Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Just Do It?

Every so often, someone from outside of academic affairs will ask me, earnestly, why we don’t “just do” something.  It often takes a couple of years to move from embracing a concept -- whether it’s seven-week courses, modular courses, or whatever -- to actually running it.  Why does it take so long?  Why don’t we just do it?

The popular stereotype has it that academics are mossbacked antiquarians who think change is a four-letter word.  But that’s not it, most of the time.  (Every college has a few…)  That’s why I’m so enamored of this presentation by Nikki Edgecombe and Susan Bickerstaff of the CCRC about the real costs of implementing a new developmental sequence.  

Edgecombe has done something that far too few ‘reformers’ do: she has actually spent serious time on the ground, on campuses, seeing how the sausage is made.  When you actually confront the administrivia in its natural habitat, you realize quickly that “just do it” just isn’t that simple.  The ripple effects of what seems like a simple change are vast and serious.

To take a recent effort that’s close to my heart, let’s say that you want to run some classes in a half-semester format so students whose lives don’t follow the semester calendar cleanly can make some headway.  That’s particularly important for adults who have been laid off and who need retraining; their benefits clock starts ticking at the moment of the layoff.  It doesn’t wait for the semester to start.  If someone gets laid off in February, and you only start your one-year certificates in September, that doesn’t work.  And given the complicated lives that many students lead, you have good reason to believe that shorter courses could lead to higher success rates.  Let’s say that you have faculty who are on board, conceptually, and who are willing to give it a shot.  Why don’t you just do it?

- Faculty workloads.  If a full-semester class gets cancelled for low enrollment, you could conceivably pick up a second-half class.  But if the second-half class is part of a workload, and it falls short of the needed enrollment, what do you do?

- Financial aid.  A student who only signs up for a late-start course won’t have the credit load to qualify for most financial aid.  And unless she signed up before the entire semester started, the chances of money still being available are zero.  In other words, for all practical purposes, the late-start courses can only get financial aid coverage if the student signed up at the normal time.  That largely defeats the on-ramp function of a late-start course.

- Room scheduling.  If the classes aren’t online, a class that only meets for half the semester takes a room for the entire semester.  Obviously you can mitigate that by pairing them off, but that doesn’t work so well for lab or studio classes.  

- Publications/notices.  If all of your systems have been predicated on a single semester, suddenly introducing part-of-term courses involves manual overrides for everything.  That’s labor-intensive, error-prone, and expensive at any meaningful scale.

- ERP systems.  We use Banner; other popular options include Datatel and Jenzabar.  Retrofitting Banner to recognize part-of-term grades, I’m told, is no small task.  It likes to run one term at a time.  

- Attendance reporting.  I hate that this matters, but it does.  We have a “freeze” date on which we report enrollment numbers to the Feds.  That works tolerably well when all of the classes are running on the same semester schedule.  But introducing a set of part-of-term courses involves making some difficult choices.  If a student enrolls for semester courses and hasn’t shown up for the month of September, we report that student as a no-show.  If the student has only signed up for a second-half class, then at the end of September, she wouldn’t have shown up yet.  We wouldn’t know whether she’s really “there” or not until late October at best.  That wreaks havoc with the numbers.

These are not mostly academic or conceptual issues.  They’re nuts-and-bolts issues that have major implications for our ability to carry out reforms that make conceptual sense.  

When you’re in the weeds like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the overall goal.  Some people will deploy inconvenience as an argument against positive change.  But that doesn’t mean that their concerns can be just brushed aside as so many details.  Letting your ERP system prevent constructive curricular change is pretty much a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, but ignoring these issues has tremendous implications on the ground.  In my perfect world, the folks pursuing reforms would spend some time learning the constraints, and work with forward-looking people on campus to stretch the bounds of the possible.  If that sometimes means redirecting political pressure away from local administrations and towards software vendors or state or federal regulators, then that’s what it means.  

So, kudos to Edgecombe and Bickerstaff.  Instead of just prescribing policy changes from on high, they’ve actually looked at messy realities.  There’s a difference between doing and “just doing,” and that difference is easy to miss from a distance.  To find out why we can’t “just do it,” you have to look closer.