Uncategorized

The K-12 Connection

For the past three years, in addition to my role as Provost at WCSU, I have served on the Board of Education for my town.  This experience has been enlightening.  The district is small (under 300), with students entering in either pre-school or Kindergarten and attending through 8th grade. After 8th grade students choose to attend one of several local high schools because we are just too small to sustain one of our own.  Like many parts of Connecticut and the Northeastern US, we have seen a drop in students (enrollments 10 years ago were around 520), and we’ve had to make adjustments in staffing and planning in the face of that new reality.  These adjustments are informative for my work in higher education.

First, let’s state the obvious, staffing in my district is smaller than it used to be.  We simply don’t have enough students for multiple sections of classes. But drops in staffing are not a simple thing. We can’t simply eliminate a teacher every time we have a drop in enrollment, because we would lose variation in approaches, expertise, and ideas. This would not serve our students well.  So, some clever re-groupings and innovative practices are taking place. One such change is that we now have a faculty member in the lower grades focused on STEM.  This was not something we did before we had to re-imagine education with a smaller population.  We did used to just think about classes and numbers of students, not content. As the curriculum for the STEM position grows and changes, it has the potential to bring unique and exciting  experiences to our students.

So, what is the connection to higher education?  Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the  decline in students enrolled in humanities majors.  While it might be ok for some reduction in staffing, we don’t want to lose the expertise and diversity of perspectives brought by a robust humanities faculty. I wonder of the elementary school STEM innovation can serve as inspiration, asking us to think beyond course offerings and recombine expertise? The important piece about that STEM idea was that the teacher in the role started in a humanities discipline, but at the elementary school level this means a lot of generalist skills too, so he was able to bring in his math and science training and grow his expertise.  The STEM experience is being enhanced by experiential approaches (labs) and real world questions, with ideas of discovery that are as humanities based as they are scientific.  Can we do something that re-connects students to humanities disciplines by connecting disciplines?

For example, literature has always been an important mirror for our culture.  In some cases, literature is arranged around topics like immigration or gender or cultural groups, rather the eras or genres.  Can we take it one step further and connect immigrant focused literature to immigration policy?  If we could connect a topics course to a series of policies that directly effect people’s lives, might we end up with a few more students in the literature major?  Unlike K-12, the expertise is deeper and we would need to develop a linked course structure (literature and sociology in this case), with faculty co-planning and occasionally bringing the two classes together, but think of how exciting that could be.  Instead of shrinking indiscriminately, we reimagine what we are teaching, particularly in the foundational courses, and potentially grow after all.

Another lesson I’ve learned from K-12 is that math is just always a problem. No matter what school district you’re in, math education is under constant review and scrutiny because we never seem to meet our targets. This is as true in my district as it is in large urban districts and as it is in higher education, where too much of my budget is spent on  getting students to college level math.  I  recently had an “aha” moment around math as we discussed the curriculum at the Board of Ed.  The problem, as I see it, is that math is a course, not a habitual practice.  Math is quite legitimately compared to a second language.  We know that to truly master that second language, you need to practice all the time.  We’re going to need to put math in all sorts of  places, not just math class, to improve our outcomes.

In higher ed we like to blame K-12 for not sending the students to us prepared for college math, but it isn’t that they aren’t working hard on this, it is the structure that has to change.  And so does ours.  We, too, communicate the message that math is an isolated thing that you have to get through, rather than use.  Only STEM, and to a degree business majors, get any real message about the importance of achieving a level of  mathematical fluency.

In K-12, I suggest weaving in math problems in all sorts of classes, so they are encountered nearly every class period, just like reading.  This is a little scary for those teachers who opted for non-math disciplines, but it doesn’t have to be high level math, just a little arithmetic in the early years, and more applied math around social issues in the middle years. It will take some curriculum design, but I suspect it would be worth  the effort.

And what about higher ed?  We need to do the same thing.  There needs to be a lot more engagement with all kinds of numerical data in non-STEM classes.  Instead of just  algebra or statistics classes, we need to routinely weave in the kind of analytic thinking  that these courses support, so that students don’t forget this critical language.  Sometimes, this could occur through partnerships like the one proposed between sociology and literature, or perhaps in wonderful collaborations between art and science (3-D printing comes to mind). Other times faculty can develop some evidence requirements in their assignments that include some quantitative reasoning to reinforce the usefulness of the language of math. These would be at a basic and integrated level, leaving the advanced work for those who’ve specialized in quantitative reasoning more  in-depth.  I know many of my colleagues won’t believe this, but our students actually want  this. They don’t like they way they feel about numerical information.

