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Jul 29, 2011

All-volunteer workforce

One business writer whose name I could not track down, noted that in creative industries, we deal with what is essentially an all-volunteer workforce. What he meant to say is that to motivate people to work, he needs to create an environment where they are challenged, interested in problems they are solving, and enjoy working together. Otherwise talent just leaves and goes where it is more interesting. Or else, they stay, but you cannot make someone be creative.  It is no longer just about pay. Money is a great motivator in the industrial society, where many jobs are routine, boring, and repetitive. Not so in the knowledge society.
Higher education is a creative industry, and the same observation applies. I realized long time ago that it is very hard to make faculty do something they do not want to do. And even if I could, people are not terribly effective in such situations. The best thing to do is support someone who already has a passion for something, or try to ignite the passion for a project I find important. People also do things out of the sense of solidarity with their colleagues or the sense of duty to the institution – this is how many service jobs are done. And this is not true just about faculty – support staff is a lot more productive and effective if they see the point of doing something, and find the work somewhat enjoyable.
However, colleges are weird organizations. They have the core of highly independent and creative workforce, but also a large bureaucratic structure that is a result of the complex logistical operations and government regulations. What happened to the higher ed is not unexpected, but still a difficult situation. Many of the creative types learned to be creative alone. They select a few things that are of interest to them, their research, or teaching, or a particular community engagement. And they shut the door. They cannot be blamed for it, because collaboration with others is time-consuming, is easily marred  in politics, and just plain inefficient. I always rant about the way faculty committees often operate – meeting every month for an hour, and taking at least a year to accomplish anything.
Fun is a serious business; it is both the condition for our success and it is an important component of success. If we learn how to be creative  together, we are in a great shape. First, because we will nto only retain, but attract the best people. Second, because fun is contagious, and our students will be happier here, more self-confident, and ultimately more successful in the field. This ability to be creative working with others is not just an extra bonus; it constitutes the core of a good educator.
Fun is a difficult business. Community building is like raising fragile, delicate, and exotic flowers. Many things can go wrong, and there is no good recipe. It is also difficult because of the organizational structures in place. Most people simply do not have the time, and our schedules do not easily match. Unlike young Google engineers, most of us have obligations at home. Some have to drive for an hour to get here.
I don’t have a lot of ideas on how to get there. As I said before, we should stop doing what does not have to be done. We need to become a lot more efficient and shift all routine and repetitive work on computers. And we need to set the priorities straight: this place has to be a lo of fun to work in, and this cannot be an individualistic type of fun only. 

Jul 23, 2011

Efficiency as ethics

Inefficiency steals time from faculty, staff, and students. When we do anything routine, boring, or unnecessary, it takes our time away from doing things that are important, innovative, and long-term. That much is obvious, I hope.

But there is also a deeper ethical issue with inefficiency. For example, Rhode Island is to my knowledge the only state that requires student teaching certificates. To get one, our students must complete a form, which includes exactly the same questions as the BCI background check, sign it, then we take a stack of them to RIDE, then students must stop by and pick them up. The whole procedure is completely unnecessary, and takes a lot of time. However, I am even more concerned with the message we are sending to our students, most of whom are future teacher. The message is, yes, the system is absurd, don’t fight it, don’t question it, just get along with the program. This is not what we want to say, but that is what we are saying. Most of them will end up working in public school districts that sometimes even more bureaucratic and ossified than we are. They teach their kids the same values, and then we get them as freshmen.

I picked on one hoop to jump through, because it is imposed by the State. It is an easy target, so no one inside RIC is offended. But take an honest look around, make a list of all things we do and even more importantly that we make students do. How many of them are not essential, how many of them exist only because someone put them in place many years ago? Sometimes it was done for a good reason that no longer exists. Some were ill-conceived to begin with. And most importantly, how many of them do we have control over? If you want examples, write me an email.

Everyone should look around and examine critically his or her own work. We just cannot afford to send the message of mindless compliance to our students and to each other. Not everything can be fixed right away for many reasons. We have a number of organizational and legal constraints, and the College’s leadership is working on addressing them. But it is also a manner of the institutional culture. Everyone should notice the little inefficiencies. You don’t necessarily have to have an idea on how to solve every problem, but you should at least raise the question – why are we doing this? Do students understand why we’re doing this? If we have to, can it be done better, faster, more conveniently? Complacency is not going to get us anywhere.

Next week, I will put a discussion feature on our Faculty page, where both faculty and staff can raise those questions. 

Jul 15, 2011


Advisory board meetings are usually boring affairs. Some distinguished dudes and dames come to visit a college or a school such as ours, once a semester or so. They listen to us bragging about accomplishments, and how everything is just hunky-dory, or on the verge of total and complete excellence. We give them handouts with stats and achievements, parade our distinguished faculty and students. All eat dinner and go home. We have an advisory board – check!

