Friday, August 30, 2013

Almost full screen video capture with SnagIt

It was just a few years ago, when I was making my screen captures of Excel using Jing Pro, where I relied on a region that was 960:540 pixels, large enough to get at some interesting content but small enough that when YouTube compressed the video it still would be largely viewable.

The last day or so I've been making near full screen captures with SnagIt (Jing Pro is dead) and publishing those to YouTube, then having the students view them full screen.  Below is an example.  Focus on the image quality, not the content.  For the first several seconds it is blurry, but then it is remarkably sharp.

Now I've got to work on getting the content I make to live up to that standard.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bifurcated Student Commitment

In the first class session yesterday, there was a reasonably good discussion with perhaps a third of the students participating openly, this in spite of it being quite warm in the room.  Most of the rest seemed to be paying attention, if not joining in with their comments.  I was pleased by that.  But there were a few who seemed otherwise.  This post will focus on them first, then on a different group of students who seem eager but don't quite have the proper preparation.  

First let me note there was an outlier.  I passed around a sheet for registered students to check in and for students not yet registered to indicate their presence.  There were none in the latter category.  Several students who were on the list did not show up.  All but one of them dropped.  That one left had blown off the first class session.  So I emailed him about it to find out what was going on.  He responded that he did plan to take the course and would be in class on Thursday.  But he was still working on fixing his schedule and he had more pressing matters than attending the first session.  You can read that any way you'd like.  In my grand model of all things related to college students, if he had emailed me ahead of class and apologized but said he would have to miss the session, he would be in my good graces.  The way it played out he is not. 

Now to the disengaged students who did show up in class.  We are taught not to read a book by its cover.  True enough.  Yet body language does communicate.   These students, all white males, were slouching in their seats with a pained expression painted on their faces.  The message I got from glancing at them now and then was, "I'm tolerating this class, but just barely.  Either pick it up or I'm out of here."  We'll see if they are there tomorrow for the next class session.  Reflecting about this afterward, I had the feeling of being in a remake of Up The Down Staircase with me in the Sandy Dennis role.  The only thing missing from the original was the threat of violence.

Peter Drucker makes a point that I strongly agree with - the active person in any communication is the receiver/listener.  The sender/talker may believe he has control, but the receiver/listener has the power to shut down intended communication. I'm sensitive on this point so when I'm the sender/talker I look for ways to learn whether I'm getting through.   Indicators, even if far from perfect, are helpful to make some appraisal of the situation.

For my online stuff, usage stats help give the picture.  But at the start of the semester there are some issues in relying on them.  At yesterday's first class session I failed to get the projector to see the signal from my laptop, so I didn't do my normal first day activity of giving a tour of the class Web site.  On Sunday I had sent each registered student an email with several relevant pieces of information, including the link to the class Web site and a different link to a survey done in Google Forms that I wanted them to complete before the first class meeting.  There was a little to do when I mentioned that email in class - apparently many of the students hadn't seen it yet.  Since that announcement several additional students completed the survey.  Indeed for two of them, the time stamp is for during the class session.  Yet there are still many students who haven't done the survey.  I can't tell whether that is because of their lack of commitment or because they don't do email but otherwise are committed.  If the latter is the case, I'm not sure what alternative to try.  The last time I taught the course it seemed that every student did check email. 

I am uncertain about the cause for the lack of commitment, but it seems evident that it precedes my teaching of this class.  In economic jargon, it's exogenous to my teaching model.  You deal with it as you can.  Seeing it has made me mindful not to be the cause of more of it.  It is that thought which drives my thinking about the under prepared students.  The critical issue is whether intermediate microeconomics should be a prerequisite or if concurrent taking of intermediate micro is ok or if a student can take my class without intermediate micro. 

As a matter of fact, there is no prerequisite for my class enforced in Banner, the student registration system.  Whether that is because I failed to notify the department that there should be or because they failed to ask me, I can't say.  The course is still being offered as a special topics class.  I don't know whether prerequisites are appropriate for such classes.  At least in theory, it shouldn't matter whether there is a formal prerequisite or not, if students can petition the instructor to waive the prerequisite.  The same sort of advising/consultation would occur in that case as well.  As a matter of practice, however, the formal prerequisite might discourage some students from pursing a waiver alternative, so it probably does matter some. 

The question, then, is how to respond to students when I get queries such as these.  What would be a fair and considered response?  I took no undergraduate microeconomics whatsoever.  I was a math major at Cornell.   I did get to skip some prerequisites, but that was in political science.  Since I've taught the current course, I've seen students who had intermediate micro, but didn't seem to grasp some of the main lessons from it.  Having comfort in using calculus arguments would be extremely helpful.  But this is almost impossible for me to assess ahead of time.  Under the current FERPA interpretation on campus, instructors can't see student grades in their prior courses.  (Formally appointed advisers can.)   The system seems to want to steer the students toward the formal advisers.  But there are so many students and so few advisers.  Further the advisers don't know the prior skills the students need for particular courses.  The student-instructor communication on this point is more natural.  Indeed, in my course we will be making an argument for decentralized decision making tomorrow for just this sort of local information reason.  Even then, however, the instructor gives advice in a setting largely ignorant of the student's capabilities. 

Let me close.  Those who are aware of Gresham's Law might wonder whether something similar might happen with students, even if on day one of the course the number who appeared disengaged were a small minority.  Will it stay a small minority by the end of the third week?  That's the concern.  It's why even if I can't get the disengaged students to become excited about the economics, can I at least get them to break into a smile once in a while?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Looking for (cost savings and quality improvement) in all the wrong places

The word "discrimination" raises a red flag with many people.  Economists use it in the context of pricing and argue that it is a good thing because it promotes efficiency - senior citizen and student discounts an example that conveys the meaning when we discuss this in intermediate microeconomics.  But we see price discrimination in higher education in a way that favors the kids from well-off families.  If we talked about this more and made it more overt, perhaps we'd do something about it and come up with more sensible recommendations.

Here I want to look at this for Big Public U and focus on three things in concert:

(1) The role of AP courses in de facto setting higher ed tuition expenditure,
(2) The complementary role played by a below-cost in-state tuition, and
(3) The massive introductory courses and their role in controlling overall costs.

The argument is simple enough.  The kids who come in with a lot of AP credit already have shorter time to degree (so pay less tuition overall), bypass the high enrollment courses in the main (so get a higher quality instruction on a per course basis), and among those who are within state they are also getting a rather substantial subsidy, which they don't need at all, in the sense that they'd attend college anyway and pay the full tuition if they went elsewhere to a private institution.  

Politically it might be suicide to raise the in-state tuition rate, at least if it were expressed the way I have above, so perhaps a more palpable solution would be to go to "pricing for the degree" rather than pricing per semester.  A college degree, like a house, is an asset.  Price that.  Then have tuition be a kind of mortgage.  And those can vary by term.  Students who's profile predicts them to graduate in 3 years would pay a higher rate because of the shorter term.  Students who's  profile predicts it will take 6 years get a lower rate.  This sort of change would "lower the cost" of a degree for students of modest income, as it is discussed in the popular press.  Kids from well off families would pay more.

A move to this sort of pricing scheme might slow down what I take to be a pernicious trend in high school education - students of means taking a large number of AP classes instead of taking classes for enrichment but that don't carry college credit.  I believe in a "smell the roses" approach to education, which we seemed to have moved away from.  But the pricing change alone probably won't achieve much on this score unless something else is done to improve quality in the large introductory courses.  So let's turn to that.

In 1996 when I was the Associate Director of the SCALE project, I along with a doctoral student in Economics did a study of undergraduate retention rates at the U of I.  In the process of doing this study I got enrollment information on all courses on campus.  We looked at 5 years worth of data, with the last semester spring 1996.  The patterns were fairly stable over that time and are well summarized by the table below.

The course-size distribution was highly skewed.  Modal course size was reasonable and perhaps not too different from course size at private universities.  But there were some mega courses and they were concentrated at the introductory level.  This is reflected even more in the standard deviation number than it is in the mean.

Note that this is course size, not section size.  In a few high enrollment courses at the time,  the notable ones being introductory rhetoric and introductory foreign language classes, there would be many modestly sized sections taught by graduate students.  But most of the mega courses were taught either in lecture-discussion mode or as straight lecture.  The ratio of instructional staff to students in those courses is much lower than it is in the upper level courses.

