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Aug 25, 2007

The Organizational Drift

Several contradictory experiences of the last week allowed me to see a pattern. I had a few frustrating moments trying to navigate through UNC’s on-line catalogue. To say it is a mess is an understatement. Just try to find Elementary PTEP, the largest teacher education program on campus. The system of internal references broke down, the Index is incomplete, inconsistent, and confusing. No one can navigate it. At the same time I know that the University’s IT team is highly competent, and the web administrators are also very knowledgeable and dedicated. We have a problem that like most, cannot be blamed on individuals.

Our School had a retreat, a very productive one. It made me appreciate again the professional strength and dedication of my colleagues. Meetings like this make me remember why I chose to work in higher education: to hang out with smart people. I also had to look at some curricular pieces in the last two weeks, and was again impressed with the thoughtfulness and expertise that went into development of the programs and individual courses. Yet our programs seem to have gaps and overlaps.

What happens is what I would call organizational drift; it is somewhat related to the concept of organizational entropy. What happens is really simple. Let’s say a group of faculty have developed a new course together; they have a good understanding of the course, and all teach similar things. Then some of the original group members are replaced, so they teach the course slightly differently. The original authors also change and update the course as a matter of good pedagogical practice. While each section of the course is improved in comparison to the original design, they also drifted apart, sometime significantly. This creates a problem of inconsistency: the same course taught by different professors looks completely different.

Of course, the original course was designed to fit into a specific program or even to several programs. While the program was originally designed in a certain way, each of the courses have been continuously improved or just changed because of the faculty turn over. The drift is natural, inevitable, and wholly expected. The same happened to the catalogue: it is a complex system with internal references among multiple parts. Different people are in charge of the individual parts, and no one can have a view of the entire system. As the parts drift apart, the references disintegrate and the system collapses. Our programs are not in the Catalogue’s position yet: the systems were designed relatively recently, and designed rather well. They are small enough for some communication to take place and to maintain their integrity. Yet the tendency is evident; where there is flexibility, there is also the drift.

One solution is to limit change: to redesign once and for all, and them limit any change. Some organizations do that: here is your syllabus, here is your textbook, and this is how you’re going to teach. It leads to stagnation and turns people off, but such a solution hold the drift in check. It also very difficult to enforce in Academia: people chose to work here because they are creative, and like to experiment and be independent. Without change, we simply would not survive for a long time, because education is in constant flux, and we need to run just to remain on the same place. The standards movement is another version of the same solution: it seeks to limit certain parameters of change by introducing a permanent set of references around which everything must order itself. It does not work like this, because professors largely ignore the standards. Or, rather, we claim to follow the standards after the fact of delivering curriculum. We do this not out of stubbornness or defiance, but because standards are too crude to keep the system organized. We understand that standardization means the death of the system that loses its ability to innovate. On the local level, the curriculum approval process seeks to limit the drift. However, as everyone know, most people ignore officially approved syllabi, for the same reasons.

Another solution is to make all changes transparent and encourage all parts of the system to react to every change in one individual part. In other words, the solution is to have constant meetings, and make all changes totally visible, while adjusting every little part to every little change. We are planning to do something like this in our in-service days. Smaller institutions do that constantly, and are often very successful in designing coherent programs. They can do this over a lunch meeting with a few people. But for a larger organization like ours, such efforts if they are continuous would take enormous resources. The constant information flow will become incredibly taxing in terms of time and resources. Going back to the catalogue example, the second solution of that problem looks like this: all school directors plus the registrar staff plus IT (about fifty people?) would have to spend a day or two going through the catalogue page by page to ensure the coherence of the entire system. Of course, we simply cannot do that even if we wanted to. If I remember correctly, groups of Microsoft staff at one point read together millions of lines of code to eliminate bugs; this was a very expensive solution, and their programs are still buggy, mainly because they are so huge and because of the drift.

The third solution is, I a way, a combination of the first two: you’d break the system into smaller chunks, explicitly define responsibilities of each one towards another, limit any changes in relationships among the chunks, but allow changes and abundant information exchanges within the chunks. This solution has its own limitations. For example if we were to create small teams, one in charge of literacy instruction, and another in charge of, say Social Studies and Math methods, and then another working with Art, Music, and PE, OK, they would work fine to improve their specific area, but then the areas will start to drift from each other. As a result, we would have no unity on matter that run across different areas: knowledge of diversity, classroom management, sound assessments, etc. In other words, we would export entropy to a different level, as biologists might say, but there will be about the same amount of it in the system. And this is what we have been doing anyway.

