Sunday, March 10, 2013

League for Innovation, Day 1

Greetings from Dallas, where the theme of the first day of the League for Innovation conference seemed to be “how to deal with actual human behavior.”

This was the first time I actually did a presentation myself at the League.  I had one of the death slots -- 8:30 on the Sunday morning after the “leap ahead” for daylight savings -- but it was well attended anyway, with about thirty people showing up.  The structure of my presentation was “you make the call,” with scenarios that actual deans actually face.  The group was game, and it was gratifying and fun to meet some longtime wise and worldly readers at the end.

The second presentation, by President Susan Karr and academic vice president Lee Ann Nutt of Lone Star College in Houston, addressed “initiative fatigue.”  Anyone who has worked in administration for very long knows the drill: every year or two a new project with a new acronym comes along, and most of the usual suspects address the same questions they addressed last year.  Over time, the various projects overlap, deadlines start to crash into each other, people start to forget what got said where, and after a few years, people start to adopt a “been there, done that” attitude.

They took a crack at breaking initiative fatigue by setting up a coordinating committee with a master chart of outcomes.  The idea was to map who was doing what, so redundancies could be identified and undue duplication avoided.  (Presumably, it could also help identify the areas of minimal coverage, where future projects would be welcome, and areas of ample coverage, where the horse is well and truly dead.)  Yes, it’s almost a parody of administration to suggest a “committee on committees,” but in practice it can make a lot of sense.

Nancy Millichamp, from the NGLC of Educause, gave one of those “I want to learn more” talks about some projects that Educause is sponsoring.  I was struck, again, that Southern New Hampshire University is light years ahead of most of us.  They seem to have a way of doing that.  Its “College for America” program takes the focus on competencies, rather than credits, to its logical conclusion.  At some point I’m going to have to do a field trip to Manchester and check that place out.

Happily, another theme of the day was “okay, folks, cost is a real issue.”  Richard Sebastian, of the Virginia Community College system, presented a “no textbook cost degree” that’s being piloted at Tidewater Community College.  (They need a catchier name, but it’s hard to shorten it without changing the meaning.)  They’ve chosen the Business Administration degree, and through a series of grants and stipends, they’ve convinced enough full-time faculty in the program to use nothing but “Open Educational Resources” that students will be able to get through the entire degree without spending anything on books or other course materials.  (Presumably, the hardware on which they read the resources, and the internet access for the hardware, are the responsibility of the student.)  I asked about how they’d include adjuncts, but at this point, they aren’t; they’re trying to prove the concept before tackling the logistics of acclimating last-minute hires to OER.

The whole OER movement gives me hope.  Yes, tuition and fees have been climbing at a disheartening rate, but what really matters to students is total cost.  If textbook costs are suddenly eliminated or drastically reduced, then this year’s tuition increase would still result in lower overall costs.  If the quality is there -- and the jury is out on that -- then this could be a winner.  (Given the rapid drop in tablet prices, and the easier adaptability of online resources for students with disabilities as opposed to the printed page, the improvement in overall access could be substantial.)

As a side effect of the book and dropping the pseudonym, the hallway and exhibit hall conversations this year were much more fun.  Tom Bailey, of the CCRC, mentioned that he has my book on his desk, thereby making my day.  (In my world, that’s huge.)  A few fans dropped by to wish me well, and I even made some connections for future projects.  

Finally, Diana Oblinger, the President and CEO of Educause, gave a plenary that picked up largely where Sebastian left off.  She went through a host of examples of colleges that are using analytics and other software in fascinating ways, of which my favorite was Austin Peay State University’s program that gives students “top ten” course recommendations for the following semester, complete with projected grades.  The idea is to keep students on track by “nudging” them towards the “right” choices.

As Oblinger went through her examples, I was struck by the heavy (acknowledged) borrowing from behavioral economics.  Behavioral economics uses observed behavior to change the ways that people make decisions.  For example, people are easily overwhelmed by too many options; sometimes they’ll just walk away rather than make a choice.  (Note the parallel to “initiative fatigue.”)  If we don’t have the stomach to mandate decisions, but we don’t want students to just throw up their hands at seemingly infinite options, then we can use “nudging” to push students towards the choices we want them to make.  Top ten lists are a way to do that.  Students are still free to go off the top ten list, but most don’t.  

On to day two.  Reality ahoy!