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Apr 25, 2022

The ethics of false promises, or What education cannot do

Could Russian educators have prevented the moral catastrophe of popular support for the aggression? Could American educators have prevented the poisonous blooming of paranoid anti-democratic Trumpist movement? For centuries, education was thought of as a remedy against hatred and ignorance. The results are less than encouraging: the world has never been as educated, and paranoia and xenophobia are as alive as ever.

I have been thinking lately about the ethics of over-promising. Did we, educators, implicitly promised to solve problems we cannot truly solve? We have been happy to receive public funding under a false assumption that we can reduce inequality (we did not), diminish xenophobia (we did a little), eliminate racism, reduce poverty, and solve a host of other social problems. What is the moral responsibility of the one who promises regarding the extent of their ability to deliver? Are we pitching snake oil to the public?

To be fair, on some promises, we delivered. Getting a college degree does improve your life outcomes. Desegregation actually benefited a lot of children. Head Start is a successful program. Free and reduced lunch program does improve children’s wellbeing. Multicultural education does reduce prejudice. I am not linking empirical source here, but I think I can find evidence for each of these and many other positive outcomes. We are doing something very impactful.

An ethical position is not to over-promise, and not to under-promise either. Our professional responsibility is to be clear on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. An old plumber in Ohio told me about my old war box house’s sewage pipes: “I will clean your roots for you, but you will be calling me the same time next year.” The caveat is a sign of professional responsibility. We just need to be very clear with ourselves and with the public on what we can, and what we cannot deliver. While the principle is clear, I am not sure of the pragmatics of the solution. Who exactly, and how should tell the public about the limits of education as a vehicle of social improvement? I cannot think of a genre of scholarship of policy communication that does this. Which advisory to which political body will deliver the language of moderation? No one wants to hear the “curb your enthusiasm” message in the midst of political fight over resources. Do you want some extra funding for K-12 education? Well, maybe this is not a good time to tell people what you cannot achieve. And there is never a good time to say it, because there is always a political fight for resources. So keep on giving false promises. Will we eventually suffer from the backlash? Oh, wait, we already do.

Apr 18, 2022

Workflows or How do we tame Higher Ed inefficiency

One of the main causes of low organizational efficiency is that universities do not routinely review their procedures. It does not seem to be anyone’s job. Various people create procedures all the time, but no one seems to be in charge of periodically reviewing them and making dure they still do what they are supposed to do. For example, in the College of Education, there are 47 annual processes that require some college-level coordination. Some of them repeat every semester. In addition, there are dozens within each of our branches that only their respective staff have. Some of these are fully redundant. For example, we report reassigned time for our chairs and coordinators in a special form, but we also report the same on faculty workload modules. Or here is another beautiful thing: The University has a storage for course evaluations by students. But because they wipe the data out every so often, for completely obscure reasons, our staff download hundreds of them on a network drive, and then upload a significant portion of them again to faculty RTP files, this time on OneDrive. What should have been one link, becomes three downloads and two uploads, for hundreds of files. I could go on and on with a list. A fundamental problem is that someone creates workflows, but no one reviews and improves them.

To conduct a workflow review, these are the basic steps:

1. Is the work process needed at all? What happens if it is simply abandoned? In most cases, the answer is no, but asking this question really helps tog et at the purposes. Some procedures have been designed to prevent a very rare undesired outcome. But their cost is often disproportionally high. I worked at a place, where the President had to sign all travel requests over $250, because many years ago someone had an embarrassing trip to Hawaii that got media coverage. Well, such trips never occurred again, but the procedure stuck for years.

2. Work procedures are flows of information. It is helpful to start considering them from the first point to the last one and try to create the shortest path possible. For example, some processes are applications, where everyone is eligible. There is no point in approving applications, so that step should be removed. In other cases, a university unit would send something to deans with a request to distribute to faculty. However, that unit has access to all faculty emails and can the information directly, without bothering deans. Sometimes extra steps appear just in case, because in similar processes, there have been such extra steps. The shortest is the chain, the better.

3. Similarly, instead of approvals, consider informing. If the risk of inappropriate decision is very low, consider self-attestation instead of active controls. For example, we routinely approve student requests for late class drops. And these requests require approvals of their instructor, the chair and the dean. I guess the hope was that 3-level approval would give the process some rigor. But it does not, for none of the three have any way of verifying student stories of hardship. In these cases, it is enough to say something “I swear the explanation is true, and if not, this would be a violation of honor’s code.” This way, three people would not be involved in processing a decision none of them actually made. Examples of extraneous approvals are a many; they all distract us from doing our jobs.

4. Universities have many databases that often do not speak to each other. What we do not want is a process, where someone reads data and them manually enters it into another database. Not only it is insanely time-consuming, but also prone to errors. If at all possible, a procedure should stay within one database.

In the end, a workflow review is not a set of specific steps. It is just an attempt to take a look at what we are doing and why we are doing it. There is no magic solution, just a drive toward simplicity, sanity, and automation.

Apr 11, 2022

After the pandemic: soft or hard landing

Many large CSU campuses have not yet dealt with the anxiety of dropping enrollments so prevalent in most of the country. Because of our young, ambitious, mostly immigrant population and relatively generous public support, we never really had to think hard what students really want. They came anyway. This is all about to change soon, and we will be subjected to the unrelenting forces of market-driven competition for enrollments. I am just a little worried about how well we as a system are prepared for it.

Here is one example. A new diversity among students has emerged and is patently obvious to anyone who wants to notice. Some students prefer f2f classes while others prefer more hybrid and online classes. We can debate endlessly about why this new split had emerged, and which group is wiser than the other. The difference in preferences does exist, and we can chose to ignore it or address it. “Hard landing” would be to ignore these new preferences, then face a drop in enrollments, and then fight to get back those students who may have come to us if we were more accommodating. A “soft landing”  would be to hedge our bets, and try to accommodate both groups of students.

Neither of these two options is easy. Going fully back to the pre-pandemic f2f world just does not seem like a good idea. And yet we do not know what to go to. So far, we have been operating on arbitrary target numbers, like 80-20, or 75-25, where the first number is for f2f or hybrid sections, and the second is about online sections. We do not know, however, what the real preference is. We do not know how many students want fully online programs, and how many – just some classes online and others f2f.

If we try to accommodate, the same questions must be answered. Do we redo whole programs, or just throw in a few online sections, so students can choose? Logistically, it is very difficult to guarantee students either a f2f or online track within an existing program, mostly because of our gened and free electives, and partially because of accreditation definitions. Adding additional layer of complexity will stretch our ability to manage to the point of breaking. And what if we misjudge the situation, and offer something students do not want, or few of them do? That would be a waste of resources. From a PR point of view “Sac State will meet your preference for online, f2f or hybrid course modalities” would be a great promise. The question is – can we keep it?

I have too many questions and too few answers. This is probably one of those cases where a committee could work through these issues. I just don’t think we can afford to ignore it.