Accountability, Evaluation, Thinking

Remember the Qualitative Data

The phrase “data-driven decision-making” has become the gold standard for proposing policies, research, or other plans to improve outcomes in higher education. You cannot apply for funding for anything without some evidence to support justify the proposed project and a detailed evaluation plan. This, of course, should not be startling for higher education. Building cases for our research and related decisions is at the heart of all that we do. What has changed is what we define as sufficient evidence. Spoiler alert – it is quantitative data.

Much of this transformation is to the good. We have new tools that allow us to gather quantitative data much more easily than we once did. With Survey Monkey or Qualtrics data from a well-designed questionnaire can be easily launched and analyzed. Getting a good sample is still a challenge, but digital tools make reaching potential respondents better than ever before. The tools for statistical analysis have similarly evolved in ways that help the analysis section of a study to perform functions that were once reserved for the most advanced mathematical thinkers. And with access to large databases, the sky’s the limit for exploring behaviors of various populations.

Then there is the power of “big data” which is so powerful in medical research right now. With access to studies from all over the world, scientists can get at a level of analysis that is much more nuanced than we once experienced. It is so exciting to see that, with all of the information available, it is possible for physicians to move from a generalized Chemo cocktail to one that has been edited more specifically for the genetic traits of an individual. It is truly breathtaking to see the advances in science that these tools provide.

In higher education, the data-driven movement is really impacting our evaluation of university outcomes at every level. We move from the big picture – graduation rates and retention overall, and then fully scrutinize factors that might show us that we are systematically leaving specific groups of students behind. Often referred to as the achievement gap, colleges and universities are no longer (and should no longer be) satisfied with gaps in retention and graduation that break down along gender, income, first-gen, and other socio-cultural groupings.

Attending to these gaps is, indeed, driving policies and programs at many universities. At WCSU, it has led to a revision of our Educational Access Program (Bridge) and to the addition of a peer mentor program. We’re tracking the impact on our overall retention rates, but also taking a deeper dive into different clusters in our community to see where we need to do more. What has really changed for us is that we are designing these efforts with follow up analyses built in from the start, so that we don’t just offer things and then move on. We have a plan to refine as we go. This is a good change.

Still, this focus on statistical data can lead to gaps in understanding that are significant. As always, our results are only as good as the questions we ask. Our questions are only as good as our ability to see beyond our worldview and make room for things we never anticipated. This is a challenge, of course, because we often don’t realize we are making assumptions or that our worldviews are limited. It is the nature of our disciplinary frames; it is the nature of being human.

Although my education has included anthropology and media ecology (both with lots of attention to our biases and qualitative data), I realize that I have been struggling to find ways to incorporate more qualitative analysis into all that we are doing at WCSU. It is tricky because it is more labor and time intensive than analyzing statistical outcomes or neatly structured survey data. It is also tricky, because we need to be informed by the qualitative without falling into the problem of generalizing from the single case. And, of course, it is tricky because, well it takes sustained practice with ethnography to do qualitative well.

I was reminded of this, as I began to read Gillian Tett’s, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See Business and Life. This text explores the ways in which the habits of anthropology can be transformative to business processes of all kinds. It isn’t so much a “new” way to see things – after all anthropology has existed as a discipline for over a century – nor is it new to see it as a tool of business and governments (see Edward T. Hall for a glimpse of the past) – but it is an excellent reminder that anthropology offers a powerful lens. Tett’s book is full of examples of mis-steps in the tech industry and in marketing because those in charge never even questioned their assumptions about how people interact with technology. The hiring of a full-time anthropologist helped to address some of that. She also reminds us of the difference between asking questions and observing behavior – not because people lie, but because our questions were calculated to get the responses we got and, therefore, missed the bigger context. Our narrow lenses go beyond market research and explain socio-political challenges and misunderstandings on a global scale. These are important reminders, all.

