Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How to Evaluate a MOOC

Since we're already doggie-paddling around the deep-end of the MOOC phenomenon, it seems high time to begin thinking about how to assess MOOCs.  This is far from straightforward, since they are not typical courses and might best be conceived of as extension or continuing education activities.

Very few colleges and universities are revealing their assessment practices for MOOCs; Duke is one exception.  This report explains that selective university's experiences with one course, and demonstrates how their administrators and faculty thought about measuring success. In my view, some of it is good, and some of it is exactly what not to do.

So here is my overview of an initial evaluative framework for thinking about whether or not a MOOC was a "success." I'm posting this with the explicit intention of generating discussion to refine this framework and build it out, so please add your two cents.

The framework has three components: an assessment of costs expended to generate and implement the MOOC, an assessment of its intended impacts in multiple domains, and as assessment of unintended consequences.  Only by considering all three can one make an informed decision about whether a MOOC was worthwhile, yet reporting on MOOCs suggests that many institutions are focusing on only one or two of the three.
  1. COSTS
    1. How many total hours of effort were required to build the MOOC?
      1. How many of these were on the part of the faculty member?
      2. How many involved TA time?
      3. How many involved staff time?
    2. What technological costs were incurred?
      1. How much was spent to get the MOOC off the ground?
      2. What are the regular maintenance costs?
      3. What are the costs of upgrading the MOOC?
    3. How many hours of administrative time were devoted to meetings about the MOOC? 
      1. How much time and money is spent advertising the MOOC?
      2. How much time will be required to regulate it?
      3. How much time will be required to assess its outcomes?
    1. On Students.  
      1. How many students initially enrolled in the MOOC?
      2. How many of these were students were not already enrolled in the university?
      3. How many countries are represented among MOOC users?
        1. How many of these countries were previously not served by the university, or represent new relationships?
        2. How many of these countries are home to under-educated populations?
      4. How many of these students had no college experience prior to the MOOC?
      5. How many of these students already held a college degree of any kind?
      6. What percent of the total initial enrollment completed the first week of the course?
      7. What percent of the total initial enrollment completed the first assessment?
      8. What percent of the total initial enrollment completed the entire course?
    2. On Faculty.  
      1. What was the professor's level of satisfaction with the course, as compared to satisfaction of teaching a usual university course?
      2. What new contacts for the professor resulted from the MOOC, related to his/her research agenda?
      3. How did teaching the MOOC inform the professor's research agenda?
      4. How did teaching the MOOC change how the professor approaches his/her regular university courses?
      5. Is there any evidence that the professor and/or his/her research gained more recognition in the community where MOOC students came from? (e.g. media mentions, etc)
    1. How many course releases (from campus teaching) were required for the professor to teach the MOOC, and how many students on average are taught per course (typically)?
    2. How many press mentions occurred regarding the MOOCs?
      1. How many were positive?
      2. How many were negative?
    3. What did state legislators say about the MOOCs?
      1. How many felt the MOOC was a welcome activity?
      2. How many felt the MOOC was an unwelcome activity?
    4. What is the dollar value of the activities incurred by the MOOC contracted out to the provider rather than performed "in-house"?

As I said, this is just a rough start.  Write in, and help me flesh this out!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nick Jones: Candidate for UW-Madison Chancellor

This post is the second in a series of four.

It's hard to say much about Nick Jones, candidate for chancellor of UW-Madison, because hardly anyone seems to know who he is.  He's spent most of the last 30 years at a single, very elite private institution-- Johns Hopkins University-- where he's currently the dean of the Whiting School of Engineering.  About 10 years ago, Jones left Hopkins about about two years to work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but quickly returned. Apart from engaging in various engineering-related activities, he doesn't seem to have done much in higher education leadership.

That said, Jones is well-liked by those in the Hopkins community, and appears to be good at fundraising. Very nice.

But this is a case where having been a dean and the product of one institution may simply not be enough. He talks in terms of sports metaphors when describing his current job, noting that  "I’m an offensive lineman. Basically, I run interference for my faculty. At the end of the day, it’s the faculty who are on the field, trying to get stuff done and put together creative ideas. My job is to facilitate and make that happen. I have to get out in front and clear the path so that they can do what they do. I help get any impediments out of the way, such as administrative ones, and bring resources to the table to help make their aspirations come true."  Well frankly, being chancellor at Madison is going to require dealing with many more types of impediments and resources will be hard to come by-- and the job is first and foremost to help students, not faculty.

Johns Hopkins University is, to be quite frank, not a training ground for leading UW-Madison at all. It's small, very privileged, and well-known for being incredibly siloed. Jones seems quite nice, but frankly unprepared for this work.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kim Wilcox: Candidate for UW-Madison Chancellor


There are four candidates for UW-Madison Chancellor. This week I will profile each of them, contributing information gleaned from "off list" discussions and sleuthing. As I noted in my last couple of blogs, unfortunately that sort of due diligence was not undertaken by the search firm.

I'm doing this in the spirit of sifting and winnowing, with an eye towards helping us identify the candidate who best suits UW-Madison with its many strong traditions-- foremost among them our tradition of shared governance. I hope you will join me in that spirit, refraining from engaging in name-calling or sheer speculation, while sharing any useful information you may have, using the comments function on this blog.

