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Feb 24, 2012

Professional culture and the coping organization

The class I teach now uses James Wilson’s classic 1989 text Bureaucracy. He writes about the “coping organizations,” whose operators cannot be effectively observed for compliance with input procedures, and the organization does not have easily measurable outcomes. Colleges and school are like that. Professors are free to do whatever they want in their classrooms; they can only be occasionally observed, or we can get student evaluations – both are highly imperfect measures. And even when someone is clearly found to be lacking basic teaching skills, consequences are hard to enforce. The outcomes are almost impossible to measure, despite all the talk about learning outcomes. Only scholarship can be measured somewhat, although fairly imperfectly. Wilson actually says that “in coping organization, effective management is almost impossible” (Page 175), a great news for all chairs, deans, and provosts out there.

What still works well for coping organizations is professional culture and peer expectations. In some departments where the community is stronger, peer expectations are better communicated; they include professional norms, which most members will do their best to uphold. Those boil down to “doing a good job” and “pulling one’s fair share.” In such departments, faculty members do not hesitate to seek and offer help, and they find ways of informally recognizing good work and sanctioning bad behavior.

The other kind of the spectrum is a department where people withdraw into their own personal or small group niches. It is generally known who is a good teacher and who is a terrible one, but very little social reward of sanction applied to those outliers. In other words, people tend to be equally friendly with each other; no one gets cold shoulder or extra respect. The only way to maintain this sort of peace is to avoid having professional conversations at all: how are we doing, what’s good teaching, what works and what does not. In such departments, most problems are attributed to “our students,” who are too immature, or prejudiced, or not smart enough. This is an equivalent of doctors complaining of just how sick their patients are, a sure sign of the weak professional culture. Another common complaint is that administration does not know what it is doing (which may or may not be true), and we are so underpaid and overworked. All faculty everywhere feel underpaid, overworked, and incompetently managed; the difference is that in the second kind of the department, those external things are used to show how doing a good job is impossible.

Professionals, according to Wilson, are people whose reference group is primarily within their own profession, not outside. It is an exclusive club that possesses special knowledge, and enforces its own norms of good work and ethical behavior. Professional culture is actually much more important than any kind of evaluation system, any sort of incentive structure, or any administrative attempts to improve work performance. So people like me are better off trying to influence the professional culture than directly influencing either inputs or outcomes. It is very difficult to do, because shifting cultural norms is hard from the outside the group. It is, however, not that difficult from the inside. It is a matter of leadership, of taking charge, of initiating an honest discussion. The departments with suppressed professional culture always include the majority of people who do know and share the professional ethos. For a variety of reasons, they simply lost the collective habit of making those explicit. All they need to do is start talking to each other about those things we all believe are important. They should not accord each other the same level of respect, but differentiate between those who are professionals and who forgot or never knew how to be one.

Feb 19, 2012

The disruptive innovation

I am at the AACTE conference with a couple of colleagues. We all are impressed by how much the tone and the focus of these conferences have changed over the last few years. It used to be dominated by accreditation issues. The game was all about standards, data, and clever ways to comply. This year, the conversation is about innovation and change. The field is now obsessed by innovation, and it is not a worst possible affliction.

The keynote speaker was Clayton Christiansen, whose work we discussed at one of our TEIL meetings. He has recently applied his influential theory of disruptive innovation to higher education. The basic findings are these: First, a single course rather than an institution is becoming a unit of accreditation. A single well-developed course can be now used by very large number of people at significantly lower cost than a regular college course. Second, colleges already ceded some of the educational market to on-line institutions – the non-traditional students and those who would not have access to higher education at all. Another segment is the corporate universities who heavily rely on outsourced content delivery, and who captured much of professional development market. I can add that this also is happening in in-service teacher training. And these are the signs of typical disruptive innovation: giving up less profitable markets to lower quality producers. The trouble is, online teaching is getting better and better, and it will eventually spread into higher quality markets.

My sense is that Christiansen is exactly right. Higher education is due for a series of tremendous shocks, eventually resulting in reshaping of the industry’s landscape. Fewer institutions will be around, and those that survive will be doing different things than what we are doing now.

Christiansen is encouraging the higher education to do two things: embrace modularity (read outsource content and thus reduce cost), and concentrate on what we do best (changing people’s lives, providing meaningful experiences, and coaching/tutoring individual learners). Of course no one actually knows the future; Christiansen may be all wrong, and the new technology will not create disruptive innovation. After all, the same or similar hopes/fears were expressed about such new technologies as the television and computer-aided instruction.

What makes me believe Christiansen? - my own thinking. If we discover a great on-line low-cost module on a well-defined area, we will probably find a way of using it, instead of trying to develop expertise and teaching it ourselves. For example, if there was a great module on formative assessment or instructional technology, and it would cost less than what we spend on developing new courses, hiring a specialty faculty, etc. – tell me one reason why we should not use it in our programs? And I am pretty sure thousands of other college administrators are thinking along the same lines. We will never give up teaching, but may eventually give up delivery of some content, simply because someone else can do it cheaper and better. It is not the case yet – I do not see an abundance of cheap great online courses. The supply is not there. But it is only a matter of time.

Feb 10, 2012

The No-Go

Some of the most inglorious tasks that we do could be grouped as the no-go projects. We consider a new thing, or a policy change, and in the end decide not to pursue it. Those things are hard to fit into the mental schemata of successful work. First, many of us like for things to happen, not to be aborted. The biggest thrill of my job is to see what used to be just a vague idea to become reality, hopefully even benefiting some real people. This does not have to be my idea (more often it is not), but the transformation of thought into successful practice has something magical about it.

With the no-go’s; the magic ain’t happening. We may get excited about an idea, and then spend some time figuring out feasibility, even sometimes planning, only to find out that it is not going to work. The reasons are numerous; and three of them are most common. First, we may realize that what we already have is actually better than the new idea. The conversation about the new stand-alone middle level certification program seems to be going in that direction. What we have now (the endorsement program drawing from both elementary and secondary programs) is not perfect, but probably better than the new potential configuration. We still don’t know and will keep talking to the practitioners, students and faculty. Another common reason – we discover some hard policy obstacle that makes a project unfeasible (see for example, the Stone Soup program in TEIL notes). And the third most common no-go reason is the lack of resources/interest among people to do it. In other words, it does not end up high enough on the priority list. In a more narrow set of cases, with our new programs, there may not be enough student demand. Sometimes we just discover that the idea was actually pretty stupid to begin with, it is just that for some emotional reasons we did not see it right away.

You cannot really brag about the no-go projects; can’t put them on the list of our collective achievements. After the fact they look like bad ideas at best, and as failures at worst. I just looked at our project management list, and realized that subconsciously, I chose reddish color to mark them; red being an alert color. And remember at the time they seemed good enough to merit consideration, which is real work – meetings, reading, talking to people inside and outside of our group. Then it ends with a “never mind, we’re not going to do it after all.” What’s worse, in the process some people may develop attachments to the idea, and disagree with its cancellation.

But the no-go’s are not a waste of time; those are training exercises. All learning is by definition wasteful in one sense of the word. Students have no practical use for their essays, classroom drawings, or solved problems; the actual product of student work always goes to trash. The added value is in skills and experiences we create in ourselves in the no-go projects. Moreover, the conversations that begin in the no-go projects sometimes strangely carry over to other conversation, and show up in other, more successful ideas.

The world of ideas is Darwinian. Some survive, and others do not. We should acquire healthy respect for the no-go.