Higher Education, Thinking

Time and Space

There were a few flurries on my way to work this morning and with them came the inevitable barrage of email messages asking, “Are we closing?” Last year at this time, we did not honor the notion of a snow day because we were set up for flipping online at any moment. Everyone had equipment at home. Everyone had to be ready for all contingencies. Snow days were an old-fashioned notion that should no longer interfere with education. This year things are different. We’re back in the classroom and we want our snow days back!

Whew! As a New Englander, I am a big fan of the found moments that snow days can bring. Time to finish a project, uninterrupted. Time to shovel the snow, a task I still enjoy. Time to take a nap that I never expected to take. Except we had our first snow day on Friday, and none of this was true. That snow day was a meeting filled workday for me. Darn that Zoom/WebEx/TEAMS/GoogleMeets platform. Oh well, snow days were a nice idea.

Of course, when we all moved online in 2020, the idea that you couldn’t continue education from any location became suspect. We all stepped up the COVID-19 challenge and found a way to continue providing the best possible education in multiple, but mostly remote formats. We doubled-down on (constant) cyber-connectivity and forged a new educational path together. We adjusted to the realities of our crash courses in online instruction (and the skills we hadn’t fully mastered), the lack of sufficient coordination of online and on-ground experiences (which, made getting access to a quiet space on a computer when needed, a challenge of our students); and the experience of “zoom fatigue” that wore everyone out. We should be proud of our flexibility and responsiveness, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that even as we venture back into the classroom, our world has fundamentally changed.

It is time for us to recognize that our expectations about education and work have radically shifted and we now expect flexibility. This is why a faculty member who, prior to COVID-19, thought teaching online was totally inappropriate for their discipline, now writes at the first sign of snow – “Can I switch to online for the day?” This is why departments who have offered a few online classes for years, now don’t know how to choose who gets to teach online and who does not because now everyone wants a course or two online. They don’t understand why there might be limits to what we should offer. This why some students are irritated that they can’t get that one last course online so they can finish up, while they start a new job or relocate or otherwise juggle their education with something else. This is why people in higher education who do non-instructional work that can be just as effectively completed from home, do not understand why administration might say no to a fully remote schedule. And so on.

These shifting expectations have thrown a wrench into our typical planning processes. Sometimes our conversations get a bit heated because we are looking at each question or need from a single person’s perspective. Without fully defining the overall goals, opportunities, or problems we want to solve with flexible working and learning opportunities, decisions will appear capricious or stubborn. There is a lot to sort out here and I am really doing my best to envision the whole, even as the best paths are still eluding me. What is most important to recognize is that the questions we are asking reveal a fundamental shift in how we define higher education. That shift will have unintended consequences, so we’d better think things through. Here are a few linked thoughts that I’m wrestling with:

  1. What is the value of learning on campus? Is it essential or is it a nice to have? Does it need to happen daily, weekly, monthly? For whom is it essential? Why? If the answer is campus is less valuable than we once thought, then how many classrooms do we really need? If on-ground learning is less than essential to a good education, then do we lose the developmental part of higher education (helping teenagers become adults) that we have so heavily invested in in the United States?
  2. Is it possible to reimagine our working/learning flow in a way that makes it easy to transition between on-ground and online environments? Do we have the resources to ensure that all students and faculty have the proper equipment? Do we have the resources to make sure that all faculty understand the important differences between online instruction, remote instruction, and hybrid courses and how pivot between them? How do we make sure the transition doesn’t undermine students who really only do well in one of these modalities? How do we make sure that switching does not negatively impact other things like attendance at events or participation in co-curricular programs or signing up to live in the residence halls? Again, does being on campus matter?
  3. Is it important for faculty and staff to be on campus all the time? What are the things that make it important to be physically present? What messages are we sending if the dominant experience of our campuses is walking down hallways with closed doors/empty rooms? If we look for greater flexibility, how much office space do we need? Should we go with more shared offices and create alternating schedules? How many buildings do we need? Parking?

I know lots of folks have been thinking about this for a long time. Some have transitioned to mostly online universities, while others consider the classic campus experience to be the very definition of what a college education should be. Those of us at regional comprehensives have played with small pieces of these questions for years, but now it is time to fully think it through. It is complicated for us, because we serve such diverse learners looking for very different experiences. Whatever answer we end up with will involve a complicated matrix of variables. But we all got a big dose of “it could work differently” last year. Now that we’re back, we are wondering why it doesn’t.