The radical solution will have to be based with self-organization processes and with alternative ways of information flows. I don’t have the solution; I just have a vague idea, even less than an idea, an image, a dream. Somehow, I see our students keeping track of their own learning needs: what they already know, what skills they still lack and need to work on, and what they should learn. I see them constantly checking these skills and knowledge with a constantly available testing service and then entering requests for specific knowledge into a database. Here is what I need to learn in the next semester… Then the computer matches those requests against our faculty’s expertise, and voila, it delivers a schedule. It does not look like our present schedule; it is a lot more complex: we have courses that last from one day to the whole semester. They have long names like: Elementary Social studies curriculum with use of storytelling and ideas on classroom management in urban classrooms. Or: philosophies of education plus professional writing skills plus research skills. The schedule is different every semester; it prompts professors to gain expertise in areas that are in high demand, and constantly update what we already know. Those professors whose expertise is not in demand, have to leave or work as assistants to other, more effective professors. Students are in charge of their own learning; those who cannot master skills, are forced to leave; those who can do most of their learning on their own, save time and money. The distributed knowledge makes the system self-organizing: no one knows everything, but everyone knows what she or he needs.
Anyway, that’s my Saturday afternoon dream?

Aug 17, 2007

Can you ever go home?

My Russian in-law family, six of them, stayed with us for a while. We had a lot of fun, and some very good, very Russian conversations. A visit like this always brings forth questions of identity. This country versus that country, where one should live, how do we lives, what makes one Russian, and what makes one American. The precarious bridge to the old country has been briefly reestablished, and at least in imagination, crossed back and forth. Svetlana and I have always considered going back; we have been held back because of practicalities such as lack of good jobs in Russia, kids that went native and the large American debts. There are other considerations though. In 16 years we were gone, Russia has changed dramatically, not once but twice: from crumbling Soviet Union to the deepest economic depression imaginable, back to oil revenue-prompted relative prosperity and stability. From the excitement and hope of Glasnost era to despair of chaotic democracy and lawlessness, it then became a semi-authoritarian, but stable and mostly functional state. I watched two coupe d'etates on CNN, have seen and heard tragic and uplifting news from what seems to be an intensely familiar, but also more and more mysterious country. I traveled back five or six times, each time struck by how little have changed, and how completely different the country has become.

Like all immigrants, I am caught in this interesting space in between two cultures. People like me are foreigners everywhere. With virtually non-existing English, I came to Indiana at the ripe age of 29, thus the accent that is impossible to eliminate. Moreover, the accent itself becomes a part of one’s identity; you become known as the Russian guy with an accent. Even if it were possible, I would not get rid of it. I could have become a generic Alex, but instead insisted on remaining an exotic Sasha for the same reason: Russian Alexes whose number is a million are too eager to blend in; they are afraid of remaining foreigners fearing discrimination and sometime wishing to forget. Anyway, foreigner I am, which is a mixed blessing. The American Academe tends to be remarkably tolerant to foreigners (especially to White Europeans); tolerance matched only perhaps by that of the business community and unparalleled in the world. As a foreigner, one can always claim the bogus authority of an outsider, of someone with a different perspective; the Academe values that. At the same time, people often expect you to be naïve and know nothing about simple things, and having little facility with the English language. Especially touching are complements on the comprehensibility of one’s accent, and on the fact that I can actually write. I had a very hard time getting my first teaching job, chiefly because of the obvious foreignness. But this was a long time ago, and now my job is great, and at least some people in the field claim to respect my scholarship. All’s good.

Of course, the Russians treat me like a foreigner, too. Their attitude varies between patronizing to hostile, but the message is always the same: you did not go through this with us, so you wouldn’t understand. Or, you have been away for too long, you forgot how this is. The deep seated anti-Americanism of many Russians stems from the wounds to the national dignity. The wounds are mostly self-inflicted, but when it hurts one must hate someone, anyone. The Russian Americans will always get some flack on behalf of the entire American nation for everything from obesity to the Iraq war. One sure sign of becoming a foreigner is this: you cannot criticize Russia anymore. What is perfectly allowable to a real Russian (for example, criticism of Putin’s slide to autocratic rule) will not be permitted to you, the emigrant, because you are no longer one of us. Americans do not always understand this sensitivity, because their tolerance to criticism of America is rooted in implied assumption of own superiority. What a sentence… My writing has been ruined by the practice of philosophy. Anyway, back to the point: People like me are foreigners everywhere, and we end up always defending Russia in America, and defending America in Russia. In both cases we are basically defending ourselves, the parts of our identity that do not sit easy with people around us. It is much easier in a third country, where you’re simply a tourist, and no one gives a damn about your identity.

This place in between has been described many times by dozens of immigrant writers. They all try to make people appreciate how rich and complex the creatures of cultural border crossings are. So there, see how complex I am? Can I get some respect for this? The truth is, our experiences are not at all unique, and are a variation on the universal human story of going away from home; the home to which one can never return. It is a story of nostalgia, of growing up and betrayal of one’s youth, of embracing new things but longing for the old. We are all immigrants from home; even those who have never left the home town.