Until December 2012, Kim Wilcox was the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Michigan State University, where he also served as a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, a member of the MSU Foundation board of directors, and on the board of directors of the Spectrum Health – MSU Alliance Corporation. 

Earlier in his career, Wilcox was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and vice provost for general education coordination at the University of Kansas. He was born in Michigan, and received his bachelor’s degree in audiology and speech sciences from Michigan State University, and his master’s and doctorate from Purdue University, both in speech and hearing science.

This is not Wilcox's first attempt at a chancellor position. Last year, he was up for the position at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and according to some sources earlier he was considered for a similar job in Minnesota, in a search he pulled out from. It seems he's been looking to leave his current job for awhile.

While also a public university, Michigan State is a very different academic environment from UW-Madison, most critically with regard to its top-down style of governing. The president and provost hold a great deal of power, and make nearly all campus decisions with the deans--and without consultation with the faculty. This sort of background is not an asset when it comes to preparing for the chancellorship of UW-Madison. 

Some colleagues find Wilcox to be the ultimate technocrat, citing his love of metrics and accountability, and noting that under his leadership faculty governance is an "empty enterprise." Others who are more fond of him seem to generally be students and faculty who've known no other approach to decision-making, and are pretty happy to be "allowed a voice" in decisions.

One of the key issues on which people speak most vehemently about Wilcox is in regards to his efforts to restructure academic departments. Here is a video of Wilcox -- around the 6 minute mark, he announces his suggestion for consolidation of some departments within a college, “reducing the number from 13 to 6.”  These efforts mainly focused on the liberal arts, the Classics in particular-- which he apparently proposed eliminating--but I'm also told he would have eliminated Geology if a big donor hasn't intervened.  Commentary on discussion boards tend to center on these issues-- for example see this message board and this reaction to the Classics decision.

When it comes to student enrollment, it has been said that “under Wilcox's direction, MSU has grown its enrollment to more than 49,000 students while raising the academic credentials of the entering class, increasing the percentage of students from underrepresented groups, decreasing the average time to degree, increasing the graduation rate for undergraduates and decreasing the percentage of students graduating with any accumulated debt” However, while an examination of MSU's data digest (h/t to that helpful grad student, you know who are you!) supports most of these claims, it's also worth noting that during Wilcox's tenure, the racial/ethnic gap in graduation rates widened by 40%. The reliance on adjuncts at the university also increased, as did the concentration of racial/ethnic minorities in that group of faculty. Overall, I find little evidence that Wilcox has systematically worked to address issues of achievement gaps at MSU, a major issue on that campus and ours.

To conclude: while I have little doubt that the search and screen committee found much value in Wilcox's portfolio of materials, I have serious concerns about his ability to adapt and thrive in our campus governance system. I am also quite unsure that he will treat the issues of diversity that we face on this campus with the seriousness of purpose that they deserve. For this reason, at this point he is not my choice for chancellor.

Postscript: Wilcox was up for the position of chancellor at the University of Wyoming and did not get it.


Just received this email about Wilcox from MSU colleagues-- seems important enough to share:

There are quite a few serious "negatives" here that anyone who might be in a position to have influence should know about. One point, for example, is the statement Wilcox made to the NYT Education Life section that appeared on Dec. 29, 2009: "Kim Wilcox, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Michigan State, notes that universities, his included, used to offer majors in elocution and animal husbandry. In a major re-examination of its curriculum, Michigan State has added a dozen or so new programs, including degrees in global studies and, in response to a growing industry in the state, film studies. At the same time, it is abandoning underperformers like classical studies: in the last four years, only 13 students have declared it their major." As if his condescension weren't bad enough, the statement he made here was simply false. We graduated five to six majors per year with an average of 25-26 majors on the books each of the four years he cites. This, with three regular faculty members. The stated reason for cutting programs, especially in our case, was the budget, but, again, the numbers simply weren't there. There were also serious violations of governance and procedures when Classics was eliminated.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Asking More from Our Next Chancellor

Over at the Nation, Scott Sherman makes an excellent case that we are obligated to sift and winnow for a college president or chancellor who will address the real social and economic issues confronting public higher education-- rather than merely "adapting" to the new normal.

Sherman writes, "Why should we fret about the presidents of our colleges and universities? Because American higher education is plagued by severe difficulties on many fronts—from soaring tuition and runaway student debt to the loss of public funding, the endemic corruption in college athletics and the erosion of the liberal arts—and the presidents won’t resolve those issues by kibitzing in the gilded suites of Wall Street. The time has come to demand more from them, and to hold them to more elevated standards. The finest presidents of the past—Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, Clark Kerr—were not perfect men, but they exercised potent leadership, and sometimes they were quite courageous."

As we move through this chancellor search process, I concur with Sherman that we should seek a man or woman with courage.  We must avoid technocrats, those "agile climbers who reach the top without making too many enemies or mistakes."  It seems to me that we have at least one in the current pool (more on that later).  On this point, like Sherman, I think folks like William Bowen are entirely wrong to advise presidents to speak rarely and carefully on matters of public policy.  I agree firmly with Jonathan Cole of Columbia, whom Sherman quotes as stating the following:

“Presidents have done a very, very poor job of using the bully pulpit for higher education...They have done particularly poorly at educating the American people about the value of the university—its centrality to the future welfare of this country. They have done abysmally on the humanities, failing to educate the public about why the humanities are central to the university, and why they are even central to the sciences in the future.” For Cole, it comes down to guns or butter. Presidents “have failed to explain why the public ought to be supporting the universities as a nondiscretionary item in the budget. You can train three or four students at Berkeley for what it costs to incarcerate a prisoner in California.”

