Alston Road

ANALYSIS, STRATEGY & PLANNING FOR DIGITAL HIGHER ED

Category: Organizational Issues in Higher Education

Sources of Information on Higher Education

If you are interested in how higher education operates, or are doing research on issues pertaining to higher education, these organizations may be of value:

The Changing Contexts of Educational Content

Value is shaped by context.

That is to say  . . . we attribute value and meaning to people, objects and other things on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Art may be best example of the power of context. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards and out of the gallery, the meaning and value of the art shifts considerably. It may not, in the case of some modern art, be interpreted as art at all by some people. (See figure to right.)

Context is crucial in commercial markets, too. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers avoid placing ads in the middle of programs on unsettling topics; those that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a fictional “made for TV movie” about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on US soil. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they choose to run all ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs.  Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them one of the “beautiful people” is more difficult after witnessing death and destruction.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Well, until now, not much. Historically, higher education has been able to control the context in which student’s experience the institution. Compared to other types of organizations, colleges and universities are like islands, “all-in-one” organizations, in which the student – if they chose – could spend their entire educational career without ever leaving the campus.

The walls around higher education are becoming less substantial, though – only partly by design. Institutions deliberately reach beyond their walls to the community through, for example, the creation of their own Facebook pages (while still trying to regulate the message). But most of the outreach thus far has been driven by students. Whether creating work groups on Google applications, or adding their opinion to RateMyProfessor, students are taking elements of their experience outside of their schools to the broader public, piece by piece.

Even instructional materials are finding their way to the broader public. Open educational resources are placed in common platforms like Connexions and Merlot and Academic Earth for public use.

The fact that these materials are publicly available is, alone, significant. Traditionally, these instructional materials were carefully hidden behind secure university course management systems, available only to students registered in the course. But it’s also significant that the materials are placed alongside other materials from competing institutions. Users are encouraged to evaluate and compare the different materials. By placing the institution’s content in a public forum we expose the institution to a type of evaluation beyond anything experienced previously.

The Net is doing to higher education what it did in so many other sectors: exposing organizations to side by side comparisons. As these shared platforms for educational content become more user-friendly visitors will soon be able to compare lectures like we compare fridges on the BestBuy site. And what the users experience is not always pretty. Philip Greenspun did a minute by minute evaluation of a well known finance professor’s lecture performance on Academic Earth, suggesting that the professor’s lecture was wasteful and self-indulgent.

Overall, the shift to greater transparency is positive. But I’m not sure that the majority of academic managers are yet fully conscious of the implications. Indeed, the decision to put educational content online is, at most institutions, left to the individual academic. As these platforms become more popular and the ability to compare educational content/institutions becomes that much easier, we may see leaders paying closer attention to what is published publicly.

Notes on Sharing, Competition and Innovation

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

Image via Wikipedia

Originally posted in Today’s Campus

A panel discussion entitled “What Nonprofits and For-Profits Can Learn from Each Other About Teaching and Learning” was held at the most recent Educause conference. The panelists were from proprietary schools, a non-profit university, Inside Higher Ed, and a think-tank. It was at this talk that an audience member repeated the claim that proprietary colleges, unlike non-profit colleges, are unwilling to “share”. Proprietary colleges won’t, for example, provide people outside of their organizations with access to their courses, materials and other related information because these institutions are, well, proprietary. The comment put the representatives on the panel from the proprietary sector on the defensive. I think that was the intention.

The criticism of proprietary colleges has a moral and political quality. It suggests that non-profit colleges share because the practice is consistent with the institution’s mandate of social responsibility. The more we share, the better off we all are. And, of course, this is true; indisputable, in fact. The exchange of information between individuals, communities, and nations is an important ingredient of innovation and our collective progress.

While claims to moral superiority are often legitimate; sometimes they serve to mask complexity, even mislead. Indulge my cynicism for a moment while I take a second look at the seemingly simple issue of sharing in digital higher ed.

