Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

From Evolution to Revolution

Over the last year a group of dedicated faculty and staff, all members of our standing assessment committee, have been working to define our university outcomes. This effort is meant to help us see the big picture of the goals of WCSU. University outcomes ask us to consider the connections between majors, general education, minors, electives, co-curricular programs, etc., and their collective impact on our students. When established, they will also provide a path to determining if we are achieving them. This has been a somewhat daunting task, but the committee members have worked hard, and we are nearly there.

When we started this conversation two years ago, I supplied the team with records of all of the established learning outcomes in every major at the university. In addition, I suggested that our general education curriculum and the university’s mission, vision, and values were great places to look for clues as to how to begin. Taking that information together, the things we value as a university started to come into focus. After a few rounds of analysis, forays into drafting language that sprang from those sources, and one focused retreat, the committee emerged with a proposal that is a good reflection of who we are. This backward mapping was very effective as a process, and after incorporating the edits suggested by the broader campus community, this list will stand as an excellent start for defining our shared goals. Bravo.

University outcomes encourage us to look at how things weave together. We are often so busy focusing on our specific tasks in majors or academic support programs or athletics that we don’t look at the whole. Establishing shared goals focuses our attention on how all areas interact. They suggest a path to collaboration that is exciting. Having a standing committee with representatives from faculty, staff, and administration has been a great place to move this conversation forward. This is an important step for WCSU, one that I hope will inspire great conversations at our university.

But I must admit that as we approach the finish line (I hope), I am feeling a little restless. You see, even as that very good work has been taking place, I have been immersed in conversations about the ways that we are failing to reach all of our students. Three different groups (committees, leadership teams, program leaders) have just reached out to me about retention. Each one was trying to discern the reasons why students leave and what next steps we might take to reach them. The answers to their questions are both simple and complex; simple in that I know that the greatest predictor of losing our students is actually their high school GPA, complex in that after accounting for that predictor there are many other subtle factors that lead students out the door. We have taken important steps to address the main predictor; there is more work to do on the rest.

At the same time that those earnest and important questions emerged, I ended up in two wonderful conversations about engaging students in the first year. WCSU already as a first-year course, but these conversations led to an observation about the totality of that first-year experience. In one, we were discussing ways to connect students to our community, in another we were talking about learning experiences that first year students should have. These were exciting conversations and the ideas we explored reflect so well on my colleagues. They are feeling the gaps in the experiences our students are having and trying to innovate and respond.

But I worry, because whenever we get into these discussions about better ways to support the students at a high risk of leaving, or about creating learning experiences that might be more engaging for this generation of learners, we always get bogged down in questions of time, effort, and resources. These are important considerations, but they often derail us before we begin. It is clear we are feeling the need to change. I don’t want those good impulses to get derailed. I am just as exhausted by the juggle as my colleagues are, and I am well aware of our limited resources, so it would be easiest to just pause with the university outcomes and wait a minute. But I find myself feeling that there is no time to waste. I default to my usual perspective–let’s focus on productive changes, while we conspire to do less. Ironically, doing less will take an immense effort. I think the effort might be worth it.

This effort is a lot to ask for, I know. But the questions raised by faculty and staff and students on a daily basis, tell me that this is not a moment to tweak what we do; it is time for real change. So, just as we finish this task of establishing our shared goals, I am thinking of next steps. This time we shouldn’t be backward mapping to what we already do. Instead, we should give full reconsideration to the question of how the learning experiences we design (curricular and co-curricular) interact to engage our students. We should be thinking about how those experiences can help students seize control of their lives and empower them to create the world they want to live in. We should draw on the full range of expertise on our campus to create meaningful connections between ideas, instead of separating them by departments and divisions. We should work to undo the biases built into federal and state regulations that privilege the student who can survive five classes a semester and rebuild our programs to outsmart those rules. We should remember to consult the vast body of research on instructional design throughout. And so much more.

So, why am I restless about those university outcomes? Well, I’m not really. They are a great place to start to focus our efforts and examine our decisions in light of a common set of goals. Those goals are not contradictory to the next project I have just outlined. They will help us evolve as a university, connecting people and ideas that we have struggled to connect in the past. I hope these shared goals will foster conversations at every level of our university, so we can make good decisions about what we are investing in and the experiences we are designing to achieve them. They can propel us forward, even as they reflect the past.

But establishing these outcomes is not enough because we don’t just need to evolve, we need a full-scale revolution. No time to pause… ready, set, go.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

The Ecosystem of Higher Education

According to Brittanica.com, an ecosystem is “the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their relationships in a particular unit of space.” This concept reminds us to look at how things interact with and influence each other rather than focusing on isolated instances of things. A convenient metaphor for interactions within commercial spaces, this term has been applied to contexts outside of the biological, things like healthcare, technology, housing, and so on. Today, I am thinking about higher education through the ecosystem lens.