Higher Education, Hope

Degrees Re-Imagined

Generally, when I write this weekly post, my ideas are inspired by some interesting development in the higher education news, a recent book on teaching and learning, or some new initiative here at WCSU. This morning, when I was reading the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, I just shook my head. The higher ed news is littered with battles over academic freedom, affirmative action, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19. There are concerns over admissions strategies that reflect our cultural obsession with big name schools, and the details have almost nothing to do with the rest of us. There are tales of demographic disaster, no longer looming, but fully here, and well, I’m already living the reality, so welcome to the club. I just wanted to go back to bed.

But I have never been one to walk away from hard things, and I have a habit of getting up and moving forward despite the gloomy news, so I spent some of this morning thinking about a real reimagining of higher education. In particular, I have been thinking a lot about two things that, when combined, make me wonder if it might be possible to rebuild the entire system (well, not those elite schools, but the rest of us) in a way that reflects the needs and interests of the students we are serving now. Those two things are the short courses of study that lead to immediate credentials (recognized by various employers as valuable) and the potential emergence of the 90-credit BA in the United States.

The short courses of study – certificates and micro-credentials – are a favorite topic of politicians suddenly interested in education. Of course, what these politicians are mostly interested in is workforce development. Economic plans are drawn up by economic policy developers of various states. These plans identify gaps is talent for fields that are either critical to support the current socio-economic infrastructure or necessary to attract a new kind of industry to the state. That gap then becomes a focus of the conversations about education and, well, four-years just seems too long to wait to fill it. Enter the certificates.

Many of us in higher education find the motives for these programs a little suspect. We see our expertise downplayed and the demands of the market/employer amplified. This is true, and sometimes it is downright insulting. We also worry that the overemphasis on employability diminishes the perceived value of the rest of what we do (holistic education, that is rooted in the liberal arts). This is also true and worrisome. Finally, many of us worry that students will be steered towards these programs in ways that replicate the structural inequities in opportunities that have long pervaded all of our systems, but higher education in particular. This is a valid concern.

Nevertheless, there is a part of this emphasis on short-term credentials that we should be paying attention to specifically because of the interests of our students. Many of us serve students who are a) in need of skills they can use right away, to support themselves and their education, and b) not convinced of the value of the four-year experience we currently offer. So, I’m wondering if we might be thoughtful in our response to this approach to education. My colleagues in community colleges are already adept at navigating these kinds of credentials. They have been serving students who need an immediate payoff for their education for years. They are also committed to opening doors, not closing them with these degrees, so they have been focusing on stackable credentials, weaving the short credential into a longer path to a two-year degree. Those degrees transfer to us. Great. Half the job is thinking about this has already been done for us.

But there is more for the four-year colleges to do. If we choose to go in the direction of micro-credentials, we need to ask ourselves a few things: 1. What are the right kinds of credentials for a four-year school? It’s not a great idea to replicate the work of the community colleges. They are expert in this, and they cost less. No contest. But surely there are things that are more appropriate for the university context, where there is a presumption that students will continue after the short credential. 2. How do we make it easy to return to campus, when some students decide to stop out and earn some money with that credential? 3. How do we communicate the value of continuing after that credential and can we do it with evidence?

The other end of this story is the potential emergence of the 3-year (90 credit) baccalaureate degree in the United States. This model has existed in Europe for many years, with many schools there labeling the four-year version as an honors degree. The four-year version tends to focus on research and independent reading in addition to the core 3-year program. It is an intriguing idea, but there are some key things that need to be considered.

The first thing is to acknowledge that the three-year degrees have fewer electives. These degrees are far more focused on the major with a few slots left for breadth. This is a loss for the breadth that we love about our traditional, four-year liberal arts degree. Still, this might be an attractive option for many of the students attending college right now. For those who are ready to declare a major in year one, this is a faster route to the engaging their area of interest, which can be motivation to stick with us. This is not a degree devoid of breadth, so students will still have some room to wander and with careful design, a change of major might not be too damaging. Certainly, we could engineer a plan that would allow degree completion within the original four-year model if students change course.

Where it the 90 credit model is wanting, is for those who are a) missing some academic foundations or b) not ready to declare a major. The work that many of us have done with embedded support in foundational math and writing might be a strategy for this. For those unsure of their interests and talents, we might strengthen our pre-major pathways (meta-majors) and include some education about careers and self-assessments to facilitate decision-making. This could work, but I’m guessing these folks will need the four years. So will the students planning to pursue advanced degrees – much like the honors courses (majors) in Europe.