First, the distinction between non-profit and proprietary in terms of sharing is often overstated. Non-profits do not have a stellar track record of sharing. For example, academics can work in the same department for years without actually witnessing each other teach. It’s  considered intrusive. Professional autonomy and sharing are not always aligned. Similarly, academic researchers are unlikely to share their unfinished work with researchers at other institutions with whom they are competing (for attention, grants, journal acceptance, etc); not until the research is published and credit is formally attributed. And on an institutional level, recent research by AEI and Education Sector suggests that the majority of publicly sponsored colleges and universities don’t provide students with all of the information they need to make sound academic and career decisions – even when the disclosure of this information has been mandated by regulators.

Second, we need to ask why organizations choose to share or not. Is it strictly for social and moral reasons? I’m generalizing, but I don’t think most organizations will share information if it is fundamental to their success, no matter what their social mandate. Consider, for example, college courseware. Proprietary schools tend to put relatively more resources toward the design and development of their courses. It makes sense that they do. Unlike non-profit colleges, they can’t rely on tradition or reputation in order to compete. They don’t offer residential experiences, research, or climbing walls. Their focus is teaching and learning. As Richard Vedder of Ohio University argued recently in the Chronicle ,”the for-profits are incentivized to focus on student outcomes and learning—paying laser-like attention to this most critical mission of higher education.”

For-profits focus on those parts of their operation that can be controlled and which are central to their value, such as courses. They do it through top-down, management driven processes, which is unpalatable to many in traditional higher education, but they do it to survive.  So, the question we might ask is this: would non-profit colleges provide outsiders with access to their courses (which, again, they do in very limited ways) if access to this information could potentially weaken their status, revenue or both, and directly bolster a competitor?

What makes this issue particularly slippery is, first, the fact that quality in education is difficult to define and, second, because most traditional, non-profit colleges don’t compete on the basis of the quality of their digital courses. Consequently, we can only speculate as to how willing they would be to share access to their courses under more competitive circumstances. But the fact that researchers in competition with each tend to approach “sharing” in a far less generous manner suggests that the standard rules of competition apply.

Finally, the value of sharing is that it supports innovation that, in turn, supports the common good. And the claim made against for-profit colleges is that they are not inclined to share because they are competing, not collaborating. Again, there’s a great deal of truth to this view, but it ignores an especially large elephant in the room: for all of modern history, market economies have relied on competition to generate innovation. And now, after two centuries of unprecedented innovation, I think we can now safely say that it works. We’re not always pleased with the results, but there’s no question – at least in my mind – of the power of competition to generate high levels of innovation. So, the argument that competitive practices are counter to innovation is, regardless of the context, is – as my dear Mom often put it – “a bit rich”. Rather than contrast innovation and competition, can we agree that competition – like sharing – is a means of generating innovation?

Sharing is a positive force in higher education. But let’s not use the term indiscriminately. We need a more thoughtful, less politically charged dialogue to identify what should be shared and how.

Learning to Share

A panel discussion entitled “What Nonprofits and For-Profits Can Learn from Each Other About Teaching and Learning” was held at the most recent Educause conference. The panelists were from proprietary schools, a non-profit university, Inside Higher Ed, and a think-tank. It was at this talk that an audience member repeated the claim that proprietary colleges, unlike non-profit colleges, are unwilling to “share”. Proprietary colleges won’t, for example, provide people outside of their organizations with access to their courses, materials and other related information because these institutions are, well, proprietary. The comment put the representatives on the panel from the proprietary sector on the defensive. I think that was the intention.

The criticism of proprietary colleges has a moral tone to it. It suggests that non-profit colleges share because the practice is consistent with the institution’s mandate of social responsibility. The more we share, the better off we all are. And, of course, this is true; indisputable, in fact. The exchange of information between individuals, communities, and nations is an important ingredient of innovation and our collective progress.

While claims to moral superiority are often legitimate; sometimes they serve to mask complexity, even mislead. Indulge my cynicism for a moment while I take a second look at the seemingly simple issue of sharing in digital higher ed.

First, the distinction between non-profit and proprietary in terms of sharing is often overstated. Non-profits do not have a stellar track record of sharing. For example, academics can work in the same department for years without actually witnessing each other teach. It’s  considered intrusive. Professional autonomy and sharing are not always aligned. Similarly, academic researchers are unlikely to share their unfinished work with researchers at other institutions with whom they are competing (for attention, grants, journal acceptance, etc); not until the research is published and credit is formally attributed. And on an institutional level, recent research by AEI and Education Sector suggests that the majority of publicly sponsored colleges and universities don’t provide students with all of the information they need to make sound academic and career decisions – even when the disclosure of this information has been mandated by regulators.