Cole told Sherman that "there aren’t many presidents who are fighting against the powers that be.
Well, that's tragic, and so so sad indeed.  We absolutely must look for the possibilities of one in the candidates coming soon to visit our campus.  Perhaps s/he can grow into such a leader.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Due Diligence: When it Comes to Madison's Next Chancellor Now Is the Time

There's hardly ever been a more difficult and auspicious time to lead a public flagship university. Yet at the same time, I believe it's among the greatest opportunities, and anyone would be beyond lucky to have the job.

The last chancellor of UW-Madison nearly undid our relationship with our state. In my opinion, then and now, she was nothing short of disastrous.  And, we have learned since her departure that her employment could have been avoided if only the search had involved a genuine due diligence process before she was brought in for interviews. For example, had due diligence occurred, we would have known-- before she came to woo the campus with her charisma-- that as long as Biddy's around, no one needs to have good ideas, for she has them all. In a setting like ours, where shared governance prevails, and we know that good ideas come from all sorts of places, she clearly wouldn't have fit.

Due diligence is a must when hiring any leader. And it's incredibly important that it happen before people come for in-person interviews on campuses and in communities-- since at that point there's no going back. In fact, in processes like ours, the naming of candidates for interviews is really the end of the "search and screen" process- the faculty, staff, and students have done their jobs.  In this case, the search and screen was asked to proffer 5 candidates-- and it offered 4.  Clearly, its members have been working hard. But now their jobs are essentially done, and the decision is up to UW System President Kevin Reilly and a team of Regents: Charles Pruitt, Regina Millner, Brent Smith, David Walsh, and Student Regent Katherine Pointer.

Since I was curious, I asked Search Chair David McDonald about the process for vetting candidates, and learned that until this point the four candidates have only been vetted using print and online sources, and their "on-list" references (e.g. the people they said to call).  Apparently, no additional investigation into their backgrounds has occurred. This is very disappointing.  We just saw the effects of similar mistakes with the search for a new superintendent of Madison public schools-- and here we are again.

So given this state of affairs, I urge people across Wisconsin, and our alumni, to go out and help us learn all we can about the candidates order to help ensure we get a chancellor that will lead this great institution forward in ways that respect our history, our context, our mission, and all of the families of Wisconsin.

Of course, I've been doing my homework as well, and in the coming days I will begin to blog about my assessments of each candidate. I am doing this publicly, and independently, as a concerned citizen and long-time employee of this university. My opinions are just that-- mine.  I will not pretend that sharing them matters at all, especially to the Regents. But this time around, I think it's best that all cards are on the table-- even if we don't get the chancellor we want, we need to know whom we're really dealing with.

The comment box is open, and my email is .  Tell us, what do you know about Michael Schill of the University of Chicago, Kim Wilcox of Michigan State University, Nick Jones of Johns Hopkins, and Rebecca Blank of Commerce?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Economic Woes to "Transform" Higher Education

Milton Friedman must be dancing in his grave at the moment.  In every economic crisis there's an opportunity to impose change, he professed, and no smart leader let such an opportunity pass by. Especially when it comes to undermining public goods.

Leaders of MOOC movements across the nation, including here at home in UW-Madison, are telling us that this is simply the right time to take the leap into a transformed space in higher education, one enabled by technology.  I have absolutely no doubt that they sincerely believe this.  And I have equally little doubt that most are entirely unaware of their place in history, and the degree to which they are acting out a narrative written many decades earlier.

MOOCs are not primarily or even secondarily about bringing open, no-cost education to the masses. Instead, these efforts created by private elite institutions and for-profit businesses squarely aim to outsource traditional governmental functions in education, and divert taxpayer dollars from the building of public assets and institutions to create long-term revenue streams and profit for corporations.  That's privatization, period.

If MOOCs were simply the meeting of technological triumphs and the demand of students around the world, they would have been embraced in a very different way, and developed in a much more democratic manner.  There is a third factor guiding their growth, and it reveals their true meaning.  As described in this document circulated by the "Committee on Institutional Cooperation," a consortium of the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago, it is the meeting of these two pressures plus economic pressures regarding debt and tuition that make this the moment for MOOCs.   Not only does traditional higher education face additional threats from regulation, say the leaders of MOOCs, but heck, you're fast becoming "irrelevant" too. Through disruptions from all over, we will be squeezed into submission.

Very little good has ever come from decisions made through austerity politics.


Do you feel tired when hearing the word "innovation" because it's been so often in the news? Are you now just waiting for your university to do something about it? Did it ever occur to you that this is due to a coordinated push by business-minded authors and foundations to deliver the compelling message that "traditional higher education" is outdated because...

  • Uncontrolled cost increases
  • Graduates lack critical skills
  • Resistance to pedagogical innovation
  • Irrelevant scholarship
  • Tenure protects faculty from accountability
  • Undergraduate tuition is subsidizing  faculty research
  • Traditional universities are captive to the  prestige arms race—real change will  come from radical, low cost models

What's coming next? The Executive Advisory Board has a glimpse of the future for faculty...

