Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Shocker: Quick Fix Doesn’t Work

There’s plenty to say about Politico’s story about Pearson, but I’ll leave most of it to people who are better versed in the details.  Instead, I’ll pick out one lesson that jumped out at me, even though it was only one element of the story:

Colleges are assembling entire online programs without the faculty?

If the story is correct, and I’ll assume that it mostly is, then some major and respected universities are making a practice of establishing separate online colleges with no internal faculty involvement.  They’re contracting with external providers to do it for them.  The motivation seems to be a fear of missing the great wave of online enrollments, combined with a fear that given the chance, faculty would kill online education in the crib.

Neither fear is necessarily ill-founded.  Technological shifts happen like bankruptcy: slowly, and then all at once.  Kodak’s foot-dragging around digital photography didn’t hurt, until it suddenly became fatal.  If you have a sense that a change like that is coming -- and it is -- then moving quickly makes sense.  After all, the alternative is unacceptable.  But to folks who don’t see the threat, don’t believe the threat, or believe they’ll retire before the threat comes to fruition, urgency may feel arbitrary or coercive.  In that context, resistance is predictable.

For a mid-level manager given a blunt mandate and an abrupt timeframe, I can see the temptation to circumvent existing structures altogether and just buy a turnkey solution.  After all, it takes you quickly from ‘nothing’ to ‘something,’ and it comes with enough experienced support to prevent the really embarrassing rookie mistakes that new endeavors often endure.  For a high-visibility project, the appeal of proficiency from day one is powerful.  In the early going, you get big percentage gains, and the initial losses seem abstract.

But that kind of quick fix tends to come back to bite you.  

The long game doesn’t have the easy initial payoff of the quick fix, but it leads to sustainable gains.  It’s the difference between gradual weight loss through healthy lifestyle changes and fast weight loss through crystal meth.  The latter gets more impressive numbers initially, but you really don’t want to see the long-term impact.

The long game involves tackling the issue of faculty reluctance by treating faculty like the intelligent adults that they are.  Share the data.  Share the demographic projections.  Share the big picture on budget.    And respect the process of tinkering.  

That’s a slow process, marked by halting progress and uneven initial success.  But as momentum builds, it has real weight behind it.  When some early adopters share their success stories with their colleagues, the colleagues see the very real value in it.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it wasn’t until academic oversight of online courses was restored to the academic divisions that we finally got enough courses online to allow entire degrees.  Now we have several entire degrees, and even an online degree completion agreement with Westfield State.  When the online area was walled off, some departments wanted nothing to do with it.  Now, it’s part of what we do.  In fact, it’s the most rapidly growing part of what we do.

That wasn’t the work of a semester or a year.  It was the work of several years, and it involved some awkward moments.  But it set the foundation for growth that’s actually sustainable because the college isn’t at war with itself.  Many of the very best minds on the faculty are engaged not only in online teaching, but in bringing the best of online and onsite teaching to bear on each other.  The fruits of growth accrue not to some outside entity with an agenda of its own, but to the college.  Faculty who may initially have regarded online teaching as a threat to their livelihoods now understand that it’s the best bet to preserve their livelihoods.  

I’m not going to claim universal agreement; some folks will stick with chalk until they’re done.  But even the skeptics at least understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and they have enough respect for their colleagues not to sabotage it.  I’ll take that.

I don’t know enough about Pearson to know if it’s better or worse than other outside providers.  But it’s an outside provider.  I’d rather work with the very smart people we already have.  They have a deeper stake in the success of online, even if it takes some work and time for some of the more skeptical ones to see it.

The article in Politico on Pearson was quite interesting, and correlates strongly with what I have seen here at Proprietary Art School. Here at PAS, we use a Pearson online package for our remedial math sequence. There are no lectures, and all of the homework and all of the exams are taken exclusively online. The faculty “teaching” this course are little more than teaching assistants, watching students huddled in front of computer terminals, only acting if a student has a question. The computer operating system even gives the students their grades.

This program was imposed on us by decree from company headquarters, primarily to save a little bit of money rather than to satisfy any real academic need. The faculty had little or no input into its creation and adoption—we were just expected to salute and obey. Most of the students seem to really hate this online math program—the dropout rate has been rather high, and only those students who are highly motivated are able to finish the program.

One of the joys of teaching is organizing and preparing your own course—just like the captain of your own ship you and you alone are solely responsible for everything that goes on in your class. You thrill at the successes and you agonize at the failures and resolve to do better next time. This is the true meaning of academic freedom.

All of this is gone now that we have outsourced much of this functionality to a profit-making company like Pearson. We faculty are now little more than teaching assistants, reading the works of others to our students. We no longer even give grades; a computer program does this for us. Our academic program is no longer run by the faculty—it is run by Pearson. I often quip that we should simply let Pearson grade our students, getting rid of the middleman entirely.

But I guess this the way that higher ed is going. Pretty soon, just about the only places where we will have real live faculty members lecturing to students in a bricks-and-mortar classroom will be at the highest-level R1 universities or at super-snooty SLACs. All of other educational institutions will have their students huddling in front of computer terminals, watching videos and doing homework online. If they have questions about the material, they will probably have to talk to someone in Bangalore.

The University of Florida example given in the Politico piece is very telling. It is not just about middle managers trying to save face. This quote is key:

"when the legislature ordered the university to build an online college for undergrads on a tight deadline, the UF team didn’t host a new round of competitive bids, though the project was much bigger than the graduate courses, and at least eight companies have expertise in the field. Instead, the team rewrote Pearson’s old contract to assign the company’s new, and far more lucrative, responsibilities."

I've worked large contracts at state institutions before. The kind of bidding they're talking about would take a good six months if all the proper steps were followed. At least. Then once a provider is chosen, there are all the logistics of implementation. Especially when technology is involved - how many IT projects, especially publicly funded ones - meet their deadlines? If orders are on high to get it done NOW, you literally cannot follow the open bidding process. The process needs streamlining, obviously, but there's so much CYA; you need to make this ironclad case that you've chosen the right vendor. If you just edit an existing contract, the CYA steps are already largely done because this vendor has already been chosen. And you know they can meet the technology deadlines because their infrastructure is already in place on your campus.

Even doing it all in-house, though...how much of academic administration is the meeting to talk about the meeting to talk about the meeting to someday talk about the meeting to discuss possible changes that could be implemented in FY2073? So that process needs to be streamlined as well. Not that I mean to support jumping into things recklessly, of course. The incentives just...run all the wrong way. They run to staying still, until its too late.

That all said, putting on my student hat - I'm in an online master's program through a public university. It is completely taught and directed by faculty. The assigned faculty member puts together the course, gives the lecture, writes the tests, answers student questions, etc. There are some disadvantages to the online format, mostly that I don't know my peers very well and I think that's a real loss. But mostly, I love it, and mostly it's just like my bricks-and-mortar undergraduate education, from the classroom perspective. So it is done and it can be done, and I hope more schools do.
This bubble will pop, for the exact reasons you mention, when the Feds start getting serious about doing the policing of quality which the accreditation orgs have been unwilling to do.

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