Several years ago, I was at a legislative breakfast – a semi-annual ritual where our university hosts our local representatives to give them updates on all that is going on at WCSU. These are often pleasant affairs where we get to know each other and talk about our challenges, but also our strengths. At one such meeting, I was asked a pointed question out our university outcomes. The College Navigator tool had just become widely available, and so the focus on comparisons between schools and their retention and graduation rates had come into sharp focus. It was an interesting moment because it was clear that the tool itself did not yet give a context to those numbers, a context that should have demonstrated the differing expectations for those numbers depending on the type of school. I endeavored to explain.

While every college and university strives to support every student to degree completion, there are striking differences in types of campuses, programs, and student needs at each. All of those differences impact our outcomes. It is no surprise that elite campuses, who only admit the most prepared students, have very high retention and graduation rates. If they did not, it would be cause for concern. As admissions standards open to a more inclusive group of students, those numbers change. When you add things like the proportion of residential vs. commuter students, high need vs. middle income students, state appropriations sufficient to support reasonable student to advisor and student to faculty ratios, those numbers change again. Despite the goal of 100% degree completion all of these factors make a big difference in those outcomes.

Now, it is not the case that a campus has no agency. Prioritizing a focus on student success strategies can make a difference. Investing in opportunities for faculty to engage new research about teaching can make a difference. Focusing on fundraising to help support those tremendously important last dollar student grants – grants that can keep a student from stopping out for lack of a few hundred dollars – can make a difference. If a campus can manage to do all of these things, it will likely rise to the top of the list for student outcomes among its peer group (taking into account all of those other variables).

But on that day eight or nine years ago, I was actually discussing something more akin to that ecosystem idea. In Connecticut that ecosystem includes UCONN (the research university that many outside of CT think is a private university), the Connecticut State Universities (regional comprehensives – 2 large, 2 small), Community Colleges throughout the state, Charter Oak College (the public online college), and a significant number of private colleges and universities (Sacred Heart, Fairfield, University of Hartford, Quinnipiac, University of New Haven, Yale, Trinity, and there are more). I was arguing, at that time, that we had different jobs to do, different students to serve, and we needed to be understood from that perspective. Don’t evaluate colleges and universities on one data point, I said, you want us to be different so that all students in the state have options. You need to consider how we work together. That was then.

Now we are all staring at that long-warned demographic cliff, and in a state as small as Connecticut, our crowded ecosystem has reached a critical moment. With so many of us competing for the same students with similar programs and accreditations, we are out of balance, and something will have to give.

But wait there’s more. Although most of us offer some online programs, large online providers from out of state are here, and their impact is already being felt. We have also seen the growth in popularity of Coursera, Google, and Amazon education programs, giving strength to the argument that there are many ways to prepare graduates for the jobs available in the region. That crowded landscape, coupled with the not so quiet questions being asked about the value of our traditional models, is causing panic (and it should), but perhaps it might inspire invention and adaptation instead.

As I think about our overbuilt higher education ecosystem, not just in CT, but in all of the Northeast, the natural impulse is to think about campus differentiation. Should we try to apportion out who will offer what? That question has been asked for years and outside of a few specialties, it is largely impossible to achieve. Universities must have a broad range of programs that interact with each other to create a quality liberal arts degree. We might haggle over a few specific degrees, but overall, there really isn’t room for much differentiation. This is a path that will not yield much change.

But I am wondering if this is an opportunity to adapt to this crowded landscape in a different way. Instead of focusing on the programs we offer, maybe we can specialize in approaches to teaching and learning. I’m thinking about a much more defined campus experience, curricular and co-curricular that are organized around a consistent teaching and learning model. It might be thought through based on those conditions I described at the outset -the types of students we serve and the types of campuses we support. Focusing on teaching and learning, instead of programs might help us find our niches, without losing the breadth of subject matter that we so value. It might allow us to improve our outcomes and be more specific about the kinds of support our campuses need to achieve these ends. It might help us articulate our specific value within this crowded world of higher education.

Taking this approach might help us reposition our questions about how many programs we can support, to how we might build a true educational identity that draws in an appropriate audience of students who have an excellent chance of success. I don’t know if this strategy could work, but what I do know is that something is going to have to change. We are at a tipping point in this ecosystem, so I am thinking it through.

Change, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Finding that Perfect Blend

Like everyone in higher education, WCSU has worked hard to return to campus this fall. From vaccinations to health monitoring to emergency shut down guidelines, we planned for a reversal of the proportion of online vs. on-ground course offerings established last year. We were successful in this planning, with an overall in-person course schedule for undergraduates landing at 86% (last year we were 74% online.) At last our labs and performing arts are in person again and the back and forth that occurs best in the face-to-face environment is pervasive. Our graduate students are mostly online (73%), but they were already moving in that direction prior to COVID-19. Graduate students are jugglers and increasingly prefer the flexibility of online learning.