After being shown by "innovators" that our beliefs are "traditional' and "outdated" we will next begin the pathway to salvation-- the 'gamification of education.'

The pathway is so clear, the future so bright, that there will be, according to this model-- "NO EXCUSES" for resisting transformation.  We will enter the new world of 'high capacity' instruction, which focuses on new hires-- not those old "experienced" teachers.

Recall the claims in New Orleans, when school reformers arrived, that "teacher experience" was overrated?

Sound far-fetched? Why would anyone bother to push this agenda so hard?  Oh, wait for it-- because the new education is entirely in service of the business sector.  'Cause of course, this transformation is all about the improving the economy, stupid!

Forget Liberal Arts, folks, now we will have Liberal Arts 2.0!

And for all of you researchers, no more need for "disciplines"- according to the report, those are going the way of the typewriter.

Finally, glory glory hallelujah we will reach the punchline:  more dollars reaching the private sector.

Scared yet? Wait for it...

Don't you see how inevitable it is? Stop clicking your heels together, Dorothy.. after all...

So, what to look for next?  PRIVATE rather than PUBLIC votes.  "Paperless" budgeting. And oh, so much more...

Still feel like sitting still and letting others make decisions for you, you "traditionalists? "

Some readers have suggested this blog is insightful while others claim it's a conspiracy theory. For both groups, I suggest you take a look at this new piece by Andrew Leonard.  Leonard, a journalist, began as roundly skeptical of claims like mine, but has evolved his thinking.  In this piece, he writes "But what if MOOCs actually turned out to be part of a right-wing plot? After some reflection, it’s become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet’s remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we’ve seen with recorded music and newspapers. There’s a political context to the transformation. Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident. Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States.It’s absolutely no accident that in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, three of the most conservative governors in the country are leading the push to incorporate MOOCs in university curricula. And it seems well worth asking whether the apostles of disruption who have been warning academics that everything is about to change have paid enough attention to how the intersection of politics and MOOCs is affecting the speed and intensity of that change. Imagine if Napster had had the backing of the Heritage Foundation and House Republicans? It’s hard enough to survive chaotic disruption when it is a pure consequence of technological change. But when technological change suits the purposes of enemies looking to put a knife in your back, it’s almost impossible."


Performance Funding, MOOCs, and Public/ Private Distinctions

The discourse around higher education on two key topics-- MOOCs and performance funding-- is unfortunately trending toward a generic approach to institutions.  Lumping public and private universities together is always unwise, because not only do their funding sources differ, but so do their missions and masters.

Public institutions still lean heavily on taxpayer support to provide undergraduate education, and that funding is subject to rules developed by externally, democratically controlled governance units.  They are explicitly responsible for expanding access, growing the proportion of the public that is educated at the postsecondary level.  These conditions represent both benefits and constraints to public colleges and universities.

In contrast, at private instituions tuition and endowments provide most of the resources for undergraduate education, and rules for that funding and spending are mainly developed internally.  Their missions vary widely and are internally determined.  These conditions also come with benefits and consequences, but quite different ones than those faced by public schools.

Given these differences, let's consider the following questions:

(1) What are the effects of holding both sets of institutions to the same metrics/outcomes?  They are not equally in control of the inputs critical to achieving outcomes. Also,  the impacts of achieving an outcome like graduation comes as a cost for other outcomes --such as access- for which public institutions alone are truly held responsible.

(2) What are the differential effects of implementing MOOCs in public and private schools?  They fit within institutional mission and resources in very different ways in these spaces.  Private institutions can decide to devote resources to outreach and brand recognition, but public institutions must first excel at their core efforts-- expanding access and providing high quality education at a low price point.  Private institutions must answer to their boards for such activities, while public institutions must answer to taxpayers.   As my colleague Chuck Rybak at UW-Green Bay recently asked via Twitter, "Is someone going to ask if it's ethical for state schools to offer MOOCs/coursework to non-Wisconsin taxpayers for free?"  I bet they are now...

Too often those inside higher education focus on the activities of their elite, private "peers" without acknowledging that these aren't our peers at all.  It reminds me of high school. Why are the really smart, devoted, activist kids who are great at so many things but don't invest time putting on make-up trying to pander to the whims of the homecoming kings and queens who invest in dating and shopping for cars?  Why are those capable of changing the world by helping the truly disadvantaged gain their footing instead spending their time chasing technological innovations that eventually will mainly serve to line the pockets of the already-wealthy?  And when will we stop them from imposing their technocratic "rules" on our hard work?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Illusory Appeal of the UW-Madison MOOCs

It was only a matter of time.  The anticipation was palpable when a group of about 50 concerned faculty, students, and staff from around UW-Madison gathered last summer to talk about the governance crisis at UVA.  The president of that flagship university had just been ousted for failing to quickly embrace MOOCs-- a sign some UVA board members thought meant that she was failing to embrace the "disruptive innovation" that will purportedly transform higher education.  While President Teresa Sullivan was reinstated some weeks later, after a period of alumni outrage, the writing was on the wall.  MOOCs were established as an especially hot new trend with broad appeal among the powerful who find "shock and awe" scenarios the best way to promote change-- and it wouldn't be long before UW-Madison lept into the quicksand.

This morning UW-Madison is going public with the news that we're joining with Coursera to offer four pilot MOOCs.  Our administrators have apparently decided MOOCs are "compelling"enough to jump on the bandwagon.

