Search This Blog

Dec 15, 2006

On the Money

Can you believe this? This is my blog #24.

The basic principle of a market economic system is that there is some feedback loop: those who produce things that other people need, get rewarded; those who produce nothing or something no one needs, get penalized. So, things that people need are produced more, their price falls, and the system reaches equilibrium. Any time demand changes, there is a mechanism that tells producers to cut or increase production.

The problems of capitalism have been known for a long time: because the economy needs freedoms of transactions and private property rights, it tends to produce tremendous inequality. Its strength, however, are also well-known: the system does not rely on centralized planning; it is self-regulating, disciplined, and is much more efficient than any other economic system.

American universities are slowly discovering the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism, only about four hundred years after its invention. Some are more successful at it than others, but most at least dibble into a more entrepreneurial, more market-oriented ventures. Every campus has an extended studies, or continuing education branch that offers off-campus, non-academic, or online courses, wherever there is a demand for them. Those branches tend to be much more flexible, practical, and efficient than the main campus, and end up supporting the inefficiencies of the traditional colleges.

Of course, all universities have to become more like their extended studies programs. Everyone needs to learn to count money and see where the money comes from and how it is being spent. This is the only way of moving toward greater efficiency and better quality. Yet the academic culture is very resistant to measuring educational work in terms of money. Underneath the snobbish refusal to talk money, there is a simple fear of competition, fear of being exposed as less than productive. Some very smart people go to all length with justifying their own highly privileged lifestyles with high-spirited arguments about the intrinsic value of education, sacrifice, academic freedom, and other such nonsense.

Most importantly, our feedback system is extremely weak, convoluted, and unreliable. In most cases, there is no clear link whatsoever between what we do in classes and what the public, the students, or anyone else actually needs. I know my colleagues will be offended by this statement, and assure that they’ve been around, they have the degrees, so they know what needs to happen in the classroom. But any scholar is supposed to ask: How do you know what you know? Is that knowledge verifiable or replicable? Confidence notwithstanding, we have no clue, actually. Just imagine a situation when a car salesman would assure you that he knows exactly what you need, and that one car is the only one you can buy. That you go to the next door lot, and his twin-brother wants to sell you the same exactly model for the same or almost the same price.

The accountability movement tries to solve this problem by making universities to produce some evidence of their effectiveness. I am not arguing that this is difficult to do; I am arguing that it is impossible to do. The market is driven not by research, but by averaging millions of irrational single transactions. This is entirely different feedback loop; it bypasses any single brain, and the information is distributed throughout millions of independent agents. The market mechanisms are more efficient because they are not smart, and do not depend on having smart people making right decisions.

As a first step, we desperately need some link between revenue generation and funds available to colleges, schools, and individual faculty. If there is no direct relation between how many hours a college produces and how much funding it receives, it creates an objective incentive to reduce enrollments. No matter what administrative efforts, how many meetings and speeches we produce, the economic situation does not change. With a fixed income, one must reduce the effort. The same goes all the way does to school an individual faculty. We have every incentive to fight tooth and nail for keeping class enrollments as low as possible, whether it makes any pedagogical sense or not. This is not because we’re bad people, but because cap increase savings do not return to us in any form and shape. We have no incentive to build off-campus cohort until there is an assurance that some of this money returns to those who work on the cohorts.

Money talk is honest; it does not mean having money as the only value. Rather, it leads to seeing clearly that our values are upheld, and not talked to death.

Dec 8, 2006

What makes a problem hard to solve

Here are an examples of hard to solve problems:

1. Two starving sailors on a life-boat are deciding who to eat first. Each has a veto power on the decision.
3. A teacher education program consists of three major course blocks; each block is divided amongst various schools and colleges, and individual faculty. Each involved unit feels passionately about his or her piece and has something close to a veto power, or at least a power to delay resolution. The task is to improve the program by strengthening some components at the expense of others.
What makes both problems difficult to solve? OK, I’ll drop the pretence: what makes the second problem difficult to solve?

It is not the complexity of the problem. We are not rebuilding Iraq, for god’s sake. These course or those course, taught on this semester pr that semester. Not exactly the rocket science, or brain surgery. It should not take longer than a year to figure it out. A week of good planning should do it. Whatever philosophical disagreements people might have, are not very deep and certainly not irreconcilable.

It is not the high stakes; no one expect dramatic improvements from any kind of revision. In education, large effect sizes are truly uncommon, so we are talking about modest improvements. The truth is, whatever the configuration of the new program, it is going to be only moderately if at all better regardless of the specific configuration that takes place. No dependable data can be shown to demonstrate superiority of one proposal over another.

It is not that some people involved are evil or wrong. In fact, all people involved are highly competent, dedicated, and ready for change. I am an incorrigible structuralist, and never believe in much in “human factor” explanations. People tell all the time: “Oh, we would have been able to do it, if not for so and so, who is such a (select your own epithet).” Well, this is almost always the wrong explanation, because when the “bad apples” are replaced, things still don’t work out, and new “bad apples” are immediately and spontaneously appointed to take their place.

What then makes our problem difficult to solve? Very often, it is the way of solving a problem, rather than the problem itself. The smartest sailors should figure out how to fish, or the strongest sailor should fight and eat the weakest one. Deliberations won’t help. The same is true for our problem: if a solution involves real or perceived losses for one of the party, and it is not clear at the start which party will lose, no one should have a veto power.

