Credit Hour, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncategorized

A Smart New Deal

Last week I attended two events focused on education.  The first was hosted by Inside Higher Ed entitled “Higher Education and the New Congress.” This event consisted of a day long series of presentations about proposed updates to the Higher Education Act.  The second was a workshop in my local K-8 school district, where I am a member of the Board of Education. This day focused on re-designing physical spaces to support new pedagogies.  Heidi Hayes Jacobs (Bold Moves for Schools) spent the day discussing the ways in which the layout of classrooms (and schedules) reflect and shape the learning.

All of these conversations got me thinking about how we approach the design of educational experiences in higher education.  Despite years of research about pedagogy and outcomes, we have a tendency to avoid consulting the literature.  We make our decisions based on the past (how we learned, how we’ve taught so far), not on research.  Some of us run small experiments with a new technique, but the experiment is generally not followed up on with the entire university.  We operate on beliefs and intuition, not on systematic analysis.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of good learning experiences do occur on college campuses, and on mine in particular. Faculty earnestly design and redesign their courses based on the outcomes of the semester before.  That first hand experience and effort should not be discounted.  Faculty want their students to succeed and they tweak assignments, try new readings, and occasionally experiment with new technologies. But these efforts never become a university strategy for teaching excellence.  They are done one by one, only occasionally consulting the literature on teaching, and with little impact on the university overall.

To be fair, faculty are constrained by the environments we have created.  The physical spaces tell a story. Are the chairs moveable? If yes, we can collaborate. If no, we are set up for individual learning. Are the rooms large or small? The answer will determine the range of activities available to the professor.  The physical spaces constrain the pedagogies available.  Faculty are also constrained by semesters, time, and credit hour definitions, leaving little room to imagine curriculum in different chunks than those standardized units. Most faculty would be surprised to be asked to even think about those constraints. We have come to see them as a natural precondition for curriculum planning.

They aren’t natural, nor are the written in stone tablets.  The space and the time structures of education are made by us and they can be revised.  However, to do so will require careful planning across academic areas and they must draw from well structured research. We don’t want to undo our good traditions in favor of the new, without any justification and evidence that the new will improve things.

Here’s what I mean about time structures.  We may find some compelling research about how much time we should spend working on quantitative reasoning each week if we want to improve our students’ engagement with this essential analytic skill.  If that time is different from what we have allotted in our traditional course structures, we may wish to make an adjustment, but that change could impact student and faculty schedules in complex ways.  The evidence from the scholarship may be compelling, but we may not move forward because of the complexity of how we’ve organized time.

Let’s be clear, not all things are best learned in long blocks of time.  Some things are better done in short bursts of discussion followed by quick applications and then a break.  Other topics (or students) need intensive engagement for long periods.  These differences do not necessarily fit into our current structures.  We are fitting square pegs in round holes.

I say all this for two reasons.  First, in the meeting with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she started with two simple questions: “How can we prepare our learners for their futures?” and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”  These questions drove our conversation as we looked at building design.  It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the research on the connections between pedagogies, spaces, time, and learning.  We rarely get to think this way about space and time, when we approach building design.  We moved into discussions of places where some pretty radical changes have taken place (Finland for instance) and how much more fluid those environments were. Faculty and students were able to change course and adjust time and space throughout the year to improve the experience. They weren’t trapped in a structure beyond their control. This kind of conversation has to take place in all levels of education. Instead of relying on projected enrollments and few pet projects (a lab, perhaps), we should be looking at the holistic and the research on learning.

The second reason is that much of the higher education environment is encoded in the Higher Education Act, and it too, is based more on tradition than science. The shape of that document reflects assumptions about teaching and learning that can be traced back at least 150 years (or to antiquity).  While the heart of a good liberal arts education may still share some assumptions with Socrates, the ways in which we can achieve that education have broadened and shifted with increased access to both information and college. Indeed, this access was spurred on by the HEA.  The result is a need for more research (and more funding).

The discussions I heard in DC last week nibbled around the edges of the HEA.  Some of the proposals were scary, some were interesting, all seemed to have been shaped by political considerations rather than educational ones.  Convenient statistics were quoted, but bodies of scholarship on pedagogy were not.  Like our building structures and our schedule structures, our elected officials are viewing this document as if it arose from nature or was presented on a stone tablet.  It needs a much bigger overhaul.

