Refocusing on the Connections Instead of Just Making Better Parts

This is the second of three posts about our need to reframe, refocus, and refine the way that we operationalize (i.e., deliver) the liberal arts. Near the end of last week’s post (where I suggested reframing how we deliver the liberal arts around enabling our graduates to thrive in the midst of change) I suggested:

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

When Augustana was founded, the connections between classes (at the time considered the primary, if not only, learning experiences offered by the college) were a foregone conclusion because the curriculum was virtually identical for every student.  New content assumed the delivery of prior content and students moved in lockstep from beginning courses to advanced seminars.  Only near the end of their schooling were students allowed to deviate from the central educational path to take courses that fit their vocational intentions in law, medicine, the clergy, civil service, etc.  Furthermore, extra-curricular experiences weren’t seen as potential learning experiences since they didn’t have anything to do with the content delivered through the curriculum.

This earlier version of a liberal arts education and the one that we now endeavor to provide could not be more different.  While the curriculum of yesteryear was almost entirely predetermined both in terms of the courses one took and when one took them, today (although some majors are more prescribed than others) I doubt you could find two students who took the same courses in the same order during the same year – let alone throughout an entire undergraduate degree.  In addition, we now know that students develop, learn, and grow at least as much through their courses as they do through their out-of-class experiences, resulting in the wide support for everything from student organizations to study abroad.

In the context of all of this curricular and co-curricular opportunity, it’s no wonder that students’ effort to convey the impact of their college experience on a resume often devolves into a list where the length of that list is assumed to convey something about an individual’s preparation and potential for future success.  Of course, those considering recent college graduates for graduate school, employment, or long-term service have figured out that these lists are a ruse and can be a red flag for someone who is more surface than substance.

But if we refocus the way that we operationalize the liberal arts so that students highlight “why” they chose the experiences they chose and how they took charge of constructing the person they have become, the grocery list of college experiences (AKA resume) suddenly comes to life as a story of perpetual improvement. This doesn’t mean that they are perfectly constructed when they receive their diploma.  But it does mean that those students can probably tell their own story in a way that shows an emerging clarity of purpose and an accelerating sense of momentum toward it.  We all know from our own experiences that those students stand out even when they aren’t trying to make an impression.

So how might we operationalize the way that we deliver the liberal arts to highlight this new focus?

First of all, we don’t need to go back to the days of an overly prescribed college experience.  With the diversity of our students’ pre-college experiences, learning needs and interests, and post-graduate aspirations, treating our students as if they were all the same would be stunningly foolish.

Instead, we begin by mapping every activity and every course that students can take in terms of what learning is intended to emerge from that experience and how that learning contributes to the larger learning goals and mission of the college.  Since this mapping is intended to be an iterative experience, the exercise may well result in adapting, adding, or even subtracting some courses or experiences.  It might also result in altering some experiences to more specifically meet certain learning goals.  The primary result of this exercise is not just to produce a complete catalog of the learning experiences in which students can engage.  Instead, the goal is to produce customize-able flow charts that show the variety of ways that different types of students can identify a sequence of experiences that together cultivate the learning that each student need to fully prepare them to succeed after they graduate.

These maps become the primary tools for the college to help students construct a college experience that builds upon their pre-college experiences and abilities, fills in the areas in which they need additional opportunities to learn and grown, and gives them the best chance to be the kind of person they aspire to be when they graduate.  Ultimately, the totality of each student’s college experience can be conveyed through a cohesive narrative that tells the story of his or her college journey from start to finish.

The challenges to making such a refocus work are not without consequence.  Most important, we have to actually enact our commitment to student growth and development in everything that we do.  That likely means changing something that we currently do (even if it is something we really like to do a certain way) to make it more educationally effective for students.  We often ask the question during planning conversations, “But what are we going to take away?”  This mapping exercise often identifies things that we could and probably should take away.  The challenge is whether we are willing give those things up.

In broader terms, this means that we have be able to “zoom out” and see the forest instead of the trees.  There will be a myriad of ways that a student could put together the learning experiences necessary for post-graduate success. The most important goal here is that the students can lay out their path, retrace their steps and explain why they took each one of them, situating the reasons for their choices in the context of their post-graduate aspirations. Of course there will likely be students who, despite all of our best efforts, don’t follow the guidance that we provide for them. But if all of our students learn the value of thinking about their own lives as a strategic effort to grow and develop, the chances are pretty good that they will all be on their way to succeeding in life and embodying the results of a liberal arts education when they walk across the stage to accept their diploma.

Make it a good day,

Mark

For the want of a response, the data was crap

Any time I hear someone use data from one of the new freshman, senior, or recent graduate surveys to advocate for a particular idea, I can’t help but smile a little.  It is deeply gratifying to see faculty and administrators comfortably use our data to evaluate new policy, programming, and strategic direction ideas.  Moreover, we can all point to a growing list of data-driven decisions that we know have directly improved student learning.