So, I am reminded to take the time to dive into the questions that most statistical research will miss. There is more to understand than calculating the percentage of students who answer the question: “How often do you use the tutoring resource center?” with often, sometimes, or never. There’s the whole long list of feelings that complicate seeking help. There’s that long list of other priorities (work, co-curricular, family). There are the things I haven’t thought of yet, that are barriers to using the resources we are providing. There is research on this, I know, but I think there is more to know.

Yes, I am a fan of quantitative data, but I must admit that I have learned much more from qualitative data over the course of my life. The insights of the unexpected interaction, or the opportunity to observe for long(ish) periods of time, have improved my questions and understandings, and generated much more interesting follow up work than the summary data have ever done. This is important for the work on academic success that we are engaged in at our universities. It is even more important (and not at all unrelated) when we try to see the barriers to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. I’m thinking it may be time to put a few anthropologists on the institutional research payroll.

Thinking

Time to Read

As I awoke Monday morning, I vowed to do no work. It was a holiday weekend and even if a provost’s work is never done, days off are necessary. Indeed, though I am not protected by any union – administrators don’t get that particular benefit – I recognize that my life and the lives of all of us have been improved by the hard work of labor leadership over the last century. One of those most important improvements in our working conditions is that there are days when we don’t work. Thank goodness for those efforts.

Well, despite my determination to laze the day away, I found a little task nagging at me. A dear friend has just completed a draft of her new book and she was looking for some feedback. With the day stretched out before me, I opened the draft and enjoyed a wonderful read. I won’t reveal anything abut the book here, so she has time to get to publication, but I will say it offered me all sorts of insights into the current state of our culture. As media ecologists, we always look at the ways in which our communication environments shape behavior, and she’s got some great observations about how our portable electronic universes are changing who we are.

But that is not what I am thinking about today. What I am really thinking about is how having a few uninterrupted hours to read an entire book is so wonderful. Although I did read the text on a screen, something I have come to prefer in recent years, I was able to completely ignore the endless stream of email that I usually address, and with the world around me relatively quiet, I could give the reading my full attention. It felt like a vacation.

My entire career in higher education has been about addressing things in chunks so I can manage the interruptions around me. I had my first child at the end of my first year as a PhD candidate. Even before the birth, the pregnancy was an interruption – distracting me from reading things closely and generally leaving me exhausted. After children and then with various teaching positions, I became an adept skimmer and expert at breaking projects into 15 minute intervals. It worked to keep me on track with my doctorate (more or less) and it helped me keep up with children and teaching assignments in the sanest way possible.

As an administrator, I read constantly. I start the day with email triage – addressing all the messages that came in over night to clear the decks for the day ahead. I scan the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed looking for important information and potential research areas that I should follow up on. Then I drive to work and jump between reading, writing, meeting, and repeat. I write policy proposals, accreditation documents, edit proposals of all kinds in an effort to move things forward through various evaluative processes. I follow up on those morning articles, getting to the details of the research behind them and hoping to get smarter. It is important that I can do this kind of juggling and often I find it exhilarating. It allows me to jump between tasks productively, getting to various finish lines regularly. I’m never without a task ahead, but I can see progress.

But my expert skimming and juggling is nothing like sustained reading and the pondering of an idea. One can get a lot from an essay or an academic article, but to really engage an idea, book-length reading is still the best path. Don’t get me started on what doesn’t occur in video formats. I love them, by the way. Movies, documentaries, televisions programs, and little video tutorials all have their place in opening my eyes to ideas or processes that can be helpful or amusing. But watching isn’t reading. Reading is different.

I could try to dredge up some science for this essay, but you have Google, you can figure it out. No, this is really just about my experience of reading. It is slow enough to let me break down an argument as I encounter it. It allows me to back up and think without having to find the remote. It encourages me to pause and reflect, without having things run ahead of me. In book form, authors have time to layer in detail to the argument at hand, supplying new evidence and illustrations as I read on and helping me think things through. Yes, this is a kind of respite for me. I am slowing down, not deciding anything, just thinking.

