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May 26, 2020

Wisdom of the crowd, and the expert bias

Scientists working on several vaccines against the virus do not really need wisdom of the crowd. The public at large knows nothing about viruses and vaccines, and should really listen to those who do. Yet when someone develops a policy, for example on how to re-open universities after the pandemic, it is a different kind of knowledge. It should rely wisdom of crowd. Those two situations require different kind of expertise and of leadership.

Imagine a group of very bright people sitting around a virtual table, and trying to lay out the rules. They quickly agree that there should not be more than 10-20% of students physically present on campus. That’s the objective. But because they are so bright, and so experienced, they are tempted to actually provide more advice on how to get to that objective. They brainstorm a very reasonable procedure for both the virtual courses and the on-campus courses. However, it is a smaller group, so no one remembers there are courses that are neither virtual, nor on campus, such as field experiences. Being the brightest does not guarantee you know every little detail of every unit you oversee. In fact, it guarantees the opposite.

Those who have to implement, realize that half of the policy requirements do not apply to these weird courses. Do we report them as on-campus or virtual? They are neither. Do we work on safety procedures? Well, the host sites will have their own, and we cannot impose ours on them. This makes it awkward for all. What do we do? Go back to the authors, and ask to rewrite? This does not sound appealing; who wants to delay the process even further and get an even longer memo? It is already 12 pages.

The funny thing, there is a certain expected length to a memo. One cannot just write: “Reduce physical presence on campus to 10-20% of your normal capacity, have good reasons for exceptions, while following the guidelines of your local county health officials.” No one writes short memos, guidelines, and executive orders like that; it would be ridiculous. People at the top really want to help, to provide some advice. After all, they have so much to give. So, they wrote a longer memo. The paradox is that the longer is your memo, the more you forget to include. Every detail included increases the likelihood that there may be a special case you are not considering.

I am guilty of the expert bias as much as anyone else, even though I run a small organization. We cannot make all the decisions with 250 people. Thus, we work through most problems in a group of 9. Yet we still do not know everything, and someone else in the organization knows something none of us do. Oops. The choice is either to delegate more, or keep revising your solutions. Each of the two options has costs. What’s the solution? Remember wisdom of crowds, and learn to write ridiculously short memos. Make a distinction between goal-oriented regulations and simple advice.

May 17, 2020

Is there an administrative bloat in higher ed? A history of one glitch

In theory, the glitch could have been preventable, but the probability of something like that happening is very high, because it is a one-time occurrence. We have a special credentials data module that was built to assist with teaching credentials compliance. Our main teacher prep programs were revised, and therefore student had to be coded in a new way in the campus system. As a result, the module could not “see” them anymore. I just pulled up about 35 emails in three different threads that I was involved in, and I am pretty sure there were a few before I got involved. Probably about a dozen people from three different units within the university were involved, including two deans and a senior IRT administrator.

Again, in theory, the staff person who discovered the problem should have filed a ticket with our IRT (that’s what we call IT here), and a technician would have resolved it. But that is a theory. In real life, the staff member did not have any idea about the origin of the problem, and neither would an IRT technician on the other end. So she went to the chair, who went to Graduate Studies admissions team who actually do the student coding. They relatively quickly figured out the problem, and told us to go to IRT. Because it was very time sensitive, the Chair asked me to figure out how to speed it up. I had to reach to another person to find out which structure within the IRT is responsible for the module. People like me in the middle management know the organizational structures, but we are often mistaken about the nature of the problems we are trying to solve. It turns out, I slightly misreported the problem, so it took a few emails to fix the miscommunication.

I don’t want to retell the entire saga here; it is like War and Peace, volumes 1 and 2. The thing is, flat solutions (staff-to-staff) very often do not work. The university operations are just too complex, and figuring out the organization itself is a job that administrators routinely do. The glitch could not be resolved without the full-time chair, the dean, an associate dean, an internal IT staff, staff at Grad Studies, and people at IRT. Each of us had a particular piece of the puzzle, and we had to communicate – slowly and less than efficiently, but still communicate – to find a solution. All of them except me are experienced and dedicated administrators and staff members.

Someone told me that in order to reduce the cost, universities must cut the administrative bloat. While it sounds good on its surface, I just fail to see who would figure out this and hundred other glitches we experience every year. A faculty committee? Faculty are overwhelmed with the finals’ week, and admissions. It would be unfair and inefficient to add this to their workload.