This is a pretty remarkable turn of events, for several reasons. Let's set aside for a moment that relatively little open, public discussion of MOOCs has occurred on campus, especially discussion involving faculty and students.  But frankly, I can't even pretend surprise about that anymore. As usual, the University Committee and "numerous" faculty were engaged in discussions with administrators, but obviously that's small potatoes on a campus of 2,000+ professors.  If surveyed, I'm willing to bet that 50% or more of the professors at Madison don't know what a MOOC is, despite the presence of this "thought piece" crafted "for considering if MOOCs are right for UW-Madison at this point in time" and placed on a website most faculty don't know about.

Instead, I'm a little more surprised at the apparent willingness of the Madison administration to engage in the illusions/delusions of grandeur posed by the MOOC movement. Sure, this is just four courses, a small step forward, and it's framed as a pilot effort to "learn by doing."  It's not as if the entire campus has gone for MOOC madness.  But "learning by doing" is often akin to a gateway drug--once you've done a little, you might as well do more-- after all, you've already make the investment.  Furthermore, if you're really learning by doing, you build in continuous assessment of both intended and unintended consequences-- and the administration's documents don't mention of this sort of work at all. (Fingers crossed that the evaluation plan is among a detailed set of documents we'll soon get to see.)

The rhetorical flourishes of MOOCs abound, with talk of great public service and institutional branding. But in some key areas, the reality seems far grimmer.  Consider this:

1. MOOCs cost money and apparently generate little in return. We are constantly told that financial resources are scarce on campus, and hard to come by.  But as Madison's administrators know very well, MOOCs "require upfront investment without directly generating new revenue."  The business model for MOOCs is simply unclear.  What even the administration suspects is that it likely threatens the employment of our teaching assistants.

2. MOOCs take faculty time. There's rampant complaints of "overwork" among Madison faculty and yet at the same time demand by our students for access to more courses with us.  MOOCs require time to develop and teach.  If course releases are provided to do this, it pretty much has to come at a cost to UW-Madison students-- or involve further overloading the faculty.  This leads me to wonder, why would we release our professors,  paid with state appropriations and student tuition, to teach students elsewhere?  While it's grand and laudable, expanding their influence and potentially improving our rankings, how is this any different than funding a course release for a professor who flies off to teach at Harvard or in Shanghai?  We don't do that, so why do this?  Professors can and do engage in such things on their own, but they aren't paid by us for it. Why should this be different?

3. MOOCs don't address the core problems we face as a state institution.  MOOCs will neither strengthen our relationships with the Wisconsin legislature or rural communities or help us deliver greater economic development returns to the state.  While these are not all we are tasked with doing, or have the ambition to do, by investing energy in MOOCs rather than those other activities, we are revealing our priorities.  There are opportunity costs to every effort, and this one is occupying our time.

4. Despite their name, there is little chance that MOOCs will serve the masses truly in need of free educational opportunities. The Madison document suggests that MOOCs will "improve lives" and increase "access to education" and thus help fulfill the Wisconsin Idea. This is the grandest claim of all, and yet it's the most far-fetched.  There's no evidence to suggest that the people taking advantage of learning from MOOCs are the under-educated-- but rather they are the highly-educated seeking to learn a bit more in the process of lifelong learning. An assessment of one of Duke's MOOCs found that just 11% of the MOOC enrollment came from students who hadn't attended college-- and the tiny percent of course completers usually held a BA or higher.  MOOCs aren't a substitute for postsecondary education; they are a continuation of it.  They represent not our core mission but the "extras" that we hope to provide at Madison-- if only we can afford to do so.

So let me conclude with this. I love UW-Madison and I love it when we try new things as a university.  Pushing the envelope is a sign of bravery, and our faculty are nothing if not fearless.  But jumping onto an already-moving train just because our peers are onboard, at a time when we have scarce resources and much to lose, well, it looks a bit insane.  And it's really scary to think that some of our administrators subscribe to a shock doctrine approach to educational change, awaiting a "sufficient sense of urgency" to reach the campus to get it engaged in MOOCs.

Let's really debate the MOOCs, sifting and winnowing our way through the process. Let's talk about how to assess this pilot effort, and what sorts of outcomes must be measured.  Let's figure out a plan to put an end to these pilots if they are costing us more than they're worth.  As my colleague Kris Olds has put it, "There are political and economic machinations associated with the stirring of interest in, and coverage of, MOOCs. Given this, and given the stakes at hand, it is important to address the MOOCs phenomenon is a serious, sustained, and reflective way, not in a knee jerk fashion, one way or the other."  Agreed. And now Olds is creating one of Madison's 4 new MOOCs.

With that,  I invite you to a conversation about MOOCs taking place during ED TALKS Wisconsin, Friday March 15 at 7 pm at the School of Education.  Our keynote speaker is Anya Kamenetz, and Kris Olds will be responding to her, along with Chancellor of UW Colleges Ray Cross.  It should be a really good time-- hope to see you there!

ps. Need a laugh? Check out what North Korea's up to regarding MOOCs. (H/T Gary Rhoades)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Recruiting in Classrooms???

The Answer Sheetover at the Washington Post recently ran an editorial by a professor at Fordham University about his reasons for not allowing Teach for America to recruit in his college classroom.  Mainly, he objects because TFA focuses on short-term rather than long-term commitments to teaching and as a result, he claims, “an organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.”

