Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Down With Freedom!

Students need institutions to tell them what to do.

That was the underlying theme of the GPS (Guided Pathways to Success) conference held by Complete College America yesterday in sweltering, hot, muggy, Orlando.  As with GPS devices, the idea is that much student attrition is due to them simply getting lost and wasting time and resources going down blind alleys.  If students can be provided much more direction, the argument goes, they’ll be likelier to get where they’re trying to go.

Fans of behavioral economics will recognize the impulse immediately.  Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, opened by noting that when faced with too many options, people quickly become overwhelmed and effectively decide not to choose.  He cited a study in which some consumers were presented with thirty different brands of jelly to choose from, and others were only given four.  The group that was only given four choices wound up buying more jelly; the group given thirty mostly just walked away.  Faced with a situation in which there was no realistic way to make a choice that placed them safely beyond regret, they chose not to choose.

In the context of jelly, we can file that under “who cares?”  But in the context of matriculation, in which successful pursuit takes thousands of dollars and several years, choosing not to choose is a terrible option.  Schwartz emphasized that even though it may seem counterintuitive and even paternalistic, students are actually much more empowered by choosing among fewer and more carefully constructed options.  

The rest of the conference was devoted to variations on the theme.  In brief, factors that contribute to student completion include full-time status, tightly prescribed courses of study with a minimum of options, “rationalized” (that is, streamlined) general education requirements, intrusive advising, academic maps, and “meta-majors.”  In each case, the idea is to make the path obvious and clear, and to make the high-probability choice the easiest choice to make.

In fairness, most of these don’t involve mandates.  (Gen Ed requirements obviously do.)  To use Cass Sunstein’s word, the idea is to “nudge” students in a particular direction.  Tristan Denley, from Austin Peay University in Tennessee, made the idea concrete with a “recommendation engine” he had developed.  The idea was that the engine would crunch data based on student gpa and test scores, historical performance of similar students, and degree requirements for given majors, and would recommend courses tailored to each individual student.  (Denley noted that the engine does not look at race, gender, or age of student, in order to prevent feeding stereotypes.)  It’s sort of like when Netflix suggests a movie you might like, based on what you’ve seen and rated to that point.  As with Netflix, you’re free to override the suggestion, but people often find them helpful.  

In the case of course selection, the idea is to replace a panoply of options with a “default” option that is likeliest, statistically, to lead that student towards graduation.  At Austin Peay, they’ve identified “fingerprint” courses that they’ve found give students the strongest indication as to whether a particular major is for them; the recommendation engine finds those especially helpful.

The “meta-major” idea is a way to get around the morass of “undecided” students.  If a given student doesn’t know exactly what he wants, but he knows it’s likely to be something in the sciences, then he can be placed into a science meta-major that puts him on track to choose among the specific sciences without losing too much time.  As Denley put it, it helps categorize undecided students into one of several flavors.

I couldn’t help but notice how many of the GPS innovations were direct or indirect results of legislative mandates in various states.  That was especially clear in the context of “streamlining,” which could reasonably be expected to generate significant faculty pushback.  Although nobody explicitly made the connection, state mandates performed the same function for the colleges that the colleges have started performing for their students.  They provide powerful nudges in a given direction, with the goal of getting better results than the colleges (or students) would have achieved left to their own devices.  Americans aren’t known for our sense of irony, but this was a pretty good case.

(I was intrigued, too, by the CLIP program for ESL students at CUNY.  As I understand it, and I’m open to correction from readers who know it better than I do, it’s an intensive, one-semester immersion experience for students who need ESL instruction.  It’s non-credit, so it doesn’t consume students’ Pell eligibility, and the cost is mostly covered by New York State.  I’ll be looking into this one pretty closely.)

It’s easy to find fault with this particular reform or that one, but I have to admit finding the general idea compelling.  The entire premise of higher education is that students don’t know everything; if they did, they wouldn’t need higher education.  Professors have assigned readings and graded performance forever, and nobody thinks it odd.  So the objection that nudging is “paternalistic” strikes me as both true and irrelevant.  Education is paternalistic.  The relevant question is who, and how, the paternalism benefits.  And why the hell they picked Orlando in June.

This is a great idea, although I suspect the people pushing it have a fantasy that it will allow everyone to get an AA after 60 credits.

Every time I do orientation advising I wish our college had some generic STEM or Business or Liberal Arts or Allied Health class tracks laid out for the first year. Some of us have our own lists, but the advocates for the various options in composition, the social sciences, and the humanities resist anything college-wide that might drop enrollment in some of the niche options.

Add in the need to synch some classes with math (where placement varies wildly at the CC level) and it is a very challenging problem. It is a job for "expert systems" so it is good that some are developing computer systems to direct students on the right path for their goals. But the hidden problem is that goals change once they take a class, which is where going over 60 credits is still unavoidable. That Austin Peay project might help a lot by getting them into that "a class" earlier.

BTW, you are an inadvertent promoter of the "MOOA" idea. Someone in our admin recommended meta-majors about a month ago. We could indeed save a lot of money with an open online administration that distributes these ideas to every college! Ditto for the software. It doesn't need to be invented everywhere.

On your last question:

Did the well-known Valencia CC "learning college" drive this meeting in Orlando? Not sure what you mean by "sweltering". It looks like you had normal summer weather in Orlando with highs in the low 90s that start in May for the entire Disney summer vacation season.
I was at a business conference in Orlando a year ago, so it's not unusual. They may have picked Orlando to let attendees piggyback a family vacation onto the trip.
To add balance to my brother's comment, we have been seeing morning lows in the high-40s/low-50s the last few days here in the Great White North. The dog is not impressed with the cold/wet mornings on his walk.

On the other hand, when my son went through a CC on the way to his BA from a (non-directional) State University, the CC had semester-by-semester plans for each transferible major, identifying each of the required courses and where the open choices were that the student could fill in.

This allows a student (who wishes to pursue more than one line of development) to lay the templates side-by-side to figure out how the different "majors" fit together.

As I remember the (pick one of composition, etc.) general college courses were listed on these templates as "choose one of (list of allowed courses)" and the student was then allowed to customize the general college portion to their heart's content. YMMV
I am not yet sure whether meta-majors are a good idea. It is definitely a good idea if one is looking at graduation from the college administration point of view. If an entity is judged on retention and completion, anything that will push students toward that is a good thing. However, students are being judged as unable to make decisions for themselves with the meta-major initiative. Some students leave college for good reasons. They may get full-time employment before graduation or come up with an entrepreneurial idea that takes off. What about the idea of going to school for the sake of learning rather than graduation? There are people who go to college, using their own funds, for the purpose of personal enrichment. The modern education industry is being held accountable by distinct statistics that look at aspects of education in a narrow way. There are both positives and negatives to this viewpoint. One thing is certain, meta-majors will not last forever as the education pendulum continues to swing . . .
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