Things have changed since then, so the picture painted above is not precise.  For one, our course numbering scheme has changed.  More importantly, tuition has risen rather dramatically.  Students who take General Education courses in the summer may then do so at a community college or an online alternative rather than at the U of I as a form of tuition avoidance.   There are more transfer students now with the advent of the two + two model to hold down tuition costs.  (Students attend community college till they obtain an associates degree and then transfer.)  There are probably other relevant changes as well.  Nevertheless, I surmise that the picture painted by that table is still largely intact.

One other point to be made here is that most faculty are not involved at all in the mega courses.  Their undergraduate teaching is concentrated in the upper level classes.  There is a tendency to consider one's own teaching but not to consider the full scope of offerings.  So, faculty governance may never get to addressing the issues properly. There is also the matter that enrollments in the mega courses are driven by General Education requirements that must be satisfied for graduation.  Offering departments see inelastic demand for these courses, so have very little incentive to increase their staffing.

But any theory of human capital development will argue that early intervention is critical.  What we seem to have instead is a screening approach, where the large introductory courses weed out students who can't hack it.  Disproportionately, those are students who don't have a lot AP credit coming it.  A more nurturing approach would move resource from the upper level courses to the introductory ones.

Hardly anybody seems to be talking about that.  It is the conversation we should be having. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Finding the path

My first class session of the new semester is this upcoming Tuesday.  I've been rehearsing in my head how it will go.  Going in, my thought was to illustrate various issues with which the course is concerned in contexts which the students are already quite familiar and to extract questions from those contexts.

Since this is an upper level course, most of the students will be living in apartments rather than in university housing.  My guess is that the majority will have a roommate or several roommates.  So my thought was to first point out that there is economic activity in running an apartment - shopping, cooking, cleaning up, paying the bills, etc. - and would ask them first how that work is divided among roommates.  I suspect mainly they will say they divide it equally because that's what is fair.  Of course, economists tend to ignore fairness and instead focus on efficiency, so we might push on that for a bit and see where it leads us. 

I'll then ask a different sort of question.  Do they like to do this work or not?  If I get some kids to say that they don't like to do it, then I'll ask whether they do it nonetheless or if they shirk.  I'm hoping some will assert that they do it out of a sense of obligation to their roommates.  If I can get to that point we'll have gotten on the first day to a rather mature point about doing work within organizations, a point that doesn't come through at all in the basic model of labor supply.  We'll reenforce the point by asking if they were friends with their roommates before and, if so, what would shirking do to their friendship?  Then we'll ask for the case where they didn't know their roommates in advance if that matters for the shirking decision, or if they'd behave pretty much the same way because their roommates might become friends eventually.  To me, all of this seems like a profitable line of inquiry because, almost certainly, they have thought about these things already only not in the context of economics of organizations.

But it is not the right topic to start in on.  One must segue to it from something else, that is more obviously germane to the course.  So I thought I'd begin by discussing "the assignment problem," which is about determining those employees who do what jobs, but can be equally thought of as a more generic matching question, like finding your soul mate.   Matching is something we will reconsider later in the course.  And it is something the students also understand implicitly, though they may be hard put to say what a good matching process looks like. 

After mentioning and describing the assignment problem I can for a short time talk about and their method - having participants fill out a questionnaire and then letting eHarmony's secret algorithm find potential matches from the set of questionnaires that have been completed.   This is centralized matching.  Then I can move to decentralized matching, where the participants find one another via search.  Many markets feature decentralized matching.

But rather than talk about those markets, since it is the first day of the semester and since I want to stick with things familiar to the students, I want to talk about course registration.  The students themselves make the matches to the courses they will take, subject to some constraints, ones they will be well aware of. 

At this juncture I start to feel like I've painted myself in a corner.  The reality is that most students register without doing very much in the way of search.  For courses that are not strictly required (several alternatives would do as well to meet the particular requirement) the course title and brief description may be all they go on to determine which among the alternatives they choose.   Almost certainly, they do much more search in finding the apartment where they will live.  Not that they don't add and drop courses with great frequency.  They do.  But finding out about more detailed attributes of the courses doesn't seem to be what drives that behavior.

At least not till the semester starts.  Then they've got those first two weeks to find out what is really up.  For the instructor, that time is at once magical because it sets the stage for the rest of the term and yet also dreadful because you experience the slap in the face of those who drop and you have to find a way to accommodate those who add late.  Last night as I'm considering this I find myself getting angry at the students, though it is before the first class meeting.  Why don't they do their search ahead of time, so we can have a good fit while avoiding the disruption?  I'm stuck on this one and bothered by it. I go to bed with that on my mind.

It is remarkable what restorative powers a good night's sleep has.  This morning I recall that I plan to give my students a pre-class survey that I will alert them to tomorrow.  At the start of the survey there are a couple of questions about the course where they learned the most:

Course where you learned the most *
Please provide the rubric and number of the course you've taken in college where you've learned the most. You can also mention the course instructor if you'd like. If you are a graduate student please  only report on your courses taken here.

Explanation of Previous Response *
Give some reasons for why you learned as much as you did in this course.

Why I had the blockage last night about not linking the survey to this issue about how they search for courses, I can't say.  But once I see the connection I can no envision how I might use the survey responses to tie it to their (lack of) search behavior.  If they express strong views about what makes for good learning, wouldn't it make sense for them to try to replicate that sort of experience, so shouldn't they be looking for that?  If so, we can then discuss whether it is possible to identify that in advance or not.  At the least, I can see a path for inquiry on this question.  It might not get students to search before the semester begins the next time around, but it will expose them to some of the ideas around why it might be a good idea.  

I must also say that the subconscious is really a great problem solver.  Yesterday I was looking for a video of a Ted Talk that Norma had sent me, on how schools kill creativity.  In it there was a line about how Professors are unlike the rest of the population, because they live in their heads.  They make school in their own image, which shouldn't be because most students won't become professors.  My problem was that yesterday I couldn't come up with Sir Ken Robinson as the speaker.  I was further impeded by mistakenly believing he had at one time run the British Open University, so was confounding him with Sir John Daniel.  This morning the name Ken Robinson just popped up, as if without provocation.  I found the video almost immediately and watched it again. It is almost perfect for my class, because we can substitute the expression "human capital" for where he uses creativity and then think of it as a capacity to produce.  Students, instead, think of it as a collection of specific knowledge.   Now I plan to send the students a link to the video along with the link to the survey (and the link to the class Web site). 

I've also got a story to tell them now on learning persistence and the roll of persistence in human capital.  I can tell about being bothered when getting stuck, and developing a habit to keep at and not abandon the idea.  There is no guarantee of getting unstuck this way, so it is not a planned thing.  Being bothered is an emotional response.  I will then say I'm not really sure where it comes from, but I can make a guess.  Sometimes when I put my mind to a task I come up with something that pleases me.  After that I can let it go.  But when at other times I've reached a point where I'm stuck so not pleased, I find it harder to let go.  And then it is true that some of those times I've subsequently found a way out.  So over time I've developed a faith that it is possible to get unstuck if your persist at it.  On any one thing, I almost certainly linger in it longer than economic analysis would say is optimal, but over time by building this habit, which includes the being bothered part, I may now and then come to interesting conclusions that other people won't reach.  Who can say ahead of time what value reaching those places will have?  I do it to relieve the nervous tension at the time, not for the ultimate reward.  

With that I can feel comfortable encouraging the students to see that one big part of college is to develop similar habits in themselves.  And from there we can talk about what sort of behavior might produce those habits. 

Now I can see my way through the entire class session (some of which will be the more mundane part of going through the syllabus).  I hope the prep for later sessions isn't quite so laborious.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The secret handshake

The piece quoted below makes for a good read.  And I suppose within a cabal the author is completely correct regarding preserving the safety of the group. 

But much of our speech nowadays is of the one on many sort, such as this post, with the speaker not knowing exactly who is in the audience.  So I started to ask myself whether there can be subversion in that setting - more of the form of speaking truth to power - and what creates safety for the speaker in that setting, or if that is even possible. 

For example, yesterday Maureen Dowd had a column that was sharply critical of the Clintons.  With Hillary Clinton the presumed nominee for the President by the Democrats in 2016, the piece felt subversive to me.  In this case Dowd obviously has the support of her editor at the Times and in making her arguments the various points must be fact checked, presumably the standard that good journalism demands.  Those are her protections.