Second, we need to ask why organizations choose to share or not. Is it strictly for social and moral reasons? I’m generalizing, but I don’t think most organizations will share information if it is fundamental to their success, no matter what their social mandate. Consider, for example, college courseware. Proprietary schools tend to put relatively more resources toward the design and development of their courses. It makes sense that they do. Unlike non-profit colleges, they can’t rely on tradition or reputation in order to compete. They don’t offer residential experiences, research, or climbing walls. Their focus is teaching and learning. As Richard Vedder of Ohio University argued recently in the Chronicle ,”the for-profits are incentivized to focus on student outcomes and learning—paying laser-like attention to this most critical mission of higher education.”

For-profits focus on those parts of their operation that can be controlled and which are central to their value, such as courses. They do it through top-down, management driven processes, which is unpalatable to many in traditional higher education, but they do it to survive.  So, the question we might ask is this: would non-profit colleges provide outsiders with access to their courses (which, again, they do in very limited ways) if access to this information could potentially weaken their status, revenue or both, and directly bolster a competitor?  Since course quality is such a nebulous thing and traditional schools don’t truly compete on this basis, I can only speculate, but like researchers in non-profit colleges won’t share their work with their direct competitors until it’s published (maybe). I suspect the same logic applies.

As mentioned above, the value of sharing is that it supports innovation that, in turn, supports the common good. And the claim made against for-profit colleges is that they are not inclined to share because they are competing, not collaborating. Again, there’s a great deal of truth to this view, but it ignores an especially large elephant in the room: for all of modern history, market economies have relied on competition to generate innovation. And now, after two centuries of unprecedented innovation, I think we can now safely say that it works. More competition, leads to more innovation. So, to argue that competitive practices are counter to innovation is, regardless of the context, is – as my dear Mom often put it – “a bit rich”. Rather than contrast innovation and competition, can we agree that each competition – like sharing – is a means of generating innovation?

Sharing is a positive force in higher education. But let’s not use the term indiscriminately. We need a more thoughtful, less politically charged dialogue to identify what should be shared and how.

Customer Service and/or Academic Standards in Higher Education

I recall walking down the hall of a university with a senior faculty member (I was merely tenure-track), when a student asked him for help with a small matter. He refused to help, noting that it was not  currently his office hours. He was rude and condescending toward the student. To her credit, the student protested, but he still refused.

I knew he could have helped her quickly with the matter. He acted this way because he could (and often did). I later found the student and apologized, but it didn’t mean much to her. His explanation to me was muddled, but suggested that he was not “here” to meet the needs of the students.

I was reminded of this event recently when a social media “friend” recently asked how we can best reconcile the disjuncture between great customer service and academic integrity and standards. It’s a great question, in part, because it suggests – accurately, I think – that these two goals are often thought in higher education to be natural enemies; we can’t have both it is assumed, at least not at the same time. And the issue is more important today because of the need of many colleges to compete for and retain students.

The overriding logic seems to be that if we concern ourselves too much with the student’s experience, then we are merely another business. But we are not businesses, they argue, and they are not customers. We are educators and the students need to meet our expectations, if they are to succeed.

Although I was embarrassed by the rudeness of my colleague, I sympathize with the logic that is behind his behaviour. I don’t think the solution is to treat education as a business, and students as consumers. We need to learn from the best of business (as well as from other fields), but education works best when it is not approached in the common vendor-consumer relationship.

Education should be approached as a collaborative engagement between people in which we each bring to the table different skills and needs. Students bring insights and perspectives that teachers need to embrace if they are to keep learning. Educators bring deep expertise in their fields that can stimulate student interest and engagement – the basis of learning.

At the same time, though, it is frankly stupid to adopt the logic represented by my former colleague. Academic integrity is not dependent on maintaining an indifference to student needs. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.

When I moved into the management side of higher education I was forced me to deal with the issue of  customer service in a whole new way. My management colleagues and I had little control over the academic side of the student’s experience. We had to focus our energies and investments on those parts of the student experience that we could control.