Universities are not getting simpler. The burden of various regulations and compliance has been growing. Teacher credentials is only a small part of it. Add accreditation, assessment, Title IX, various audits, financial aid regulations, etc., etc., etc. Someone has to do all this stuff. While administrative bloat is real and well documented, I am not sure if it is preventable and reversible.

Of course, you will think it is just another higher ed bureaucrat trying to justify his well-paid job. OK, fair point. Yet if we didn’t resolve the glitch, it would have a domino effect on student admissions, their Fall field placements, and maybe their financial situation. The domino effect would actually take significantly more staff and administrator hours to deal with.

Some savings perhaps are possible, if we narrow down our mission, and outsource some of the support function. Perhaps universities can stop doing some of the things they are doing. But I don’t want anyone to believe there are some major reserves in the administrative side of the house. And all cuts on the teaching side have already been made. The people of this and other states should just decide if they want accessible and affordable higher education for all children to provide social lift, or it is an unattainable dream.

May 10, 2020

How do you know your online or hybrid course is good-enough?

It looks like at least some of us will be teaching online or hybrid in the Fall. This semester was in the salvaging mode; not utterly failing was a victory. In the Fall, students will expect a little more from us, because we will have had more time to prepare. This is an attempt to offer a description of a minimal threshold for Fall 2020. What is a good-enough course for the next iteration? The list is highly subjective, so ignore it if you can. However, if you buy into the question, but not the answer, that would be a good thing.

1. If it is not interactive, it should not be synchronous. If you simply lecture, with some Q&A at the end, record your lecture and make Q&A live, or move them to Canvas. There is literally no point in every student listening to your lecture at the same time. ALL students understand it, even if they don’t dare to say it. Consider getting rid of lectures altogether, or only reserve them for critical moments you want to explain. But if it is just your PowerPoint, trust me, it does not need a narration. Don’t waste your time developing long lectures; instead invest it in creating assignments and assessments. However, if your typical lecture is packed with engagement moments, if every few minutes you ask for examples, offer mini-assignments, group discussions, demonstrations, etc. – go for it. There is nothing wrong with highly engaging synchronous class. I always thought it was too time consuming to prepare, but you may be a much better lecturer than me (which is not hard).

2. No busy work. Again, students immediately recognize busy work. It is something that you ask them to do to fill the learning time. Always tell students what is it they will be practicing, and give an example or a good description of a successful performance. I know this is hard; perhaps the hardest part of course design, especially for an online course. As you shrink class time, it feels like you have to keep them busy for about the same amount of time doing something. Unfortunately, SOMETHING does not cut it. Explain in simple terms the purpose of each assignment: “I just want to know if you all understood the X concept and can apply it correctly.” “You will be practicing the very important skill of Y.” “I need to make sure you can recall the basic facts of this unit.” Prioritize quality over quantity. Yes, we use the Carnegie unit to measure seat time; it is simply an administrative convenience. However, steady progress toward a specific skill and knowledge is really the point of teaching. There is no direct relationship between length of work and learning. Only intentional, well-designed work contributes to learning.

3. Provide feedback without working yourself to death. Because online and hybrid instruction involves more independent work, some instructors feel they have to grade it all, or least provide feedback to every sentence a student writes. This can quickly become an unsustainable burden. Students rarely understand this concern, unfortunately, and may expect the same. Do not over-promise feedback, do not overwork yourself. Instead of individual feedback on everything, use three life-saving shortcuts: self-assessment, peer-assessment, and spot-check feedback. The first two are self-explanatory; just make sure to give them some clear criteria, otherwise it will all be “I like your point,” and “Good job.” The spot-check feedback works like this: browse through student discussion, short texts, and identify a few common errors and strengths. Give students a whole group feedback, without naming names, but make it clear you are there, and read some of the stuff, but not every single word. That would eliminate the need for tedious, repetitive feedback that has fairly low effectiveness, but can devour your time.

4. Make relations work. You know the “I am not a robot” checkbox? Well, you have to prove to students you are not a robot. While they know that at the rational level, you have to somehow convince them on the emotional level that you are a real human being that cares about them. There are many ways of doing it, from welcome videos, to weekly messages to each class. Here is one of the best quotes about the role of relationships in learning motivation: "Students in a closed-circuit-TV class on campus felt no need to pay attention out of courtesy to the instructor." People are often oblivious to the critical importance of the "courtesy to the instructor" mechanism. It does not just automatically appear in online environment, and has to be created. It often does in the f2f world with its social norms evolving over thousands of years of personal interactions. Practice the intentional pedagogy of relations, and learning will follow.