What about the rest of us, who aren't columnists at a major newspaper?  Does the use of irony serve the purpose?  Or is it better to be straightforward, factual and logical, and then let the chips fall?  There is a feeling of safety when composing at the computer screen that may be illusion - we are unable to think through the repercussions that might occur once the piece is published. 

As I wrote last week, I believe for most of us there is a far greater threat than the NSA spying on us.  It is from our "friends" and acquaintances making public information about us that we wish were kept private.  Self-protection in this case would necessitate leading a bland existence and being a Caspar Milquetoast in our social interactions. 

The case of the cabal the exception, maybe the lesson is that for free speech to work people must absorb some personal risk.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Some thoughts on the new Campus Strategic Plan

There is a front page article in yesterday's News Gazette about the new Campus Strategic Plan.  In turn, this document is based on another from last month called Visioning Future Excellence (Outcomes Report).  Apart from noting that appearance-wise in the strategy document, where sans-serif font is used I would have preferred it to be a couple of point sizes larger, I want to be constructive in the ideas I present here.  So let me note a few things first.

Writing these sorts of documents where there are multiple audiences to please is obviously arduous.  The faculty are not of one mind and they must be broadly consulted.  The Board of Trustees may also not be of one mind, but as they generally represent the world of Business, their perspective is distinct from the faculty view.  Group writing is inherently harder than individual writing.  The necessary compromises result in a broad strokes document.  Reading each of these I found myself clamoring for drill down and that's not just because I'm a micro-economist.  (We specialize in drill down.)  The other thing is about me.  I'm now a complete outsider to all of this, but not that long ago I was an insider.  So I can see things both ways.

Next let me comment only on the pieces that deal with undergraduate education.  In the Strategic Plan this is on pages 10 and 11 of the document.  In the Visioning document it is on page 8.  And I also want to make reference to a much older document on the Provost's Web site, Guidelines to General Education. In, particular, I want to make note of this paragraph.

1.4 General Education courses stress the importance of the students’ ability to communicate. Appropriate means of developing the students’ skills of communication relevant to the area, its data, and its methods should form a significant component of all General Education courses. Thus, where appropriate, General Education courses should include one or more of the following: writing assignments, classroom discussion, oral presentations, visual or artistic expression, or written exercises involving mathematical or other modes of formal symbolic expression.

Are the proposed metrics in accord with the articulation of learning goals?

The rhetoric about goals uses the expression "transformative learning" as the defining property of success.  I concur.  It is what we should be hope for.  Yet none of the metrics in the right hand column on page 10 speak to it.  There are several metrics about "getting through" and other metrics about "access" but those are quite distinct, unless it is assumed a priori that getting through college implies personal transformation.  The metrics are there, in principle, to avoid the need to make such assumptions.  Let the data tell the story. 

Transformative learning is about epiphany, or a series of Aha moments, or slow and sustained personal growth without too many "leaps in time."  There is no way out of this.  If you are to measure whether transformative learning has occurred you must measure personal growth.  Current practice mainly is to measure competency - has an endpoint been achieved?  Some students who may have improved dramatically since the beginning of the semester may still not have reached the endpoint because their prior preparation was inadequate.  Other students may have reached the endpoint before the course even starts.  We deem the latter competent, certainly, but they are not transformed by the experience.

An anecdote might better illustrate the issues.  When Janet Smarr was a professor of Comparative Literature here in the 1990s, I had occasion to go to lunch with her and some other junior faculty member who was using online technology to help with teaching.  There was a large comp lit course that at the time was called Comp Lit 151, and met several gen ed requirements.   The course had a course coordinator but was mainly staffed by graduate assistants.  Janet told the story that one of these TAs complained about the uniform grading policy irrespective of which year in school the student was in since, "the seniors write much better than the freshmen."  To this Janet's response was, "Good!"  This TA was seeing precisely what the institution wants to measure, but otherwise doesn't see very well by its current assessment processes. 

On a within course basis one can get at the personal growth question, perhaps, by having lots of student work done (say weekly) and comparing the product produced later in the semester to what was produced early on.  The approach is called "portfolio assessment" and stands in contrast with the competency based alternative.  But it places demands on the human resource needed to deliver this sort of assessment in a meaningful way and it moves assessment more into the subjective realm.  Both of those have a cost we should be well aware of. 

If we did move to such an approach more broadly (I believe it is used in the studio based disciplines now but is not used widely outside of those areas), then instructors would provide feedback on individual pieces of student work but wouldn't grade those.  It would move the instructor closer to the role of coach/friend and further from the job of authority/judge.  If the effort involved weren't that much greater than what occurs in current practice, I believe many instructors would prefer this change.  For the students, it would also make them much more cognizant that personal transformation is the overarching goal.  Near term failure or mediocre performance can then be welcomed as a necessary part of movement down the path.  Students wouldn't fear the stumbles so much and the change in approach should therefore promote student engagement in their own learning.

Nevertheless, within course growth may be hard to measure.  Or put a different way, particularly in a course that is a prerequisite for a subsequent course, the ideas of the first course may not really be learned in a deep way until they are well applied in the second course.  The educator, Jerome Bruner, promoted the notion of a "spiral curriculum" where students revisit ideas multiple times along the way but each return visit does so in greater depth and perhaps with a new framing of the issues.  One therefore needs longitudinal measures of growth along the entire curriculum.  A do-able though some might say too touchy-feely way of measuring these sorts of effect is by seriously measuring student perceptions of their own learning, such as via the Participant Perception Indicator, a survey that can be administered multiple times at different junctures to track how students themselves consider their understanding of a particular subject. 

Own up to the fact that even after creating a single Teaching Excellence unit faculty will still not have one stop shopping with regard to finding help for their teaching.

I lived this issue when I was the Assistant CIO for Learning Technologies in CITES.  So I applaud the merger of the Center for Teaching Excellence with Academic Outreach.  It is a very good first step in getting coherence in approach from the faculty perspective.  Here I'd like to briefly consider what other further steps might be taken.

There are two dimensions to consider.  The first is on the difference between support for teaching method, on the one hand, and support for the technology used in teaching, on the other.  CITES will remain apart from the new Teaching Excellence unit and that itself gives faculty two foci of support.  The issue is then replicated at the college level and in some instances at the large department level.  This means there really are multiple foci of support.  That reality will persist even after the merger is fully ironed out.

Let's consider this from the perspective of the experienced instructor.  Such an instructor has probably determined a primary support provider.  The ideal might be that if the instructor can interact with the other providers in an autonomous way, then the instructor does does so directly but if the interaction requires some negotiation then the primary support provider mediates that.  This can work well if there is a general spirit of cooperation.  It will break down if the different providers want to take distinct approaches that are somewhat in conflict with one another.  I've seen both of these in my time as Assistant CIO.

The arrangement needs governance and monitoring.  For starters, then, one might look at changes at that level that can support the more cooperative approach.  For example, the Teaching Advancement Board stands apart from the various committees for IT Governance.  Some substantial overlap is desirable.  There might also be a well thought out mechanism so complaints can be brought forward and addressed, rather than left to fester.  Perhaps, in that, there needs to be an ombudsman just for teaching whose full time job it is to address the complaints and make the issues publicly known when they can't be resolved in short order. 

Let me bring up a separate issue here specifically about support for improving student's ability to communicate, as in the General Education guideline copied above.  The best faculty development I got was from taking the workshop for Writing Across the Curriculum, given by folks in the Center for Writing Studies.  I was a participant in May 1996.  For me that was a transformative experience in considering my teaching.  At the time Gail Hawisher was director of the Center.  I was very fortunate to have her as a colleague and friend.  The WAC workshop was targeted at instructors involved in teaching Advanced Composition courses.  In my way of thinking, however, all instructors teaching General Education classes should have a WAC workshop experience.  Indeed, interested instructors teaching only advanced courses in the major should also have the experience.  I confess that with the current constellation of support I don't see how that could readily happen.  However, if others agreed that it would be a desirable goal, then that could be the basis for further discussion where a plan to implement, possibly including further restructuring of support, was taken up.

Matching the Strategic Plan to recurrent issues that impact student learning

In the path from broad strokes to drill down a good method for making meaningful action plans is to produce a list of issues with student learning that can be readily agreed upon and then ask how those might be meaningfully addressed.  After that try to connect that back to the broad strokes and iterate the cycle several more times.  Here I will describe two issues as means of illustration of the approach.  It is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list. 