These options are intriguing, and I am keen to think them through. These are fun questions, questions that involve invention and imagination and an honest look our students’ needs and the expectations of the world we hope to prepare them for. The options could actually expand opportunity by letting go of our commitment to a one-size-fits-all model. This could be the creation of multiple paths to success, instead of just offering fallback plans that are less than satisfying for everyone involved. It is even a chance to disrupt the traditional timeline for degree completion, focusing more on completion points than a single ending. That might encourage graduates to return later. Oh, now we’re talking.

This is a lot more fun than all the doom and gloom I woke to this morning. Like the lengthening of the daylight hours, I am shaking off the darkness and looking for a brighter future after all.

Higher Education, Thinking

Focusing on the Mission

It is nearly mid-January and we are preparing to launch the spring semester. Still juggling the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, we start with uncertainty — as we have for the last two years. The Omicron variant is an unwelcome wrinkle to say the least, but the protections we have used to maintain a reasonable level of safety on our campus remain the same: strongly encourage vaccinations, require masks, provide access to testing, and encourage everyone to stay home if they feel sick. Indeed, the only real change in CDC guidelines of late has been around the length of quarantine. We’re sorting that out, for the residential students in particular, and emphasizing the need to wear well-fitting masks. In three semesters of working in a COVID-19 environment, masks and monitoring infection rates have proved effective, with limited spread in the residence halls and none in the classroom. So, we face uncertainty to be sure, but a stable uncertainty at this point.

It would be easy for this new variant to steal our focus this semester. We’ve grown accustomed to emergency meetings and conversations about what to do next. But I think it is important to acknowledge that without a change in the guidelines, based on solid scientific evidence, there really is nothing left to discuss. So, while we wait for new information from credible scientists, I’m more interested in focusing on what we hope to accomplish with our students this semester. I’m starting with a look at our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

I love this simple yet profound statement. Changing lives is an exhilarating goal. It speaks to our commitment to the power of learning, recognizing that higher education creates paths to new professional opportunities, supports the development of new understandings of how the world is organized, challenges ideas about what constitutes evidence, and even fosters the growth of new friendships. For our first-generation students, education may provide a step toward a new socio-economic status and all that entails. For our students whose parents and grandparents attended college, their attendance expresses a continued commitment to the importance of education in shaping worldviews and futures. What a privilege to be part of this journey, as we simultaneously open our students’ eyes to new ideas and have them open ours to their experiences and perspectives.

Then there is our commitment to access as we strive to provide “all students with a high quality education.” This is a tremendous responsibility. It requires focused attention on the varied needs of the students we admit to our university. To truly serve all of them, we need to keep a keen eye on our data, in the aggregate and in the details. For our undergraduates, this has meant attention to the details of our retention and graduation rates. Over the last several years, we have worked hard to differentiate what I call the on-ramps for our students. This is the result of unflinching analysis of who we lose. In response to our data, and looking at strategies that have worked elsewhere, we have transformed our education access program, added a peer mentor program, included FY in the general education curriculum, and grown our honors program. Analysis of these efforts is positive (some better retention and graduation rates), but it is not good enough yet. We will continue to evaluate the results, looking for the next clue to student success and modify these efforts accordingly. The clues are readily available, but we must act on them.

At the graduate level, we have responded to student interest in programs that advance their careers. From transforming existing degrees to better align with career prospects, to developing new degrees that meet emerging needs and opportunities in the region, our portfolio of graduate degrees has evolved to appeal to the students we hope to serve. Most recently, much of graduate education has moved online, first due to the pandemic and then in response to the needs of working adults. We need to offer them more flexible opportunities as they juggle jobs and families. We want to meet them where they are. We want to serve all students. This, too, arose from detailed looks at data, including enrollment patterns, student feedback to our programs, and analysis of regional workforce needs. While this approach to curriculum may feel a bit more career focused and less idea focused than we like to imagine, I remind myself that graduate education has nearly always been about careers (advanced credentials or the path to a doctorate) and it has never been devoid of ideas. We are serving our students well in this regard.

What next? Well, on the path to any of our degrees, I am confident that all students will grow as individuals and scholars. It is less clear if we’ve created enough opportunities for professional growth at the undergraduate level and I’m not sure we’ve truly focused on cultivating leaders. Mind you, I think there are pieces of both woven throughout our majors and our co-curricular experiences, but I’m not sure our students can see it. I’m also not sure we’re specific enough. Since we’ve taken the time to identify all of these areas for growth in our mission, it is probably a good time to make sure that we are truly working toward them in a clear and coherent way. I’ll be taking a closer look at this aspect of our mission in the months to come.