It’s time for all of us to change course.  Let’s consult the research, compare approaches to teaching with other countries, imagine funding strategies that support student success,  and create a comprehensive plan for research and development in education.  Let’s not leave this to the good graces of our entrepreneurs (thanks Bill & Melinda Gates) or for-profit publishing and technology corporations. We need public investment in this public good.  Let’s shift the paradigm from education by intuition, tradition, and hope (and politics) to education by strategy, experimentation, and design. And let’s drive that experimentation and design with those two questions asked by Heidi Hayes Jacobs.  “How can we prepare our learners for the future? and “What pedagogy best serves engagement?”

Those two questions can take us a long way.  With funding attached, they could a Smart New Deal.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Cognitive Dissonance and Equity

It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education, and I’m not talking about funding or enrollment. Whether we point to the pulling down of Confederate statues, to heated discussions about racism in our academic organizations, to photoshopped recruiting materials that exaggerate campus diversity, it is clear that things are not going as we had hoped. We have reached a point of cognitive dissonance, with our sense of ourselves as fair and equitable routinely contradicted in academic and main stream media. And that cognitive dissonance is making us very uncomfortable.

Good. We should be uncomfortable.  We should be questioning our ability to support inclusive educational experiences that grapple with hard questions and take honest looks at discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about diversity (or the lack thereof) in our curricula.  I argued that we should get started with looking at our syllabi, course offerings, and majors with eyes toward greater inclusivity.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated.  Regular exposure to that diversity has the potential to weaken pervasive stereotypes or what Banaji and Greenwald call “mindbugs.” (Their book, Blind Spot (2013), by the way, would be an excellent text for a psychology course addressing our biased social constructs around race, gender, and age.) When we are not intentional about creating curricula that draw on excellence from all groups, we are supporting discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.  There is no time to waste on this project.  It is time-consuming, but it is the easiest of all the tasks associated with creating an inclusive learning environment because it is entirely within our control.

But there is more to do. Our next step is to work harder at supporting dialogues that address systemic inequity.  This is much harder than updating our curriculum. Let’s face it, leading those conversations is fraught with risks. There is a chance we may get the words wrong and inadvertently offend someone.  There is a chance that our students will not wish to participate.  There is fear that administrators like me will not understand the complexity of the situation when a conflict does emerge in a class.  These are all valid concerns, but we do no good avoiding difficult subjects. So, what do we do?

I have one suggestion to get us started.  Let’s see how far we can get by adopting a debate across the curriculum model.  We can identify classes in every major that will include structured debate.  It is important that we don’t default to debate in general education and ignore all of the other areas where these arguments should take place.  Students need to see the value of this investigative strategy in all disciplines. It would be great to lay foundations in general education and then follow up in majors so that the form of inquiry supported by this pedagogy becomes a habit. I’ve selected courses from nearly every discipline at WCSU where I’d love to see debate included:

  • ED 206 Introduction to Education
  • NUR 301 Nursing Leadership in Health Care Organizations
  • HPX 200 Introduction to Community Health and Organizations
  • SW 210 Social Welfare as an Institution
  • ACC 340 Business Law I
  • FIN 370 Financial Institutions
  • JLA 100 Introduction to Criminal Justice I
  • MGT 251 Human Resources Management
  • MIS 307 Social Media in Business
  • MKT 200 Principles of Marketing
  • AS The American Dream: Visions & Revisions
  • ANT/SOC 204 Culture and Personality
  • AST/ENV 134 Extraterrestrial Environments and Intelligence
  • BIO 200 Ecology
  • CHE 102 Everyday Chemistry I
  • COM 190 Introduction to Mass Communication
  • CS 110 Website Production
  • DIMA 200 Storytelling for Digital and Interactive Media
  • ECO 211 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ENG 108 Introduction to Literature
  • HIS 148 American History: To 1877
  • HUM 110 Moral Issues in Modern Society
  • MAT 110 Great Ideas in Mathematics
  • MTR 240 Climatology
  • PHI 100 Introduction Philosophy
  • NWC/HIS 115 Latin American and Caribbean Civilization
  • PSY 202 Abnormal Psychology
  • SS 201 Researching Social Issues
  • SOC 100 Introduction to Sociology
  • WS 200 Introduction to Women’s Studies
  • WRT 171W Craft of Writing I: Conversations with Predecessors
  • ART 101 History and Appreciation of Western Art: Renaissance to the Present
  • MUS 100 History & Appreciation of Music
  • THR 180 Introduction to Theater Arts
  • All introductory language courses

In some cases, the debate should be, “why is this a category?” (Non-Western Cultures and  Women’s Studies come to mind).  In all cases, the debate topic should include some question of equity and students should be required to find evidence for their arguments from a body of literature that represents a diverse group of contributors.  This will require us to consider evidence from marginalized voices and people who do not have access to the traditional scholarly outlets associated with higher education, but I think we can do that.