Now it is mid-semester and so far so good. Most of our students opted for vaccinations as did faculty and staff. Our testing protocols are revealing very low infection rates and there hasn’t been much in the way of objection to wearing masks while we weather the Delta variant. Our events calendar is starting to be populated with in-person experiences and, well, it almost feels like we’ve got the hang of this environment. I don’t want to tempt fate, but it feels good to have gotten to this point.

Now it is time to get on with figuring out the future of online for WCSU. As happy as we are to be back in the classroom and to see our students moving about the campus, the last year has revealed that online and hybrid opportunities should become part of our regular mix of offerings for many students, but how much, for whom, and under what circumstances? These are important questions to answer as we begin to build a post-pandemic university. Here are a few things we already know.

Our graduate programs benefit greatly from the online format.

For years, WCSU has offered a low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Bringing students to campus for residencies twice a year has proven to be an effective way to build community and it has helped our cohorts thrive. Indeed, many of our graduates are published authors and all have found great relationships with mentors and peers to help them develop and grow as writers. Similarly, our more recent MS in Applied Behavior Analysis has been highly effective in helping students to degree completion and in passing the licensure exams, all while remaining employed. The schedule structure (year-round) allows students to complete the work relatively quickly and the constant assessment of outcomes has led to regular program modifications to support online learners effectively. The outcomes and the enrollment show us this is a strong model. Our EdD in Nursing Education has a similar tale to tell.

For many of our other graduate programs, the push to online necessitated by COVID-19 has led to an aha moment and most are going to be online going forward. Some will have residencies, like the writing program; others will include some on-campus experiences (hybrid) as part of particular teaching and learning strategies, and others are building some shared experiences that students may participate in both online and on campus. Still others will maintain the on-ground format but are considering using a few online courses as part of the overall experience. This blend solves some scheduling issues for students, making room for on-ground experiences overall. All have found that building community is important, but so is the flexibility online can bring for adult learners.

Overall, this move for graduate students appears to be to the good, but as it becomes a strategy instead of a reaction, we must not neglect the close examination of our students’ experiences – from overall learning outcomes and degree completion rates to their sense of connection to faculty and peers – so that we don’t just stop at the flip, but instead become expert in online instruction for graduate education. We have a strong foundation here, but to thrive, we’ll need to engage the literature on adult learners and refine our program assessment strategies. Luckily, we have some highly developed programs to work with and the faculty teaching in them can serve as important resources for those programs emerging post-COVID.

Our undergraduates benefit from some online learning as well.

WCSU has had some online courses peppered throughout the undergraduate curriculum for years. Largely at the lower levels (100-200), with a few high demand junior and senior level classes often offered in the summer, these courses are often great options for students who need to catch up or those managing very busy schedules. For years we have seen that these courses fill up very quickly, so there is obviously a demand for them in the student body. As we transitioned back to campus, it was clear that more students wanted online than prior to COVID-19. But how much is good for our traditional undergraduates and how do we develop a strong schedule model? Right now, we’re working on percentages, but this approach needs to driven by pedagogy, outcomes, and a detailed scheduling model.

Here are some things we know (kind of) from the last few years with online learning.

  1. Overall, students who take at least one online class in their first year have a higher retention rate than those who did not. This is intriguing, but there are many more questions to ask, particularly about the characteristics of students who opt for an online course in their first semester.
  2. Class sizes for online courses seem to have a sweet spot between 22 and 30 students. Looking at course completion details, too small seems just as bad as too big. This may inform decisions about which courses belong online. It might also suggest a look at pedagogical strategies for supporting courses outside of this range, if appropriate.
  3. Online courses are very helpful for students in highly structured programs, such as STEM, Education, Nursing, Performing Arts, and Honors students more generally. Being able to fit in a non-major course requirement provides some breathing room in their schedules. It is important, however, that these classes be asynchronous or they won’t provide that schedule relief. Do we need to consider priority scheduling for the online seats available to these students?
  4. While many students want some online, too many online courses can be, well, too much. This was particularly true for our residential students who accidently ended up with all online courses last year. It was also true for the many students who found it necessary to drop courses to make it through a mostly online semester. We need to understand how different types of learners navigate the demands of online learning. We also need to understand how this might change at different points in a student’s educational experience. There are answers to these question, but we need to do the work and arrive at a clear strategy.
  5. Some amount of consistency in the online learning environment is warranted. While the many pedagogical approaches employed by faculty are part of the joy of the higher education environment, the many log in and navigation experiences for students were a confusing headache. Getting the right blend of offerings must include consideration of learning platforms, orientation practices, and some uniformity of the first steps in getting “to” our online courses.