However, there is also a great need for us to hear the voice of practitioners in everything we do. We are a professional school, after all. And even though our connections with teachers, principals, counselors, school psychologists and nurses are rich and continuous, we rarely ask them to sit down with us and help us improve. Some of our programs actually do. For example the Early Childhood programs have a robust advisory board that I saw providing very specific and very good input on program redesign. There are probably others I do not know about. In my talks with superintendents, almost everyone offered some ideas on what we should change or improve. The problem is not in unwillingness of practitioners to participate.

I want to reinvent the advisory board, make it a little more fun, a little more pointed. Imagine a program grill, something like what the Comedy Central Roast. Of course, it will be a lot more polite, with no F-bombs thrown at the F-School, - but just a little livelier than your normal meeting. We would ask programs to send the board members a brief run-down on what they do: coursework, admission and graduation requirements, maybe some policies. Another option is to bring the plans for future revisions. But they can grill our website, our admission process, our outreach – any aspect of the School’s work. The board members would grill faculty on why and how they do things, what they teach and what they do not teach, and then come up with some recommendations on the spot. I’d ask for one wacky plus one serious advice as a package. I imagine it to be a public meeting, with some role for the audience, consisting of our students, friends, faculty, and other partners. Part theater, part business, all in good fun, with mutual respect and concern for quality and nothing else.

Of course, we don’t have to listen to the advice, which can make it fun the way optional things often are. If we had to listen, it would be called the state approval or the NCATE accreditation visit. Those two are good and necessary ways of getting feedback. But they are infrequent, bureaucratic and quite often do not penetrate very deep. Something more informal, more direct, and less official can give us insights and motivations not available now. What do you think? Vote now!

Jul 8, 2011

The Contribution Revolution

Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, coined the term. Basically, it is how companies use volunteer contribution of their customers to improve their products and services. Here is a little taxonomy with examples to make sense of it. But we all know it already. When your hair drier or remote control, or your Word break down, you probably google the question, and yep, there is a forum somewhere. No matter how obscure or unlikely your problem is, someone somewhere had exactly the same, figured out how to solve it, and is kind enough to share. I remember when Microsoft was starting, they tried to answer every question, and absolutely failed at it. Now they have user groups, and everyone is happy. Facebook does not even have anyone at all you can contact. All they have is user input; someone from Facebook read them, figures out the most complex issues, and posts.

Which brings me to the issue of college advising. Here is how it goes: We create very complicated rules and procedures, then we explain them in the language no one can understand, and we place our explanations in multiple places no one can find. And after we have done all of this, we spent an extraordinary amount of time translating what we created into a human language to one student at a time. We call this advising. Very little of it is about actually giving anyone advice: how to live one’s life, which career choice is better for you, etc. Most of it involves reading the catalog, the bulletin, the websites, and handout sheets together with each student, explaining them what it all means, - And then doing it over and over and over again. Highly educated people spend their time translating what they themselves wrote, hundreds of times. What a waste! Sometimes we get frustrated and create yet another advising sheet which explains a particular topic, but then we create so many of these sheets, pages, catalog entries, websites, and handouts that they start contradicting each other. To bring something to students’ attention, we mass-email, talk to their advisers, and generally have to yell at the top of our lungs to cover the information noise created by ourselves and others like we. It becomes even more difficult for students to find the right piece of information. So they come to us for help. It’s not like they want to talk to us necessarily; they simply cannot figure out what to do! This creates a vicious circle: a student who cannot figure out a simple thing learns to mistrust the written word, and next time goes straight to the advisor to get the only form of reliable information.

Well there are two lessons from this:

  1. One: our “manual,” or a book of rules has to be very clear, very brief, and be located in one and only one place. Why do we still have the catalog AND the bulletin, AND the websites, AND handouts? Those are all vestiges of pre-internet technologies. If we had only one authoritative information source (I suggest the website), we would invest more time and energy in making it simple and clear, and we would actually keep it current.
  2. Two: we need user forums just like anyone else. We need the contribution revolution. There is no replacement for the collective human experiences. Hundreds of students figure out our policies and procedures, and some would be happy to share it with others. Moreover, the user forums can go beyond policy and procedures; they can extend into the world of learning, too. How do you create a killer work sample? What does effect size really mean? What kinds of paper Dr. A actually like in the end, despite what his rubric says? How do you explain multiplication when everything else fails? And then who knows, maybe our students will give us ideas how to improve, revise, streamline, simplify?