The value of this approach is that it allows us to guide challenging conversations without taking a position on the topic.  This is important because our positions frequently leave our students feeling like they can’t disagree. Instead, we can focus on teaching about asking good questions, finding follow-up lines of inquiry, discovering contradictions, and evaluating evidence. Our students will take the lead in the debates, learning about the contributors to their position and anticipating the arguments of those who disagree. It’s a great approach for developing knowledge of a discipline and the structure of argument. It also helps us all become better listeners.

As students and faculty dive into this curriculum, we will be cultivating a habit of listening. We will be hearing points of view we have never considered.  We will be considering diverse bodies of evidence that we may not have encountered before.  And we will be discussing questions of equity as a regular practice, not as an add-on to our courses.

Learning with our students, about all of things we forgot to consider as we shaped our understandings of our disciplines and of education more generally, seems to me to be the best path to reconciling the gap between who we thought we were and who we want to be.  This step toward resolving our cognitive dissonance will be imperfect and require further review, but it is does offer a way forward and I’m ready for the first step.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blind Spot. U.S.: Delacorte Press.

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Optimistic Critical Thinker

And we’re off.  The spring semester has begun at WCSU and most other universities in the US.  Faculty have passed out their syllabi and done their best to set expectations and inspire their students to embrace the learning ahead. Students are purchasing course materials (or finding free alternatives, if they’re lucky) and preparing for their best semester ever.  It is how we all want to begin, with optimism and a desire to get the most out of our learning experiences.

As we start the semester, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of “critical thinking.” We’ve had a lot of conversation on our campus about the meaning of those words. When we transitioned to our new general education curriculum a few years ago, we included a critical thinking competency in our requirements.  We then launched into debates about what courses do and do not teach critical thinking.  The problem seemed to be not one of inclusion, but rather a lack of ability to exclude courses from this category.

As I see it, the heart of the problem lay in the distinction between teaching students foundational tools for evaluating arguments of all kinds vs. the overall outcomes of a liberal arts degree.  In a nutshell, a general education course with a critical thinking designation should spend some time on the components of an argument, the concept of paradox or logical contradiction, and the evaluation of evidence.  This is distinct from the many (all) classes that rely on critical thinking skills to properly engage course material.  The ability to use critical thinking skills is indeed an important outcome of an undergraduate degree, but I argue that using the skills and introducing them are not the same thing.

There was more to this argument, of course.  After all, we are the academy.  We live to dig into the fine points, find the contradictions or lack of specificity, and identify next questions.  We are professional critical thinkers and we are never done. This is fine for faculty and administration, but when it comes to students, I think we need to be a little gentler.

Let me be clear, I think all students should be exposed to good, healthy skepticism and debate. Higher education has an obligation to demonstrate this, both to support good habits of mind and to serve as a counter-weight to a media environment that promotes both cynicism and gullibility. In a world where our social media routinely move us into echo chambers, instead of diverse opinions and ideas, this obligation has reached a level of urgency like never before.

But, we have to be careful.  Identifying evidence as untrustworthy can easily spiral into conversations about not being able to trust any evidence. Showing our students that long-held theories have been proven false, can lead to a feeling that no theories should be trusted.  Finding logical paradoxes can lead to a sense that nothing is resolvable.  In other words, the important habits of mind that we aim to cultivate, the habits that empower our students to make reasoned arguments and informed decisions, can also lead to a sense of hopelessness and cynicism.

So, how to move forward?  As we teach our students the histories of the ideas that we no longer find productive or true, we must also teach them the arguments that led to their failure and the paths forward.   We must teach them to ask why it might have been reasonable to think the idea was good or true?  What new evidence or thinking or event helped to undermine that idea or theory? What progress, if any, resulted from the change?  We have to help our students see the progress in the falling of old truths. It is that sense of progress that helps us protect ourselves from cynicism.

Then we have to ask our students the next question: where are the seeds of doubt in the new theory, idea, or fact? We have to help them start to explore that new question, at least in small ways, so that they have a sense that they can search for answers.  This is where the true value of an undergraduate degree lies.  We are not charged with the distribution of facts, those are available everywhere, we are charged with cultivating the understanding of how to challenge facts in ways that produce new answers and possibilities.