In the book I read today, I was also reminded of the way an author’s voice is so important to the narrative. Now in this case I know the author, so it is cheating, but in all books there is a tone and rhythm that invites (and sometimes discourages) engagement with the tale being spun and the worldview being suggested. That invitation can help to block out the immediacy of our electronic world – helping to tune out the beeps and dings of our news feeds and friend groups, and just attend to the details at hand. The text becomes a person to whom I am giving my full attention. When I finish a book, I always feel better for having spent the time reading it. Synapses have connected and I am restored.

As I feel the wave of rejuvenation that my morning spent reading provided for me, I am thinking about education once more. It takes a holiday for me to have time to really read. What would it take for education to make room for real reading? You know we don’t make room for it now. Our current structure makes it nearly impossible. Can we come together to make the kinds of changes to the structure of higher education that will make room for that sustained engagement with ideas that we say we value? Perhaps this requires the same level of effort that our unions made to improve the quality of life for all of us. Readers of the world, unite!

Affordability, Higher Education, Thinking

Time for a Timeline Change?

Like everyone in higher education, I am continuously trying to puzzle through the economics of access and equity. As a nation, we have invested deeply in the notion of education as a path to opportunity. Public education, from Kindergarten through some post-secondary education, is nearly (though not quite) considered a right for all Americans. The prevalence of public education is the result of the difficult, but ultimately productive arguments that have taken place since the start of this nation. While we do not always agree about what education should look like, it seems we do agree that it should be widely available.

Our pattern has been one of expansion. Education was first for small groups, sometimes segregated by sex, often by race. Through arguments, local and national, we have broken down many (though not all) of the barriers to at least a high school education. (For an enjoyable history of K-12 in the US, I recommend Johann N. Neem’s, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America). We shouldn’t forget that high school was an expansion, not an assumption from the start. It serves as a reminder that we have continuously added to the scope of what we think the public should fund. As we dive into the national conversation about funding post-secondary education, this is an important lesson. What sounds like an insane economic expansion to some, is really part of the trajectory of expanding access to education from our earliest days.

Nevertheless, the expansion of higher education needs some careful thought. Two data points caught my attention as I read the higher education news over the last few weeks. The first was in Brian Rosenberg’s recent story in the Chronicle, “The Problem with Biden’s Higher-Education Plan” in which he points out that access is only part of the story: completion rates must be addressed. The second is in Jacquelin Elias’s report, “Who Holds America’s $1.5-Trillion Student Loan Debt?” Guess what? There is a connection between the debt and the completion question. To sum up, those who did not complete their degrees are most likely to a) not yield the financial benefits of a college education, and b) carry student loan debt that they cannot re-pay. And, while the group of students who borrowed money that they cannot repay do not carry the super high student loan balances (our grant systems do help), they are likely to be haunted by the bad credit implications for a lifetime.

Now, Biden (and Obama before him) has a strong focus on community colleges. This is where the free college conversation is strongest, and many states have taken steps to make that promise somewhat real. It is last dollar free (students must use their grants first), and it is tuition, not cost of living free, but it is something. For those of us in the public four-year world, the current free discussion is mapped to family income. This seems fair, but it does mean that schools like mine are likely to be missing many of these students in the first two years, while they leverage the free community college for their foundations. I think everyone should make sane economic decisions around their education, so I am not whining, just noting the budget problem this leaves me with.

But that is not what I really want to think about here. What I am most interested in is the fact that, even with the free college, completion rates are a problem. Financial concerns certainly drive that so this funding structure will help, but it is a lot more than that. A short list of things that might get in the way of degree completion includes college preparation, cultural/family support for education, commitment to education/knowing the purpose, and the million ways that life gets in the way. So, I agree with Rosenberg’s observation that completion needs our attention. But the question I have is, do we have the education timeline right?

We speak in two-year and four-year completion rates as if they are part of nature. From an economic planning point of view, that structure certainly helps us organize resources and curriculum. But it doesn’t serve the majority of students very well. This is why community colleges are always struggling with a measure that doesn’t fit their students’ realities, with three year graduation rates below 30%. That is also why access oriented four-year colleges struggle around the 50-60% six year graduation rates. None of us likes these outcomes, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to address them, but I think we might just have the model wrong.