The process must be structured in a way that the initial parameters make it clear what structural changes are needed to be made. No haggling over resources should be ever allowed, because it always muddles the issue. When people start dressing their concerns about turf in the rhetoric of “commitment to quality”, “research-based teacher education,” “liberal education values” and other venerable BS, no problem will be solved, and feelings will be hurt.

Then the parties affected by the structural changes should be given a full responsibility for making those changes happening to achieve certain given objectives. I don’t believe in holistic and perfect solutions. I’ve seen a lot of neat charts, but in real life, logistics and practicalities, the small details everyone wants to ignore, always trump our utopian designs. So, a series of incremental, localized, small solutions under a unifying vision are always more effective than one overarching, perfect-from-the-start plan. In the complex system like ours, part should be disentangled from each other, so they can show some flexibility and independence to address the practicalities, and remain in agreement on broad definitions of good curriculum.

To reform our IDLA/Elementary PTEP, here is what I would do:

Tell IDLA, PTEP, and Liberal Core faculty: here is your new share of credit hours. YOU will not get less or more; this is all you can play with.

Develop specific proposals for addressing the tasks outlined in the Provost’s charge. Keep in touch with each other while developing the changed.

Within each area, go through a similar process of setting the initial parameters, and them breaking up into even smaller projects (such as course mergers, course redesigned, new course development, advising structure).

Then get together and really coordinate how all your smaller projects will proceed. Appoint a small coordinating committee to make sure you will not step on each other’s toes all the time.

Conclusion: The sailors die not because their problem is hard to solve, but because they chose a wrong way of solving it. Instead of letting the smarter one think about fishing, and the stronger one save his strength for the last battle; they waste time and energy arguing to the point that they can neither think, nor fight.

Dec 1, 2006

UNC’s Organizational Culture and Change

I have been here for 5 month, so perhaps I can be allowed to make some observations on UNC’s organizational culture. The balance is positive; I like it here, and believe this is a very good institution with bright future. So, Svetlana and I are looking for a house, which is a good evidence of a willingness to stick around.

This place is comfortable with change. Most people do not actively resist; they all agree to do the extra work involved in change and improvement. There is also a tradition of openness – almost never do I get a simple “No”; people in all or almost all offices are usually willing to work on whatever problems and projects I bring up. Whether they can actually solve a problem or not is another issue, but everyone seems to be trying, and OK with new ideas.

The lack of inertia is generally a wonderful thing, because all higher education undergoes a rapid transformation, which I would reduce to three major factors: changing demographics, explosion of information technology, and accountability. Those who can change faster, will remain competitive; those who cannot change, will fail. However, this lack of inertia brings its own problems. It is clear that the University is trying to do too many changes too fast. The Banner implementation is the one central process, but it is in addition to the not-quite-complete transition to the new administrative structure, and a number of other changes. The combination of organizational complexity with the complexity of contemporary data systems is a volatile and sometimes dangerous mix.

I hate to admit it, but I am certainly contributing to this problem, because just our School has initiated a number of major changes:

· Two redesigned graduate programs (Ed.D. and a new MAT Emphasis)
· The new Early Childhood PTEP
· The revision of the Elementary PTEP (this one is a biggie; the changes are not very radical, but the numbers of students make it hard to transition)
· Phasing out Helix database and a switch to the checkpoint courses system. This sounds small, but is, in fact, a big change.
· Implementing new assessment data collection systems for all programs.

We also have a number of smaller projects in the works: encouraging the use of Blackboard to assist in regular classes, K-12 and Secondary Postbac programs, exploration of off-campus growth possibilities, two searches, new grad admission procedure, building a new database, implementing new on-line registration for Elementary and Secondary PTEPs, new STE Charter, and of course, a new rookie director.

It does worry me that at some point, some of the changes become unmanageable. Of course, nothing terrible will happen, because we are not building airplanes of performing brain surgery here. However, the confluence of the multiple changes may reach a point where some of these changes may become uncontrollable and morph into something no one has intended. Just yesterday, Pat Doherty brought up a danger in our new Elementary PTEP proposal that we have not thought in four months of developing the new Elementary program. It is not a huge problem, and we seemed to be able to alleviate it, but how many bugs are there we still do not know about? My biggest worry is that we miss a small detail that will negatively affect the main outcome – student learning. I trust this is not going to happen, because the ability to cope with difficult change seems to be so ingrained in the institutional culture here. People just do what needs to be done, sometimes at the expense of their personal time. I want to thanks you all for this. We cannot really slow down, because most of the changes are thrust upon us, so we need to find ways of coping with all that stuff.

Change is very expensive and time consuming. My other worry is that no matter how cool our institutional culture is, we might not have enough resources to process all the changes. Just one example: in my old university, at the College that is just a little bigger than UNC’s, we had three associate deans, one assistant dean, an assessment officer,a PR specialist, and an IT manager. Here at CEBS, we have an Assistant Dean, and that’s about it. I know less about other areas, but everyone in Carter Hall seems to be stressed out and frantic. STE’s staff and coordinators routinely get behind, not because of lack of effort or organizational skills, but because there is just too much to do, too many e-mails and phone calls to answer, and too many students to talk to. This is not a complaint and a plea for more resources; I am simply worried if we bit off too big of a chunk to swallow.

Well, it all will look better once we are on Winter break, and in a holiday mood.