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Dec 16, 2019

The relational university

In higher ed, we have been innovating a lot, but mostly in the wrong areas. The information technology has done very little to improve instruction. Assessment and data analytics have done very little as well. It is time to recognize that students come to universities to have the cultural experience of college, to make life-long friends and to find older, wiser people with whom they can build stronger relationships. In many cases, they come to fulfill their families’ dreams and aspirations, to gain recognition and higher social status. Of course, they also come for skills, leading to good jobs, but those are actually hard to predict and measure, so let’s keep them a bit of a mystery. Best universities have been on the path I am describing for a long, long time, although some of the regional comprehensives may be a bit behind. This is not a proposal for radical change; rather, an acknowledgement of what works, and an appeal to focus on it, while reducing effort in other areas.

To push a university along these lines, we need to do several things:

1. We need to refocus the entire innovation strategy on the relational side of education, and pull the resources out of the informational side. Education has turned out to be a lot more about relations than it is about information.

2. Radically reduce the complexity of curriculum and program/graduation requirements. Students are uncomfortable with too many choices; there is enough evidence to show that too many choices frustrate rather than liberate. Processing the choices create logistical nightmares for administrators. Not a single student is able to understand academic requirements as they presented in our catalogs. As a result, we create massive anxieties, breeding ground for many costly errors, and must spend many resources on translating the bureaucratese into plain English – for every single student. While I am a strong believer in the value of gened (common core) and liberal arts, there are ways to make those simpler. Academics should be as easy to navigate as Instagram or TIkTok. I have written about it before (1, 2, 3, 4).

3. While we are at it, university’s operations (HR, payroll, facilities, registrar, IT, etc.) should be simplified, automated, and partially outsourced. They consume too much of university resources, and create too many frustrations and irritants. There has been much progress on it within the last 20 years or so, but no real R&D money is spent on it. People Soft and Banner are ancient systems in comparison to what Walmart and Amazon have. Besides, they are bottle-necked for security reasons, and are hard to make flexible. This is a part of focusing on student and faculty experiences. They have to be pleasant and not frustrating.

4. Let’s evaluate faculty for the right things. Stop requiring service on committees - many of those are unnecessary and can be eliminated. They only exist because of the service requirements for tenure and promotion. Instead, every faculty member, tenure track of adjunct, should have obligations regarding student engagement outside the classroom. Those can be advising of student clubs, organizations, research groups, reading groups, athletics, etc. Reduced expectations of institutional and community service should create time to focus on students. About 70% of survey students reported being mentored by faculty, 50% by student affairs advisers (Thanks to Igor Chirikov for the reference). Of course, those are overlapping numbers. The numbers are not bad; we just need to improve on them.

5. The co-curriculum record should be strongly encouraged if not required of all students. Some campuses have that, and it needs an infrastructure to support. To create an opportunity for group work with others outside classroom is the essential part of the college experience. That is what students need and want, and we must nudge them, as well as provide space and structure for that. Right now, about 20% of students report they have never been involved in any college groups. I am sure this number is higher for mostly commuter campuses. We have no idea of the relational quality of those organizations students do get involved with. Intramurals actually lead here, not academic clubs and organizations.

6. Universities should stop the mission creep, and stop trying to be everything for everyone. They need to focus on their students, as well as faculty and staff, and on the relational side of education.

Dec 9, 2019

Just tell me why, or the Tale of the Lost Rationale

You know how good newspapers do this idiot-proof summary at the end of their articles, for people who may not know the context. They were under the rock for the last 20 years. It is something like “The second and the last US president who was impeached but not removed from office was Bill Clinton in 1998.” Or, “American Civil War was between the North and the South states in 1861-65.” This is a good journalist practice every organization should try to follow.

As J.Q. Wilson has noted, every instance of red tape or of a seemingly stupid bureaucratic rule is the organizational memory of a past incident the rule aims to prevent from re-occurring. A contemporary large organization like a university is a land of forgotten rationales. We follow certain rule or a procedure without remembering why it was implemented in the first place. Not knowing why things are the way they are can be an alienating and frustrating experience, especially for new people. Why do we have to approve international travel a month in advance? – Because it goes all the way to the President for approval. And why does it goes all the way to the President? – Because international trips are especially sensitive to public perception, and because there were improper uses in the past that caused public embarrassment.

Only a trained mind can reconstruct the correct rationale. Most people have no organizational imagination whatsoever, because they had never been in a position to make those rules. When I taught a course on ed policy, I asked students to come up with any stupid rule they could not explain, and then brainstorm what would be the rationale for it. I remember one of them brought up the ordinance that banned overnight parking without a permit at any curbside in the City of Providence. Students thought it was just dumb, but I saw at least two different rationales for it, anв was pretty sure both were considered.

This is not an attempt to justify every stupid rule. Indeed, very often the original rationale has either gone away, or was weak to begin with. Without knowing the rationale, it is very hard to rescind a bad rule. I think every communication about a rule or a decision should have this short paragraph of explaining the initial rationale. It would help people who must follow the rule to feel more comfortable, and also help to see bad rules that need to change. Right now, we normally include rationale only in more formal memos that justify a new and complex decision. We do not provide rationale on our numerous forms, platforms, e-mails, and in routine and simple decisions. I think it is a mistake, and we all should try to write an extra sentence or two in most decisions and requirements. Let’s not assume the Why is obvious – it is often lost on most people, and almost always lost on some people.

Dec 2, 2019

Why is outcome-based education so wrong?

Focusing on outcomes means losing focus on the process. Philosophically, the outcome-based education is a soft extension of “ends justify the means” approach. Imagine that you have found a method that trumps student dignity, but helps students learn more. Would you use it? All kinds of “tough love” theories assume that yes we should use such methods – as long as the outcomes are good. In fact, fear or pain may make our memory work better. Memories coloured by strong emotions tend to last longer. Should we go back to flogging children in school, if it proves to be effective?

Assessing quality of education should not be limited to easily measurable outcomes. It is like evaluating the quality of marriage by the number of healthy children produced: you can do it, but you really should not, if you have any brains. The very process of education should be if not all the way pleasurable, at least interesting and pleasant enough to justify subjecting students to it.

I am not the first person to say it, and yet we keep trying to reduce assessment in education to the measurable outcomes. Instead of trying to measure more, we relegate the things that are hard to measure to second class.

It is the same with the workplace. The quality of my experience here is just as important to me as how much good I do to the world, or how much money I make. I enjoy most of my meetings here, because I am interested in what people I like have to say and catch up on their news. My work has the stimulating value for me that the taxpayers of California did not necessarily intend to support. Yet they benefit, too, because if I enjoy my work and trust my colleagues, we are much less likely to screw up or hide problems. We are more likely to do our primary job better.

The thought here is simplistic enough to border on triviality. Here, take it or leave it.