So it might seem odd, but that smile slips away almost as quickly as it appears. Because underneath this pervasive use of data lies a deep trust in the veracity of those numbers. And the quality of our data depends almost entirely upon the participation of 18-22 year-olds who are . . . . let’s just say “still developing.”  Data quality is like milk – it can turn on you overnight. If the students begin to think that survey questions don’t really apply to them or they start to suspect that the results aren’t valued by the college, they’ll breeze through the questions without giving them much thought or blow off the survey entirely. If that happens on a grand scale . . . . I shudder to think about it.  So you could say that I was “mildly concerned” as I organized fall IDEA course feedback forms for processing a few weeks ago and noticed several where the only bubbles colored in were “fives.”  A few minutes later I found several where the only darkened bubbles were “ones.”

Fortunately, a larger sampling of students’ IDEA forms put my mind at ease.  I found that on most forms the distribution of darkened circles varied and, as best as I could tell, student’s responses to the individual questions seemed to reflect at least a minimal effort to provide truthful responses.  However, this momentary heart attack got me wondering: to what degree might student’s approach to our course feedback process impact the quality of the data that we get?  This is how I ended up in front of Augustana’s student government (SGA) earlier this week talking about our course feedback process, the importance of good data, the reality of student’s perceptions and experiences with these forms, and ways that we might convince more students to take this process seriously.

During this conversation, I learned three things that I hope you’ll take to heart.  First, our students really come alive when they feel they are active participants in making Augustana the best place it can be.  However, they start to slip into passive bystanders when they don’t know the “why” about processes in which they are expected to be key contributors.  When they become bystanders, they are much less likely to invest their own emotional energy in providing accurate data.  Many of the students honestly didn’t think that the IDEA data they provided on the student form was used very often – if ever. If the data doesn’t really matter anyway, so their thinking goes, the effort that they put in to providing it doesn’t matter all that much either.

Second, students often felt that not all of the questions about how much progress they made on specific objectives applied in all classes equally.  As I explained to them how the IDEA data analysis worked and how the information that faculty received was designed to connect the objectives of the course with the students’ sense of what they learned, I could almost hear the light bulbs popping on over their heads.  They were accustomed to satisfaction-type surveys in which an ideal class would elicit a high score on every survey question.  When they realized that they were expected to give lower scores to questions that didn’t fit the course (and that this data would be useful as well), their concern about the applicability of the form and all of the accompanying frustrations disappeared.

Third, even though we – faculty, staff, and administrators – know exactly what we mean when we talk about learning outcomes, our students still don’t really know that their success in launching their life after college is not just a function of their major and all the stuff they’ve listed on their resume.  On numerous occasions, students expressed confusion about the learning objectives because they didn’t understand how they applied to the content of the course.  Although they may have seen the lists of skills that employers and graduate schools look for, it seems that our students think these are skills that are largely set in stone long before they get to college, and that college is mostly about learning content knowledge and building a network of friends and “connections.”  So when they see learning objectives on the IDEA forms, unless they they have been clued in to understand that these are skills that the course is designed to develop, they are likely to be confused by the very idea of learning objectives above and beyond content knowledge.

Although SGA and I plan to work together to help students better understand the value of the course feedback process and its impact on the quality of their own college experience, we – faculty, staff, and administrators – need to do a much better job of making sure that our students understand the IDEA course feedback process.  From the beginning of the course, students need to know that they will be learning more than content.  They need to know exactly what the learning goals are for the course. Students need to know that faculty want to know how much their students’ learned and what worked best in each class to fuel that learning, and that satisfaction doesn’t always equate to learning.  And students need to know how faculty have used course feedback data in the past to alter or adapt their classes.  If you demonstrate to your students how this data benefits the quality of their learning experience, I think they will be much more willing to genuinely invest in providing you with good data.

Successfully creating an evidence-based culture of perpetual improvement that results in a better college requires faculty, staff, and administrators to take great care with the sources of our most important data.  I hope you will take just a few minutes to help students understand the course feedback process.  Because in the end, not only will they benefit from it, but so will you.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

 

 

Could a focus on learning outcomes unwittingly sacrifice process for product?

A central tenet of the learning outcomes movement is that higher education institutions must articulate a specific set of skills, traits, and/or dispositions that all of its students will learn before graduation. Then, through legitimate means of measurement, institutions must assess and publicize the degree to which its students make gains on each of these outcomes. Although many institutions have yet to implement this concept fully (especially regarding the thorough assessment of institutional outcomes), this idea is more than just a suggestion. Each of the regional accrediting bodies now requires institutions to identify specific learning outcomes and demonstrate evidence of outcomes assessment as a standard of practice.