Every fall, we have on the order of 7000 first year students.  That's a lot and it can be intimidating for the incoming freshman.  Further, this likely will be the first sustained experience living away from mom and dad.  Even with the wonders of the cellphone and the advent of the "helicopter parent" the new student can readily become homesick.  Students themselves will find ways to "solve" this issue.  For students who come from a big high school in Illinois, there is a tendency for them to hang out with their friends from home.  For international students, there is a tendency for the students to hang out with other students from the same country with whom they are already culturally attuned.

This is a predictable response to combat the loneliness and the fear of the new.  In itself it may be a good thing.  But it is possible for the social life at school to be both fully absorbing and non-transformative.  In other words, many students are too provincial when they enter and they find means to retain that rather than open up to new experiences and new ideas.

If we wish to help humans to become more fully human, we must realize not only that they try to realize themselves, but that they are also reluctant or afraid or unable to do so. Only by fully appreciating this dialectic between sickness and health can we help to tip the balance in favor of health.
Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

For a time when I was Assistant CIO I had a monthly meeting with Ruth Watkins, who then was an Associate Provost, with undergraduate education part of her purview.  I don't know whether Ruth had read Maslow (I think everyone who cares about education should read Maslow) but she was well aware of this point.  Ruth was very high on Living and Learning Communities as the antidote.  In effect the idea was to build an academic-based small community for the student, with a diverse membership who share a common interest.  All of this is good.  The issue is that the approach doesn't scale well at all.  Most of our students are not in Living and Learning Communities.  Further, those who opt in probably tend to be more outgoing than the rest.  So the treatment is helping those who need it least.

An obvious next step would then be to try to build academic-based communities that are not dependent on where students reside.  This might be done, for example, by having students take a set of the same courses together.  Call that set a track.  Students chose the track rather than each course individually.  Students get to learn who there classmates are that way.  Certain outside of class activities might be arranged as well so the students bond, for example, a social activity where all the instructors within the track and the students are present.

There are surely a host of logistics issues that would block this from happening any time soon.  The entire registration process would need to change to accommodate the track approach.  But pilots could be instituted soon that accommodate existing processes and could be evaluated on whether when implemented the track idea produces the desired community-building effects.  At a minimum, what is being argued here is that our education reforms tend to have impact at the level of the course and what is really needed is to have impact at a higher level of aggregation.

Let's move on to the next issue.  Gen ed courses tend to be very high enrollment.  They often involve a large lecture in Foellinger Auditorium or Lincoln Hall Theater.  Some of the impetus to move to a blended learning approach (less in class time with more online activity in its stead) is there because the large lecture approach is not very effective, particularly for the students who sit at the back of the lecture hall.  Even for those Gen Ed classes that have a discussion section as well, the TA might have as many as three sections to teach, with 100 students or more in total.  The ratio of students to instructional staff tends to be higher in Gen Ed classes than in other classes.  Given that, how can these classes effectively achieve the goals regarding the students' ability to communicate?

I believe that current practice is a devolution from high ideals to the following.  Largely, TAs no longer evaluate student work.  Instead there is automatic grading done of quizzes (online homework) administered in the learning management system and exams are done on scantron.  The exception is with the course term paper, the grading of which becomes a kind of "hell week" for the TAs.  Students procrastinate in writing these.  The first draft often is the last draft.  Producing a term paper is not transformative at all.  It achieves quite the opposite purpose from what is intended - most students learn to detest writing as a consequence.

The argument for the term paper is that faculty produce research papers.  The term paper is student writing in the style of what the faculty do.  The argument against is that most students will not become faculty.  The writing skills they need are to be able to produce a cogent memo and to compose a tolerably good executive summary of a longer white paper.   Writing a term paper is not relevant preparation for either of these.  To achieve the right sort of writing proficiency students should produce pieces much more frequently.  Of necessity, these would be shorter, say one page per week.  The issue is whether a shift to this is possible given existing staffing of the gen ed courses.

People in the trenches who have been struggling with this issue for quite a while have looked toward innovation as a way out of these dilemmas.  One of these is auto-grading of the student writing.  Another of these is peer response.  Each may provide some benefit, but in my opinion each is also severely limited.  I favor a third approach, to rely on peer mentors who are a little further along in school and who have taken the course previously.  This sounds like a cost add and if not done in a cost neutral way is almost surely infeasible.  So let me remark on that first before moving to other issues with the recommendation. 

The way out of the conundrum is that the mentoring activity is quite educational for the mentors, particularly with respect to the communication skills that the Gen Ed guideline speaks of.  If a student comes to the mentor confused on some point in the course, the mentor needs to help the student work through the blockage.  Doing so successfully demonstrates both understanding of the subject matter and the ability to communicate it well.  For this reason, the mentoring activity should receive academic credit.  Since it is also real work, it should be paid, perhaps in the form of a tuition reduction.  But getting back to the academic credit part, for this to be cost neutral it shouldn't be just that the student earns credit hours.  For many students, particularly those who come in with a lot of AP credit, getting additional credit hours doesn't really help them progress toward the degree.  They need to be exempted from certain Gen Ed distribution requirements instead.  Which requirements should be subject to exemption?  I don't know.  It is something that needs to be worked out.  What is clear now is that if the mentoring were done at scale and the mentoring included these exemptions then that would reduce the demand for those exempted courses.  The cost saving to achieve balance overall would come out of that.

Now for a little critique of the suggestion.  The approach with peers mentors has been tried by a handful of "early adopter" faculty with great success.  They are more than willing to mentor the mentors.  Further, they select the mentors from among the best of their former students.  Both of these factors encourage success of the approach.  As the approach moves toward scale it will be "majority" faculty who implement the approach and it will be more typical students who are the mentors.  The issue then is whether the success of the approach can be sustained.  At a minimum this would seem to require faculty development and some incentive so the majority instructors willingly take on the mentor the mentors work and do it in a competent way.  It also requires that learning outcomes in the course become more plateau-like.  If instead, there is a steep cliff in learning outcomes and some mentors are selected from those students who fell over the cliff, that would seem like a path to disaster. 

Do a historical analysis of prior Gen Ed reform, particularly focusing on implementation soon after the reform was initiated and contrast with how implementation looks today.  

I believe such a study will demonstrate a familiar pattern of boom and bust cycles.  Some of that might be the academic equivalent of what Schumpeter refers to as "creative destruction."  New ideas emerge.  They compete with the old ideas for a while and if they truly are superior then they ultimately supplant the old ones.  If that is what is really going on with Gen Ed reform, it should be welcome as it is a way to keep us vibrant.

But there may be another story, one where the consequence is more pernicious.  First, I think most everyone would agree that we are much better at adding new programs than we are at subtracting old ones.  The Stewarding Excellence process was born out of a desperate situation with the Campus budget.  In more normal times, the old programs might get dinged some, but are not eliminated outright.

The pernicious part of this is when the dinging happens not because of the effectiveness of the program, but because of regime change at the upper echelons of Campus administration.  The new administrative team wants to innovate.  The champions of programs initiated by prior regimes are no longer around.  Since there aren't really new monies from which to fund the new programs, instead the regime must pursue a rob Peter to pay Paul approach.  This, then, can be the source of the boom and bust.

If the historical analysis proves that creative destruction is not the real explanation, then one is naturally driven to ask what can be done to show greater commitment to extant programs in support of their excellence.  While recognizing that the answer, "maybe there is nothing that can be done" is possibly the right one, I'd like to entertain here for a little bit what mechanisms there might be for commitment to programs.

I will do this by example.  As I mentioned earlier, I got a great deal out of attending the WAC workshop.  I made an implicit assumption earlier that if others were to attend that workshop today they'd get a similar benefit; but I don't know that.  The benefit I received was likely a product of multiple factors - my mindset going in, cohort effects from attending with an excellent group of colleagues, and the leadership of Gail Hawisher and Paul Prior.  Would those factors be present now?

More generally, what is known about faculty attitudes toward recent faculty development activities in which they participated?  Is there widespread acknowledgement of some activities as being extremely effective.  If there were, those activities should not get dinged.  If instead, mainly faculty are non-participants, perhaps because they had a lukewarm experience at an earlier activity, and the same small group of faculty monopolize the activity over time, then those activities would be candidates for cuts.

Alas, it is not that simple.  For assistant professors on the tenure track there is an unspoken message. As long as their teaching stays above a minimum quality level don't put additional effort into trying to improve the teaching further.  Focus attention on research instead.  That's what the tenure decision depends on.  Given that, we should be asking whether the message wears off for those who do get promoted.  Presumably, this depends on how the department's EO handles faculty performance review and, in the case of departments that have a Chair rather than a Head, how the Executive Committee regards teaching.  Commitments to campus-level faculty development then are contingent on how individual departments regard the importance of the teaching mission.  In turn, that depends on commitment at the College level.

