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Sep 27, 2020

We are the tools that need care

Let’s not pretend this is normal, because it is not. The entire year online feels like a sentence to an exile. The conditions are reasonable, but it is still a withdrawal of freedom. Most people are resilient enough to cope with any one given stress. However, this is a low-level, long-duration set of stressed. They range from the increased time for teaching prep and grading to persistent child care issues, from the lack of social contact to the inability to recharge y getting out of town. I wish I had a way of reaching out to all to my colleagues and students, and tell them – I understand, I really do. I guess this is what I am doing right now.

People of caring professions are especially vulnerable to self-neglect. Their work requires a constant focus on the needs of others, on encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling of others. Their gaze is always directed outward, preoccupied with measuring of others’ well-being and progress. It is a cognitive and relational service, an act of giving. Looking inward is difficult for them. Assessing their own well-being, acknowledging stress, pain, and stating their own needs – all of these feel like an extra burden. Yet they need to do that.

It is because our own self is the most important, the most expensive instrument with which we can do encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling. For a teacher or a support staff, working while damaging one’s own self is like trying to play a beautiful and complicated music on a violin that is out of tune or missing a string. You can have all the skills and tall he right intentions in the world, but your music is not going to come out right. In this trade, we are our own tools. And any craftsperson takes care of her or his tools. It is totally fine to lay awake at night, mentally planning, or talking, or working through a problem – if it happens 2-3 times a year. If it happens a couple of times a week, this is a problem. Your tool is need of some serious maintenance. It will require some freeing of time, some creation of space for yourself. However, just accept the cost. There is no deferred maintenance of the self.

Our selves are very unique, which makes them so valuable as instruments. But the uniqueness also makes it hard to provide a universal recipe for self-care. However, all of the known ways require some mitigation of stresses. It could be in reducing the source of the stress, or learning to reduce the intensity of experiencing them. I will give just a few OK’s as examples; but the point is to continue.

  • It is OK to tell your students: You know, I realized I planned too much work for myself in this semester. I am going to cancel this required assignment, because I cannot do a good job grading it. Feel free to do it on your own, just for practice, and ask your classmate for a feedback. I will give you an extra credit if you do that.
  • It is OK to tune out of the political news out there. The situation is going to resolve itself without your great emotional investment. Consider how much you can actually do (other than vote), and how much this stuff is getting you upset. Watch a romantic flick instead of CNN. Sorry, CNN; perhaps another year.
  • It is OK to tell your boss, your colleagues, or an organization you are volunteering for: Sorry, can we postpone this project to the next year? I cannot deal with it right now. We do not have to be super-productive right this year. Think of all years before and after.
  • It is OK, no, scratch that, you need to seek help. We have professional help available; a unique program called the Employee Assistance Program. But we also have colleagues, administrators, friends, most of whom will hear you out, empathize, give support and advice. We all know that by helping you we are also helping those you care for. Any support given to an educator multiplies down the chain of care.

Sep 21, 2020

Past mistakes do not set precedents

Precedents are important in law and in all policy applications. Considering a precedent helps to ensure consistent and therefore fair application of any law or policy. However not all precedents should be followed. Something that has been explicitly recognized as an error or as an aberration should not create precedents. Here is an example: GOP leadership denied Obama the right to nominate a Supreme Court member in the last year of his presidency. While there were many people who objected to this new rule, the Republicans themselves never repudiated it as a mistake. Now they refuse to follow it without any appeal to the soundness of the general rule. That is, of course, a very low point in the partisan politics. For a body so distinguished in their legal and political expertise, the Senate on a brink of a shameful episode.

The recognition or non-recognition of previous mistakes is an important criterion for precedent setting. For example, in Academia we sometimes hear appeals to what appears to be a precedent, but was really an error. A student may say: I did not meet this one requirement in the past, and you passed me. You actually have only to answers here: (1) Yes, I made a mistake in the past, and am under no obligation to repeat it again, or (2) yes, you are right, I will pass you as well. Admission of past mistakes is almost the only ground for denying a precedent. When we are revising a major policy, it is an explicit acknowledgement that the old one had issues. Therefore, appeal to the old policy as precedent is not exactly a valid argument. We would not have revised it if it were OK.

The argument about the “Catalog rights” is similar, although not as clear-cut. On one hand, students who were working toward a degree under certain assumptions, deserve to finish under the same assumptions within reasonable time. On the other hand, this works only insofar as they can show that the change in requirements affected their planning. It is very difficult to do, so we grant them a blanket right to stay with the old catalog. But this right is not unlimited, and not unqualified. After all, we revised the degree, because we thought the old one was not good enough anymore. So, no you cannot get a degree you started in 1971. The world has moved on. The same applies to faculty members, hired under a different set of T&P guidelines: it is a valid argument, but not an unqualified one. Like many other things in the world of policy, it is a balance between two or more competing considerations. Policies rarely have a simple, on-sided justification. Almost always, they are compromises between two or more competing priorities.

Sep 14, 2020

Don’t replicate, recreate: Observational learning in an online course

In his effort to overcome the limitations of behaviorism, Albert Bandura demonstrated the existence of observational learning, a subspecies of social learning. We learn our behaviors from others, and can develop cognitive models by observing others. In a good f2f class, such opportunities abound. For example, when one student tries to think aloud through a problem presented by instructor, the rest of the students observe and learn to apply the same moves in problem solving. The instructor always identifies good moves, and correct wrong ones. It creates a situation of guided observation. A similar thing happens in small group discussions: students will learn to reproduce skills shown by their more advanced peers. The phenomenon is not the only learning mechanism, but an important one.