Although there are more questions than answers right now, last year’s naturally occurring experiment is filled with good lessons, providing us with clues about where to start. In addition, research in online education is mature enough to suggest some maps for how to proceed, even if it wasn’t fully developed for blended environments. Most of all, our community is fully immersed in the online experience now, so we’ve got a lot of expertise right here to help us learn. Now it’s all about bringing that knowledge together and looking to the future.

How wonderful to be in a moment when we can start this conversation. It feels like the beginning of something exciting, instead of the triage of the last year. Hooray. I’m ready to dive in.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Prioritizing Reflective Practice

In 1999, when I was still completing my dissertation and working as an adjunct at several colleges and universities, I wrote a little essay called “The Art of Teaching Students to Think Critically.” I did not actually give it that title, but the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested when they agreed to publish it. It did, of course, talk about the dynamics of teaching critical thinking, but the larger take-away, which then became my mantra as a professor was to teach the students you’ve got.

When I wrote that essay, I was grappling with the need to get to the same finish line (teaching the same course on multiple campuses) while understanding that the starting places, and indeed the supports necessary, varied greatly. This is also the reality of teaching at a regional comprehensive university with a commitment to access. Teaching the students you’ve got was meant to sum up the realities of the different preparation and cultures one encounters on multiple campuses, encouraging listening and adjusting, and letting the students help you help them. This seemed like the only way to achieve that finish line goal.

Although I left the classroom nearly ten years ago, this mantra still informs my thinking about creating a good educational environment. At regional comprehensives like WCSU, our students need for us to understand their unique needs and expectations. Their K-12 experiences vary in quality, creating a giant question mark about assumptions that inform curricular development in higher ed. Their families vary in experiences with higher education, creating a set of interesting cultural assumptions about the value of education that needs to be addressed in some way. They vary as learners, some needing specialized support, others more general guidance on how to succeed in college. Imagining all of these needs and setting a plan for a semester is no small challenge.

As Provost, I pay attention to our outcomes, both because I must and because I care. There are patterns in who succeeds and who does not, and not acting on that information, in my estimation, is simply morally bankrupt. In my role, then, I analyze that data and try to bring forward ideas and strategies to disrupt those patterns and get more of our students to that shared finish line. It is my responsibility to stay abreast of the most recent data on student success initiatives and see where there are opportunities to build on that research to improve the student experience at WCSU.

We are not unique in facing these challenges. All over the country campuses like ours are grappling with the best ways to support a truly public higher education. We don’t weed out students on the margins, like our more research oriented or private competitors do. We do some sorting, asking some to attend community college first, but mostly, we welcome a diversity of learners. Drawing on the research on student success, we have implemented several strategies (FY, Four-Year Plans, Embedded Remediation) that have proven helpful elsewhere. Most recently, we are working to implement a new on-ramp for at-risk students, requiring participation in a peer support program in their first semester to connect them with essential services and, frankly, not to lose them. Our data and the work at other universities have led us to this approach and we are hoping for a real impact on student retention and overall success.

I view these efforts as a moral imperative because not acting on the data means setting students up for failure. I know that my colleagues are equally distressed when their students don’t succeed. I see them bend over backwards to assist students in need, offering extra support, multiple chances at success, and not abandoning them when they do not succeed. These amazing efforts happen all the time, even as faculty also wrestle with fairness for all students and their commitment to academic standards. This desire to help is a campus ethic that makes me proud.

Nevertheless, we may be falling short on the collective effort. You see we are champions of the individual student and the individual faculty member and often this is to the good. But sometimes that ethic keeps us from leveraging the research about teaching and supporting students with varied degrees of preparation and experience of higher education. We are delighted by our unique discoveries, without looking at them as part of a larger body of scholarship. This can be a problem because it relies on serendipity rather than a plan.

Well, I am holding myself accountable for this. In Scholarship Reconsidered, Ernest Boyer made room for the scholarship of teaching as an important part of the role of the professor and an acceptable focus for achieving tenure. I’d like to expand on this thought; for all universities, but especially those committed to access, a focus on teaching practice should be required. We need to re-imagine the tenure clock with room for learning about teaching and we should continue to reward that reflective practice, even after tenure.

Let me be clear, at a university like mine, faculty are working hard. They are teaching 12 credits per semester, advising lots of students, serving on committees, and yes, publishing or presenting research. Adding a continuous engagement with the research on teaching is a lot to ask. Since there isn’t more time, we will have to reprioritize our expectations and make the room. We are going to have to reduce something to make this happen, but make room we must.

You see it isn’t sufficient to have administrators and a few campus specialists consulting this literature. This will not lead to a wide-spread commitment to research informed teaching. It will not foster confidence in the institutional plans to improve student outcomes. Everyone needs to be engaging with this literature and using it to inform their teaching. So, let’s find a way to make the time for this because as far as I can tell, this is the only way to truly teach the students we’ve got.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum