Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Charging for Quality
She notes in passing the different understandings of 'productivity' that underlie the work speedup. More students per class increases the tuition generated per professor, at least in the short run; that's one version of 'productivity.' More students per class decreases the amount of individual attention the professor can really give, which leads to a decline in the quality of feedback; that's another version of 'productivity.' Both versions are internally valid, but they don't necessarily mesh with each other. And that's where the real problem is.
From the standpoint of an individual instructor, the controllable variable (at least to some degree) is the quality of instruction. That's also what you care the most about, what you pride yourself on, and at a really basic level, why you're there.
From the standpoint of trying to make payroll, though, the opposite is true. A thrilled student doesn't pay any more than does a barely-contented student. (There's presumably a minimal level at which attrition becomes an issue, but I'm assuming at least basic competence.) Students pay by the credit, the course, or the year; they don't pay by the breakthrough. The 'extras' that a great class can generate don't show up in the budget. Worse, some students actually prefer classes that don't ask very much of them. (If you doubt the truth of this, spend a day at in-person registration, just listening.) The mutual non-aggression pact between an instructor who doesn't ask very much and students who'd rather not be bothered is one of the open secrets of American higher ed, and it fits short-term institutional needs disturbingly well. There's a reason that Rocks for Jocks and Physics for Poets still exist.
(I'll add here that I agree with Dr. C that in some classes, there's really a minimum size beneath which quality can actually drop. A public speaking class with two students isn't really a public speaking class. I once had a section of six very quiet personalities, and teaching that was painful. A couple of sparkplugs would have enhanced the class tremendously. But this is really a side issue.)
The endemic conflict is that beyond a minimal level, and outside of the elites, there's no economic incentive for the institution to do better than okay in the classroom. Once you understand that, the rest follows. (There's a moral imperative, but that's a different issue.) For a college that's struggling to stay afloat financially, the short-term cost of stuffing a few extra seats into each class is dwarfed by the tangible and immediate tuition gain (or labor saving). You can blame pinheaded administrators for that if you want to, but you'd be missing the point; the math is what the math is. When the college is flush, it's possible to make a choice to have your cake and eat it too; when the college is strapped, though, the contradiction is unavoidable.
And that's the core issue. If you want to be paid for quality instead of quantity, you have to charge by quality rather than quantity. You have to align the incentives.
The elite SLAC's do a version of this by selling exclusivity. If you charge 50k a year for a small residential college, small classes are part of what you sell. There's a market for that, and you'd defeat your own niche if you watered that down too far. But most colleges and universities don't do that.
And it's not entirely clear how to do that. In olden times, I'm told, lecturers went out on public circuits, and the audiences paid them according to how impressed they were. It was lecturing for tips. But I don't see that (or anything terribly close to it) making sense now, if it ever did.
One could argue that philanthropy is a very delayed response to 'extra' quality --- quality above and beyond what the student paid for --- but the length and uncertainty of the delay makes it a difficult sell. I agree that community colleges could and should do a better job courting philanthropic resources, but I'm not convinced that this will tip the balance in most cases, particularly in the short term. One could also argue that 'prestige' is a proxy for quality, but anyone who has t.a.'ed intro classes at prestigious places (or who has taken those intro classes with t.a.'s) can tell you that the connection between prestige and quality is problematic at best. A good adjunct will often do a better job than a full-time professor who's "half-assing" it, and will do it for much less. As long as price isn't connected to quality, these perverse incentives will arise.
Since I haven't cracked this particular nut, I'll crowdsource it. Wise and worldly readers, is there a sustainable way for colleges to charge by quality rather than quantity?
Of course to learn one needs interaction, in addition to receiving the material in class. Traditionally it is done throught the sessions with the Teaching Assistants and office hours, which do not scale always well. I had it done by having the students teach other students on newsgroups, and TAs and professors monitor the exchange (which requires often less time than TAing), with as an incentive a reward at the end of the term for the best Newsgroup answer.
Cheaper teaching does not mean bad teaching, and developing countries will need it badly in the incoming years, even more than developed countries.
But then we get to the question of who, if not the student, should determine the value and content of the education that teachers and administrators will provide for their students. And there we get into competing sets of conflicting values which someone needs to organize. On the one hand, you have students who want to learn about, say, Shakespeare. And they have all sorts of reasons for wanting to study my favorite author. Some want to study him because he’s one of the greatest traditional authors who ever thought about love. Some want to study him for his anti-Petrarchan, anti-traditional stand on love. Others don’t want to study him at all but are taking the class as a requirement.
