroom to stand in the aisle, and a shoehorn-you-into-your-seat approach especially unappealing for a big guy like me, take my word that it’s those commuter flights that do you in. I was a zombie most of the weekend.

I’m not here to gripe, however, at least not about travel inconvenience. I’m very glad I went to the Educause Conference. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s opening lecture was incredibly good, worth the trip in itself. And I was in a variety of invited sessions where the conversation was stimulating and productive, though a particular talk by Terry Hartle of ACE Tuesday evening that was part of a dinner/discussion session hosted by D2L got me into a dither because he was so thoughtful and well informed but his subject – how the political climate in DC and elsewhere around the country is so into this notion of accountability – got me depressed because on the one had we need to wake up and address the problem while on the other it sure seems we’ll do more harm than good. Hartle used data about fatality rates at hospitals, data that does not reference other information about patient well being and hence data that can create quite a misleading picture, to emphasize the point. Of course in Higher Ed we’ve been reporting on graduation rates for years without, for example, indexing them by median SAT score at the institution, so we are likely confounding student capabilities with institutional commitment to learning. Hartle indicated that both in DC and in state capitols, the hyperinflation in tuition has created a fatigue with legislators about us in Higher Ed saying “we’ll study the problem.” They want action. Later during the same session when we were having discussions at each individual table, I asked Hartle whether FERPA puts a damper on us collecting data to show how the institution is performing. Hartle immediately brought up the Gonzaga Case, something I was unaware of, to make the point that FERPA doesn’t do much if anything to block efforts at institutional accountability. Too bad.

I’m part of several different overlapping groups where a good part of the Educause conference is to seek out group members and rekindle a spark with them. One of those is the CIC Learning Technology Group, where my role now is past chair (John Campbell is the current chair) and general contrarian. There were many folks from the group at that Tuesday Dinner. I’m on very friendly terms with many of them, a combination of shared experience and a sense that we have a lot to learn from each other. And it’s fun too because we know we can be open with each other on just about any topic and benchmark ourselves, not just the programs we support, in a way that’s not threatening. It is so much easier to talk with someone if there is a sense of an ongoing conversation. We have that in the LT Group. We don’t need to build the bond. It is already there.

A different group is the folks from my campus who have essentially the same title as I’ve got but who are in different colleges plus a few folks in the Campus Academic Technology unit (CITES). It seems ridiculous to travel 2,000 miles to meet up with folks from your own campus and have conversations with them there. But some of it is not so silly. I happened to be on the same flight out as Ken Spelke, so we chatted both at Willard and O’Hare and ended up having dinner together that first night. Later, on Wednesday I believe, I bumped into Deanna Raineri, my very good friend and my counterpart in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We did a bit of a walk around the Exhibit Hall (I’m not crazy about the practice of having the box lunches all the way in the back so one must walk through at least some of the vendor displays to get to the food, but c’est la vie) and by accident while heading to the exit bumped into Xythos CEO Kevin Wiggen, who happens to be an Illinois Alum, and mostly by happenstance I have a kind of collegial relationship with him that mirrors the better relationships I have with my academic counterparts. Kevin gave Deanna and me an annotated tour of their latest release – quite nice.

Somehow later that day I ended up with both Deanna and Ken at the Starbucks in the Hyatt chatting about IT on our campus and how much we don’t know about what is going on. We’re in a brave new world with a new Campus CIO and much speculation about where we are heading IT-wise. I meet with each of them individually here in Urbana on a regular basis, but we rarely get together as a threesome. So what was meant as a restbit to gather energy (i.e., caffeine) for the evening festivities ends up as an extended and sometimes heated conversation about the campus direction. We had planned to have a College CIOs group meet monthly this year, but the group hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. If this conversation is any indication we’ll have no problem keeping up the conversation when we do meet. The sense of trust is the same as with the LT Group, perhaps even stronger. But in this case we care a lot about information flows – or lack thereof. Ours is a complex and decentralized campus. Also, we need to get each other’s perspective on recent events to see if our own take really makes sense.

Another group where there is a strong bond is my Frye class. I was in the 2003 cohort. Ten of us made it to dinner Wednesday night and I found it both charming and delightful that others want to get together as much as I do. Here the sense of common shared experience is most intense. The talk goes from work to paying for the our kids’ college to viewing IT as political economy to favorite TV programs all in a fluid, we-can-go-anywhere-we-want type of conversation. We don’t really talk much about nostalgia regarding our experience at Frye, maybe a bit but mostly not. But we do feel close to one another. That is unmistakable.