For example, in courses on multicultural education, we teach student how to become culturally de-centered. In other words, they need to overcome the very common and naïve assumption that their own culture is normal, and all others are good but exotic. They master an ability to view their own cultural background just as exotic as any other, if viewed from outside. It is a fairly difficult mental and emotional shift. An instructor can explain it many times, and still students are unable to overcome the deeply help assumption about their own “normality.” The main pedagogical problem is that you cannot only use other people’s examples or stories; students need to work through their own, highly individual cultural experiences and assumptions. We orchestrate some sort of an explication activity, where students share their specific cultural experiences, compare them to each other. We wait for one of them to have the “aha” moment, to slip out of their own egocentric point of view and view themselves through the eyes of the very different other. And then we focus on that experience, call the attention of others, more or less asking them to do what this student just did. This is just one illustration. In almost any course, there are 2-3 significant growth points, where students need to move up to the next level. If you have not identified key jumps like this, you should definitely think more about your course. The point is, complex skills are hard to teach without the support of observational learning.

The common learning management systems facilitate student-teacher interaction really well. They are OK at facilitating student-student interactions. But they do not have an easy way of supporting the kind of three-way dance with students observing, and instructor approving/disapproving their actions and thoughts. This is why so many instructors are desperately trying to force their students to keep their cameras on during Zoom sessions. The really want to read and send the non-verbal clues. But that is not the solution; it simply does not work through Zoom. Besides, the requirement to keep the cameras on all the time has a whole set of legal and ethical implications.

The direct replication of f2f world generally does not work in an online course. This is why it is important to remember one rule: don’t replicate, re-create. What you need to do instead is build a routine where students are asked to produce bite-size performances that get them one small step closer to the target skill. Then you need to make sure they read or watch each other’s performances/texts, with explicit instructions on how to critique and learn from each other. Do that, repeat, crank it up one notch, repeat again. Wait for a breakthrough, and then point out explicitly to that break-through, and ask everyone do the same thing Jenni or Jose just did. In other words, structure your activities in a way that observational learning still takes place, even though more slowly, a lot more explicitly, and more deliberate. However, the larger point is more important: do not replicate the exact behavior, re-create something else, with similar pedagogical properties.

Sep 7, 2020

Why can’t universities become tech companies? An investment opportunity

 If you follow business headlines, you probably heard that Walmart has turned into a tech company, and Tesla is not a car manufacturing firm, but really a tech company. Uber and Air B-n-B are not taxi and hotel companies; they are IT giants. Apparently, if you really want to take advantage of the IT revolution, you have to invest massively, and reinvent your entire business process while you are at it. This is a dramatic departure from a technology-assisted company that does what it always have done, just with assistance of some databases, and a few web pages. Walmart has created a super-efficient supply chain, buying in bulk directly from producers and eliminating the middlemen. They know where every jug of milk is going and when it is needed. By competing with Amazon, they applied the technology to their core retail business. This is a shift from the tech-assisted to the tech-based business model.

Universities are stuck uncomfortably at the tech-assisted level, and are unlikely to move up to the next level. They all use one of the integrated data management platforms. Those allow to handle student records, scheduling, HR, payroll, and other functions. Universities also purchase a lot – I mean – a whole big lot – of supplemental software. I have a folder in my Chrome bookmarks called “Work Accounts,” with 15 account links – anything from LMS to survey software to SharePoint, Adobe Sign, OnBase, the Course Leaf, etc. All of these platforms talk to the core platform with a different degree of success, or not at all. Our university is relatively advanced, and we still have dozens and dozens of very low-level manual or primitive technologies, like sending Excel spreadsheets to collect data, with someone copying and pasting the cells. A significant part of administrative and staff workload is basically, closing technological holes. Many people make sure an error that crept up in on database is not crawling into another. More people than we care to admit manually read data from one screen, and input it into another. The pandemic actually helped us to close some of these holes, because of the telecommuting. But it also made the rest of them more visible. For example, we cannot figure out a reliable faculty directory, for many years now. We still struggle with basic student forms.

We are stuck in this semi-technological limbo mainly because none of the universities has the size and the resources that would allow for a radical revision of its processes. In theory, every student could get exactly the class she or he needs when they need it, and all classes would be full, and campus space would be utilized at 90%. We could have a national database of qualified and vetted adjuncts, available to teach online and f2f. We could provide courses to the neighboring campuses if there is space in classes, seamlessly enroll guest students, provide intelligent fail-safe academic planning and degree audit, etc. That is what information technologies do every day in other industries. But it does not make any economic sense to do this just for one campus. It would take many millions in investments and some of the brightest software engineers working closely with the academic types. Even large state systems like ours (CSU Fullerton is the second largest university in the US) are unlikely to find money for a serious IT investment, even if it promises cost reduction later. No one has deep pockets and this kind of a mandate from the public.

It would be reasonable to expect either Oracle or SunGard, the tech giants that support the higher ed, to develop a betterб  truly integrated and cloud-based product. For some reasons, they do not. In fact, their products (People Soft and Banner, respectively) have changed very little over the last two decades. They deal with clunky legacy systems, and the only way forward is to start from scratch. I am sure they run better and have more bells and whistles, but there was no major innovation to reshape universities’ business operations. It is probably because the higher ed market is too fragmented, and too conservative to change their habits and to develop a tech-based model.

If there is a venture capitalist with a bold vision, hear this. The industry is ripe for change. We are sick of this maze of platforms. We want simple and intuitive interface, flexibility, and reliable data. Develop the platform that allows any campus to outsource most of its information-processing operations. We would be happy to focus on teaching and scholarship.