Put a different way, for there to be greater  commitment to particular faculty development programs, the entire culture surrounding teaching must change in a way that regards the activity as important.  Absent that, we have rhetoric at the Campus level and College level about the importance of teaching, but the boom and bust cycles persist so that what is happening on the ground belies the rhetoric.


In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

I like this Eisenhower quote.  I will apply it to the topic under consideration.  Broad strokes strategic planning appeals to the idealist.  It emphasizes the possible and encourages us to believe that great things can be done.  Drill down appeals to the realist, who understands that warts will begin to show as more detail is added to the plan.  The drill down typically doesn't happen up front.  It occurs later as the need arises.  The plan itself doesn't anticipate the particular need.  So some invention must occur at the time to do that.  The plan may constrain what sort of invention is possible, but there still is is a lot of wiggle room.  Within that the plan itself is not helpful for choosing what to do.

So there is some benefit in advance in attempting to anticipate contingencies and then how implementation would occur.  That is the planning in the Eisenhower quote.  Having thought about the issues in advance it is less difficult to consider the issues for real when the contingency arises.  These comments are offered up in that spirit - early thinking about what might be left to do. 

If the comments are useful at all they will be to provoke others to go through a similar exercise themselves, not that they must reach the same sort of conclusions, but that they don't short circuit the way to get to their answers.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The GOP moves further to the right

It's time to take a gander
Results of gerrymander
Pols to angry whites pander
So not to raise their dander.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Irresponsible Information Custodians

We have set the DVR to record The Newsroom.  I watched the most recent episode yesterday.  (I believe it is the fifth episode of the second season.)  While understanding that a show like this needs to generate a certain amount of tension to hold the story line, it seemed that in this episode every character had a major headache.  During the show I started to ask myself - why should I care about this stuff?

Part of that reaction might be me.  My lower back had again flared up after doing too much (of the wrong sort of) exercise over the weekend.  My back was doing fine the day before, so I've been trying to return to normal and even to improve my routine a bit.  The larger routine now seems to have this cycle of improvement, more exercise, then return of pain.  I'd like to figure out how to delete that last bit.  In the meantime, television is supposed to be an escape from life's cruelties.  In that capacity, this show wasn't working for me. 

Nevertheless, the story line raised some serious issues that I'd like to explore here.  Most of the headaches I mentioned above emerge because somebody else not in the recurring story of the show had information about one of the show's main characters - a video, photos, a conversation that could be taken out of context.  These other people had a type of power, one you'd associate with blackmail.  But rather than use the information to extract something from the main character, they simply release the information via social media.  They are motivated by a need for self-promotion or, in one case, wanting to embarrass the main character as a kind of vendetta.  The embarrassment happens, sure enough, and that is followed by anger. 

At some point, watching angry people ceases to be entertainment.  But it still might be educational.  The message might be this.  We have trust relationships with so many people and/or have incidental contact with people during rather important moments that we'd like to keep private thereafter.  The result is that these others "have the goods" on us.  The press has spent so much time on Snowden and NSA capturing our phone calls that it has diverted attention from this other reality.  This particular episode demonstrates the potential risk of having all that information out there in other people's hands.  Quite possibly they don't have our interests at heart, nor even a shred of common decency. 

The show may overstate the risk for most of us, who are not television personalities.  But as several of the characters involved in the production of the news have been negatively impacted by the injudicious release of information, and those characters are not so publicly visible, the show makes the point that each of us bears this risk to some degree. 

Now to a couple of related points.  More than any other show that I'm aware of, including Aaron Sorkin's other big show The West Wing, the Newsroom has the characters talk quickly.  (On The West Wing, the Josh Lyman character walked particularly quickly as did many of the other leading characters.)   Originally I thought the quick talking was a theatrical way to signify the character was intelligent.  Further, since the quick talk was usually in dialog, the other person in the conversation had to process the quick talk.  Doing so and then responding in kind illustrated rapid recognition.  I've not been particularly enamored with this "trick" because in actuality my experience has been that there is no relationship between speed of speech and intelligence.  And since as a writer I'm well aware that a good part of the job is to make the message intelligible to the reader, I'd guess that any experienced person with an ounce of smarts would figure out much the same regarding their talking. 

Since Sorkin is a smart guy, this never added up for me, till yesterday's show.  I then began to see the rapid talk as a kind of badge.  It is a badge not unlike the type that triathletes wear, to signify their endurance and commitment.  The rapid speech is there to show the character's intensity.  All the leading roles have an enormous amount of drive.

Couple this with that in the show all the leading characters are single and on the make, except Charlie Skinner, and you get a set of pre-conditions for which the irresponsible release of information becomes likely.  A show like this needs to have some within office romance, a soap opera component if you will, because the viewers like that and expect it.  But here it happens in an over the top manner. 

So you have the executive producer of the show, MacKenzie McHale, having had a former thing with the show's anchorman, Will McAvoy.  (Until writing this I hadn't note the Mc affinity in their names.)  They now are supposedly bound by a professional work relationship, but she has no qualms whatsoever in playing his surrogate mother, in order to release his hidden angels.  He has a need to be the journalist qua prosecutor, his professional persona.  Sometimes that blocks his more human side.  It makes sense as a story line, but as a guide to real world professional relationships it is godawful.

Then there is the relationship that should have been but wasn't between Jim Harper, the senior producer, and Maggie Jordan, an associate producer and subordinate to Jim at work.  They know way too much about each other's social life and from time to time that leads to awkward expression, giving the feeling of rubbing salt in a wound. 

In this episode there is a third couple in the making. Each has witnessed the other being victim of irresponsible release of information and has lent a friendly shoulder for the other to lean on.  The first is Sloan Sabbith, a financial reporter and a rising star as a news anchor.  The other is Don Keefer, another executive producer.  It sure seems they will be girlfriend and boyfriend by within the next few episodes, the irresponsible release of information having made for a suitable bonding experience. 

Anger may be the emotion of the times in which we live.  All of us now have unprecedented means for making information very public.  The combination is extraordinarily frightening.  Do even the most virtuous act responsibly when they are angry?  We are so afraid of Big Brother.  We should be afraid of ourselves. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Social Autopsy

In actual poker, I'm not a very good player.  I have a tendency to smile when I have good cards.  And if another player at the table shows some bluster, I can be intimidated by that.

But used metaphorically and applied to the world of work, sometimes I think I wasn't too bad at playing my cards.  Then good things happened as a consequence.  This was particularly true in the mid to late 1990s where, in essence,  I pursued a "collegiality agenda."  I befriended quite a few people on campus.  More or less, I trusted their good efforts and did what I could to encourage them.  They should get the credit for the good outcomes that occurred, of course.  But some calls were mine alone to make and mainly I made the right ones. For example, when the SCALE grant was to be renewed and we had to move out of Everett Lab, there was a question of choice of our new location - the Armory near OIR or on Fox Drive near NCSA's education group.  And with that there was an associated choice about SCALE's mission - at least in part a utilitarian service provider to support online learning or simply a driver of innovation with online learning via SCALE's internal grant program.  I chose the former and have no regrets on that score.

Yet with the really big decisions, which happened a few years later, I have a feeling I muffed some of them.  I wonder how many other people with responsibility play their cards right, learn the proper lessons that the situation delivers while the situation unfolds, and grow stronger as a consequence.  My sense is that it is rare.  Mostly, I believe, people overplay their cards, get some near term wins, but eventually blow their stash.  Thus, I think there is some benefit in looking backward at this, trying to discern causality in what ultimately happened, in the hope of becoming a better card player in the next game.

From all the crime dramas on TV we're lead to believe that human autopsy can pretty well pinpoint the cause of death.  Whether that is true in real-world autopsy, I don't know.  I believe for social decision making it is much harder to do that.  Invariably you abstract from several factors, some that might actually matter substantively, in order to focus attention on what seems to be important.  With that caveat in mind I'm going to perform this sort of social autopsy on two distinct situations.

(1)  Could President Obama and Congressional Democrats have played their cards better to retain their majority in the 2010 elections?  In this case losing their stash is losing their majority in the House as well as becoming more vulnerable to the Filibuster in the Senate.

(2)  Could Learning Technologists have played their cards better circa 2000-2005 by not embracing a message of diffusion of technology and getting all faculty onto the campus learning management system? In this case losing the stash was taking our eyes off the ball, teaching and learning.

* * * * *

TARP happened while Bush was still President, though it's enforcement occurred mainly under Obama.  Some voter resentment toward Obama that perhaps drove the 2010 Congressional elections was resentment about bailing out the banks but not helping ordinary citizens.  The first stimulus plan happened soon after Obama took office.  It did include a temporary payroll tax deduction, which did benefit ordinary citizens if they were working.  But it may not have been perceived as such because households that were in debt used the tax relief to lower their debt burden.  And as the economy tanked further, there surely was the perception that more should have been done to combat that.  Further, there were early economic forecasts from President Obama's advisers that the recession would not be so severe, which I will interpret here as giving permission to both the President and Congress that after passing the initial stimulus attention could be turned to other matters. 

I want to treat all of the above as unavoidable, not subject to the autopsy.  I want to focus on what happened after that.  The argument was advanced at the time that since the Democrats were in the minority in both Congress and the White House from 2001-2006, a full agenda of issues got built up during that time.  Even in 2007, after the House and Senate had been retaken by the Democrats, their was still a Republican in the White House, so much of that agenda did not get addressed then.  Only after the Democrats also took the White House in 2009 was there the opportunity to do so.

Yet the nation was in economic crisis (and in my view still is even with the official recession ended some time ago).  So there was a clear tension present between addressing the crisis, on the hand, and taking on issues on the agenda, on the other, or if not that then not taking a disciplined approach to what items on the agenda actually would help address the crisis and then suspending support for the other items on the list.

Temporally, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, in January 2010, signified that the Tea Party had arrived.  So it is really 2009 that should be the focus of this autopsy.  The Gulf Oil Spill happened in April 2010.  It certainly contributed to the disaffection with the Democrats, but it wasn't the root cause.  Much legislation was passed in 2009.  But was it the right sort of stuff?  Similarly, with an electorate so frightened by the economy, was the right sort of message communicated to them?  In retrospect a very aggressive message regarding the benefits of deficit spending in a recession was needed, to counteract the narrative that the problem was the Federal government is awash in debt.   Paul Krugman was delivering such a message and arguing that the first stimulus plan was too small.  But, of course, he didn't speak for the administration.  I believe we needed to hear essentially Krugman's message, but from leading Democrats - Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and President Obama and we needed to hear it loud and clear in summer 2009. 

President Obama came into office on a campaign theme of hope, but without an action plan well spelled out to the public in advance, and with an image that he was above the fray regarding politics with Congress.  All of that appealed to the electorate in 2008, but it seemed unreal once the President assumed office, given how Mitch McConnell and John Boehner played their cards in 2009, being as obstructionist as they possibly could.  Further, given that obstruction, it created a bias to work on issues that would not require any Republican assistance in passing, meaning a move to the middle of where the Democrats are rather than to the middle of where the entire electorate was.   I know that by summer of 2010 I had wondered more than once if the Democrats hadn't made a mistake in 2008 and instead should have nominated Hilary Clinton, because the Republicans needed to be fought rather than accommodated, and if they had been then some reasonable Republicans would have crossed the aisle. 

I believe many voters wanted to see a 21st century version of the New Deal and were disappointed when that didn't materialize.  In particular, we instead heard about the dearth of shovel ready projects.  And while there was some talk about starting a National Infrastructure Bank as a public-private partnership, for long term public investments even if they wouldn't begin for several years yet so wouldn't provide immediate stimulus, that too didn't materialize. 

The other emotion that accompanies fear is anger.  Rush Limbaugh, in particular, plays to that emotion.  Occupy Wall Street also played to that emotion, but only delivered on expressing a general complaint.  The protesters didn't have specific solutions to serve as palliative.  The Democrats needed a competing narrative to the one offered up by the Tea Party.  By identifying high level people to blame for the burst of the housing bubble and punishing them for the crimes they committed, they'd have delivered.  A counter view is that the financial markets were still too unstable at the time.  Those markets required calming.  So go easy on the Wall Street bigwigs, to assure the market remained orderly.  This view prevailed but made TARP wildly unpopular with ordinary Americans and they were left to struggle on their own about why the system seemed so unfair.

The last of the indictments is that President Obama needed to schmooze up Congress quite a bit and he is not a good schmoozer.  If Congress were a machine with many gears, schmoozing would be the grease that makes the wheels turn.  Without it the machine starts to grind and then stops working altogether.

I hope these arguments are familiar, so readers can agree that I'm not making them up.  The question is: how fair are they as a depiction of reality?   Could things really have been done better?  And if you think we'll see something like a replay of this with the 2016 election and the 2017 Congress, one might then ask, what things should be done now to make it better in the replay?

We are by now used to the fact the information travels very quickly.  We may infer from that that analysis of what is really going on also happens at the same pace.  Alas, it is not always so.   There may be substantial lags before the perception of reality catches up to what's been going on.  That may have been one issue at work in 2009. Then there is the question of how nuanced a message Democratic politicians can give, especially when the opposition's message is simplicity itself - shrink government, no new taxes.  President Obama gave a quite nuanced message on race during the campaign.  He owns that issue, so by all accounts it was a very well received speech.  He is less in his element talking about economic policy.  I have criticized him for producing a laundry list of issues but not delivering on a coherent narrative.  It may be that some other people need to produce that narrative and it may be that it should be an economic team not currently occupied with administration policy.  Democrats like to reserve the right to disagree. But on core economic policy there needs to be some consensus of goals and broad stroke strategies to achieve those goals.  Without that everything gets made up as we go along. Such an articulation of  principles can still leave wiggle room for negotiation for passage of the actual legislation, though I admit its not clear how much wiggle room there really can be.

I have in mind, in particular, the elimination of the Public Option, in getting the passage of the Affordable Care Act.   Many Obama supporters felt betrayed by this.  A very demonstrative example of this is Garry Wills on Charlie Rose (starting at around the 21:00 minute mark).  This aired before the election in 2010, but was a portent of the "shellacking" that would ensue.  According to Wills, Obama did not play his cards right in summer 2009, by not being sufficiently assertive of what he (Obama) wanted.  He gave away too much and didn't get Republican votes in return.  And he made this mistake in other arenas as well (dealing with Wall Street and with the military brass regarding Afghanistan).

But I think Wills also overplays his cards.  On the economic issues Obama needed the cooperation of Congress as he did in dealing with Wall Street and that made things precarious for sharp reform.  For example, see this piece on Charles Schumer and Wall Street.  It's tempting to conclude all the power is in the White House as Wills seems to have done in discussing Obama, since that's where the Bully Pulpit is.  But that might not be the reality.  If Congress is captured by the special interests, with party distinction not mattering all that much in this area, what can a President get done?

Let me conclude this section with one more point.  Our elections appear almost a cult of personality.  So right now there is a fascination with Janet Yellen or Larry Summers for Fed Chair.  But there is essentially no discussion about Fed policy and what the new Chair should advocate during the post-Bernanke regime.   Likewise there is a lot of speculation - will Hillary run?  But there is little to nothing about what policies such a candidacy should entail. Trust is put first in the personality to do the right thing, without specifying in advance what the right thing looks like.  This does give maximal flexibility, ex post, but it also sews the seeds for feelings of betrayal later on, because people feel implicitly what those things should be now, even if they don't talk about them publicly.  My autopsy suggests that is a mistake.  Take a possible hit early from advocating a position firmly, so that there are no surprises later.  But it need not be the candidates themselves who are the first to get these positions out there.  All that is needed is that the positions are articulated and broadly considered and then are suitably modified by the ensuing debate.  And that debate needs to include both the desirability of the ideas and the feasibility of getting the legislation through Congress.  We tend to argue these things separately.    If they could be argued jointly, the President then doesn't have to be Think-Tank-In-Chief.

One of the issues that Democrats, in particular, haven't addressed well is the dilemma posed by campaigning-in-poetry versus governing-in-prose, where the politicians themselves may know how to switch gears but the electorate does not.  Given the dire economic circumstances when President Obama assumed office coupled with the highly idealistic views of many of Obama's supporters, weren't the prospects for disaffection by those supporters high from the get go?  It is conceivable that President Obama could have pivoted much earlier from his more conciliatory approach to one where he rammed things through with support from only Democrats in Congress.  But there are evident risks in such an all or nothing approach.   In the tit-for-tat between the parties what one party does now is often a negative reaction to what the other party did the last time.  Scorched earth politics might feel good at the time, but it may be a very bad way to govern long term.  Further, Obama didn't prepare his supporters for this at all during the campaign. 