We discovered that there were many parts of the student experience that are independent of academics that could improve the student’s overall experience and even help them achieve academically. We sought to make it as simple as possible for the student to carry out all of the activities that are required to succeed as a post-secondary student, except those that clearly fall under the category of “academics”. With our approach, for example, we succeeded if the student spent as little time and energy as possible doing things that were unrelated to learning. We succeeded if the process of registering was straightforward; if understanding what is required of them to complete their academic work does not involve trying to decipher an incoherent syllabus, or navigating a badly designed LMS.

We focussed on what we could control. But what we discovered is that much of what actually constitutes the total student experience falls outside of academics. The time spent learning is only one part of what makes up the life of a student. And by making other parts of the experience simple, convenient, inexpensive, etc we are increasing the likelihood that the student will stick with their studies; that they we will feel welcomed by the institution and respected.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s certainly better than treating students like crap in the name of academic standards.

Faculty Lounges: Naomi Schaefer Riley (Author Interview Series)

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, and most recently of The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For. Riley is also the co-editor of Acculturated, a book of essays on pop culture and virtue published this spring by the Templeton Press. Ms. Riley’s writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She is a contributor to theChronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog.

Below, I pose questions to Ms. Riley about her most recent book, The Faculty Lounges.

KCH: Before our interview, I reviewed some of the early responses to your book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that academics (particularly those with tenure) are not pleased with your thesis. However, the tone of some of the comments was extraordinary: some questioned your motives, others challenged your intellectual capacity, and one claimed that you write “soft-core ideological porn.” Wouldn’t it be less dangerous for you to write critically about the military-industrial complex or, say, organized crime? 

Despite being quite familiar with the world of higher education, I have to say I was astounded by the level of vitriol that I encountered in when I wrote op eds and blog posts on the subject of tenure or higher education reform in general. I understand that people have an instinct for self-preservation, but I think that needs to be mixed with some common sense. Public confidence in higher education is at an all-time low and this might be a good time for the professoriate to listen to some of its critics. There are plenty of pundits and politicians out there who think higher education is a complete waste of time. I am not among them. I think a good liberal arts education can completely transform a person’s life. And I think that strong vocational education programs also have an important place in our country. In my book I have tried to provide some constructive criticism for administrators and faculty and a kind of roadmap of the higher education sector for parents and students.

KCH: It seems logical that the tenure system would support much-needed innovation by allowing faculty to operate free of restraints. Yet you see tenure creating a highly cautious approach to change on campuses. Why?

I think there are several reasons but let me highlight two. The first is I think the amount of time that faculty members spend trying to get tenure. If you think about the years that it takes to get a PhD–a median of 11 for an English degree, by the way!–and then the years spent working as an adjunct or assistant professor trying to get tenure, you could be easily talking 15  or 20 years. During that time we train people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down if they want to make it to the next level. What is the likelihood that after all that time, someone is going to suddenly start speaking up at the age of, say, 40? Job security becomes the be-all end-all of the profession.

The other reason that tenure does not seem to encourage much in the way of dissent is the system of “departmental majoritarianism,” that is, the system by which members of a particular department seem to keep voting in clones of themselves. There is no outside input in the process. Most administrators are rubber-stamping faculty decisions. And so there is a kind of insularity to it all. Since there is so little movement in the academic world–junior faculty might as well be waiting for someone to get hit by a bus in order to get a job–the members of a department are basically stuck with one another for life. They don’t want to alienate the people they will have to work with for decades to come and they don’t get many new ideas because there is so little new blood coming in.

KCH: You quote the work of sociologists David Reisman and Christopher Jencks from their 1968 book, The Academic Revolution: Administrators . . . “are today more concerned with keeping their faculty happy than with placating any other single groups. They are also, in our experience, far more responsive to students and more concerned with the inadequacies and tragedies of student life than the majority of faculty.” Despite being on the “front lines”, as you put it, administrators don’t often have the authority to make substantial changes at their institutions if the required changes directly involve faculty. How did we find ourselves in this situation and how do you suggest we get out of it? 

