Higher Education, Quality

The Vision Thing

I have been thinking about vision statements this morning. In the midst of this pandemic and the accompanying financial and enrollment impact, it is hard to move from crisis management to preparing for the future. It is hard to think long term while still addressing the daily trauma that makes up this COVID-19 world. But it is time to think long term. It is time to be less reactive and more visionary.

Vision statements for universities are a relatively new development and, honestly, I am not sure they are helpful. I mean, isn’t our vision to educate people? Public education, at its core, is a strategy to achieve the national vision of equal opportunity for all. It is a vision not yet achieved, but a vision of where we hope to be as a nation at some point in the future. We hope public education also gives us an informed citizenry but mostly we support it to create pathways to opportunity. Public higher education creates access for those who are not born to privilege (money) and who are regular people seeking opportunity (as opposed to those lucky few getting full scholarships to Harvard). It is a counterweight to our socially and financially segregated society.

While public higher education institutions vary – from Community Colleges to Research Universities– it seems like the vision should echo that commitment to opportunity. Now you might be thinking that perhaps I am mixing up mission with vision. Not really, but I am linking them together. Let me demonstrate. Here is our mission statement.

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.

Following the guidance provided by this perfectly reasonable definition of a mission: “A statement of why the organization exists, at the most meaningful level. It is aspirational, in that it can never be fully achieved,” I think our mission hits the mark. We know who we serve, and the goal is never fully achieved because education that transforms is always evolving.

But who do we want to be? That is the vision piece.

Visions are supposed to help us set goals to work toward. They are meant to help us figure out how we want to change or grow or evolve over some next period of time (usually attached to a five year strategic plan). I have nothing against this desire to aspire to be better, but I do wonder about the focus of those visions.

I note that many vision statements use words like “best” or “first choice” or “school of choice” or “premier” or other externally focused, competitive language. When we move from describing our purposes to defining a vision, we tend to aspire to win something. Here’s ours:

Western Connecticut State University will be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

This is externally facing language. It does not extend or define our strategies for changing lives. It strives for some kind of ranking among our peers. It asks for attention and acknowledgement of our value. It is nice to be recognized, but it has no path to that recognition. Honestly, it is a market focused idea, not an educationally focused one. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if our visions were internally focused instead?

This brings me back to our mission. Our purpose is to change the lives of all students through education. Doing so requires continuous reflection and a willingness to adjust our practices to better suit the needs of the students we are serving. There are so many actions to take to do this better. For example:

  • We can improve our pedagogies, our scheduling, our support systems, the structure of the learning experiences, and so on. Those improvements should be based on our experiences and outcomes and supported by good scholarship and data analysis.
  • We could pay attention to emerging trends in careers and research and adjust our offerings to support paths to and preparation for those opportunities.
  • We might want to re-think what should be a degree and what should be a refresher or a certificate and create opportunities for our graduates to re-tool or enhance their knowledge for their own growth.

And there is so much more because our mission is so ambitious. Changing the lives of all students is a big job.

As I grapple with moving forward instead of staying in crisis mode, the difference between externally and internally focused vision statements is on my mind. We are in a difficult situation. The population of New England is shrinking and the cost of education is too steep, even at a public university. We must have a vision of what we will look like in five years, just to be able to make decisions about how to sustain ourselves in this competitive and shaken environment. But I don’t really embrace the version that is about our place in the list of other universities. It seems superficial and subject to the whims of ranking systems that do not readily apply to a university that is designed to serve the many, instead of the chosen few.

I am looking internally instead. I am thinking about how to make good decisions that support changing the lives of all students. If I had to put it into a statement, which I am not sure is truly necessary, I guess it would be something like this:

WCSU will become an organization committed to the systematic and routine analysis of our programs and processes to ensure that all students have the chance to benefit from the educational opportunities we provide.

It isn’t a glamorous vision, but it does give me a clear path forward.

Higher Education, Quality, Resilience

Thinking Small(er)

So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.

While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.

And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.

Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?

For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.

I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.

Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?

This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.

But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.

As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)

It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality

Striving for Excellence

I realized today that I have been in crisis mode for four months. From dramatic exits, to traumatized students, families, faculty, and staff, to trying to carefully solve the puzzle that is the fall semester, the pace of my life has been ridiculous. I do not expect this to stop before September, and then only long enough to trouble shoot whatever we forgot to imagine for the fall semester and then pull reports and imagine what spring might look like.