* * * * *

My views of the core teaching and learning issues on campus have evolved, to be sure, but are still largely the same as they were when I first got started with SCALE.  Early on I wrote five essays about the various components of these issues.  These are noted on Bob Jensen's site (scroll down a bit after following the link).  Over the years I have lost the third and fourth essays.  I've re-posted the first one on output effects.  The classification scheme I came up with for students in that piece - eager beavers, drones, and sluggos - still makes sense to me.  Where I've changed the most since then is that in the 1990s I thought the issues could be well addressed entirely by intervention at the course level.  Indeed, I've learned since then that early adopter type faculty might very well make significant inroads at the course level, so our initial results with SCALE were extremely promising.   But majority faculty are far less likely to do something substantial to improve matters, especially if left on their own.  Further, more of the instructors in the high enrollment courses these days are adjuncts.  There are a host of concerns unique to adjunct teaching.  For these reasons, I now believe there needs to be a systematic approach to the learning issues across campus.

A systematic approach would get at what effective practice looks like and then make a serious and earnest effort to encourage effective practice.  In my view there would be two distinct but interrelated components to this.  One component would aim at effective practice for instructors.  We normally call that faculty development.  When the Center for Educational Technologies (CET) was formed as the sequel to SCALE, faculty development was the core of its mission.  The other component would focus on what effective practice looks likes for students.  In terms of my schema in the previous paragraph, eager beavers have effective practice.  Drones do not.  So the remaking of a drone into an eager beaver is about giving students better practice in how they approach their own learning.  The further thought is that sluggos emerge because they intuit that being a drone is not really effective (and it is boring and perhaps humiliating).  If they saw drones changing in their approach and thereby becoming eager beavers, sluggos too might opt in instead of opting out.   The "student development" issue is not typically discussed this way.  It is discussed mainly regarding student performance and the Academically Adrift hypothesis, though note that there are a few predecessors to that work, making much the same point.  In other words, the issue is cast in the negative, about what might be but isn't happening.  The issue is not cast as what should be done to change matters for the better.

A couple of weeks ago in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande had a fascinating piece on how diffusion of effective practice best occurs. His focus was how new mothers care for their babies in developing countries.  They often make mistakes - giving water rather than nursing the child, keeping the baby away from the mother rather than lying with the mother.  What works at getting these new mothers to change their ways for the better health of their babies?  What Gawande argues, and he has ample evidence to support his claims, is that technology is not that helpful.  Face to face communication from a credible peer - individualized and slow - does work.  This is particularly true for practice where the reward is delayed, so that the mother does not get immediate feedback from the situation itself to adjust her practice on her own.

I'm going to take Gawande's point and apply it to the faculty development issue and at the end remark a bit on the student development issue as well.  But I want to note first that effective practice in teaching is more complex than how Gawande treats baby care.  Being a mother may be quite complex, but Gawande reduces effective practice down to a handful of activities all mothers should do.  With teaching, effective practice is not so uniform.  The discipline matters.  The temperament of the instructor matters.  A sense of what the students are like matters.  Effective practice then is a kind of professional problem solving, finding appropriate methods while accounting for these characteristics, and testing via perceived outcomes whether it is working, then making modifications in approach accordingly.  In discussing this Schon's The Reflective Practitioner comes to mind.

In this already complex setting learning technology offers another variable to consider in the mix.  It makes certain things possible that were not in the absence of the technology.  For example, students who would not raise their hands in class might participate with vigor in an online discussion forum.  In this way the student thinking becomes known to the instructor where before it was not.  So teaching must be reconsidered in light of that possibility.  It is this reconsideration where the value lies, because that is what leads to effective practice.  The technology is not very useful if it simply is bolted onto extant practice. 

Now to my autopsy. There is the question of where faculty development occurs.  One possibility is that it happens during the normal consulting my CET staff provided for faculty.  Do note that part of such consultation is about the functioning of the technology itself, showing what the technology is capable of and getting the instructor to understand how to use the technology to produce those capabilities.  It is possible that the consulting morphs into tech support only with no faculty development piece.  And in the crush of time that instructors and consultants operate under, this tech support only outcome can soon become the default.  So another possibility is to have concentrated workshops with groups of faculty, perhaps a week long, where the faculty development is primary and the tech support issues are pushed into the background.  It is common to offer such workshops in the summer, when the time pressure is not present.

Since many instructors will not opt into such a workshop without some encouragement, something must be done to signify the importance of the workshop to the instructors.  And perhaps an incentive for attending needs to be provided as well.  At the outset of CET in summer 1999, there were two distinct workshops done in the same vein, with 25 attendees per.  These were sponsored by the Campus Ed Tech Board.  The faculty received a stipend for attending.  Attendance was determined via a competitive proposal process.  One particular bias built into the process was to encourage multiple attendees from the same unit, so a community of practice could emerge after the workshop within the unit.  All of this made sense to me and though the CET staff were just getting to know each other, so they were a little green in putting on one of these things, I think it went well.  We had no outside speakers.  We did get exemplar instructors from the SCALE project to give some talks and we may have had a panel of Ed Tech Board members, all experienced in teaching with technology, to discuss various issues.  With this we conveyed enthusiasm for the endeavor but grounded it in actual experience.

There is an emotional aspect in delivering these workshops in that there is a lot of planning ahead of time and you care a lot that the workshop goes well.   The emotion itself may impact the subjective judgment of how it went.  And on the first day of the second workshop my father passed away.  I was notified right after I gave my opening talk.  So I missed the rest of the workshop as my family went to Florida for the funeral.  As a consequence of the emotion it makes sense to evaluate the impact of the workshop with some lag, if possible.  Wait till in the midst of the fall term, where the instructor can reflect on how the workshop impacted their current teaching.  I did meet individually with a few attendees in my office sometime later and I encouraged such meetings.  But I didn't also do an email survey of the attendees, which in retrospect was a mistake.  I needed as much evidence as I could amass about the effectiveness of the workshops.

There was a different faculty development activity, Faculty Summer Institute (FSI), that was more conference than workshop.  Originally FSI was intended as a way to spread the knowledge about teaching with technology that was on my campus to the various other public universities in the state and in the first couple of years there were 10 faculty attendees from each of these universities present plus support providers from the various campuses.  I was the head facilitator for FSI, which started in 1997.  I did that for 10 years.  FSI was held the week after Commencement, in May.  The ETB workshops followed that with some time in between for me and my staff to regroup.  FSI is important in this context because it had its own separate funding, which is why it is still ongoing.

Now let me try to complete the picture to get at the card playing issues.  I thought CET to be substantially under funded from the outset.  Part of that was that SCALE and CET overlapped for a year and SCALE staff were integrated in with the other CET staff members from a functional point of view, but they were on soft money.  So an immediate priority was to get them into permanent positions.  Then, too, I thought we simply didn't have enough people for the work we were supposed to do.  And last, some of the staff in CET came from another unit where they weren't paid well.  So there were salary compression issues that needed to be addressed.  Presumably these various funding issues would be resolved the following year, when the campus would get its first permanent CIO.  That first year of CET we had an interim CIO.  He gave us $50K for a computer lab for hands on faculty training, but he wasn't in a position to address the recurrent funding issues.

The following summer we repeated the ETB workshops (with reduced stipends for faculty but the rest of the structure intact).  I thought it went well, but again I failed to gather data about the effectiveness of these workshops.  Let me give a partial justification for why.  CET was involved in many distinct and idiosyncratic activities.  The philosophy at the time was - if there is an enthusiastic faculty member who wants CET's help and is doing something novel with learning technology then CET wants to support that person and showcase the work.  Much of our approach to faculty development during the rest the year was to showcase what these budding stars had done and hope it inspired others to follow in their lead.  This was fun and engaging, but also quite time consuming.  And as with the workshops, I didn't have anything but anecdotal information on whether the showcasing of the innovators spawned imitation.  All these years later I believe the ETB workshops were more effective than the showcasing the innovators because the workshops were pitched at where the attendees were at the time - just getting started with using technology in their teaching.  But that belief is more guess than anything else. It is not based on the accumulation of overwhelming evidence, as Gawande has done.