NSR: We have in place a system of faculty governance whereby professors have essentially gained a stranglehold on power at the university. The system of faculty governance is an important feature of the modern university. Starting in the late part of the 19th century, when the German model of the research university made its first appearance on our shores, the role of the professoriate changed from one of imparting knowledge to students, to one in which the primary focus was on research. This made sense for much of the biological and physical sciences, where scientific advances were happening at a rapid clip, too rapid perhaps for the average citizen to understand. But the research mandate was extended to the social sciences and the humanities. And professors of all stripes were increasingly understood to be society’s experts, its public intellectuals. And since what they were writing was considered above the heads of ordinary folks, they needed to govern themselves. Their work could only be judged by their peers.

This explains how faculty have gained the privilege of deciding which of their colleagues deserve tenure or promotion and which deserve to be fired. But faculty are in charge of so much else at universities these days. They vote on university investments, decide whether students are guilty or innocent of sexual assault, as well as control more mundane affairs like when classes should be taught and which classes should be taught.

Today, faculty control of universities has created any number of problems. While the state legislators and parents and students and taxpayers are having discussions about reforming higher education–fixing the cost structure, changing the curriculum, adding more distance learning, making professors teach more, etc.–they are not likely to have a significant effect any time soon. One reason is that every battle in higher education is a battle of attrition. The faculty will outlast any president, any administrator, any parent, any student, any trustee, etc. And so they will always win. When people ask me why I have focused on the issue of tenure, it is because I believe that changing this system is the key to making any other reforms work.

KCH: You identify a number of problems in higher ed that, in your view, are exacerbated by tenure. If the tenure system is eventually dismantled, who and what will most likely be responsible for its demise?  

NSR: If tenure is dismantled intentionally, it will be done first by state legislatures. With budgets tighter and more scrutiny of colleges and universities, these politicians are probably in the best position to do some kind of reform. They can vote to stop offering tenure to new faculty members and instead replace the institution with multi-year renewable contracts. Private universities may eventually follow the lead of public ones, but they won’t experience much in the way of direct pressure on this issue any time soon.

But as everyone knows, tenure and tenure-track positions are becoming a smaller percentage of the academic job market. What may happen, unfortunately, is that this diminishment will continue in a haphazard way and that universities will simply fill up with adjunct faculty. I see this as a problem. Adjuncts are often not treated well by their institutions, making low salaries, finding out whether they will be teaching only a few weeks before the semester begins (if that). They are forced to hold jobs on different campuses and often don’t have much contact with students. A higher percentage of adjuncts on campus correlates with lower graduation rates. I hope that we can stop this inevitable slide toward adjunctification by thinking seriously about faculty roles and contracts now and moving forward with a plan that is in the best interests of students.

What Makes a Great Professor (Survey)

Interesting. Notice what falls lowest as a source of value for professors from the student’s perspective: the very things that serve as the basis of value to the professor’s themselves and the institution’s that support them – research prowess and credentials. A structural flaw in the extreme.

Media Companies & Digital Higher Education

Front page of The New York Times July 29, 1914...

Image via Wikipedia

I mentioned to a colleague a couple of weeks back how it was “interesting” to see media companies getting involved in digital learning. The participants include, but may not be limited to, News CorpBertelsmann AGthe New York Times Company, and the Washington Post.

As education moves from the classroom to the screen, different capabilities are required. Many of these capabilities, as I have argued several times, are not innate to higher education, and may be well-supported by organizations with deeper roots in digital. Media companies also have considerable experience delivering subscription-based digital products. And the core source of educational media in higher education – the textbook industry – is quickly increasing the share of its revenue coming from subscriptions, rather than sales. Will media organizations help with this transition?

Below, The Chronicle of Higher Ed released a podcast on the New York Times involvement in the online higher education.

Podcast: The New York Times Joins Colleges to Create Online Courses

March 1, 2011, 1:52 pm

By Josh Fischman

Felice Nudelman, executive director of education for the New York Times Company, says the publisher has developed its own digital-learning platform and is beginning to collaborate with colleges. “We did a course with Ball State University, and it just took off,” she said at the 2011 Higher Ed Tech Summit in Las Vegas. Students get a long-term collaborative experience, she says, involving faculty members and reporters from the New York Times newsroom.

via Podcast: The New York Times Joins Colleges to Create Online Courses – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.