This is where I see the heart of teaching critical thinking. We must develop in our students the confidence and skills necessary to challenge facts and evidence and the desire to pursue the next set of answers. The belief that there are answers to be pursued and that those answers might be within our grasp is about as optimistic as any rational person can be.

So here’s to an optimistic semester, filled with questions, contradictions, and the desire for more understanding.

 

 

 

Credit Hour, DeVos, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Western Governors and the future of higher education.

Well, unsurprisingly, Western Governors University was issued a reprieve by the US Department of Education on Friday.  Despite clear violations of the existing guidelines that distinguish distance education from correspondence education via “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” they will not have to pay back $713 million in Federal Financial Aid.  This decision lines up neatly with the recent proposals by DeVos to revise definitions of the credit hour and expand “instructors” to “members of the instructional team.”

Here it is folks, that point in the road we’ve been traveling down for the last twenty years in higher education–we must clearly articulate the value of the contact between students and faculty.

The ride to this point has included many stops.

The higher education community argued seriously and productively about online education. We know that learning online is not the same as the classroom experience, but when done well, it can be a good learning environment.  It does afford access to busy adults who cannot get to a campus.  If the students are ready for online learning, and that is an important if, they can get a good education online.

At the same time, we have embraced (to various degrees) the ways in which new learning technologies can enhance the classroom.  We’ve been putting supplementary materials online, allowing students many opportunities to encounter and review materials important to their courses.  Often there are group assignments, review tests, or even supplementary explanations in video or written format to support student success.  Sometimes we call it flipping the classroom.  Sometimes we call it homework. Either way, it points out that learning can happen independently, with materials curated by a faculty member.

We have also embraced the diagnostic potential of digital texts and evaluations.  Pearson, famously, is at the forefront of this, turning textbooks, into interactive learning environments, and adjusting material based on the responses of the students.  Adaptive learning is being used in classrooms to try to enhance student success.  Those classrooms may be supervised by faculty, but are frequently filled with tutors and TAs.

Let’s not forget the routine use of graduate assistants and teaching assistants as part of our “instructional teams.”  This is an old practice that frequently limits student contact with faculty.  Over the years we have moved to better training for graduate assistants, requiring classes in teaching methods, or at least bringing GAs together for weekly meetings about the material they are covering. Like distance learning, questions were asked about the effectiveness of the graduate assistants, and we had to move to demonstrate their value.  That impulse was a good one, but it leaves us with more questions.

In all of these steps, we moved toward more carefully defined outcomes.  These include learning outcomes in courses and degrees, as well as student success measures such as retention, timely graduation, and post-graduate activities.  These outcomes became points of comparison for all of the above – online vs. on-ground, traditional vs. interactive texts, student success in courses taught by GAs vs. FT-Faculty.  It turns out that when we compare institutions who serve similar students, and follow similar definitions of the goals of an undergraduate education, the outcomes are surprisingly similar. (Take a look at https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/ to compare some of these outcomes.)

So now what?  We’ve got to get serious about defining the quality of learning that takes place when a student has regular interaction with a person with advanced knowledge of a discipline.  We have to be able to show why that matters in the whole of a student’s education.  We have to show that these benefits are a matter of equity and that we should not just provide that kind of education to the elite. And we have to do it honestly, assessing the weaknesses in the educational paradigms we’ve created in an effort to truly transform.

I was struck by the final paragraph in Inside Higher Education’s coverage of this decision.  They quote Spiros Protopsaltis, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Education Policy and Evaluation and a former Education Department official,

“However, the critical issue is that we should not lower the bar to accommodate any particular online model, whether it’s WGU or any other school, but instead we should raise the bar for quality and rigor,” he said. “Given the evidence on the importance of interaction between students and instructors for student success, requiring and enforcing such interaction is imperative.”

Just because one institution has strong outcomes while failing to meet that standard, he said, does not mean the Education Department should lower the bar for the entire online industry.

Here’s the thing, Protopsaltis has acknowledged that the WGU model has strong outcomes.  This is the real issue, folks.  If we don’t address the reasons for those strong outcomes, and make a case for something more, then WGU is our future.  Or perhaps the future is just some really great libraries.

 

DeVos, Evaluation, Higher Education

Under Construction: Peer Review

On Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released a list of policy proposals as part of negotiated rule making related to the Higher Education Act.  While I have many questions about the goals of these revisions and how they might impact those most susceptible to education scams, I am intrigued by the part of the list that addresses accreditation.