* * * * *

There was a different set of emotions on display at the conference because Brian Hawkins is stepping down as President and CEO of Educause and the conference was his swan song, with many people expressing their gratitude for Brian’s contribution and Polly McClure, in particular, talking of him as a model for her and the rest of us to emulate. It seemed as if everyone was taken up with Brian’s leaving.

I don’t know Brian well but some of the places where I interacted with him show up even better in retrospect. Brian, along with Pat Battin and Susan Perry were the “elders” who sat in the back of the room and assisted the “Deans,” Deanna Marcum and Rick Detweiler, during most of the time we were in plenary session at Frye, an institute that covers two weeks. Having more recently been a faculty member at the Learning Technology Leadership Institute, less than half the length of Frye and knowing how intense that was even as a kibitzer in the back of the room during sessions when I wasn’t a presenter, a big take away for me about Brian was the strength of his commitment. Much of that was exhibited just by his being there. Brian did give us a talk near the end of Frye – we need to expect to put in the time, a lot of time; we need to read the Chronicle and understand the job market and not just in our own area; we need to make some personal sacrifice to move up and likely if we want to advance we need to change institution (this is a toughie with a spouse who is also employed by the university and with kids who have friends at school that were long in the making ). So commitment and straight talk, that’s what I think of when considering Brian.

The conference itself is such a production and this time around some of the Educause staff seemed apologetic because the venue was sold out and in some ways too small for the size of the conference. I can only imagine what type of performance pressure the annual conference and all the other events put on Brian. He seemed to take it all in stride. I was a Nervous Nellie when I was hosting FSI – with only about 100 participants. Brian was always graceful in whatever context I saw him. That is a tribute to the Educause staff and their capabilities and Brian’s trust in them. Polly McClure was right. Brian is a great role model.

* * * * *

I could go on. I’ve been part of other Educause and also vendor-created groups and there is good camaraderie with some of those people, a few of whom I saw at the conference. But I want to change perspective here because I want to comment on some of the larger issues that were the talk of the conference.

With my friends I’m completely at ease, open and garrulous. Some may get the impression that I’m always that way, but they’d be quite wrong. Friends are insiders and there is a particular norm of behavior for them. It just isn’t the same with outsiders. Then one doesn’t know quite how to take their comments. There is little or no context. That goes likewise for how remarks I make might be understood. I want to illustrate with a personal anecdote first to show the problem. Then I’ll bring the discussion back to the conference.

When I was a teen I had battles with my mother, some of it standard “generation gap” problems – clean up your room. This particular incident is of a different sort. In considering High School, my mom wanted me to attend Bayside High, which was not then our community school. She wanted me to take Latin and for that there was a zoning variance so I could go to Bayside. The local school was brand new, Benjamin Cardozo HS, and as such was unproven. My sister, five years my senior, had attended Bayside in a similar fashion instead of attending the then new school, Francis Lewis. My sister liked going to Bayside and did well there. Language helped my sister’s GPA.

But I’m different from my sister in many respects and the circumstances had changed. Both Bayside and Francis Lewis required a bus ride; Cardozo was within walking distance. I was a math guy where my sister was not. As it turned out my Junior High School was in the process of converting to an Intermediate school and indeed I graduated after eighth grade. I believe the entire system was making that conversion but was doing so unevenly. Bayside High had a ninth grade but not one with much richness – my impression is it mostly had kids who went to parochial school but then didn’t continue to a Catholic High School and most of those kids weren’t good students. So the math and science I was getting there was too elementary for me and more to the point I felt isolated with little prospect of finding peers whom I could befriend. Ultimately I got very emotional and with my mom’s help arranged a transfer to Cardozo. (This was the same term, fall 1968, of the big New York City Teacher’s strike and while I was at Bayside for only a few weeks, it was several months before I started at Cardozo. In the interim I had my (impacted) wisdom teeth removed and attended a scab school… at Francis Lewis.)