This approach to educational design seems at the very least reasonable. All students, regardless of major, need a certain set of skills and aptitudes (things like critical thinking, collaborative leadership, intercultural competence) to succeed in life as they take on additional professional responsibilities, embark (by choice or by circumstance) on a new career, or address a daunting civic or personal challenge. In light of the educational mission our institutions espouse, committing ourselves to a set of learning outcomes for all students seems like what we should have been doing all along.

Yet too often the outcomes that institutions select to represent the full scope of their educational mission, and the way that those institutions choose to assess gains on those outcomes, unwittingly limits their ability to fulfill the mission they espouse. For when institutions narrow their educational vision to a discrete set of skills and dispositions that can be presented, performed, or produced at the end of an undergraduate assembly line, they often do so at the expense of their own broader vision that would cultivate in students a self-sustaining approach to learning. What we measure dictates the focus of our efforts to improve. As such, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the educational structure that currently produces majors and minors in content areas is simply replaced by one that produces majors and minors in some newly chosen learning outcomes. Instead of redesigning the college learning experience to alter the lifetime trajectory of an individual, we allow the whole to be nothing more than the sum of the parts – because all we have done is swap one collection of parts for another. Although there may be value in establishing and implementing a threshold of competence for a bachelor’s degree (for which a major serves a legitimate purpose), limiting ourselves to this framework fails to account for the deeply-held belief that a college experience should approach learning as a process – one that is cumulative, iterative, multi-dimensional, and, most importantly, self-sustaining long beyond graduation.

The disconnect between our conception of a college education as a process and our tendency to track learning as a finite set of productions (outcomes) is particularly apparent in the way that we assess our students’ development as life-long learners. Typically, we measure this construct with a pre-test and a post-test that tracks learning gains between the years of 18 and 22 – hardly a lifetime (the fact that a few institutions gather data from alumni five and ten years after graduation doesn’t invalidate the larger point). Under these conditions, trying to claim empirically that (1) an individual has developed and maintained a perpetual interest in learning throughout their life, and that (2) this life-long approach is direct attributable to one’s undergraduate education, probably borders on the delusional. The complexity of life even under the most mundane of circumstances makes such a hypothesis deeply suspect. Yet we all know of students that experienced college as a process through which they found a direction that excited them and a momentum that carried them down a purposeful path that extended far beyond commencement.

I am by no means suggesting that institutions should abandon assessing learning gains on a given set of outcomes. On the contrary, we should expect no less of ourselves than substantial growth in all of our students as a result of our efforts. Designed appropriately, a well-organized sequence of outcomes assessment snapshots can provide information vital to tracking student learning over time and potentially increasing institutional effectiveness. However, because the very act of learning occurs (as the seminal developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky would describe it) in a state of perpetual social interaction, taking stock of the degree to which we foster a robust learning process is at least as important as taking snapshots of learning outcomes if we hope to gather information that helps us improve.

If you think that assessing learning outcomes effectively is difficult, then assessing the quality of the learning process ought to send chills down even the most skilled assessment coordinator’s spine. Defining and measuring the nature of process requires a very different conception of assessment – and for that matter a substantially more complex understanding of learning outcomes. Instead of merely measuring what is already in the rearview mirror (i.e., whatever has already been acquired), assessing the college experience as a process requires a look at the road ahead, emphasizing the connection between what has already occurred and what is yet to come. In other words, assessment of the learning that results from a given experience would include the degree to which a student is prepared or “primed” to make the most of a future learning experience (either one that is intentionally designed to follow immediately, or one that is likely to occur somewhere down the road). Ultimately, this approach would substantially improve our ability to determine the degree to which we are preparing students to approach life in a way that is thoughtful, pro-actively adaptable, and even nimble in the face of both unforeseen opportunity and sudden disappointment.

Of course, this idea runs counter to the way that we typically organize our students’ postsecondary educational experience. For if we are going to track the degree to which a given experience “primes” students for subsequent experiences – especially subsequent experiences that occur during college – then the educational experience can’t be so loosely constructed that the number of potential variations in the ordering of different students’ experiences virtually equals the number of students enrolled at our institution. This doesn’t mean that we return to the days in which every student took the same courses at the same time in the same order, but it does require an increased level of collective commitment to the intentional design of the student experience, a commitment to student-centered learning that will likely come at the expense of an individual instructor’s or administrator’s preference for which courses they teach or programs they lead and when they might be offered.

The other serious challenge is the act of operationalizing a concept of assessment that attempts to directly measure an individual’s preparation to make the most of a subsequent educational experience. But if we want to demonstrate the degree to which a college experience is more than just a collection of gains on disparate outcomes – whether these outcomes are somehow connected or entirely independent of each other – then we have to expand our approach to include process as well as product.  Only then can we actually demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that in fact the educational process is the glue that fuses those disparate parts into a greater – and qualitatively distinct – whole.