Like this professor, I don’t allow TFA to recruit in my classrooms at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Apparently, many of my colleagues feel the same way. When I noted this on Twitter and Facebook, the response was substantial.  Faculty from across the country said “me too,” “me too,” though only a few elaborated on why.

Those that did expound on their practices revealed that TFA’s strategy of in-classroom recruitment may have unintended consequences.  The professors, it seems, use it as an opportunity to describe the “cult-like” aspects of the program, the negative experiences other students have had with it, and the ways it undermines a focus on high-quality teaching and teacher retention.  No, this is apparently not limited to my colleagues in education or sociology; I heard similar stories in STEM disciplines too.

But regardless of whether the recruitment strategy employed by TFA works or not, and whether or not professors take kindly to it or not, my reason for not allowing TFA to recruit in my classroom is very simple:  My classroom is a place for education not solicitation.

The bigger question neglected by the Washington Post editorial—and the one that should be asked all over the country— is why is any organization seeking to take class time for advertising?  And why are universities allowing it? At most colleges and universities, solicitations are confined to public spaces. Why should this only apply to commercial solicitation? If TFA is allowed to recruit during our class time, then doesn’t any other potential employer have the right to? Do we professors really want to subject ourselves to fielding such requests?  Even if no endorsement is implied—and I believe that we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t understand that it’s inherent in opening the door—it still costs us limited instructional time.

There is a hypocrisy in future educators asking current educators to take time away from their teaching so that they can “pitch” students on their product. Teach for America is just one potential opportunity after all; there are numerous others out there.  Our job as professors is to help students develop the critical thinking skills needed to vet these options for themselves—not provide the time for advertisers to reach them.

Monday, February 18, 2013

School Confusion

We're now midway through my son's first year of public schooling.  Overall, things seem to be going well, he's loving it, and learning a lot.  But I'm confused about a couple of things...

1. School fundraisers.  It seems that this is where bad ideas go to live.  Why in the world would you sell frozen danishes to help a kid's school? Who needs a frozen danish? Who needs horribly ugly Christmas ornaments and why are you selling religious stuff anyway?  Big tins of candied popcorn? Why?   Why not sell something useful or healthy or kid-friendly?

2. Field trips.  I love the idea. I don't love the actual set-up, where kids visit a place like the children's museum and do exactly what they'd do if they went with their parents.  Actually, they are with their parents-- or other peoples' parents.  I went, and had to watch 5 kids for 2.5 hours, having no idea how to actually use the resources to educate them.  Missed opportunities.

3. Candy. Seems like candy is everywhere at school!  Valentine's day was a disaster- I love that the kids exchanged cards, but why was sugar attached to every one of them?? What parent thought giving kindergarteners bags of candy was a good idea?  Seriously.  And we wonder why this country has an obesity problem.

4. Movie day.  Given how much learning there is to be done, why in the heck is a school taking an entire day off to watch Ice Age and eat ice cream?  Color me totally confused why attendance at school is required for stuff like this. Don't we send kids to school so they won't be stuck in front of a screen all day?

Ok, so now I sound like a cranky old-school mom. Oh well. Just old and confused.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

On Academics and Athletics

The Faculty Senate at UW-Madison is a very quiet place.  We meet monthly for about two hours and while the agenda is packed, hardly anyone asks questions or makes impassioned speeches (present company excluded, of course).

But on one issue, you can count on professors to speak up: athletics.

More specifically, the money paid to coaches and staff on campus invokes more vehemence and animosity from my colleagues than any other issue I've seen brought to the forefront.

I suspect the same is true at other schools.  For it's fairly uniformly the case that salaries in athletics are far higher than those in academics and rise much, much faster.

But of course, you might say. And how silly, Sara, to doubt that this is not only a good thing, but a smart thing!  For as we all know, athletics brings money and needed attention to universities, generates revenue that benefits the entire institution, and more than pays for itself. In fact, people who care about financial aid ought to be nothing but thrilled to have an awesome football program. Right? I mean, don't you remember that local banks have a history of contributing to financial aid when the players score touchdowns?

We hear this all the time. In fact, the budget for athletics is the one untouchable area of spending on campus, where no one dare ask hard questions lest we seem ungrateful or worse yet anti-Bucky.

This is silly. Let's stipulate to a mutual fondness for competition and sheer enjoyment of football. Let's agree that it's important to have fun, and that fun attracts applications. And let's even say that coaches "earn" those big salaries.  So what?  The relative salaries of coaches and faculty is merely the canary in the coal mine. The larger issue is over the relative status of academics vs. athletics on campus and what that imbalance says about the state of higher education at major universities.

As public universities struggle to stay afloat and talk of unbundling their instruction and research and just about everything else they do, it's time for sports to be placed on the table too.  Because despite all of the protests to the contrary, rigorous analyses suggest that more often than not, athletics competes with academics for dollars.  And while there's often no state funding invested in athletics, there's no reason in the world for taxpayers to stand for activities that undermine the educational investments they're paying for.