In both of these examples, the critical shift was moving from single disciplinary perspectives to an integrated curriculum.  Weaving our planning together might help us see how to weather the storm of demographic shifts in ways that could make us more effective and more exciting.  That reinvention might also help us articulate our value, once again. But we’ll have to leave our departments to do so.  Imagine that.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

Undermatching

Today’s Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed are reporting on a study that explored the impact of “nudges” to encourage low-income, high ability students to apply to competitive colleges.  This comes on the heels of last year’s report on chronic undermatching of these students with more prestigious opportunities. The results were, in my view, predictable.  The nudges did not help.

So, to the predictable part… nudges with little cultural or financial framework are simply ads that we need to delete.  While the College Board waived application fees so that low-income students didn’t have to bear the cost of applying to schools, this is just a small part of the ways that those more competitive (elite) schools might not seem inviting.  Let’s face it, we’re all talking about college costs and how to contain them.  Students looking at colleges, low-income or middle-class, are really worried about debt.  Tuition prices are more or less knowable, but the availability of financial aid awards is largely hidden and difficult to pin down.  So, why go through all of that work to understand the complex formulas under the costs of education, and potentially be disappointed, especially when an apparently reasonably priced alternative exists?

Culturally, there is more.  Students need to have a vision of themselves at a school to want to be there.  If everyone looks affluent, well, it just doesn’t look welcoming to a low-income student.  I’m not even getting into all of the issues of diversity that face these competitive/elite schools.  If we just focus on the dollars, there is plenty to scare a student away.  The solidly middle-class tend not to notice the extra-curriculars they can afford, the internships they can afford to not be paid for, the volunteer time they can afford to give, and the many little add-ons (trips to museums, spring break events, concerts) that keep the less affluent from full participation in this version of higher education.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of it.  Students may leverage local universities so they can avoid housing costs.  They may wish to not go too far from home so that they know they have a support system within driving distance.  Some may choose a school that seems to have students that have had experiences of the world like theirs so that the unfamiliar world of higher education is made more familiar by virtue of peer groups.

All of this is the “duh” component of these findings.  It was a well-intentioned effort, but really reduced the complexity of college choice and access in un-nuanced ways.  But I am much more troubled by they very notion of undermatching.  You see, I’m not sure what’s wrong with my less competitive school.  Our admissions standards are lower than the competitive schools in the College Board study, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that my school is not a great option for students from all backgrounds.

Here’s the thing: it is true that a public school like mine does not have as much money to invest in special programs for first-generation and low-income students as an elite school.  That means we have to be much more thoughtful about our investments.  Working with faculty and other support staff, I find that we talk through the needs of our students with a broader view than the special population.  We ask questions about how to improve tutoring overall, how to demystify college expectations for all students, how to best deploy peer mentors for all students.  We don’t focus on niche, because we can’t, but the result is a sustained effort to help all students succeed.

It is true that my retention and graduation rates are and will continue to be lower than a more competitive school, but the experience of education will not be lesser.  We have all the same accreditations for business, nursing, education, chemistry, social work, and all of our arts programs, as the elite schools have.  This means our curriculum meets a standard of excellence that one should expect from higher education. Our graduates win Fulbright scholarships (our 6th this year) and Goldwater scholarships (our first since I’ve been here) and our winners are frequently the first in their families to attend college.  They get jobs, start businesses, go to medical and veterinary schools, become teachers and nurses, and performing artists. In other words, their education positions them for success.

While they are enrolled at WCSU, our students encounter many people who look like them and many who do not (we are a wonderfully diverse campus).  They work on projects with students who are first in the family to go to college, or second or third generation WCSU.  They co-author research with faculty, volunteer when possible, and intern when available, usually while juggling at least one job.  The pervasiveness of that juggling allows them to feel it is normal to have to make decisions not to volunteer or take on an extra opportunity if their circumstances don’t allow. Lots of our students are trying hard to make ends meet without taking out a lot of student loans, and they know how to prioritize.