Make it a good day,

Mark

The Fallacy of Matching Majors with Careers

It seems that most of the talk in recent months about the ROI (return on investment) of a college degree from a given institution has been focused on the degree to which new graduates from that institution can get well-paying jobs related to their major.  For liberal arts colleges and those of us who believe in the importance of a well-rounded education, the whole idea of assuming an inherent connection between major choice and career seems problematic.  Not only are there plenty of majors that don’t have a natural correlate on the job market (e.g., philosophy majors come to mind), but we are also regularly bombarded with the claims that individuals in today’s world will hold multiple jobs in multiple professions over the course of their working careers. Thus it seems odd to suggest that a college’s effectiveness could be pinned to the proportion of graduates who have landed jobs in their field within six months of graduation.

One data point from our survey of recent graduates seems to highlight this conundrum. Nine months after a class of seniors graduates, we ask them to complete a survey that asks a variety of questions about their current status, the degree to which their Augustana experience helped prepare them for their present circumstance, and the degree to which they believe that they are on the right long-term path.

One of the questions we asked our 2012 graduates last spring (about nine months after they had received their BA degrees from Augustana) was:

“Have your long-term professional goals changed since you graduated from Augie?”

The distribution of responses was revealing.

Not at all

48%

A little

21%

Somewhat

20%

Substantial

4%

Completely

3%

In other words, fewer than 50% of the 2012 graduating class considered themselves on the exact same long-term path that they were on when they walked across the stage to collect their diplomas.  In addition, over a quarter of the respondents said that their long-term goals had changed “somewhat,” “substantially,” or “completely.”

I believe the result of this single question holds critical implications for our efforts to best prepare our students to succeed after college.  First of all, this finding supports what we already know to be true – many of our students are going to change their long-term goals during their first several years after graduation. This is what happens to young people during their first foray into the world of working adulthood. We would be foolish to tie ourselves too tightly to a data point that doesn’t allow for these natural developments in the life a young adult.

Second, rather than mere job or graduate school placement, we would be smart to begin thinking about our students’ post-graduate success in terms of direction and momentum. Our students need to develop a clear sense of direction in order to decide what the best “next step” is for them. In addition, our job is to help them know when to take that “next step,” whether it be getting into the right graduate school or finding the right job or taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will better position them to move in the direction they have chosen for themselves. If we can do that, then no matter what happens to our students in the years after they graduate, they will be better able to succeed in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.

In concert with a sense of direction, our students need momentum.  This momentum should be self-perpetuating, cultivated by the right mix of motivations to handle setbacks and success. More importantly, it needs to be strong enough to thrive in the midst of a change in direction. This means that we develop their ability to be autonomous while holding themselves to high standards.  It means that they know how to be strategic in staying true to themselves and their goals no matter the distractions that might appear.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about our students’ success in applying to graduate school or entry-level jobs in a given profession. On the contrary, we absolutely should care about statistics like these – especially if they support a student’s chosen direction and momentum.  But we should remember that a successful life isn’t etched in stone upon graduation from college.  And we should have the courage to track our students’ life trajectory in a way that doesn’t limit both us and them.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

How does student learning happen?

Since it’s finals week, I’ll be quick.  However, I hope you’ll take some time to think about this little tidbit below as our strategic planning conversations address examine how we are going to make sure that every student develops the ability to integrate ideas to solve complex problems.

I saw George Kuh give a talk on Saturday afternoon in which he showed the following cartoon.  Even though the whole audience found it funny, the point he was trying to make about the degree to which we often fail to ensure that students learn what we say we teach them was dead serious.

We claim that a liberal arts education teaches students how to integrate disparate ideas from a wide range of disciplines and contexts to solve complex 21st century problems.  At the same time, however, the experiences we require are specific to individual disciplines or topics while the truly integrative experiences remain optional add-ons . . . if they exist at all outside of the major.

So the question I’d ask you to think about is this:  How do we know that every student participates in a rigorously designed activity that explicitly develops the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple fields of study to solve substantive, complex problems? And how could we design a college experience where we could demonstrate that every student participated in such an activity?

Make it a good day.  And have a great fall break.

Mark

Sometimes assessing might be the wrong thing to do

Because of the break-neck pace of our work lives, we tend to look for pre-determined processes to address problems instead of considering whether or not there is another approach that might increase the chances of a successful long-term solution.  This makes sense since pre-determined processes often feel like they help to solve complicated problems by giving us a vetted action plan.  But if we begin defaulting to this option too easily, we can sometimes create more work for ourselves just because we absentmindedly opted for “doing it the way we’re supposed to do it.”  So I thought it might be worthwhile to share an observation about our efforts to improve our educational effectiveness that could help us be more efficient in the process.

