Sunday, March 08, 2015

League, Day One: Progress Without Money

Based on the first day of the League for Innovation conference, held Sunday in Boston, I’d say that the theme for this year is “what to do without money.”  Funding issues have never been far from the surface at League conferences, but I’m seeing a funny blend of fatalism -- “the money isn’t coming back” -- and optimism -- “but here are some things we can achieve anyway.”  It strikes me as a basically healthy response to a frustrating situation.

The morning started absurdly early, since it was 8:30 on the Sunday after “springing ahead.”  By my math, anyone from the West Coast would actually have gone back in time.  But the early Sunday start meant that the streets of Boston were uncharacteristically navigable, so there’s that. Happily, the first panel of the morning was worth it.

It was sponsored by NACCE, and it addressed entrepreneurialism in the management of community colleges. NACCE is an evolving institution with the mission of furthering entrepreneurial thinking at community colleges.  It started with curricula, but now is looking at ways to get community colleges to be more entrepreneurial themselves.  Given the long-term trend towards reduced public funding, this should be an obvious move, though judging by turnout at the panel, it still isn’t.

NACCE has embraced Saras Sarasvathy’s idea of “effectuation” or “the entrepreneurial method,” a five-step process for bringing new ideas to fruition on the ground.  Gail Carberry, the president of Quinsigamond Community College (MA) applied that framework to the development of a branch campus in Southbridge.  

(Carberry later took a star turn in her introduction of the keynote speaker at the evening plenary, sharing a list of obscure Massachusetts laws that attendees should be careful not to violate.  My favorite was that it’s illegal to have a duel to the death on Boston Common unless the governor is present.  Good to know.  I’ve seen Carberry speak before, so I expected her to be engaging and smart, but I didn’t know she was laugh-out-loud funny.  Score one for Quinsig.)

The “effectuation” framework offers an elegant alternative to strategic planning as it’s often done.  I’d need to seep in it more before saying yea or nay, but it’s intriguing.

Most of the subsequent panels were about working around financial limits in one form or another.  Jennifer Boulay, Karl Schnapp, and Rosario Basay, from Bristol CC (MA), offered a panel on faculty development when money is tight.  Shannon Harvey and Linnie Carter, from Harrisburg Area Community College (PA), did one on fundraising for people who don’t work in development offices.  Amy Vondrak and Andrea Lynch, from Mercer County Community College (NJ), spoke about developing a first-year program with no budget and a staff of one.  And OER was everywhere!  Several colleagues from HCC attended, exploiting the rare home-field advantage, and most of them went to the panel by Tidewater Community College (VA) on its zero-textbook business admin degree.  They later cornered me in the exhibit hall to effuse about what Tidewater had done, and to let me know they were scheming something similar. (My exact words were “LOVE IT!”)  Bristol CC also did a poster session on its OER project, and I see more coming up in the next few days.

Community colleges have always had to be resourceful, but this year’s discussion has a less bitter and more hopeful tone than I’ve heard in years.  I heard fewer “calls for” ideas, and more actual ideas.  To my mind, that’s what progress looks like.

Which is why the evening keynote was so jarring.  Walt MacDonald, the CEO of ETS, gave an address about assessment, psychometrics, and the directions in which he sees testing going.  

MacDonald offered a brief overview of the development of the HiSET test as a lower-cost alternative to the GED, followed by some international comparisons.  So far, so good.  But then he turned to phrenology.

I’m not kidding.  He gave a preview of “face-reading” software that could analyze a person’s face and extrapolate personal characteristics -- agreeableness, extroversion, etc. -- the better to allow employers to screen candidates.  I have just enough Foucault left in me that it was all I could do not to run from the room.

I can imagine how software like that would play out.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was “accurate” in extrapolating personality traits from facial expressions.  (That’s a major leap, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with it.)  Using something like that for employment would assume that only one personality type could possibly perform well in a given job.  But that assumption is simply not true.  Different types simply use different strategies to succeed.  

Theoretically, I suppose, one could apply the software to people who are already successful in given fields to see trends, and then apply those trends to new hires.  But even that assumes that fields don’t change.  Worse, if you’re skilled but the wrong “type,” your “type” would overshadow your skills; you’d never get hired.  If the software works as advertised, it shouldn’t.  The “skills gap” would become a face gap.  And that’s before we even consider differences across racial lines...

Of course, we might not be able to afford the software anyway.  We’ll come up with something better and cheaper!  It’s what we do…

On to day two.