In other words, low income students are set up to thrive here.  We are a public university, with strong academic programs that meet the needs of our community.  Our outcomes are not as strong as we’d like, but in terms of economic equity we are awesome.  We know that not all of our students are ready to go through in four years in a row.  We help them exit and re-enter as they work through their own educational and life decisions. That is our commitment to them.

We are not often the first choice for families that aspire to more status-conscious schools, but we are often where they finish their journeys when they realize the quality of all that we do. The support of Connecticut citizens helps us to be relatively affordable, and we hope that the support continues so we can be a university that nurtures learning for all, not just the lucky few. That is the value of what we do, and we do so with pride and aspiration for all of our students.

So, really, I reject the very notion of undermatching.  It’s a classist argument and the study that ensued was based on all of those classist assumptions.  Instead, I’m going to keep supporting the students we have, working toward support for the many, and improving our success rates one student at a time.

Higher Education

Hope and Renewal

Education is organized around clear beginnings and endings.  We associate those beginnings with resolve and optimism.  Faculty have freshly written syllabi and lofty goals for their students.  Students dream of getting their habits right and succeeding in all of their courses.  Administrators like me, hope that a new year will prove the success  of our initiatives as we try to improve the quality of the educational experience and support those dreams of success.

But what about the endings? Though sometimes tinged with a sense of melancholy as we close our books and call it a semester, they are a welcome point of relief.  After all, it is  the endings that give us a moment to reflect on our successes and failures, rest, and re-group.  While I sometimes consider restructuring the use of time in higher education, and potentially the use of summers in more intentional ways,  I never consider losing the pauses that are our endings.  They are absolutely necessary.

Then there is the biggest ending of all, graduation. Last weekend, WCSU congratulated nearly a thousand students who had reached their goals and earned their degrees. I love the commencement ceremony.  Many of our students are the first in their families to  attend college.  Their successes are celebrated by many family members cheering them on in the arena.  Others were like me, coming from several generations of college graduates, and equally proud of getting to that finish line. It is all smiles and handshakes and joy.  And then, well, then what?

As an administrator, my friends often ask me what I do all summer.  They are confused by the fact that I don’t have that beloved summer break that is part of the faculty life.   (Don’t worry faculty colleagues, I know it isn’t all break for you.)  Well, here is what I  tend to get up to.  I move from that arena stage at commencement to annual reports, taking stock of how we did this  year.  Have we made improvements in our efforts to support students on their way to that commencement stage?  What can we do better  next year?  Where are we still falling short? The summer is my opportunity to regroup.

It is both an exhilarating and daunting task to examine and assess our efforts each year. There are many great stories in annual reports from departments and deans.  I will learn about new curricula, faculty scholarship, student success in research or graduate school and I will be impressed.  Then I will look to see if any of the interventions designed to improve our ability to retain and graduate students has improved our outcomes.  It’s a deep dive into both qualitative and quantitative measures, as I attempt to develop a comprehensive understanding of how we are doing as a university.

But I don’t start with the  reports. I usually start by reading some inspiring story of   possibilities.  This year that story was Saundra Yancy McGuire’s, Teach Students How to Learn.  Her career as a chemistry educator and student learning center director is inspiring.  The strategies she details on how to help students take control of  their  learning are simple and elegant.  They don’t require fancy technology, just clarity and a little persuasive data.  They are scalable, and if successfully leveraged, have the power to  dramatically improve those pesky retention and graduation numbers.  I am inspired.

And that’s how I like to read all of the reports, in a state of inspiration, optimism, and hope.  We won’t have met all my goals for this year, because those goals are challenging.  But we will have made some progress.  I will see the little impacts and find new opportunities for improvement.  I will be able to celebrate the innovations in classes and in student support services that are slowly moving us forward.  I will be proud of the  many small stories that add up to a great commencement ceremony.  And then I will make plans to do better next year, because I will feel inspired and hopeful.

And really, that is what I am struck by every year at our commencement ceremony, the truly awesome sense of  hope that is at the  heart of education.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we  engage in learning, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that learning will help us do better and be better.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time we engage in teaching we are acting on the optimistic assumption that the understandings we discover with our students will help us support an educated person with the  power to create new knowledge and navigate a complex society.  From pre-school to doctorate, each time our society invests in the structures that support these educational experiences and contexts, we are acting on the optimistic assumption that access to education is the foundation of a fair and just society, where all citizens have the opportunity to thrive.