I held a grudge against my mom for a very long time. She applied rules based on my sister’s experience without being sensitive to the particulars of my situation. She didn’t see my needs at all. I was a very good student and didn’t need language to boost my grades. I needed honors math and science for intellectual growth more than I needed Latin. And I took a great deal of comfort from being with my friends from Junior High. Cardozo was definitely better for me (and I believe it later proved to be a better High School overall). I thought parents were supposed to show that kind of sensitivity to their kids needs. It wasn’t until well into my twenties when my mother’s health began to deteriorate, and much later in my forties when I started to see some of her personality in my own kids that I began to see her perspective, though I still think the choice of Bayside High was wrong.

Accountability in Higher Education appears to be the “taking Latin” equivalent of today. There is nothing wrong with it ceteris paribus. Unfortunately, all else is never equal. Accountability as an issue is there to appease outsiders. This was made evident throughout the conference. In addition to Terry Hartle talk I heard Tuesday, there was a featured panel session with several member s of Spellings Commission Thursday morning. Among the panelists were David Ward of ACE, Terry Hartle’s boss and the sole member of the Commission who didn’t sign off on the final report. David Ward made several subtle points, and I applaud his intellectual integrity in sticking with nuance, but I thought his rhetorical style lost in the battle with the other panelists. Both Charlene Nunley and especially Robert Mendenhall were more effective in making argument, precisely because they had a simple model on which to base all that they talked about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for example in this post, a rhetorical style based on a simple analytic framework is usually best for winning a debate, because it solves the framing problem for the listener. Capture the frame and all else follows.

But winning a debate doesn’t mean the argument is correct; it just means it is more persuasive. (Recall Lincoln on fooling the people and do note that subtlety is lost on those who have yet to think hard on an issue.) At the Tuesday evening dinner D2L did a good job of in the main staying out of the way. But at the beginning and at the end they made a pitch to get those in the audience to participate with them in writing White Papers on assessment with data. I for one will not take part in such activities BECAUSE I’D END UP SCREAMING. I will note here, however, that there is a need to articulate clearly the mechanism for quality assurance that is currently in play under the trust model.

We in Higher Ed say “trust us” but we don’t explain why it is that we should be deemed trustworthy. People have heard about publish or perish but they don’t know how it relates. They don’t know about faculty recruiting and the effort involved with that. They also don’t know about performance review.

They hear about what seems to be too few hours spent by faculty in the classroom and they implicitly get the idea that teaching is at odds with research. For undergraduate education, I think that perception is accurate, at least insofar as we continue to teach courses where the content is static, meaning it is essentially the same course as was taught twenty or thirty years ago. I’ve taught Economic Principles recently and was able to bring a freshness to the course by entirely abandoning a textbook approach, bringing in my own online content made with Excel, getting the students to read from journal articles in the American Economic Review Proceedings or the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and from such books as Freakonomics. But I did this as part of an experiment on how to teach, not as an extension of my current economics research.

There is a large issue, one that not too many people seem to be discussing now, about how to do the appropriate “translation” to make current research of interest and palpable for undergraduate instruction, particularly in a field like economics that attracts large numbers of students and that has a rich tradition, dating back at least to Adam Smith. That type of translation requires thought and effort, the results of which are largely not rewarded in the current model. (Those who argue for SOTL miss the point because SOTL work counts for naught by the faculty within a discipline who evaluate each other.) So all is not rosy for teaching and learning under the current model. But don’t think the accountability issue will help in this regard. That’s all about whether junior is learning what is being taught. It’s not about whether what is being taught is the right stuff for junior to know.

While normally outspoken on larger issues that engage the profession, I fear that there will be a garbling of the core questions if brought out in open debate, and so speak up here with mixed feelings. People “out there” want answers and they are impatient, to the point where they expect answers before they have the appropriate background to consider the alternatives. But I fear even more for my friends and colleagues within the profession, people whom I care about deeply. We’re being drawn into this argument whether we want to or not. We’re likely not of one mind on the answers to these questions. That could very well create distance between us, possibly even contempt for each other’s point of view. Our collegiality and affection for one another is our greatest asset. It would be a shame to tarnish it. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction where we’re headed.


LisaLibrarian said...

A small quibble perhaps but I think worth mentioning because it also reflects the diversity of disciplines at play in universities. Within some disciplines, SoTL is a well-established area of disciplinary research focus. But, certainly not in all.

Lanny Arvan said...

Yes, you're right. Physics comes to mind. Math might be another one, though I think of Math Education as in the College of Ed, not the Math department.

Still, the issue of whether static content should be taught by research faculty and in what manner should be discussed.