Change, Engagement, equity, Higher Education

Active(ist) Learning

Well here we are.  In the midst of getting our minds around COVID-19, we have a resurgence of an old plague – racism (thanks to my colleague for that framing).  It seems unbelievable that this could happen while we are all still reeling from the trauma of quarantine. But it is not unbelievable to those who have been on the receiving end of our clearly codified structural biases. Indeed, we should not be surprised at all.  This is not new, and the current quarantine has only enhanced the visibility of the cracks in our socio-economic system.

As I have mentioned in other essays, COVID-19 made obvious the differential experiences of education that we have been complicit in supporting.  In March, as we deployed laptops and hotspots to our neediest students, I wondered why we had neglected this until now.  Why had we been comfortable knowing that our neediest students were required to come to campus (own a car, pay for gas) and forgo opportunities to earn money (give up shifts so they can access our open computer labs) in order to fully access their education? We were perpetuating systemic inequities. Those same students are also unlikely to have the opportunity to

  • win awards because they will not be able to participate in our co-curricular activities, which are the foundations of most awards.
  • do an internship because they need to work to support themselves while in college; or
  • participate in a faculty research project because it will require even more time on campus, time they cannot give.

These pieces of our “meritocracy” are entirely rigged against the struggling students who are mere mortals, as opposed to the superstars we always hold up as examples of what can happen with hard work. I will not go over all of the ways in which the paths to higher education are also rigged against the have-nots.  We all know this, and we should be ashamed that we let it stand. For students of limited means, being a successful college student is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, our less advantaged students do succeed every day. They juggle the demands of work and school, and they accept the realities of the things they cannot afford. We work hard to help–despite the barriers I have described above.  As we see the barriers, we try to address them. But we are too slow. So is our culture.  Hence the roar of anger, dismay, and pain that we are hearing in our streets.

While it would be easy for me to throw up my hands and say, I cannot think about this right now because COVID-19 is taking my every waking moment, I will not do so.  I must not shy away from a thoughtful response.  Like the people in the streets, members of my community have suffered the endless indignities of a system rigged against them, and they deserve a response. So here it is–I am proposing direct instruction in the tools that can help our students to change the world.

Proposal 1: Let’s reimagine our first year courses. At WCSU, FY courses are a combination of an extended orientation (which is an important step toward equity) and an introduction to a discipline or set of disciplines. We can do better.  Let’s skip the intro to the discipline and focus on debate skills instead. Our students need to practice gathering and presenting evidence, responding to counter-evidence, and understanding multiple points of view. Standing up and presenting one’s case will be excellent preparation for their undergraduate studies and for advocating for their ideas after they graduate. We can build in the orientation piece, but the heart of the course should be honing debate skills.

Proposal 2: Let’s adopt a second year experience that focuses on developing and advocating for policy change. There is room for this in every discipline, but we could also cluster things around special topics. Sophomore year is a great time to do this, so students can understand the connections between policies and their majors.  Think of all the future educators looking at the structure of education while learning about pedagogy. Or the chemistry majors who might partner with our environmental sciences students to develop a path to environmentally responsible invention. And, of course, our students aspiring to careers in justice and law professions might truly delve into the persistent inequities in how our laws are applied.

Proposal 3: Establish a center for policy research that is powered by faculty, embedded in courses, and connected to the relevant political arenas.  Our students can be actively engaged, serving as lead investigators or research assistants as appropriate.  Making policy research part of our required classes will remove a barrier to participation, because it will be on a student’s schedule. We can harness the varied ideas of our students and faculty, who are not uniformly left- or right-leaning in their perspectives. This will help us keep our proposals grounded in the possible. And in a state the size of Connecticut, we will have real opportunities to get these proposals into the right hands.

All of this could be done quickly.  We could just say “let’s do it” and move to logistics instead of engaging in our usual, drawn-out debates. It is not that I do not value those debates, but there is no time for that right now. We must take action. We must prepare our students to take on the hard questions, eyes wide open, and we must instill in them the confidence they need to try to change the world.  We can evaluate and adjust the strategies I have proposed as the flaws emerge (and I know they will). That is good practice. But right now, we need to act, and these proposals are a good enough start.

We (I) will be vilified, of course. Everyone hates it when higher education is political, and this is political. But, as I learned in an undergraduate history class long ago, to do nothing is also political. This proposal is not about teaching students to support a single point of view. It is a proposal in support of the development of the skills necessary for active engagement with important societal questions.  I am pretty sure that was one of the points of education in the first place.


Change, Innovative Pedagogies


Last week our campus had a conversation about expanding the number of courses that qualify as pass/fail.  We chose not to do so, but we did extend the date by which a student can choose the pass/fail option.  We also extended the date by which a student might withdraw from a course without academic penalty.  These measures were about buying time, so we have a chance to adapt to our online environment in a way that is reasonable and fair. In other words, these measures were meant to give everyone time to take a deep breath before making difficult decisions.

Not everyone was happy with this decision and I do understand why.  We are all in a state of shock right now as the reality of this pandemic sets in and the worries around GPAs are real. For a few weeks we were attending to triage – getting courses online, getting faculty additional training and support, getting students and faculty the technology they need, and getting our student supports online. Our community really pulled together to make these things happen as quickly and effectively as possible. We’ll continue to troubleshoot all of these things through May, I am sure, but the first big lift is over. So, we are onto the second level of trauma, much of which lies in preserving the integrity of the academic programs.

So, why not go pass/fail for everything?  Well, if this were something we could do permanently (or some variation of this, which I have discussed in earlier blog posts around grading), I would consider it.  But that is not what we are planning to do, at least not right now.  This means there are lots of students who would not qualify for this benefit – students in certification programs, students in critical pre-requisites, students heading to graduate school, student athletes, and students on probation.  With so many exclusions, we would end up creating a two-tier grading system. That just doesn’t seem fair at all.

But there is more to it, for me.  I have faith in my faculty.  You see, everyone had a chance to get to know their students prior to moving online.  WCSU is lucky to have very few large classes, so getting to know students is a real thing. Professors have interacted with their classes, seen strengths and weaknesses in their students, and have evaluated their work, prior to moving online.  It seems very clear to me that whatever happens in this new environment, they will be able to adjust for the impact.  I fully anticipate that grades at the end of the semester will reflect that adjustment.

These adjustments are not as simple as curving grades – although that will be one strategy.  To truly adjust, faculty and students will have to be in constant communication within the online learning platforms.  You see, when we moved everything online in one giant push, we did not have time to sort through the must do vs. the nice to do.  There is a tendency to try to fully recreate the on-ground experience, but this really isn’t how online learning works.  It is an alternative environment the requires alternative strategies. We didn’t have time to do this kind of thinking, so, we can’t just stop after putting everything in the course shell. We are going to have to evolve.

Let me give a couple of examples.

  1. Many faculty members quickly loaded PowerPoints or notes of some kind into Blackboard and then implemented weekly meetings via a conferencing software.  This can work part of the time, but as it turns out our students are living in varied conditions of access to technology.  Not everyone is able to be online at the same time due to the number of people in their house working and learning from home.  A small adjustment will have to be made.  The simplest thing to do is to record that meeting so students who cannot attend the live version can access it later.  The harder thing to do is to redesign the course with short video presentations, quick assessments of student understanding of that video, and then some asynchronous discussion.  That’s too much for right now, so simple is probably the solution.
  2.  Some faculty have committed to following their syllabi exactly as before the move online.  In some cases, that involved group work.  This is totally possible to achieve in the new environment, but students may have differential experiences of web conferencing software.  Those with older technology or less robust wi-fi at home may become frustrated in meetings, with lots of lags and glitches.  Now group work is always fraught with some tensions about who does the most work, but it isn’t fair to punish a group member for crappy tools.  Students and faculty will have to work to mitigate these situations so that things do not devolve into resentment between students.

There are many more examples, but I think you can already see a theme.  The two scenarios above would be horrible if faculty and students were not communicating and making accommodations and/or adjustments to their expectations. This is not a simple grading curve; it is a continuous series of modifications as problems emerge. This is hard work, but necessary given the scale of this crisis.

As provost, I cannot command anyone to make these adjustments. I fully embrace our collective commitment to academic freedom and the importance of faculty control over their approach to teaching.  This is standard operating procedure, and I am trying to preserve that throughout this COVID-19 moment.  But I don’t need to command anyone.  I trust my faculty to be reasonable and thoughtful about their students’ experiences and meet them halfway.  I hope that they can successfully communicate this approach to their students, so that the extended pass/fail and withdrawal dates are unnecessary in the end.

Stay healthy everyone.



Change, Higher Education

Starting Fresh

I admit it, this morning’s review of the higher education landscape has got me a little down.  In the Northeastern US, we are facing devastating demographic predictions–well over a 5% decline in high school graduates through 2025 (NCES).  The closure of the week was Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.  The announced merger of the week was the Minnesota Rural Community Colleges.  This comes on the heels of Maine’s plans to unify it’s four-year system. Pennsylvania seems to have sold out its public university system in favor of SNHU’s nimble degree completion programs.  Relaxed recruiting rules from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) mean last minute (and continuous) efforts to poach each other’s students is now standard operating procedure.  And, my personal favorite, we’ve become accreditation crazed, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to say we are the best in business, education, nursing, art, social work or music… just like everyone else who can afford to do so. Our collective response to innovation, competition, reduced state support, and changing demographics has been to act like for-profit industries.  Oh dear.

So, now what?  It isn’t like we can afford to do nothing.  In the simplest of terms, there aren’t enough students to support all of the colleges and universities out there (particularly here in New England, but we aren’t alone).  At the same time, we cost too much for many of the families that need us most.  For the public systems, the taxpayers are no longer willing to bear anywhere near the full cost of our operations. For all of us the student loan system is broken. We have to do something, but is taking a corporate approach the right answer?  I don’t think so.

What if we were forced to start all over again? If we had the opportunity to design an education system from scratch, would it look like what we have today? With a blank slate, what might we come up with? Here are some considerations.

Question 1: Does the traditional four-year degree model still make sense?

We did not always think everyone should go to college. Even a high school education for all is relatively recent.  The increasing demand for advanced credentials has come from a variety of stimuli, including social justice, GI bills, and the world of work and invention.  The expansion of access to higher education was and is crucial for a society built on advanced technologies and socio-economic mobility.

Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true that the traditional path to and through post-secondary education meets that need.  That is why things like technology boot camps, and mega online universities are gaining traction in the education landscape.  So is the investment in high school programs that grant college credentials, and community college technology programs. This isn’t all bad, but for many of us, it is a limited approach to education.  But, it might be a good clue to what we should be thinking about.

Question 2: Does the going away to college model, with all of its attendant co-curricular supports, still make sense? 

When we first imagined higher education in the United States, it was a place to which students had to travel. Universities were a destination, and as such required an infrastructure to house, feed, and (eventually) amuse students. These services, and the attendant healthcare, mental healthcare, and co-curricular programming are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

Yet, the majority of students do not live on college campuses. In the US, about 73% of students attend public colleges and universities (Statista). Only 40% of those students live in dorms (The College Board). In addition, about 56% of students choose to attend colleges and universities within 50 miles from home, another 12% within 100. The tendency to attend a relatively local institution has risen consistently since 1990 when it was about only about 37% (Econofact Network) .  Much of this change is probably driven by economics.  Some of it is social, as we see trends of students living with their families longer both during and after college. Maybe we should take a hint from these patterns.

Question 3: Is it possible to structure education in away that truly meets the need for life-long learning?

Colleges and universities (and accrediting bodies) all assert that life-long learning is an essential outcome of an undergraduate education. Yet, we very much suggest that learning is complete upon graduation.  We hand out a diploma and call it a day.  We may be laying the foundation for learning, but we are also shutting off access to the things that support learning in very real ways.

Meanwhile, the need to keep pace with changing cultural and technological demands is persistent.  Whether we are discussing re-tooling for world of work because new technologies have emerged or jobs have disappeared, or we have to adjust to an increasingly diverse community and need to know a little bit more about how cultures interact, it is clear that life-long learning has never been more important. But this need for knowledge often emerges in contexts that one did not anticipate in school and then we are ready to learn.  Should we be considering structures that truly support life-long learning, by being available long after the first part is done?

As usual, there is so much more to think about.  What should the role of online education be? Why do we still entwine athletics with education? Should everyone have a gap year or two?  How should we re-structure the funding of higher education so that there is actual equity? Why are we spending so much on accreditation? And the list goes on.

It is a big project, when you think about starting from scratch.  It might be uncomfortable, because we may have to let go of some of our favorite things.  We may have to face the fact the tiers of access that we have built are unfair or insurmountable. We may have to acknowledge that our priorities need to be realigned. Nevertheless, it might be a better place to start than the for-profit priorities we’ve drifted toward in the recent decades. At least I hope so.



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.