These are the expressions of  hope I see each year as I shake those many hands on the  arena stage.  These are the feelings of hope I have as I review the year just completed in preparation for plan for an even better next year. It is the rhythm of education and it is a very good idea.

 

Higher Education, Technology

Engagement and Adulthood: A contradiction?

This weekend I spent some time preparing a paper that I’ll be presenting at the Media Ecology Association Conference in Toronto next month.  The paper explores the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) in higher education.  As Provost, I am routinely bombarded with sales pitches for the latest gadgets to encourage student engagement.  Each one has a plethora of data points that suggest that it will increase student success. Each one raises concerns about the notion of adulthood.

Consider, for example, the ways in which we might employ smartphones to take attendance.  One vendor presented a simple and elegant way to set up a sensor in a classroom doorway so that. as students come in. their presence is automatically recorded in a spreadsheet for the faculty member.  As a bonus, photographs of the students can show up an a computer monitor at the teacher’s station, helping them learn their students’ names.  For students who don’t have phones, there is still the opportunity for manual entry.  Great.  Attendance tracking solved!

But the thing is, once it is turned on, students can be tracked for all sorts of things.  If a student doesn’t go to the cafeteria for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they don’t leave the dorm for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they are missing multiple classes, an alert might come up.  OK, we should be concerned about the student, but I have concerns about privacy and self-determination. While I truly wish to engage students who are starting to disappear, I’m not sure I want to do it by tracking their every move.  It’s a little creepy and I think it’s an invasion of privacy.  More importantly, it creates a relationship with students that does not encourage them to be responsible for their actions.

There are similar products being sold to advising centers to try to prompt engagement with students.  There are alerts sent to advising staff by faculty, coaches, and anyone else who might be in contact with the students, letting them know about excessive absences or other looming issues.  Part of this is fantastic.  The student experience is dispersed in higher education and this function allows us to see patterns that might be invisible without it.  An advisor can then reach out to the student and that student might respond.  Great! But then what?

You see the painful truth is that most do not respond. Are we to stand outside classrooms or doorways to find them?  Do we text and email and call multiple times to try to prompt that response?  At what point are we to say, this student is not ready to engage in this conversation, and just stop?  When do we get the message that the student is making a decision not to respond?

Then there’s the “nudge” technology, meant to prompt students to action on all sorts of things: registration, financial aid, meeting an advisor, applying for graduation.  It’s a good idea.  In the whirl of semesters, deadlines are easy to miss.  As a basic communication strategy, it seems like a helpful tool in our efforts to keep our students informed and on track.  But, when they consistently ignore these messages, what are we to do? And, more importantly, is our nudging turning into one more thing for students to tune out? All I can think of is the teacher’s voice in the old Peanuts cartoons.

As fond as I am of being a professional nag, these technologies seem to be undermining the notion of adulthood in higher education.  While I have always conceptualized our traditional aged undergraduates as beginner adults, they are adults none-the-less.  We know that they will stumble, as all adults do, but is catching them every time they fall a good idea?  Well, it’s complicated.

In fact, some of our students really do need extra support and nudges and outreach.  They come to us with no experience of the culture of higher education or they come to us with just adequate, but not stellar, high school grades. We know that these students are more likely to stumble.  These students need our thoughtful and persistent attention. But, does that attention need to be at the cost of supporting adulthood? I don’t think so.

Here’s where I am on this today.  First, we don’t need the technology to tell us who the  at-risk students are.  We have a slew of reports that have already done that.  For those students, we need a carefully constructed program of support that moves from high touch to self-determination as quickly as possible. Let’s use the large body of research that tells us the best strategies for cultivating that self-determination. Let’s leave the technology out of this one, in favor of some good old fashioned human interaction.  This program of support should help the students take control of their education, instead of relying on prompts and nudges for all the answers.

For those students who don’t need that extra support at the start, let’s be clear in our expectations and not obscure the paths to great educational experiences.  Let’s orient them to campus, help them create their plans, and then leave them alone. They can figure it out.

