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Feb 15, 2021

Administrator as a prophet

Administrators both predict the future and strive to shape it. That’s where our similarity with real prophets end: we experience no divine revelation, no ecstatic exaltation of seeing through the centuries. Instead, imagine different rows of dominoes set to tip from here and now to a point sometime in the few months. The ends of the rows disappear in a fog.

There is no mystery to it, just common-sense knowledge of how the organization’s machinery works and how it does not. It looks like this: students start registering for the Fall in late April. If we do a major revision of it, we need at least 3-4 weeks. If we just need a minor tweak, with codes, it can be done in a week or two. Observe the two different lines of dominoes. If we need an hour break between classes for cleaning, that is a major schedule revision, and we lose a third or more of total classroom space, so we need to keep that 1/3 of all classes online. If we are still at strict 6 feet distance, we must have small groups of students present. If it is more lenient 4 feet, a whole different story. If we ask faculty to rotate students, that is at least 4 different class formats, one of which requires actual training. If we simply schedule smaller sections, that is a lot of money in a shrinking. However, we can probably use the on-time money, but will need to find more instructors, and more rooms for these smaller sections. Again, this is a massive rescheduling effort. Of course, students do not need to know the exact rooms, that could all be done over the summer. Now add such factors as student and faculty preferences, and the county’s unknown health regulations in effect in August. This now looks like a whole field filled with lines of dominoes, going roughly in the same direction, but different in length and shape. Which one do you tip forward? All of these are conditional versions of the future, sort of like in chess, only your opponent is not smart or intentional. It is simply just a bit unpredictable.

The administrative gift of foresight is in guessing which domino clues are feasible, and which will end up in disaster. Some pathways are too complicated, some require too much work, others are too expensive. Some are short and sure, but blunt and will bring more problems than they will solve. The real problem is when we are dealing with unprecedented and can only guess how the gears of the organization will actually turn and how fast. The only way to get better at these forecasts is doing it as a group. The collective knowledge and the ability to predict is almost always better than the individual ability to do the same. Predicting and shaping the near future is a team sport. I am happy to be at a University that clearly understands that.

Feb 8, 2021

Too much to manage

Any organization wages a never-ending war against chaos. It commands an army of rules, forms, processes, and procedures to force the naturally occurring complexity in a set of manageable, similar things that can be dealt with in a uniform manner. Otherwise, chaos will take over and make any mission impossible to implement. Chaos is simply complexity that got out of control. Universities, for example have courses, programs and other requirements fixed in catalogues, and schedules that map these out in repetitive time blocks called semesters. Students aided by an army of advisers must turn the complex catalogue information and apply it to their schedules, while taking into consideration their jobs, families, and other obligations as well as availability or scarcity of class offerings. Like in any war, it is important to not underestimate the enemy. Sometimes complexity is too great to manage, chaos becomes inevitable, and it is time to retreat.

Here is one example. Many of our freshmen cannot translate the catalog requirements into a sensible schedule in their first year on campus. Advising notwithstanding, they make so many errors, that the chaos creates real damage to their academic careers, sometimes delaying graduation by years, and sometime derailing their college plans altogether. To reduce the errors, we implemented a program of block scheduling, where every freshman receives a pre-created schedule. This was designed to reduce the errors and relieve freshmen orientation anxiety. That is a wonderful, sensible idea, not at all unique to our institution. However, we discovered that creating over 3000 individual schedules for 64 bachelor's degree programs with 70 concentrations, and registering them all was… hard. OK, it put our resources on the brink of total collapse. Why? – Because the entire university registration system was designed around the minuscule act of a student registering for a course. The system was error-rich, but required no direct management. Once we centralized it, we became like the Soviet Gosplan, a body that was so spectacularly unable to cope with running the huge planned Soviet economy. While market economies are prone to terrible errors, and unintended consequences, they are not trying to manage the unmanageable. In the long run, the distributed self-regulation works. I remember when someone in Gosplan forgot to plan for toothbrushes, and the entire country went into a panic-fueled buying spree that Soviet stores of any toothbrushes for years. Then it was sugar, pantyhose, toilet paper, jar lids, and almost everything else. A contemporary economy with tenths of thousands of consumer products is too complex to manage. Student schedules are very close to that, although the university can figure it out, albeit with much effort. Like any borderline situation, its value is in demonstrating the limits.

Now we are thinking about the Fall re-opening. We do not know what the health regulations will be in effect: do we still need to maintain the 6-feet social distance and an hour break between classes for cleaning? Or will it be just a request to reduce the campus population to a certain level? Will we be asked to impose an absolute cap on class size? We do not know how many students, faculty, and staff will not be able to return for health reasons, and how many will not want to return, and what kind of policies we may be able to have to compel people to return. Most importantly, we do not know when we will know what we do not know now. With seven thousand sections, any major revamp of the master schedule will take many weeks. No one knows what the solution should be, and I am no exception/ However, I am pretty sure it should not involve a team of tired chairs and associate deans manually assigning students to classes and classes to rooms. The quest is for a solution that would allow for thousands of informed micro-decisions, and somehow make the whole puzzle work relatively quickly.

This is just in case you are wondering what they mean by “Planning for the Fall re-opening.”

Feb 1, 2021

Seven strategies of successful online teaching

  1. Build relations intentionally. Intuitive ways of relationship-building do not work online, therefore you need to apply specific effort. Educational relations generally have two dimensions: one is safety and the other is growth. Students need to feel safe and included first, and only then you can challenge them to grow. In other words, to take a student out of the comfort zone, they need to get into that zone first. It is important to know that the comfort zone is not universal, people of color, of various gender identities, individuals with trauma may experience both comfort and challenge differently.
  2. Do not replicate, recreate. Online teaching is never a direct replication of f2f teaching. Even most experienced instructors must deconstruct their course all the way down to learning outcomes, and then rebuild it from scratch, assignment by assignment, assessment by assessment. It is the only way.
  3. Focus on we-moments. I am using here Doug Lemov’s model: I do—We do—You, or a bit more detailed, I do­—I with your help do—you with my help do—you do. Online environment works great for “I do” moments, and fine for the ”you do” ones. Unfortunately, you must trick it to perform the “we do” activities. The most common, but not the only way of constructing a guided practice (we do) is a prompt or a clue. It is when a student does something they cannot yet do alone but can do with some assistance. You cannot be over the shoulder of each student to guess how much they are struggling and give them an appropriate hint. What you can do, is break down any skill into a series of gradually increasing in complexity skills and develop a prompt or a clue for each of these stages. This way, you will be invisibly present when students engage in stretching activities.
  4. All can see. If you do not want to spend all waking hours providing similar feedback to every one of your students, design a clever way where your most critical feedback to one of the students is heard and seen by all. This will allow you to protect your time. I know at least 3-4 ways of doing it, but you can figure out your own.
  5. Explain how you do it. Similarly, students need to see each other think. This is where Bandura extends Vygotsky. A student does not have to experience every cognitive break-through and every error. They can live through them vicariously, by observing others. A whole set of moves can make student thinking explicit, allowing others benefit from observational learning.
  6. Micro-assignments. Unlike in f2f course, where you can have a few large assessments, an online course is better served by many smaller low-stake assessments. This is both to reduce cheating, but also to make skill development more granular, and more visible.
  7. Low-stakes group activities. Circling back to #1, an online course will be successful with robust peer-to-peer interactions. The significantly decrease stress, encourage community, and provide even more opportunities for the “we do” activities. Just avoid high stakes group projects – in almost all courses, they end in disaster as often as in success. This is risk you do not want to take. Try games, brainstorming, TikTok-sized videos, mutual practice.