We have found tremendous value in gathering evidence to inform our decisions instead of relying on anecdotes, intuition, or speculation.  Moreover, the success of our own experiences seems to have fostered a truly positive sea-change both in terms of the frequency of requests for data that might inform an upcoming discussion or decision as well as the desire to ask new questions that might help us understand more deeply the nature of our educational endeavors.  So why would I suggest that sometimes “assessing might be the wrong thing to do?”

First, let’s revisit two different conceptions of “assessment.”  One perceives “assessment” as primarily about measuring.  It’s an act that happens over a finite period of time and produces a finding that essentially becomes the end of the act of measuring.  Another conception considers assessment as a process composed of various stages: asking a question, gathering data, designing an intervention, and evaluating the effectiveness of that intervention.  Imagine the difference between the two to mirror the difference between a dot (a point in time) and a single loop within a coil (a perpetually evolving process).  So in my mind, “measurement” is a singular act that might involve numbers or theoretical frameworks. “Assessment” is the miniature process that includes asking a question, engaging in measurement of some kind, and evaluating the effectiveness of a given intervention.  “Continuous improvement” is an organizational value that results in the perpetual application of assessment.  The focus of this post is to suggest that we might help ourselves by expanding the potential points at which we could apply a process of assessment.

Too often, after discovering the possibility that student learning resulting from a given experience might not be what we had hoped, we decide that we should measure the student learning in question.  I think we expect to generate a more robust set of data that confirms or at least complicates the information we think we already know. Usually, after several months of gathering data (and if all goes well with that process) our hunch turns out to be so.

I’d like to suggest a step prior to measuring student learning that might get us on track to improvement more quickly.  Instead of applying another means of measurement to evaluate the resultant learning, we should start by applying what we know about effective educational design to assess whether or not the experience in question is actually designed to produce the intended learning.  Because if the experience is not designed and delivered effectively, then the likelihood of it falling short of its expectations are pretty high.  And if there is one truth about educating that we already know, it’s that if we don’t teach our students something, they won’t learn it.

Assessing the design of a program or experiences takes a lot less time than gathering learning outcome data.  And it will get you to the fun part of redesigning the program or experience in question much sooner.

So if you are examining a learning experience because you don’t think it’s working as it should, start by tearing apart its design.  If the design is problematic, then skip the measuring part . . . fix it, implement the changes, and then test the outcomes.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

Planning, Doing, Being

Unless you’ve been holding your breath at the bottom of the slough for the past six months, you know that we are smack in the middle of developing a new strategic plan for Augustana College.  This weekend our Board of Trustees hold their annual fall meetings during which President Bahls and Dean Lawrence will provide an update to the board, answer questions, address criticisms and concerns, and work with board members to refine the strategic directions that will be prioritized in the final plan.  If you haven’t done so already, I’d highly recommend that you take some time to look at the current state of this process here.

After living in the inner sanctum of this process for the last six months, I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to effectively link the abstract aspirations of vision, mission, and strategic direction with the concrete actions, specific tactics, and measurable moments that we think will prove whether or not we have accomplished our plans.  If we lean too hard to one side, we could end up with little more than strategery – a word I use in all seriousness here because it manages to capture what happens when vision gets disconnected from any actual means of demonstrating its achievement on the ground (click here to see the origins of this word – we are in your debt, Will Ferrell.)  And if we lean too far to the other side, we can fall into the trap of simply adding a host of new programs, policies, activities, and experiences under the flawed belief that busy is always better.  If we’re honest with ourselves, I suspect we’d have to admit that we’ve driven over both of these potholes in recent years as we’ve genuinely tried to make Augustana better – in the present and for the future.

In the face of these difficulties, I understand the temptation to be silly about it and throw the strategic planning baby out with the tactical bathwater.  But that would be – in a word – stupid.  A primary reason why higher education is in such trouble these days is because so many institutions believed that they didn’t really have to plan ahead (or that anything might change over time) because they thought there would always be lots of students who would pay whatever the institution charged to sit at the feet of masters and learn whatever was taught.

Frankly, I really like a lot of what is going to be proposed and discussed this weekend. However, we are always faced with the challenge of following through.  How are we going to walk this thing out to its fullest completion, and will we really have chosen the right metrics to demonstrate the degree to which we have achieved the goal we set out to accomplish?

All of these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I watched two TED Talks by Derek Sivers over the weekend.  Although both of them are only about three minutes long, they made me think a lot about how we might go from the laudable abstractions of mission, vision, and strategic directions to the simple, sustainable, and concrete evidence that will demonstrate to everyone whether we have reached the goals we set for ourselves.