It is not like the regular duties disappeared, either. The usual evaluations of promotion and tenure candidates took place. So did the reading and writing of annual reports, appointments of new directors of various university areas, review of accreditation reports, and evaluation of our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates. I am already planning for fall projects, prioritizing resources for a new academic success initiative, and producing the annual publication of faculty creative activity.

This morning was spent trying to complete a substantive change application to submit to our regional accreditor. Getting that done seems a bit too much right now, but nevertheless I will finish it this week. As I struggled to find the missing pieces and align my document with the needs of our accreditor, I thought the whole thing might just be impossible. Then I looked again and realized that this was a good opportunity for reflection.

Whenever I write about my university, I end up feeling proud. As tedious as an accreditation document can be, it always gives me the opportunity to step back and consider what we are doing well. In the day-to-day, that is not always possible. I am too busy solving problems, which can make it feel like there are nothing but problems to solve. Writing annual reports, reviewing strategic plans, and preparing for accreditors helps to reveal the good stuff, and even some of the results of all the problem solving.

Some of you just laughed. How could these tedious reports be anything but a chore? Too much? Not really. You see, when you have to gather evidence of doing something, you see the big picture. That big picture is pretty darn good.

For example, when WCSU moved online in March, we did not skip a beat in our path to developing online supports for our students. Tutoring, accessibility services, financial aid, advising, mental health and general health services all flipped to remote delivery immediately. That was good, but the better part is that we learned from it. We are now working toward consistency in training for online support, where appropriate. We are talking about developing good online advising practices. We are reviewing our protocols for online learning to be sure that we are meeting accessibility standards. We have moved beyond the abrupt flip in modalities to a focus on improving these services. Guess what…those improvements will matter long after COVID-19.

Then there was the bumpiness of moving all of our courses online. Ouch! It was hard and not all of it was as good as we would have liked. I will say that all of it was as good as we could manage in such a short time. Now we have a little time to prepare for online/hybrid and whatever else is ahead, and great conversations are going on. Never has our campus been so engaged in thinking about instructional design. The necessity of thinking about education in a new modality has invited us to think about instructional design more broadly. Faculty are participating in the workshops, but they are also helping each other by volunteering to be peer mentors. It is a big effort and folks are fully engaged. Guess what… this attention to the overall design of our courses will matter long after COVID-19. I hope the esprit de corps will transcend the emergency as well.

There has also been a great deal of earnest concern for the well-being of every member of our community. Faculty and staff and administration have been puzzling through the safety measures necessary for on-campus experiences. Each time we have these conversations (nearly every day), someone asks, but what about the students/faculty/staff who should not be here? How will we accommodate them? These are excellent questions. We are making plans for those needs. Every time we discuss online pedagogies, someone asks about students who are not well-suited to this environment. This is an excellent question (one that should be asked of on-ground instruction as well). We are making plans for those needs. Every time we consider being fully online, someone expresses concerns about the socio-economic issues that always impact our neediest students. Will they be able to access their education? This is an excellent concern, and we are working hard to address it. Guess what… this attention to differential needs of our community should matter long after COVID-19.

So, yes it has been a stressful time, full of long days, endless questions, and a learning curve unlike anything I have ever experienced. But I am pretty sure that my university will be better for it. This moment of crisis has brought out the true spirit of WCSU and it is one worth admiring. We have broken free of the usual silos and we are working together. We are listening to new ideas while remembering the good parts of our traditional approaches to education. We are trying to develop a plan that helps everyone succeed.

And absolutely no one seems content to just make do. We are striving for excellence and that makes me tremendously proud. As I think about all of this, that tedious report has become exciting after all.

Higher Education, Quality

COVID-19 Lessons Learned, Part II

Last week, I wrote about some of the lessons I have learned from experiencing the mass migration to online learning that was required in the face of COVID-19. These lessons included a lack of preparation, concerns about equity, and finally some real skepticism about delivering education online.  This week, I would like to talk about how we might be prepared for the fall, address some issues of equity, and do a good job of blended learning environments. Here we go.

Be Prepared

Preparing for fall 2020 is preparing for a great deal of uncertainty.  While some campuses are boldly stating that they will be fully on-ground, and others are declaring that most things will be online, for many of us, the plan is shaping up to be some combination of those things, or what we have been calling a hybrid campus.  After a first round of conversations with faculty and staff, and while we are waiting for system and state-level guidance, WCSU is working on a plan that reflects a campus prepared for a changeable reality.

Step one: Every course and all student support systems will be ready for online delivery. We hope to not need this measure, but it is easier to switch from online to on-ground than the other way around. This way, we will actually be prepared to continue education, uninterrupted in the fall.

