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.

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