The first TED Talk focuses on a key element of success for individuals who set goals for themselves.  The crux of his point is that those who talk too much about what they intend to accomplish can sometimes fool themselves into thinking that they have already accomplished it.  I’ve often heard a nearby college’s strategic plan described as, “Fake it ’til you make it.”  Yet there are a myriad of colleges and universities that became more selective simply by declaring themselves to be more selective.  In the end, the quality of the education they provided didn’t change a bit.  In terms of making our strategic plan something worth the kilobytes it’s saved on, we might be careful to talk more about the things we need to do or be today in order to achieve our long-term goals, and talk less about publicizing the institution we will become and the prestige we will acquire as if we were already well on our way to getting there.

The second TED Talk teases out a critical and oft overlooked moment in the origins of a social movement.  Sivers shows a video of an impromptu dance party on a hillside.  The point he makes seems to be particularly applicable to our work once the strategic plan is finalized.  Essentially, he emphasizes the leadership effect of the first follower – the individual who finds something great and has the guts to jump up and join in.

I’m sure there are several other potentially important take-aways from these clips.  I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that something from them might help us move from planning to doing to being.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Making student work work

This is it.  The end of another year and my last post for a while.  Yes, I know.  I’ll miss you, too.

I guess I’m feeling a little sentimental because my two temporary partner’s in crime are graduating next weekend and going on to graduate school.  Cameron and Emma have been wonderfully helpful over the last two years, and Kimberly and I will miss them both!

Since we’ve been talking about the value of experiential learning opportunities over the last several years, I decided to ask Cameron and Emma if they’d like to write something short about their work experience at Augustana and its impact on their learning and development.  They jumped at the chance, so I’m gonna check out of here a little early and let them have the last word of the 12/13 academic year.

Cameron’s thoughts . . .

The ability to work on campus has become a crucial piece to my educational puzzle. Not only has it helped me financially support myself, but it has become a cornerstone of who I am. Through my work I discovered my career and future plans. The experience gained over the past two years allowed me to explore my interests in a way I could not have done so otherwise. Like many other positions on campus, my job allowed me to more closely align myself with a career.  The hands-on experience also gave me an edge over others as well as valuable resources I can always come back to for support.

Understandably certain positions may not lend themselves to the same level of career planning clarity, but even on the smallest level working on campus offers a new community of people to go to and feel more connected to the college. Without my position I would not have met nearly as many wonderful people who have helped me through the challenges I’ve experienced while at Augustana. So even if the job is as simple that as a cashier in the bookstore or assistant during food services, they are all beneficial.  Student work positions can be more focused on being a learning experience instead of just a job.  

Emma’s thoughts . . .

Having a student job here at Augustana has been beneficial to my educational and academic progression. Personally, this progression has stemmed from my ability to integrate the theoretical knowledge I have gained in classes to real-world studies and research. Instead of simply learning how to build a survey, I’ve been able to actually construct one. I did not just learn the theory behind calculating a logistic regression, I actually performed it. Student jobs should aim to teach students the possibilities, frustrations, and benefits that come from real-world work or research in their field. Because I have been able to use my knowledge gained from my courses, I am much more confident in my ability to perform research studies in graduate school and in my career field. Student positions should not be a series of tasks to provide students with a paycheck. Instead, they should encourage and push students towards tackling projects that have implications for either the practical or academic world.

In accordance with integrating what is learned in the classroom to the workplace,
student workers should be encouraged to implement their personal and unique knowledge and experiences into their work. This chance to share my perspective as an Augustana student was very valuable to my identity and confidence as an academic and a researcher. Student workers should be given the opportunity to share their opinions, experiences, and knowledge and be able to see these unique contributions bring value to the discussions and work we see happening around us every day. Learning to vocalize our opinions, findings, and observations is essential in preparing undergraduate students for the next stage of their career- whether that is graduate school or a job.

While my involvement as a student worker in Institutional Research has increased my
skills and knowledge in many areas of statistics, research, writing, etc., it is these experiences of academic integration that stand out as the most beneficial to my growth as a student and a researcher. In the future, more student positions should implement this hands-on, practical application approach. Integrating knowledge from the classroom to the real world is an essential part of the learning process and student growth.

There’s no question that I got pretty luck in hiring both of these students.  They’ve jumped into the deep and murky water of college impact research and survived to tell the tale.  Moreover, they’ve made contributions that genuinely made Augustana a better place for future students.

So congratulations to Cameron and Emma.  And congrats to all of our graduates.

One piece of advice – and this goes to everyone who is expected to walk up onto the stage next Sunday.  Don’t trip!  It will be caught on camera by someone and end up on Youtube!

Make it a good summer,

Mark

 

Compete with MOOCs?! Why not co-opt them instead?