Yes, the mission is where I will turn my attention this spring. It offers such clarity, reminding me of our purpose, and erasing the hundred other unproductive distractions that claim my attention daily. Our mission is necessarily broad and open to many nuanced steps (some of which are outlined in our strategic plan), but it is also really quite direct. It drives us to these simple and important questions:

  • Are we providing all students access to that high quality education?
  • Does that high-quality education create opportunities for growth as individual, scholars, professionals, and leaders?
  • As a result, are lives changed? And of course, that most vexing of questions of all:
  • How do we know?

I look forward to exploring these questions this spring. I am certain my colleagues will have plenty of answers to them.

Welcome back, everyone.

Higher Education, Resilience, Thinking

What have you learned?

We’re speeding toward final exams, papers, and performances at a breathless pace. The Thanksgiving holiday always ends with that terrifying thought that we’re almost done and now what? Students are scrambling to catch up on the things they missed earlier, while juggling the remaining assignments and exam preparation. Faculty are wondering how they will complete the goals they set out for their classes and if it is possible to live up to their own aspirations. Administrators like me are wondering how it is possible that my to-do list is longer than it was at the start of the semester. Whew!

Well the good news is we always seem to make it to that finish line one way or another. The interesting news is that for most of us it was another. Clearly our planning processes are open to re-interpretation. Maybe that is a good thing. So, as I reflect on all that has occurred since classes began in late August, I am thinking about that simple question: What have you learned?

My husband once told me that when he was an undergraduate one of his professors asked only this question on the final. He says it was the most challenging exam he ever had. Being able to sum up all of your knowledge from one course in an essay addressing such an open-ended question can be truly daunting. Where are the essay prompts directing us to address specific details? Where are the multiple-choice questions that limit my thinking to which answer is correct? Where is the list of core concepts from which I choose my favorite and show off what I’ve learned about that one thing? What have I learned? That is just too much.

Or maybe we could have fun with this approach. It might free us from preconceived notions about what our students should have learned, letting us open our ears to what they really gleaned from our courses. It might show us how they have prioritized the course content, giving us clues about what went well and what did not. It might even help with course design next semester. I know, it doesn’t really work for everything. Sometimes there are very specific things that students must master by the end of the semester. Still, in some instances this could be a great question.

But, I’m not advocating for anything in particular today. Just thinking. For me, I’m considering what I have learned from my list of projects this fall. You see I had a long list of things to work on and almost none of them are complete. In some cases, this is because my list was problematic, and I was working on the wrong thing. In others it was because the scale of the job was larger than I’d hoped. And, of course, in several cases other priorities emerged. So, what have I learned?

First, I’ve learned that managing during a pandemic that appears to be under control is only slightly less exhausting than when we had no idea what would happen next. We started the fall pressing for vaccinations and hoping for normalcy only to encounter Delta. We did well, but just as I was getting optimistic about an even more normal spring, Omicron appeared. I guess, from this I must learn not to predict more than two or three weeks into the future. That sure makes it hard to plan things!

Second, I’ve learned that simple tasks have a way of turning into giant, multifaceted projects if I don’t continuously rein them in. This is, of course, the nature of the academic mind. We see the connections from one idea to the next, never wanting to settle on the narrow focus. This is wonderful in so many ways, and it can keep me from ignoring critical variables, but at some point this habit of expansive thinking is a way of avoiding decisions. In this case, I’ve learned to try to limit the number of variables to be considered in any project that I’d like to see completed. Note the word try. I might not be able to do this.

Third, I’ve learned that really good conversations are still better in person than on Zoom. I don’t hate this technology. I find it valuable for all sorts of quick, problem solving, task-oriented meetings. Remote meetings allow me to schedule more check-in meetings that are not too taxing for those involved. In other words, if I don’t have to ask folks to come to my office, it is easier to fit in a quick chat. Nevertheless, the tough stuff, the complicated stuff is still better in person. It takes time, trust, and focus to really uncover where things are going right and where they are going wrong. Somehow, being in the same room makes this more likely to happen than online.

Finally, I’ve learned that, as stressful as the world still is, good educational experiences remain at the heart of what is going on at WCSU. Faculty are starting to tell me about the clever ways that they modified their courses to deal with gaps in learning from last year (yes, there were gaps). Students have reported great support as they navigated a COVID scare or two. Activities on our curriculum committees show that departments are fully engaged in reviewing and updating their offerings to better support the goals they have for their students. We even have some new programs moving forward. In a climate where we might just tread water and wait out the chaos, people are actively working to make new things happen.