Several of the policies suggested appear to be a direct assault on regional accreditors.  The reasons that they are a target are complicated, but one such reason seems to be a sense that they are creating barriers for innovation in education.  This argument is fraught with contradictions and for-profit motives, to be sure, but the role of accrediting bodies that are wedded to traditional non-profit educational institutions is not unworthy of review.

Over the past 20 years, regional accreditors have truly transformed from evaluation criteria based on things universities have (faculty, libraries, students, and buildings) to things universities do (retention, graduation, learning/degree outcomes, and graduation placements).  This transformation was, in part, provoked by the emergence of for-profit, online education and our need to grapple with how to evaluate learning in these differing environments.  We resisted, argued, and then re-imagined our responsibilities. We maintained our right to define the parameters of “quality” education, but we no longer argue that we can’t assess our efforts.

As we all became (relatively) comfortable with program assessment and the focus on outcomes, our accrediting bodies asked us to improve our approaches and make it a regular part of what we do.  In the process, we opened the door to developing quality online education because we articulated what our graduates should know.  Whatever the environment, similar degrees should have similar outcomes.  This is the best possible outcome of a robust peer review process. Relying on faculty and administrators from other universities to look at what we do and provide educated and responsible feedback works in this system.  We understand what we’re looking at because there is a lot of common ground. Let’s be honest, this change was hard.  We didn’t like doing it, but here we are.

Now we face something new and the peer review system is going to struggle to define its role again.  In recent years there have been closures of large for-profit and small non-profit educational institutions and, along with those closures have come questions about the oversight provided by accreditors. The withdrawal of accreditation is powerful. It will close an institution, so it is imperative that these bodies develop good ways of monitoring finances. As participants in peer review accreditation processes, we are going to have to figure out reasonable questions to ask that can strengthen evaluation of less traditional and traditional educational institutions alike.

During an accreditation visit, when a university or college is struggling financially, peers are asked to offer feedback. This can be problematic. Most of us from the non-profit world can read a budget and see shortfalls in funding, but we are less prepared to provide insight into how to recover from that shortfall.  Evaluating quality of education and the supporting infrastructures of faculty governance and transparency are things we are comfortable with.  Developing plans for capturing market shares and differentiation of our educational “products” does not come easily to us.

At the heart of this challenge is not that we don’t value or support innovation, something DeVos seems to think we are doing, but that we see innovation in terms of learning, not in terms of money.  We are not blind to changing work landscapes, we respond to those all the time, but we do so on the assumption that we are meeting a societal need, not a bottom line need.  Now we are faced with considering some of the questions that a market oriented evaluation might raise. We will argue and resist, but then we must figure it out for three very important reasons.

Reason 1: Identifying a problem (financial or otherwise) during peer review will not be helpful if we don’t offer some guidance about how to recover. Ours is a collaborative process where we learn from each other.  Ignoring the learning that needs to take place in the financial category makes peer evaluation a threat, not a helpful process.  We have to figure out how to handle this part as a true mentoring opportunity.

Reason 2: We need to continue to impact the definitions of quality and viability, just like we did in the early conversations about online degrees.  By being part of that conversation, we made sure that the measures for online learning were not narrowly evaluated on content delivery, but on learning experiences. We need to shape the questions surrounding financial viability the same way, so that we don’t end up with profit as a primary goal. We want reasonable comparisons to be made between for-profit and non-profit institutions, comparisons that keep students at the center of all we do.

Reason 3: Education is not about widgets.  Students are complex and require nuanced educational experiences that reflect understanding their unique backgrounds and needs.  And the focus of our degrees must anticipate not the job of the moment, but the long-term skills and habits of mind that our students will need as the landscape of work continuously changes. Our traditional, non-profit structures facilitate that nuanced, long-term thinking in ways that are not supported in organizations that produce quarterly reports. This is the thinking valued by regional accreditors associated with these types of educational organizations.

Higher education in the United States has long been built on peer review. It is our strength and it is what allows us to be innovative. One look at the inventions, discoveries, and even changing degree titles will tell the story of responsible, not reactive, innovation. This is supported by the integrity of our peer review processes and we need to hold onto them, because we know our context best.

Yet we are in for some hard work as we reshape the questions we are asking of each other.  Demographics have changed the context for non-profit and for-profit organizations alike.  Finances will have to be considered. But, the questions we ask must reflect our commitment to creating excellent learning environments for all. If they do, the value of our accrediting processes will remain strong.