A recent brief from the Delta Cost Project asks and attempts to answer some really good questions using national data. It's time for such questions to be asked and addressed by athletic boards, including  UW-Madison's.  Here are points with which to start:

  • How much more do we spend per athlete compared to spending per average student?
  • How do trends in athletic costs compare to trends in academic costs? Has spending been cut in athletics to the same degree it's been cut in academics? Do expenditures outpace revenues? 
  • What percent of the athletic budget is spent on student financial aid for athletes?  How does this compare to the university's budget for financial aid for non-athletes?
  • What fraction of total athletic budget revenue comes from ticket sales? What percent comes from student fees? From institutional subsidies? 
  • What fraction of the money generated by athletics is distributed for the university's financial aid program? How does this compare to the amount distributed at peer institutions, especially when taking into account student unmet need?
Of course athletic departments like Madison's do use and publish data but the analyses are mainly concerned with public impressions, and this is why they highlight economic impact studies like these. The problem is that such studies do not address the direct and indirect impacts of athletics on academic programs and cannot assess what the university would look and feel like if it weren't home to collegiate sports.  Unsurprisingly, I don't see such information in the annual reports of the Athletic Board either (though admittedly these are only posted through 2010). 

For that kind of data, you have to look to places like the Faculty Senate.  Listen the angry voices of professors who've not had a cost-of-living increase in years but constantly watch the football and basketball coaches get enormous boosts. See the faces of staff members who are literally out-earned many times over by the "big men on campus."  Hear the relative roar of the crowds over touchdowns versus Nobel Prizes.  Watch the surprise on students' faces when they learn they are expected to attend class, not just games. There are effects of such choices. They're all around us.

Tomorrow, the UW Athletic Board will vote on the Athletic Department's budget for 2013-2014. The request is for $133 million.  That includes a one-time, $30 million expense for construction costs related to the department’s Student-Athlete Performance Center.  As Professor David McDonald has noted in the past, this is an Athletic Board with teeth.  It's up to that shared governance body to consider the critical balances in play on this campus and elsewhere, and to ensure that academics aren't outcompeted by athletics.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Struggle at CUNY

Readers of this blog ought to be interested in changes at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York affecting the pay and resources of their graduate students.

In a nutshell, the same market-based approaches to education inflicted on k-12 schooling and more recently undergraduate education are now being brought to bear on graduate education.  Characteristics of that sector that some find undesirable-- for example longer times to degree--are being attributed to student laziness and treated with new rejiggered incentives.  The President of the CUNY Grad Center recently equated his students with roaches, who check into a model and never check out.

The pushback on the part of many CUNY grad students is merited and admirable-- while some of the so-called reforms are good on their face (who doesn't like fellowships?) their roll out and implementation suggest deeper problems.  It seems that too-little consideration has been given to the effects on access likely to occur with such a completion agenda, and this is especially problematic at an institution with such a long history of opening doors (and admittedly, then often slamming them).

I'm eager to learn more about these events, and encourage those of you in New York to share what you know with us.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Stand with Michael Kissick

This is what bravery looks like.

My colleague Michael Kissick is an untenured professor at UW-Madison with an unyielding commitment to the Wisconsin Idea, free speech and vigorous sifting and winnowing.  He is a peaceful man who, like many of us, enjoys a good Solidarity Singalong.

But when he went to the Capitol on September 13, 2012,  he was told that he would receive a ticket for participating in that now famous activity.  Group gatherings of more than 4 people that are intended to "promote a cause", are now forbidden in the "Peoples' house."

Who decides what's promoting a cause?  Oh, well of course the Capitol Police do.

You can't expect any rational, intelligent person to accept this nonsense. And Michael is not. He's now represented by the ACLU and has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court this afternoon-- on behalf of all of us peaceful, free thinking citizens and our right to assemble.

Lord knows what's headed Michael's way over the coming days and weeks as this thing unfolds. I fully expect requests for his email and critiques of his personal beliefs and attacks on the rights of professor to think and do for themselves.

What happens to Michael happens to us all.  Stand with Michael.

Money Matters, but So Does Avoiding Red Tape

Cross-posted from the original over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

“There’s no such thing as free money,” Joanne, a middle-aged African-American mother of two sitting across the table from me declared. “But for me, getting this college degree depends on whether I have enough money to afford it.”

Solving the problem of college affordability lies at the heart of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $3.3 million Reimagining Aid Delivery & Design project, which has spurred a series of reports covered weekly in the news this year. While the reports run the gamut of possible suggestions, from tying aid to students’ academic backgrounds to replacing the Pell Grant with a federal-state matching grant, they all have a similar refrain: Whatever the solution, it must be cheaper—it simply isn’t possible to request any additional spending.

Similarly, when I visit Washington policy makers and talk about the needs of the Pell Grant recipients I’ve been studying for the past five years, and describe how financial scarcity is affecting their lives, most listen sympathetically and then apologize, sadly, noting there’s no more money to be found. I get it: They are pragmatists and politicians, unfailingly realistic, and simply asking me to get in line with the new normal.

So if there’s “no free money” and yet more money is essential, what are we to do? First, it’s time to search for answers outside of Washington. And second, we have to consider the possibility of finding solutions outside the narrow higher-education-policy space. Maybe we can learn new things in communities across the country, where hard-working people are thinking beyond the usual silos, connecting the dots to develop new approaches.