Since I won’t write another blog post until the beginning of spring term, I thought I’d write something a little different.  Instead of a traditional data-filled post, I am going to weigh in with a suggestion – an opinion that is merely my own, not to be confused with some broader administrative position.  I’ve been mulling this one over since the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year, but it really came to a boil last week when I read about Scott Young and his MIT Challenge.

At first glance, Scott Young’s MIT Challenge smells like the arrogant prank of an affluent Silicon Valley prodigy.  A recent university graduate who fancies himself a blogger, writer, and “holistic learner” decides to see if he can complete the entire MIT curriculum for a computer science major in a year without enrolling in any MIT classes.  Instead, he plans to download all course materials – including lectures, homework assignments, and final exams – from MIT’s open courseware site and MIT’s edX.  He’ll only spend money on text books and internet access, which he estimates will cost about $2000 over the course of the entire curriculum (a paltry sum compared to cost of attending MIT for one year – $57,010 in 2012/13).

Well, he did it (that little @$#&!).  From September 2011 to September 2012, Mr. Young completed and passed all of the course work expected of MIT students to earn a major in computer science.  And just in case you think it a braggart’s hoax, he posted all of his course work, exams, and projects to verify that he actually pulled it off.  Essentially, If he had been a paying MIT student, he would now be considered one of their alums.  He might not have graduated cum laude, but you know what they call the person who graduates last in his class from Harvard Medical School (for those of you who haven’t heard the joke, the answer is “doctor”).

My point isn’t to celebrate the accomplishments of a brash, albeit intriguing, young man from Manitoba (wouldn’t you know it, this guy turns out to be Canadian!).  In the context of the academic tendencies we all too often see in students, his feat suggests more that he is an outlier among young adults than that a tsunami of self-directed learners is headed our way.

Rather, the simple fact that the full curriculum of a computer science degree from MIT is already freely available online should blow up any remaining notion that we, or any other small liberal arts college, can continue to act as if we are the lone gatekeepers of postsecondary content knowledge.  The ubiquitous availability of this kind of content knowledge delivered freely in educationally viable ways makes many a small college’s course catalogue seem like a quaint relic of a nostalgic past.  Moreover, if any major we offer is merely, or even mostly, an accumulation of content-heavy survey courses and in-depth seminars, we make ourselves virtually indistinguishable from an exponentially expanding range of educational options – except for our exorbitant cost.  And though we might stubbornly argue that our classes are smaller, our faculty more caring, or the expectations more demanding (all of which may indeed be so!), if the education we offer appears to prospective students as if it differs little from far less expensive educational content providers (e.g., general education is designed to provide content introductions across a range of disciplines, majors are organized around time periods, major theoretical movements, or subfields, students earn majors or minors in content-heavy areas), we increase the likelihood that future students will choose the less expensive option – even as they may whole-heartedly agree that we are marginally better.  And if those less expensive providers happen to be prestigious institutions like MIT, we are definitely in trouble.  For even if there is a sucker born every minute, I doubt there will be many who are willing to borrow gargantuan sums of money to pay for the same content knowledge that they can acquire for 1/100th of the cost – especially when they can supplement it on their own as needed.

Admittedly, I am trying to be provocative.  But please note that I haven’t equated “content knowledge” with “an education.”  Because in the end, the bulk of what Mr. Young acquired was content knowledge.  He’d already earned a undergraduate degree in a traditional setting, and by all indications, seems to have benefited extensively from that experience.  At Augustana, our educational mission has always been about much more than content knowledge.  This reality is clearly articulated in the composition of our new student learning outcomes.  We have recognized that content knowledge is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of a meaningful education.   With this perspective, I’d like to suggest that we explicitly cast ourselves in this light: as guides that help students evaluate, process, and ultimately use that knowledge.  This doesn’t mean that we devalue content knowledge.  Rather, it means that we deliberately position content as a means to a greater end, more explicitly designing every aspect of our enterprise to achieve it.  Incidentally, this also gives us a way to talk about the educational value of our co-curricular experiences that directly ties them to our educational outcomes and makes them less susceptible to accusations of edu-tainment, extravagance, or fluff.

To date, the vast majority of successful MOOCs and online programs focuses on traditional content knowledge delivery or skill development specific to a given profession.  The research on the educational effectiveness of online courses suggests that while online delivery can be at least as effective as face-to-face courses in helping students develop and retain content knowledge and lower-order thinking skills, face-to-face courses tend to be more effective in developing higher-order thinking skills.  So if our primary focus is on showing students how to use the knowledge they have acquired to achieve a deeper educational goal rather than merely delivering said content to them, then . . . .