Since so many students do not complete degrees in two-year or four-year timelines, perhaps it is our organization of time that is the problem. Maybe there is room for a different approach. For example:

  • Break up the undergraduate experience into two-year increments. I would add that we should really consider three segments, expanding access to advanced education (whether degrees or certificates), because so many opportunities for growth require more learning, after careers are underway. Whether a two-year of four-year institution, that first two years are focused on essential learning foundations with introductory major preparation. For some, this will include job specific education, and a clear exit from education for now. That’s fine. Graduates get the credential win and are prepared for more if they change their mind. For others, there is a career trajectory that is more broadly defined, and their next step should be a year or two in the workplace, exploring options. Then return, for the major work and some more advanced practice in liberal arts thinking. This approach might foster greater commitment to completion (through direct understanding of value) and give students time to grow into what they want to learn.
  • Add a service year infrastructure to our educational planning. If all high school graduates are required to do one year of national service prior to entering college, they will contribute greatly to supporting areas of need and have time to think more about what they want to learn. We already know the kind emotional growth that can take place in a service year, which may help students do better when they are in college. It is also a potential engine for cultural engagement, helping students understand the needs of many different communities. This requirement could also help all of us see the value of our investment in education, because in addition to supporting the next generation in their professional and intellectual growth, we will see real labor in our communities.
  • Support part-time learning, for real. You see, some students just really need to take the path more slowly. Our current infrastructure makes this challenging and, frankly, makes the student feel like there is something wrong in needing more time. If we schedule learning opportunities year round, in shorter increments, the part-time track could still yield degree completion in a timely manner (two-three years; four-six years, etc.). It will facilitate the management of those other things in life that get in the way and support the momentum that many have identified as crucial for degree completion.

This is just a sketch, and there is so much more to say. The work on supporting the varied learning needs and reducing cultural barriers to success is still urgent. The need for reasonable and helpful accountability measures for free education requires attention. But if we change our assumptions about the timelines for education, perhaps the expansion of access will have the desired effect, instead of a lot of students with some college and no degree. And, of course, I think that all of it should be free.

Thinking

Imagining the Opportunities

Over the last two years, I’ve written about small teaching and small innovations in various forms (most recently James Lang’s work), pruning syllabi, and decluttering our service obligations. I have observed that sometimes we have committee structures that have overlapping purposes, and perhaps the elimination of one might be warranted. I have suggested that one less reading or writing assignment might make room for better feedback and revision processes that are so beneficial to the learning. I am a declutterer by nature and often pursue the notion of doing less. As I settle into inhabiting the dimensions of this COVID-19 world, I am noticing the power of less, once again.

In the beginning of this pandemic, all of the less in my life was felt as a loss. I lost my face-to-face interactions with colleagues. I lost my ability to go out and interact with friends. I lost the opportunity to perform. From that sense of loss, I started to fill in the gaps with Zoom gatherings, WebEx meetings, take out dinners, and lists of planned projects. I was trying to simulate my old life. But with a summer of socially distant gatherings ending and the specter of reduced social interaction upon me again, I am thinking a little differently. Instead of loss, I am feeling the excitement of a less frantic world.

Here is what I mean. This morning, I went to my eye doctor for a routine exam. This involves wearing masks, being let in at my appointed time, temperature taking, and so on. She is being very safe, and I felt totally comfortable. But then she dilated my eyes, and I was not sent to another room to wait. Because of all the safety precautions, my doctor no longer runs from patient to patient between treatments. So, we did something interesting – we talked and waited together. Wow. That never happens in healthcare. Except, I also talked to my dermatologist, my internist and so on, in my normal round of check-ups this fall. I also never waited for an appointment (you know sitting in a gown for 20 minutes while the doctor sees someone else). In the COVID-19 world, I actually get the healthcare I have always dreamed of. It probably isn’t efficient, and maybe – to cover the costs of their degrees, malpractice insurance, and buildings – the price might need to rise just a little for me (or we could make it so doctors don’t have to carry so much debt!), but boy was that slower environment a better health care experience.