Step two: We are mapping spaces and schedules to determine how much we can offer on-ground with reasonable social distancing measures in place.  We are puzzling through labs because they really are better face-to-face.  We are re-imagining studio courses. We are thinking about a safe number of people in a room, in the hall, in office areas to determine maximum occupancy. We are scrutinizing schedules for adequate time between classes to make room for people to be on campus without -literally-bumping into each other.

Step three: We are thinking developmentally. Instead of just prioritizing courses that really do not do well online, we are also thinking about the transition from high school to college and how we can help these students develop skills for navigating a hybrid learning experience. We already know that the drop in structured time from high school to college is a challenge; being partially online, makes this an even bigger concern

And there will be a million other logistical questions about managing a campus organized around social distance, but we have begun to plan, and it feels good.

Strive for Real Equity

Last week, I mentioned the issue of equity that we have long neglected in public higher education – reasonable access to electronic resources. As we made the mad dash home March, we were busy handing out laptops, ordering laptops, and securing access to the internet in some capacity.  Now, it is time to plan for that access from the start, and forever after.

Fortunately, the first level thinking about this is simple. We need to include technology and connectivity as part of our enrollment process. Unfortunately, it gets more complicated after that.  Setting minimum standards for laptops is one important question.  If we do not do so, all of the software we think we made available to our students will not actually be available. Then there are students in majors with specialized software that may require a higher standard.  This is a little bit complicated.

More complex, as always, is the question of funding. We are going to have to examine our fee structure, financial aid processes, and discretionary funding sources, to help us ensure that these tools are equitably deployed.  But this is a question we should have answered before COVID-19, so let’s get to it.

Online Learning

All right, all right.  I know I said online learning sucked. Nevertheless, we are going to have to leverage this important learning environment.  So, let me be more thoughtful in what “it sucks” might mean and how we can overcome it.

First, there are some basics. Every university chooses a learning management system (LMS) -Blackboard is ours.  LMS’s are varied in their capabilities and ease of usage, but no matter what, none of them meets everyone’s needs. This leads to rogue behavior in which faculty find other sites to use for their teaching environment.  I do not blame them. I understand that all officially sanctioned environments are less than perfect.

Unfortunately, this sucks for students. Having to hunt around for entry points is disconcerting at best and alienating at worst.  So, we are going to have to find a compromise that gives students an easy map to finding their courses, while allowing faculty to leverage appropriate tools.  It is not that hard to work this out, but it must be worked out.

Second, online teaching and learning is not the same as the face-to-face environment. It lacks immediacy and often undermines spontaneity.  There can be benefits to the lack of immediacy, particularly when students need time to think before responding, but if things are not structured well, what students feel is alone and what professors feel is overworked. It is also the case that some of our favorite pedagogies – like moving in and out of groups in the classroom, or fostering seminar discussions, or introducing topics and then watching students wrangle them– are just harder to achieve online. They are harder, but not impossible.

This sucks for faculty, at least initially.  Planning for classes will have to be much more prescriptive than some of us are used to doing.  Creating week-by-week schedules, assigning and reassigning groups, popping between “rooms” to mentor conversations, or fostering sustained dialogue over time, are all a lot of work.  Nevertheless, these teaching experiences can be rewarding, and sometimes, as we navigate moving between learning environments, better course design can occur.

There is so much more to say about creating a good, hybrid learning environment, and there are lots of developmental questions that must be considered. But here is what does not suck…expanding how we think about education.  This moment has presented an amazing opportunity to do just that, and it will be hard but exciting work.  So, I will not complain anymore about the negatives, because there is a new adventure in education ahead and that does not suck at all.

equity, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality, Technology

COVID-19: Lessons Learned Round I

Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over.  Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted.  Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far.  In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.

Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.  

Well, “how could we be,” you say?  “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.

We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst.  And we have been through many of these things at WCSU.  Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week.  We had to pause.  We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same.  There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.

That is not preparation–that is closing Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.

Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.

In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class.  It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages.  Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.

Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.

Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education.  What a ridiculous state of affairs that was.  Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open.  This is just a “duh” moment folks.  One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.

When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop.  It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed.  Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students.  It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it.  It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.

Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!

We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility.  We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things.  It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.

I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow.  In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.

I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students.  It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.

But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable.  This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room.  An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways.  There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real.  In the real world there is spontaneity.

Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides.  It is an excellent continuity of instruction system.  And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.

So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real).  Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.