There is a lot more, of course. If there wasn’t my to-do list would not have gotten longer. But I am inspired from the lessons learned and more so by the great things that are actually getting done. So, let’s think of this race to the finish line as a sled ride and just say wheee!

Higher Education

What are Schools For?

It seems that I come around to this topic at least once every 6 months. The prevailing economic conditions, political priorities, and evolving learning environments provoke questions that are at the heart of what education should or could be at this moment in history. As I peruse the higher ed news I see rich debates on social justice, modes of instruction, and the value of education. As my mind tries to sort it all out, I find myself reaching back to the work of Dr. Henry Perkinson who taught one of the best classes in my doctoral program: Readings in the History of Western Thought: What are Schools For? It’s time to revisit this question once again.

To start, it seems prudent to acknowledge that the answer to the question What are schools for? depends on which students we hope to serve. As provost at an access-oriented public university, the answer is clear – we exist to serve any student who is striving for the advantages that a college education can bring. Those advantages are related to social and economic opportunities and the ability to live a fulfilling life. All of our efforts then, should focus on making these advantages real for our students. But how do these advantages connect with the debates surrounding social justice, instructional formats, and the value of education? Quite directly. Let me explore them one-by-one.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the topic of social justice? Profound. One cannot be transformed by education if there is no opportunity to explore the history of ideas that underpin our social structures and the ways in which those ideas have changed and grown over time. As soon as we ask ourselves questions about how our world is organized now, and how we got here, we have entered a conversation about social justice. There are no stories untouched by bias, and it will be ever so. Each new discovery reveals another thing, place, or person we forgot to consider or actively excluded. We will always be finding those gaps or blind spots or exclusions and grappling with their consequences. It does not seem possible to teach anything without touching on social justice; it is embedded in all we do.

Our students need multiple opportunities to see how the past is connected to present in all disciplines, examining our best and worst ideas, and the impetus for change. They need learning environments that allow them to grapple with difficult concepts, the impact of discoveries large and small, and, yes, the gaps in narratives that have excluded some voices in favor of others. They need the chance to argue about these topics in contexts that demand extended thought instead of snap judgements, evaluation of evidence from multiple sources, and honest consideration of conflicting points of view. They also need the opportunity to practice these conversations with both passion and diplomacy. Without these opportunities, we will fail to give our students the chance to develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for navigating social and economic decisions that support a fulfilling life. Yes, the obligation to think about social justice is strong.

What are the obligations of a public, access-oriented university, committed to changing lives, to the exploration of our teaching practices and modalities? Unrelenting. These questions directly reflect our mission. We cannot change lives if our students don’t understand our goals or our expectations, or if we persist with methods of instruction that have a demonstrably negative impact on the equitable distribution of success. We should be obsessed with the literature on instructional design in any modality. We should be engaged with the research on non-cognitive variables and their outsized impact on our first-generation college students. We should be exploring ideas about course design that help our students draw connections between the learning in the classroom and the world in which they live.

Our faculty need multiple opportunities to experiment with instructional design. They need opportunities to engage the research on how students are learning and to try out new ideas. This means that those efforts need to be recognized as valuable to their career trajectory. We need to think about the kinds of supports we should give to new faculty to encourage attention to pedagogy. This might be a smaller teaching load and some professional development opportunities. It might also mean some relief from research expectations in the first few years. We also need to think about how to continue that engagement with pedagogy over the arc of a career, perhaps building in some periodic reductions in teaching loads to spend some time testing out a new approach. It isn’t that complicated, but we should be thinking about how to systematically support faculty development in instructional design as part of our understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the university.

Strong engagement with the research on pedagogy and instructional design is essential for a university like this one. It is the best path to supporting the diversity of learners we embrace in our mission. It is also the best path to improving student success rates, which translates into improved opinions of our value. This is the work of investment and engagement, not economic efficiency. Focusing on great instructional design keeps our attention on great learning experiences that don’t short-change students at access-oriented universities.

So, what are schools for? Or should I say, what are public, access-oriented universities for? We exist to serve any student who wants the advantages that a college education can bring. How do we help them access those advantages? First, by creating learning environments that are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning and then being obsessed with finding better ways to invite students to engage difficult material and explore ideas. Second, by insisting on placing all that we know in context, the good and the bad of it all, so that our students leave us informed about the complexities of our world and prepared to engage those complexities honestly and fearlessly. That is our purpose; that is our value.