I feel sad for people who have a hang up on national culture, and cannot see past it. I doubt the very notion of culture, especially applied to such large entities like the Americans or the Russians has any usefulness. In other words, one can always make some generalizations: Americans are that, Russians are this, and Chinese are something else. But how would you use such generalizations? For what? If you try to apply them in any kind of real-life situation, they will turn out wrong more often than right. In my pragmatist epistemology, that means national cultures do not exist; they are fiction, myth useful to manipulate people, but useless to do anything good. But that’s another blog.

We could go back one day, when the practicalities of such a move are resolved. Russia is so much more unpredictable than the US, it is so much more frightening and exciting, it is hard to resist.

Aug 3, 2007

Dances with Data

Carolyn, our NCATE Queen, and I were dancing with and around data a lot. Our dependable work studies have been diligently punching in numbers; our smart graduate assistants played with spreadsheets and produced nice tables. Program reports are due soon, so we are having a close look at what information we have gathered, and which of it makes any sense.

We have learned several things so far. One is that when you set up some data collection process, you don’t really know if the data in the end is going to be useful. You also never realize what will be missing. When it is aggregated, it looks differently than when you are looking at a single item or few items. Data can look really boring, when there is no variation, and everyone is proficient. Data can look weak, because it does not prove what it is supposed to prove. We also realized that data collection must be systematic from the get go: we collect too much data, actually. Each individual sheet or form has been added sometime in the past for what seemed to be a good reason, but now many serve no purpose, or are never used for anything. So, when you have too much data, you end up spending more time digging out what is somewhat useful from what is obsolete. So, it should be very limited, very focused, and have some validity. Not just what statisticians like to call concept validity, but what I would like to call the gut feeling validity: can we actually believe it measures what we say it measures? Can we stand by it?

In the institution of our size, bureaucratic procedures for data collection are crucial. Someone has to visualize the journey a piece of paper makes, and find that critical point where we can get a copy of it, and then enter it into a database. A lot of things could go wrong here: an instructor may forget to turn his or her sheets; a staff person can be recent and not realize that certain piece of paper needs to be collected, or may not know what it looks like. A paper may be filed improperly, or not filed at all, then the information may never be entered into the database, so we have to pull paper out of files, and enter it. Time also plays tricks with us: “I believe I turned it in to A,” says B about an event that happened many months ago. “I don’t remember receiving anything from B,” says A. Both suspect C might have the stuff, but C is no longer working with us C says he turned everything to D, who is also gone and out of reach, so I go into the D’s office where stuff might be, but find nothing. End of search. Now this may look like a lot of incompetence, but it is not. Data collection is a complex process highly vulnerable to error and to organizational changes. It easily disintegrates under pressures of time, large volume, and lack of strong motivation. Data needs evolve constantly, because of changes in various laws, program revisions, turnover of instructors, administrators and staff, and changes in technology.

However, the most important reason for our difficulties with data is that colleges have not learned yet to deal with accountability data. Of course, teacher education is on the forefront of the accountability movement. Most of our A&S colleagues are really behind us, and may have no idea at all about any of this. Most are making their baby steps in learning to dance this dance. However, even for NCATE accredited institutions like ours, the data collection challenge is still relatively new. Institutions have different scale of time: what is a long time for an individual, maybe just a blink in institutional time. While individuals can learn things quickly and remember what they have done, institutional capacities and institutional memories are very different – not as quick, not as reliable, and heavily dependent on writing things down. Having someone highly competent around does not necessarily solves the organizational problem.

In the end, a lot of data comes out a bit unconvincing. I treat it as a learning experience: I certainly learned a lot about dancing with data in this NCATE cycle, and many of my colleagues did the same. My worry is how to make the institutional memory and skills stronger. So, OK, we are starting fresh in this coming academic year. We need not only to revise the list of data items we collect, and revise out instruments; we need not only develop logistics for collecting and analyzing it, but also somehow make sure this process is sturdy enough to withstand changes. When we have new faculty, new secretaries, new work studies, etc., how will they know what to do with data and why we’re doing it? Next time we change something in information collection, how will that information spread? Who will make sure little pieces of data come together? How do we make this process less time consuming and therefore less expensive? And most importantly, how on Earth do we collect only meaningful data, and stop collecting crap WITHOUT failing our next NCATE review?

I am fairly confident we will pass most of this cycle, partly because Carolyn and others did a great job setting data collection in motion before I ever got here, and the process of actually writing the reports is well organized. Partly I am confident because NCATE has shown appreciation to the challenges of the institutional learning curve, and was not indifferent to the issues specific to large units. So, this is not a grade anxiety, but thinking about converting this whole accountability dance into something we can actually enjoy and look good doing.