Here’s another shift. Because I cannot go to my usual restaurants and performance spaces, I am hiking and biking more often. I am not alone. The parks and trails are full of families and friends outdoors together. We all practice trail courtesies, pulling up masks as people approach and lowering them when we’ve passed. We tend to nod or say hi, maybe just a little more than in the past, because we crave that little social interaction. These spaces are getting more diverse, too, which is awesome. So, we may have lost Disney World and other amusement parks, but you know what, I’m seeing a lot of joy. It is a slower kind of fun, without a lot of frills. There is plenty of room for conversation or just silent reflection. Hooray that our communities have invested in parks and open spaces. We all need them, now more than ever. I wonder if there will be a reversal of those diminishing attention spans we have long observed in education. I am pretty sure it will be a good year for LL Bean.

So, what about higher education? We have done a lot of work to try to make our hybrid and online environments simulate the traditional on-campus experience. What if that is the wrong move? Is it time to ask ourselves what the experiences we are trying to re-create are really doing for (in) higher education?

For example:

  1. Not every online class needs to imitate the on-ground experience. What if some classes really are simply guided reading and reflection experiences, with regular faculty feedback, but no group work, etc.? As much as I love class discussion, collaborative projects, and lots of engagement with students, maybe we could reimagine types of courses and balance them between highly interactive and mostly reflective. We would need clear guidelines, because each approach to learning is valuable, but with some clever design we might find a nice balance for everyone.
  2. When we say that taking five online classes is a lot (and it is), we should acknowledge that five on-ground classes is also a lot. Can we move to a unit/four-credit model and make four the norm? I know it is hard for some majors, but maybe it is worth the effort to simplify these variations on credit hours and make room for actual reflection, revision, and thinking.
  3. As we adjust to online office hours, might we not consider that this has been a good idea for a long time? Allowing people to schedule meetings around some principle other than, – this is my on-campus day – might really benefit our students in general. People might even have more room for conversations because they do not have to sacrifice time to drive in to campus and meet.
  4. Instead of trying to build lots of events on our campuses (often poorly attended), perhaps we should ask ourselves why are in the event-planning business in the first place. Speakers booked for academic or socio-cultural events are an important extension of academic programs and these appear to be successful via our web conferencing platforms. Indeed, we may want to move these to the web permanently. But what about everything else? Well, if they aren’t part of the curriculum, perhaps we should simply curate a list of activities in the area and let our students make their choices.

I guess what I am really thinking is that it is time to stop viewing the changes spurred on by COVID-19 as losses. This moment is an opportunity to re-think what we do. We might be able to shift to new ways of interacting with people and ideas. We might also just make room for things to emerge. So, I won’t try to simulate my old life anymore. I am ready for reimagining instead.

Higher Education, Thinking, Uncertainty

Deep Breaths

Like everyone in higher education, I have spent every day since mid-March sorting through information and trying to make sound and thoughtful decisions about what to do. From our abrupt exit in the middle of the spring semester to our plans for the fall, nothing has been simple. There are complex interconnections between areas of the university that need to be sorted through and there are multiple constituencies to consider. This takes time, reflection, dialogue, and then logistical planning. It does not benefit from yelling. As I read the coverage of these issues in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times and the Washington Post, I find myself wanting to ask everyone to take a deep breath.

For the record, I am not more concerned with budgets than safety. This characterization of administration is a convenient trope that bears no relationship to reality. Budgets matter, of course, but that has not been the primary motivator of a single decision. It is the background noise that we worry about as we try to figure out what will best serve our universities.

At WCSU, we are striving to return to campus, but in a limited form. We are setting up classrooms with six feet between seats. We are requiring masks for everyone. We are deploying hand sanitizer everywhere. We are reviewing our ventilation systems to be sure we have the best possible air flow. We are ordering microphones for faculty who have masks on, because we are worried that their voices will be muffled, and students will not hear them. We have added all sorts of training in online teaching, so everyone is prepared to flip to online if that is warranted. We have had numerous meetings with union leadership, department chairs, faculty in disciplines particularly impacted by this change, and so on. All of this will have an impact on our budgets that we have no idea if we can recoup, but we are making the plans anyway.

Given all of this work, perhaps it would be easier to just be online. Sure, but then there are these other complications.

Lab sciences are not great online. Faculty in those disciplines have asked to preserve some of that hands-on experience. In some cases, certifying students for work in labs or applying to graduate school relies that hands-on experience. So, we worked together to develop protocols that we all feel are safe. The same is true for nursing, and that faculty has come together to propose what they feel are safe options.

Music ensembles are a disaster online. Don’t let the nicely edited zoom concerts you have seen fool you. Those are big (edited) productions. In reality, there is just too much lag to play together remotely, especially when on considers the variance of bandwidth in people’s homes. We cannot really support ensembles in full, but at least the ones without wind instruments and voices should have a chance to play together. For those others, we are trying to figure something else out, mostly outdoors subject to weather.

I am particularly worried about our incoming first-year students. While it is possible to build community online, it is not easy. Community building online works best with people who are either returning adults or graduate students. To build it with traditional students is a lot of time and effort. I know that some of my faculty will do a great job of facilitating group work that will help students meet each other, but students will miss the way physical co-presence tends to lead to post-class conversations. This is not trivial. We already know that our commuter population sometimes struggles to make these friend connections when they only come to campus for class. Not coming at all will magnify that problem. So, we are trying to preserve some of those first-year on campus experiences. Even if we find we have to return to online only, a few meetings are likely to be helpful in building those important connections between students.

We have a plan for our dorms. We are working through those safety protocols and, yes, we are wondering about our ability to build compliance. Enforcing the use of masks and social distancing protocols in classrooms and libraries, etc., is relatively easy. In dorms, not so much. We are reviewing the various publications on monitoring health in dorms and planning our testing and tracing protocols. We have also updated our fall schedule so families can make informed decisions about the value of dorms, given the proportion of class-time online (schedules vary). Still, some students and families want this option, so we are not just saying let’s skip it. This decision was made with the desire to preserve this option for families who want or need it. It was not made with an eye toward the bottom line. If anything, having the dorms open will cost more than closing them, given the protocols we will have to put in place and the scaled back occupancy numbers.

Nevertheless, the money piece does matter. As usual, the conversations about money in the press focus on the private schools with large endowments and very high price tags. Those of us in public higher education are grappling with small (no) endowments, diminishing state appropriations, and price tags that are lower than the cost of operations. We are being asked about reduced tuition and fees because of the predominance of online offerings, but there is no reduction in the cost of delivery. I am focused on cultivating good online instruction, but I know it is not the same as the expectations these students had for their education. We are being asked about pro-rated dorm costs in case we go home early, but the cost of the dorms will not diminish if we close early. The price is based on the semester, not a weekly rate. We do not know what to do about this. Our price tags are “affordable” but they are still a stretch for many of our families, so I understand their questions about reductions in this context. My tale of how low the tuition and fees are compared to the cost of delivering education is cold comfort to them. This puts us in quite a bind and there are no good answers.

It is July 13th and the decisions we have made so far reflect my (and the entire administrative team’s) best effort to navigate this difficult world. We are likely to change course on a few things as we monitor what is happening elsewhere. We are likely to grapple with decisions about costs and value as the proportions of online offerings shift with those insights. We will continue to address the interconnected decisions of operating a campus, in collaboration with our union leadership, as methodically as possible, even as we hear the demands for information on a daily basis. We will try to respond quickly, but some decisions take time.

This leads me back to the breathing part. Perhaps, for just a minute, we could all pause and think about these complexities. Perhaps we could stop accusing each other of bad priorities and look at all we have done to figure this mess out together. Perhaps we could cultivate a little more patience so that there is time to review the list of protocols we have developed, determine their feasibility, and then make adjustments. We can’t get this done if we are constantly responding to panic and misinformation. So deep breaths, please, so we can all figure out the fall. We will think about the money piece later.