It will probably take us a while to address the lesson # one. Don’t ask, it is complicated. An organization has its own rhythm and logic, very different from the normal human rhythm and logic. I still think there is no imaginable alternative. In the long run, we need to do it; figure out the outstanding issues like archiving of old websites, control over their accuracy and quality, some sensible and clear structure. But I cannot imagine printed catalogs and semi-dead websites twenty years from now.

On the lesson two, I encourage all to experiment and think together. OK, here is a prototype on our website. What if we embed them in most of our websites? Let the kids speak right there, as they read our pages. I am curious if it is going to change anything.

Jul 3, 2011

The five goals, or how do we impress people

The conventional wisdom in teacher preparation is that outcome-based education actually works. We measure student performance, analyze the data, and then figure out how to improve instruction, and once we get it right, it is going to move us forward. This seems logical, and I certainly believed for a long time the concept is sound, if actual implementation is always flawed. But I have my doubts, too.
Our own or any other assessment system is not designed to bring about innovation. It is a diagnostic tool (and it can be a much better one), but diagnostics is not treatment. Taking patients’ temperature does not make them any better. Building a sophisticated and reliable assessment system is very difficult (and I wish our colleagues from Arts and Sciences talked to us before building their own). But even in its ideal form, such a system can report on what is working and what is not, but only within the parameters of the existing structure. We can learn to rely a lot more on the data as it improves, to gradually improve our existing approaches. But even then, it won’t give us what Clayton Christensen call disruptive innovation.
I am taking stock of what I have and have not accomplished – here at RIC, but also at UNC and BGSU. A lot of my energy has been spent fixing the irritating little things and occasionally working on opportunistic improvements. You know, the kind where a course or a program need to be overhauled to address practical needs, and we slip something in hoping to make it more powerful. I tried to improve morale, faculty governance, bring financial stability, fought my share of little fights over regulations and resources, etc., etc. The thing is, I can keep fixing things for the rest of my life, feel useful and still not see any significant change in teacher education. It is quite likely that none is currently possible.  Not every era offers a possibility of real change. The times may not cooperate. But I would rather try and fail then simply assume it is not possible.
We now see how far outcomes-based education can go. We should try to put the theory into its proper place, recognize its limitations, and try to move forward without putting all the eggs in this one particular basket. How? I have been listening to Harvard Business Review Ideacast for a couple of years now, just to get a sense of what is going on in other worlds. What businesses do is both measuring their effectiveness and investing time and effort in innovation. The first is much easier in business – there are the corporate profits and share price – hard numbers. This is why in no way am I suggesting dismantling our assessment system; no sane economist would suggest destroying the accounting standards and practices. To the contrary, we need to improve, simplify our assessments, and learn to read and use them casually. But in the business world, newcomers routinely displace established companies, because they invest in innovation, take risk, and invent new business models instead of improving old ones. They do it by thinking about their customers – not just asking what the customer wants, but by imagining what the customer would want. For example, Google engineers reportedly ask “Wouldn’t that be cool”? When Microsoft was just starting, they imagined that one day everyone would need a small computer at home – a crazy idea at the time, really. Of all old technology companies, IBM is the only one that survived, because they reinvented their business model twice.
As I said in the previous blog, I don’t want to do anything crazy, or innovate for the sake of innovating. Tried that; not working. A small change in perspective is all that is needed. This time, we should start with neither learning outcomes, nor with standards. This time, we start with actual experiences of the people involved. My theory is very simple: if people who directly deal with us will start talking about great, interesting things that we do, the word will spread, and we will actually improve. Trying to sell something improves the product you want to sell.
Let’s begin with five overarching goals. What would make these groups of people to say these things, and mean them?
1. Our faculty and staff to themselves: “I love this job” every day.
2. One superintendant to another: “Job applicants from RIC stand out.”
3. Our student to a younger sibling “This program at RIC is amazing.”
4. One student another: “My teacher is a RIC graduate, and she is the best.”
5. A parent to a principal: “I want you to hire more RIC graduates.”
Sometimes we think it is too cheap or unprofessional to try to impress people. Hell with that, I want us to impress. Tired of explaining to the great outside what we do, and how we do it. No one really cares. It is impossible to convince the public that that we are doing a good job, if we are armed with numbers and charts. Politicians like to talk about accountability, but they really are not that interested in data. The public may believe it wants accountability on actual outcomes, but no one can or wants to read statistical tables.  When we have data evidence, no one can understand what it means. When we don’t have this evidence, we are blamed for inability to produce the impossible. The more you defend yourself the guiltier you look. The more defenses you create, the more people think you need defense. The core of our work we should keep to ourselves – how do we make the best teachers out of the kids we get. And we should have evidence for those who truly care. But we need to impress people; it will also be good for us.