What if, instead of fearing the “threat” of MOOCs and online learning, we chose to see them as a wonderful cost- and time-saving opportunity?  What if we were to co-opt the power and efficiency of MOOCs and other online content delivery mechanisms to allow us to focus more of our time and face-to-face resources on showing students how to use that knowledge?  I don’t begin to claim to have a fully fleshed-out model of what all of this would look like (in part because I don’t think there is a single model of how an institution might pull this off), but it seems to me that if we choose to see the explosion of online learning possibilities as a threat, we drastically shorten our list of plausible responses (i.e., ignore them and hope they go away or try to compete without a glimmer of the resources necessary to do so).  On the other hand, if we co-opt the possibilities of online learning and find ways to fit them into our current educational mission, our options are as broad as the possibilities are endless.  I guess I’d rather explore an expanding horizon.  Enjoy your break.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

 

 

Big Data, Intuition, and the Potential of Improvisation

Welcome back to the second half of winter term!  As nice as it is to walk across campus in the quiet calm of a fresh new year (ignoring the giant pounding on top of the library for the moment), it’s a comfort to see faculty and students bustling between buildings again and feel the energy of the college reignited by everyone’s return.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to read the various higher ed opinionators’ perspectives on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the implications they foresee for colleges like Augustana.  Based on what I’ve read so far, we are either going to 1) thrive without having to change a thing, 2) shrivel up and die a horrible death sometime before the end of the decade, or 3) see lots of changes that will balance each other out and leave us somewhere in the middle.  In other words – no one has a clue.  But this hasn’t stopped many a self-appointed Nostradami (Nostradamuses?) from rattling off a slew of statistics to make their case: the increasing number of students taking online courses, the number of schools offering online courses, the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up for MOOCs, the shifting demographics of college students, blah blah blah.  After all, as these prognosticators imply, historical trends predict the future.

Except when they don’t.  A recent NYT article, Sure, Big Data Is Great, But So Is Intuition, highlights the fundamental weakness in thinking that a massive collection of data gathered from individual behaviors (web-browsing, GPS tracking, social network messaging, etc.) inevitably holds the key to a brighter future.  As the article puts it, “The problem is that a math model, like a metaphor, is a simplification. This type of modeling came out of the sciences, where the behavior of particles in a fluid, for example, is predictable according the laws of physics.”  The article goes on to point out the implications of abiding by this false presumption, such as the catastrophic failure of financial modeling to predict the world-wide economic collapse of 2008.  I particularly like the way that the article summarizes this cautionary message.  “Listening to the data is important, they [experts interviewed for the article] say, but so is experience and intuition.  After all, what is intuition at its best but large amounts of data of all kinds filtered through a human brain rather than a math model?”

This is where experience and intuition intersect with my particular interest in improvisation.  When done well, improvisation is not merely random actions.  Instead, good improvisation occurs when the timely distillation of experience and observation coalesces through intuition to emerge in an action that both resolves a dilemma and introduces opportunity.  Improvisation is the way that we discover a new twist in our teaching that magically “just seemed to work.”  Those moments aren’t about luck; they materialize when experience meets intuition meets trust meets action.  Only after reflecting on what happened are we able to figure out the “why” and the “how” in order to replicate the new innovation onto which we have stumbled.  Meanwhile, back in the moment, it feels like we are just “in a zone.”

Of course, improvisation is no more a guarantee of perfection than predictive modeling.  That is because the belief that one can somehow achieve perfection in educating is just as flawed as the fallacy of predictive modeling.  Statisticians are taught to precede findings with the phrase “all else remaining constant . . . ” But in education, that has always been the supremely ironic problem.  Nothing remains constant.  So situating evidence of a statistically significant finding within the the real and gnarly world of teaching and learning requires sophisticated thinking borne of extensive experience and keen intuition.

Effective improvising emerges when we are open to its possibilities – individually and collectively.  It’s just a matter of letting our experience morph into intuition in a context of trust that spurs us to act.  Just because big data isn’t the solution that some claim it to be doesn’t mean that we batten down the hatches, pretend that MOOCs and every other innovation in educational technology don’t exist, and keep doing what we’ve always done (only better, faster, smarter, more, more, more . . . ).  Effective improvising is always preceded by intuition that is informed by some sort of data analysis.  When asked why they did what they did, successful improvisers can often explain in detail the thought processes that spurred them to take a particular action or utter a particular line.  In the same way, we know a lot about how our students learn and what seems to work well in extending their learning.  Given that information, I believe that we have the all of the experience and knowledge to improvise successfully.  We just need to flip the switch (“Lights, Action, Improv!”).

Early in the spring term, I’ll host a Friday Conversation where I’ll teach some ways to apply the principles of improvisation to our work.  Some of you may remember that I did a similar session last year – although you may have repressed that memory if you were asked to volunteer for one of the improv sketches.

In the mean time, I hope you’ll open yourself up to the potential of improvisation.  Enjoy your return to the daily routine.  It’s good to have you back.

Make it a good day,

Mark