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.