Some of our students will ignore our efforts no matter what we do. Some of them will end up leaving. It happens.  In fact it happened to me.  I needed time to figure out why I should be in college.  It wasn’t a lack of technology that caused this. I certainly didn’t want additional oversight from concerned professionals. I wanted to solve my own problems and make my own plans. I was a beginner adult, making my own mistakes and finding my way.

Change, Evaluation, Higher Education

The Pace of Change

It is the end of another academic year, and as we move through award ceremonies, research presentations, and finally commencement, I take the time to look at my to-do list from last fall.  It is a bit deflating to see all of the things I didn’t complete.  I expect some of this to happen, after all, not all of my plans were good ones. A few things actually got done, some were re-imagined, a few were abandoned, and some just didn’t get the attention they needed to come to fruition.  It isn’t all bad, but I confess to being a bit disappointed in myself.

Then I remember, higher education is designed to slow the pace of change.  While we are great places for advancing knowledge (yes, new discoveries and inventions do come from higher education), we are best at slow deliberation.  We analyze cultural patterns large and small and try to see them in context, rather than jumping to conclusions.  We look at small changes in forecasting models for weather or economics, tweaking them slightly each year to get closer to a better predictor, and then analyze the results of those changes.  We reflect upon the past to try to divine how we got to this moment.  Change is not something we’re avoiding, it is something we’re vetting.

So here I am, an academic with an administrative role. I understand the care with which my colleagues approach change and I share their suspicions about the innovation of the week.  The brakes they are putting on in the form of more questions, more input, more research are justified.  However, I also spend my time looking at the whole organization and the whole student experience, and I see patterns of successes and failures that are calling for us to move a little faster. I feel the push/pull of the deliberative mindset and the urgency of responding to areas for improvement.

Take, for example, the way this generation of learners is coming to us.  It is well-documented that their experience of reading is very different from that of the generations before them.  (See “The Fall and Rise of Reading” by Steven Johnson in the Chronicle of Higher Education). It isn’t that students can’t read, it’s just that they really haven’t had to grapple with critical reading. The books read and tests taken prior to coming to college are all about short forms, summaries, and highlights.  And of course, there’s the endless interaction on the Internet to reduce the time spent with texts. Reflective reading of long form texts is just not what they are used to doing.  We know this to be true, yet we haven’t reviewed the literature on how to teach critical reading, and then incorporate into our classes.

Maybe we think this isn’t our job. High school was supposed to do it, so just pile on the readings and the students will get it eventually.  But they don’t.  We have to adjust our teaching strategies, and quickly, because we’re losing too many to this gap in skills. Even worse, we are diminishing the conversations we’re having in our classes because we’re not really expecting students to do the reading anymore.  This is a terrible spiral, but the good news is we can stop it from happening. But we have to act, and sooner rather than later.

And then there is the issue that really made me sigh this morning.  After repeated reports on who struggles to succeed at my university, I concluded that the at-risk group is any student who had less than an 85 average in high school.  I learned this two years ago and started a conversation about advising strategies to address the at-risk group. At that time, I used the words “intrusive advising” which is a term found in much of the advising literature. Several of my colleagues objected to the term, so we moved to the idea of enhanced advising.  I brought together a group to develop a protocol and nothing happened.

Then I appointed some faculty members to investigate ways that we might develop an advising protocol for those students.  Like all good faculty members, they went out and talked to their peers. While they found out a few good things about how to support faculty as advisors (and I will work to support those findings), in reality, enhanced advising was set aside in favor of better advising for all.  This is a good idea, but it will take too long to identify and scale those improvements.  Meanwhile, those at-risk students are left with no direct support.

I just got an updated report on at-risk students and it is still students who earned less than an 85 average in high school.  The difference in retention rates for this group is at least 10% lower than those at 85 or above, and the differences in graduation rates are even more stark.  And there’s plenty of literature about how to support these students, so, I’m feeling an urgency.

So, I’m left pondering ways to balance the deliberation with the urgency.  I do respect the reflective and thoughtful nature of my colleagues, but when I keep the larger patterns of student success (or lack thereof) in view, the pace of change is just too slow.  I’m going to have to find a better balance, a better way to move the deliberation along just a little faster.  Because, what I don’t want to do is have this on the unfinished list again next year.