I just re-read my short checklist, and of course, most of it applies to the f2f teaching just as much. Well, good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the medium. In education, medium is not the message. If you reasonably can check off all four benchmarks, you’re good to go.

May 2, 2020

Adjacent markets: How universities can get out of the financial death spiral

Michael Poliakoff of Forbes wants universities to cut “the fluff” like excessive gened offerings, “to stare down intransigent faculty and the empire builders in student services,” and to “cut massive athletic subsidies, halt the facilities arms race, close centers that are not directly related to the teaching and research mission of the academy, and take a chainsaw to bureaucratic bloat.” He may be right in the short run, although his own job as a VP for University of Colorado system was eliminated, and he does not have a track record of doing any of these things. However, Poliakoff and other corporate would-be reformers of higher ed do not seem to be aware of such a fundamental fact of the higher education economy as the Baumol effect. Baumol predicted the ever-rising costs in 1960s, and to my knowledge, no one since has seriously disputed his account. Universities cannot get significantly more efficient without diluting the value of what they actually sell: quality experience and human relationships. Kids flock to campuses not for information (there is plenty of it for free), but to experience college, to get to know peers and professors, to fall in love, to get interested in something, to build their life stories. The generic advice to become more efficient applies to higher ed only to a degree. In the longer run, universities have to diversify and increase their revenue streams. The way out of the crisis is not in shrinking, but in expanding, so that there is enough additional revenue to subsidize the core mission.

To compete with each other, colleges may work on providing more distinct experiences to students, alumni and parents. That depends on understanding of uniqueness of each campus. However, to survive as an industry, it needs to expand, which means either providing existing services to more people, or providing other services.

Among other things, universities are not very good at expanding into adjacent markets. The classic example of such an expansion is Netflix that moved from DVD rentals to streaming, and then to original content production. Universities do sell some merchandize, offer some entertainment through athletics (while only few actually make any money on it), rent event space, and do some consulting. They feed and house their own students at a modest profit, but rarely anyone else. In other words, they do very little.

One obvious adjacent industry to expand to is tourism. A college town vacation is already a thing, only universities capture very little of income from them. Why not sell packages with on-campus dining, student performance and visual art productions, engineering school demos а cool gadgets. If a campus happens to be located in a history or natural beauty-rich towns, these are also assets that could be added to the value of the package. Many people, including alums just want to visit campus, remember their college years, and are willing to pay. Parents may enjoy visiting their kid’s campus without being annoying, on their own vacation trip. Check on the kid, enjoy a lecture, go to restaurant, buy some swag.

The other adjacent industry to penetrate is video. There have been attempts to turn a real class into a reality TV show. The College Hill TV Series has been a hit on BET network. Those are perhaps more resource-intensive value products. However, think about it this way – every day in every class, some more or less interesting but always original original content is produced —and immediately forgotten. Lectures, questions and answers, exercises, demonstrations, games, exercises, etc. – all of it has both educational and entertainment value. It may not be very high value to the outsiders, but it is produced anyway and so cheap to capture. Only recently has it become feasible to capture classes without major expense, and distribute efficiently throughout the world. Iа you teach a class of 30, there may be another 30 students anywhere in the world who learn vicariously, either synchronously, or with a short delay (see on split classroom model). Of course, it takes a little more effort and content providers should be compensated and their privacy protected. However, the cloud cohorts can generate additional tuition dollars without major investments. Others can watch it for no credit, as entertainment. You would be surprised what people watch on YouTube. If your potential audience is 2 billion, there is a hundred people for almost anything.

Universities are trusted brands, but they stop selling anything to their alums right after graduation. One notable exception is college-branded credit cards (and I don’t believe they have been a hit). Universities are pretty good at soliciting donations, but are terrible at their student and alumni connections to offer products and services: mortgages, insurance, further education, professional development, networking, consulting services, etc. While academic records are off limits because of the FERPA, colleges enter into many other kinds of relationships with their students and alums, and have a lot of data.

There may be other adjacent industries to invade, and many have been happening, just not very vigorously: K-12 education, staffing, corporate training, hospitality, leisure, IT, media. Of course, it is very tempting to focus on our core mission, teach and do research, serve the public good, and hope that revenues will come. Well, if you have been in this game for a while, you must be tired of waiting. It is not happening. We must maintain our critical public mission, but also learn to subsidize it, because the public won’t. If you are a great film director, your money actually come mostly from overpriced popcorn and soda sales. (Well, not anymore, it is the streaming services, but you get the point, right?) Does popcorn cheapen the quality of your art? I don’t think so; it makes your art possible to practice.