A different sort of criticism of me and CET that I think fair is that we had too much variety in what we were about and not enough core competency.  This was further reflected in that we supported five different applications that did similar things but were still distinct - the conferencing applications WebBoard and FirstClass, the course management systems CourseInfo and WebCT, and the sophisticated quiz system Mallard.  My view was that more customized use would lead to better learning, but it undoubtedly stretched the small CET staff. 

When the new CIO came, starting in fall 2000, some things had to give.  In essence he took the funds for the ETB workshops and redirected them to shore up CET's budget and I believe he injected some funds from elsewhere as well.  He told me at the time that the Deans were not happy with the campus paying for faculty development with stipends, so those funds needed to be redirected.  That seemed sensible to me.  Yet I viewed those workshops as the best in what CET did for faculty development.  So the issue was how to best respond to the CIO's plan.

Let me add here that I have some aversion to being pushy.  In the interest of promoting collegiality, I like to get along with others.  In some circumstances that works well.  In other circumstances being pushy is better.

There were two possibilities for continuing with the workshops.  One was to convert FSI into a workshop structure and have more of the attendees come from my campus.  The original goals of FSI had been achieved.  It needed redefinition in any event, since some of the original participants had dropped out.  But I didn't control the funds for FSI.  The money was in Conferences and Institutes, part of our Continuing Education unit.  So they would need to be convinced on this score.  It is also true that the steering committee for FSI was comprised largely of representatives from other campuses, who would undoubtedly view such a change as my campus being stingy.  So that would have been unpleasant.

The other possibility was to run separate workshops apart from FSI, but to pay no stipends.  I had a bit of a slush fund left over from SCALE that could cover the facilities and food costs.  And by then I had been making presentations about online learning for various colleges, either for new faculty as in the case of LAS and Engineering, or generally for faculty, as in the case  of ACES and AHS.  So I had a network of people who invited me to make such presentations and I could have engaged them in inquiry to find out whether they'd be interested in sending folks to a workshop like the ETB workshops, but without the stipends.   This might have failed either because my contacts wouldn't show interest or even if they did because they couldn't get a sufficient number of faculty to attend.  But it might have succeeded if it were tried.  It never was.

Instead what happened is that the summer workshops dropped off the CET radar.  It is the first experience where a significant faculty development activity was abandoned, not because it was ineffective, but because of cost and because faculty stipends became politically incorrect.

More or less at the same time it became required that I produce progress reports on CET.  In those we counted beans quite a lot - number of courses in each of our various products and number of student users in those courses.  Those numbers had an upward trend, so it could be argued we were doing well, just for that reason.  But I didn't believe that argument.  As I've stated above, it is effective practice that counts.  We did get anecdotal information on that and we did try other approaches to faculty development, but it is was all small bore stuff, not systematic at all.  So while that is what I valued, it was difficult to communicate the importance of the activity in a meaningful way to others who didn't already share my beliefs.

I have belabored my own personal story on the faculty development activity because it presaged what would come later.  There were other pressures that would move CET activity away from faculty development and toward tech support.  These other pressures were not unique to my campus.  They occurred at peer institutions in the CIC as well, and probably nationally.

One of these was the move to an enterprise learning management system.  This necessitated a lot of instructor training up front and online support during implementation.  Those activities crowded out some of the faculty development, even as the staff got professional development based on a principle that training and demonstrating effective pedagogy should be done in an integrated way.

The other of these was the merger of CET with the much large campus computing organization.  There is then the question of whether the rest of the organization is clued into what faculty development is about.  Mainly they weren't.  So while CET became CITES EdTech, the rest of CITES viewed CET as the supporter of a specific application, the LMS, but otherwise not different from the rest of CITES.  As more of EdTech's function became help desk like, that conformed with the vision of the rest of CITES.  There does need to be a help desk function for the LMS.  But it is no substitute for faculty development.

It is very hard for me to tell whether peer institutions did better in managing these pressures.  I have a suspicion that they did because my earlier decisions, based on circumstances unique to my campus, impeded getting better balance later.  In particular, I believe that the staff react more to actions than to words and that the abandoning of the ETB workshops was a message to the the staff that faculty development is not so important or that we were too chintzy to do what we should be doing, a message I didn't want to send but probably did.  I left CITES after summer 2006 because I couldn't see how to buck the trend and because more and more of my time was spent giving the "faculty view" on IT issues that concerned CITES but that otherwise didn't have to do with teaching and learning.   I know of one other peer in the CIC Learning Technology Group who moved onto other things, but for somewhat different reasons.  Most of my generation stuck with it till they retired or are still doing it even now.  Presumably that persistence is supported by a belief that some progress is being made.

I now want to take this story and tie it to the student development issue.  The thought is that it takes a community of like minded faculty to make for a substantial change in how we go about undergraduate education.  The Chancellor and perhaps the Provost can act as a voice of one in initiating change.  Lower down in the hierarchy, that can't happen without many other voices lending support, even when its just for a pilot offering.  The thought is that faculty who have gone through a faculty development process that they themselves regarded as well done will be mindful about their teaching and the issues they are confronting as they teach.  For a while their universe will be their own classes.  But as they find they are invested in the learning of their students, they will have conversations with peers to benchmark their own experiences and to see if they can get helpful suggestions on how to improve practice.  If in those discussions there is some agreement that there are too many drones among the student population, that observation will sow the seeds for a student development program of some sort.  (As I'm writing this piece a Facebook friend posted a link to this "letter" from February in the Washington Post, A warning to college profs from a high school teacher.  It might be that lamentations about NCLB will be the driver toward such a student development program rather than the mechanism I sketch here.)

I don't want to expand on what a program would look like.  Let me simply report that several early adopter type faculty I know have used peer mentors to good effect in their teaching, but the practice has not diffused on its own beyond that.  During the SCALE years, I used online peer tutors in my class and got good results from it.  I paid those students as hourlies using SCALE grant funds.  After the grant ran out I was able to get the Econ department to pick up the tab.  I was teaching a section three times the normal size and that "efficiency" paid for the peer tutors, still leaving a surplus.  But after the last time I taught the large section, spring 2001, the practice stopped.  It was a special deal and hadn't become the normal way of doing things.

Several years ago I wrote seven posts on Inward Looking Service Learning about a systematic approach to peer mentoring across the campus.  (The title is from the mentor's view, not the mentee's.)   These should be interpreted as a vision, not a programmatic plan, as there is a lot of wishful thinking in these essays.  Others might conceive a student development program quite differently.  The point I want to make here is that there are indirect consequences that we often don't factor into our original assessment on how to play the cards.  Ultimately, I hypothesize, student development will be more important than faculty development in getting good learning.  In this autopsy, that makes the near term pursuit of faculty development critical, as it seems to me to be a necessary intermediate step.

* * * * *

What lessons are there from performing this exercise?  The fourth stanza of Kenny Rogers' The Gambler reads:

You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done

I like that as a basis for the executive decision maker and will take it for sound advice, though it is scant on when each of the contingencies should obtain.  The analysis in this essay, I hope, sheds some light on this.

For me there is one big take away.  It is to reconcile your decisions with your beliefs.  Sometimes you can't do this in prospect, because you don't know what those beliefs are in advance.  That's fair enough.  But when you do know and you do believe in something strongly, then leave no stone unturned in finding actions that support those beliefs.  Bemoaning lack of resources, usually with some truth in that, masks the personal obligation.  Sometimes we say this as, "fight for what you believe in."  I don't like the word fight as it is used here, particularly since collegiality is another value I believe in strongly and fight suggests abandoning collegiality.  Note that my second alternative for possibly continuing the ETB workshops was a purely cooperative approach.  There would have been no fighting in it, in the sense of demeaning others.

Put another way, the lesson is to pursue the unlikely though possible alternative if it offers some chance of success in something you believe in strongly, rather than make assumptions about the outcome ahead of time, thereby cutting off all possibility.  If fighting describes that sort of choice, then I'm all for fighting.

Yet I want to be careful here.  Jim Valvano's line - never give up - was originally uttered when he he was combating the Grim Reaper.  I have nothing to say here about that battle.  The assumption in this essay when using the poker playing metaphor is that there will be other games to play in the future.  Valvano may be spot on in giving advice about the game he was playing at the time.  For the rest of the time, however, Rogers' song offers better advice. 

So folding the cards remains a possibility.  It is an important option to have.  Yet it is an alternative to use with extreme reluctance.  For those of us who value collegiality greatly, it seems an important lesson to learn.