A teacher or administrator who takes a stand on any issue with such a diverse population of student perspectives will inevitably disappoint some of his or her students. The remedy for this is not to crave a unified student body who agrees with their teacher, nor is it to back away from voicing our opinions. It is a) to have teachers and administrators organizing the needs of an education according to their best estimate of what their students need to get the most out of their education and b) to then to communicate those goals for your students as clearly (“transparently” in the bourgeois language of businessmen like me) and let them decide whether you’ve gotten it right.
So the first step is to settle on one set of goals and stand by them. Some students will not want what you are offering (“selling” in the bourgeois patios) or, what’s worse in my opinion, will be able to find someone who states their goals more clearly and in a manner that will satisfy them more than yours will. But these are things you need to take into account when you assess your whole situation. The transparency of a partial solution is still better than throwing up your hands in despair because you can’t solve the whole problem as you’d like.
Leadership is the quality of being able to organize disparate sets of needs with a mind to get all parties to work together to achieve a common goal.
The logic goes something like this: Our faculty are of high caliber because they publish in X, Y, & Z journals. Since they are high quality researchers, they must also be high quality teachers. Now give us your tuition.
I also think your idea of quality is dependent on audience and learning outcomes. What level of course are you teaching? If its an intro level class what is the learning objective, General Knowledge about a subject, or are you introducing the student to the discipline, and teaching them how to think in that particular framework?
If the goal is 'knowledge' then a video tape and quiz as proposed by jyby or Lusi von Ahn is just fine. Heck, they could learn all kinds of trivia through a computer game/simulation and you don't need a professor at all, just tech support. The student can sit in front of their screen hitting the space bar and eating nutrition pellets until they achieve minimum competency on the standardized test.
If the goal is learning how to "think the discipline" (think like a sociologist, biologist, historian, etc) then you really can't get around paying professors to teach smaller class in person. You need to use labs and exercises so students can practice research and writing skills. You might be able to standardize that curriculum and bring down overhead costs, but at some point, its an apprenticeship where you have to learn how to do the discipline by doing it along side an expert.
You could pay the better teachers, with proven track records higher salaries per class, but William Hesse has already raised a key point: who evaluates teacher performance? What are the outcomes measured? time to completion? competence on a test? Job placement? Peer Evaluation? Administrators?
This is a good question. How do you get people to pay for and be rewarded for teaching excellence? I've love to be a better teacher and get paid for it. As things go now, the incentives are very strong to do just the opposite.
Here I will observe that I have seen more faculty "half ass" the advising or other added duties when those get in the way of teaching students than embrace those extra jobs as an excuse to do less in the classroom.
What I think is more important is that any trend to mediocrity signaled by an administrative preference for the "barely-contented student" will gradually drive the median below the acceptable level where outside agencies will step in and mandate national end-of-course exams for basic college classes like Composition or Algebra.
PS - The reason Rocks for Jocks and Physics for Poets exist is because accrediting agencies mandate general education that includes science as well as humanities and many students are woefully unprepared for anything more than that -- not because those courses leave them gloriously happy to be in them. In my experience, engineering students have far less trouble with college poetry than poets do with middle-school physics or math, but both learn something valuable before the course is over.
Such a policy can be advertised as part of recruitment. Teaching articles are typically far more accessible than research articles, so prospective students could be given selected preprints. In time, this has a cash value as part of a college brand. Companies routinely put the cost of establishing a brand and the present value of their brands on their books.
Other approaches to teaching quality are of course possible, the journals are only an example, just so long as the chosen method is tangible enough to be put on the books as brand value.
At my college, it is also true that the invisible workload has increased in terms of committee work, advising students, writing and administering grants, assessment, etc. The middle managers have also increased our workload through managing more full and part time instructors who are dispersed over several different campuses (our college has four campuses with the farthest being 40 miles away).
So, how do we ensure our quality stays high while doing more with less? I don't know the answer either. A couple of thoughts though are to incorporate additional instructional quality measures in the faculty evaluation process. On the flip side of that is that our college does not have tenure. The sad reality is that there is little consequence for faculty who are doing "average" work. (The truly poor faculty can be placed on remediation plans with the threat of non-renewal.) Average and excellent faculty will get the same raise (if any raise is given at all). This plan may only marginally motivate faculty to maintain quality.
Another thought is to get upper administration "back in touch with the classroom" by teaching a course once a year so that they then understand the quality consequences of increasing faculty workloads. As you might imagine, that theory is popular with faculty but not administration. I realize upper administration has many, many duties, and it may not be practical for them to teach a class. However, the faculty perception is that administrators do not understand what it is like to teach. Many administrators have not seen the inside of a classroom in over ten years - if at all (we do have quite a few who have never taught).
Again, I don't have any answers to this issue. If anyone else does, I'm interested!