Back when I was a graduate student, I spent time conducting research at community colleges across the country as Bill Clinton’s infamous welfare reform was enacted. I watched as programs providing supports to low-income, parenting, community-college students were shuttered, in the name of a “work first” approach to poverty alleviation.  While many students were receiving federal financial aid, the additional child care and transportation they got met their many unmet needs above and beyond the stated institutional “costs of attendance.” Welfare reform ended those supports, and widened the gulf between America’s education and poverty-reduction agenda. College for all, my colleagues and I wrote in our book, Putting Poor People to Work (Russell Sage, 2006), was clearly more hype than reality.

In 1998, as welfare reform was getting under way, Joanne began attending classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She came for a few sessions and was excited about the opportunity to get an education, but quickly realized that the cost of her 45-minute subway commute was draining her budget. She began hopping the subway turnstiles, trying to stay in school and get by. She looked for help at BMCC and didn’t find it. And after a month, she decided that hopping turnstiles wasn’t OK, wasn’t what she really was about, and she dropped out of school.

As advocates like those at the Center for Law and Social Policy have pointed out, transportation is a common barrier to community-college success, as is a lack of housing and food. But usually, community colleges do not have the power or resources to provide vouchers or free rides, nor are they in the business of coordinating social services. And post-welfare reform, they were explicitly disarmed from doing so.

Fast-forward more than a decade. The recent recession hit Joanne hard. She lost her job, and in 2011 re-enrolled at BMCC to try again. This time, as she walked through the doors of her school, she saw a new green sign: Single Stop USA. She walked in a Pell Grant recipient, and walked out equipped with food stamps, transportation vouchers, and child-care benefits.

This wasn’t a typical city social-services office with long lines and suspicious counselors who often treat poor women like Joanne with disrespect. Right in the middle of campus, between her classes, she had a 15-minute appointment with an electronic evaluation process facilitated by a knowledgeable counselor who equipped her with the money and support it seems she needed to make a degree possible. This spring, she will complete her associate degree.

Single Stop sprang into being in the years following welfare reform, arising to pull together the fragile strings of the remaining social safety net and knit them well enough to give the working poor a bit of a landing. Originally located in community-based organizations in New York City, where it was homegrown by the Robin Hood Foundation, in the last three years, the small Harlem-based nonprofit has found homes in 17 community colleges around the country.

In the last 12 months alone, Single Stop served almost 20,000 students. All told, its efforts brought an additional $38-million into the hands of those students, not by increasing the Pell Grant or encouraging them to take on debt, but simply by helping them navigate complicated social services to get the benefits already allocated for their use. Using trained professionals who help students see the importance of efficiently using existing resources to push toward a college degree, and by working closely with colleges to promote a focus on the whole student in order to promote academic success, Single Stop complements the development of both individuals’ soft skills and their financial resources. For every $1 the program costs, it brings $14 in benefits students wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Can we assume that additional money is pushing students like Joanne toward degrees? It’s too soon to tell—there haven’t yet been any rigorous comparison-group evaluations. Thus far this year, I’ve tried to find out by visiting six community-college campuses in New York and Miami where Single Stop is functioning, and interviewing administrators, staff, and students.

Good stories like Joanne’s abound. So do horror stories of tremendous need—community-college students sleeping on grates, suffering strokes, going without food for days—which would make anyone wonder about cruelty of the college-for-all rhetoric unbuttressed by sufficient support.

But even before demonstrating clear impact, Single Stop USA has already proved one thing: If money really matters for college degrees, we may be able to find a lot more of it by bridging unreasonable divides between public agencies, reducing paperwork, and repositioning the community college as a point of connection as well as education. That’s a pragmatic solution we may be all able to live with, and it’s a good place to start.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Higher Education Lobby Comes to UW-Madison

This morning, the UW System Board of Regents heard from a prominent speaker: Molly Corbett Broad, President of the American Council of Education.  Then, around noon, she joined a group on the UW-Madison campus to share a similar talk, but this time with an audience of faculty, staff, and students. Both talks focused on the theme of "higher education at a crossroads."

I had the honor of introducing President Broad to the second audience, in my role as Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.  I also moderated the discussion portion of the conversation.

As I'm grateful to Broad for joining us, I feel it's among the most respectful acts to fully engage with her comments and offer my thoughts and questions here.  Simply receiving information from a talk without vigorously considering and debating the ideas is inconsistent with the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.  So, with that in mind, here are my thoughts.

First, let's begin with 10 key points Broad made in her talk:

  1. Today's undergraduates are quite different from yesterday's. In particular, they are often older, have fewer resources, and are especially interested in getting a return on their college investment.
  2. Students' reactions to loan burdens are often inappropriate, given the sizable return to college degrees.  Broad noted that it's better to have a college education than to own a home. She also clearly stated that students who take on too many loans are greatly in need of financial education.
  3. Many  colleges and universities are struggling financially to stay afloat.  Broad posited that this was an inevitable trend, unlikely to change.  She showed a slide indicating that 50% of universities are reporting lower enrollment growth.
  4. The federal government, said Broad, is a minor player in higher education and it's best that it remain that way.  A growing role of the federal government, she said, would be unwelcome.  She told the audience to remember the old adage that those with the gold do the ruling (or something similar, implying that the federal government will try to control whatever it funds).
  5. It is therefore problematic, noted Broad, that a growing number of undergraduates are "dependent" on the federal Pell Grant. 
  6. There is a lot of variation among institutions, Broad pointed out. To illustrate this, she showed data indicating that the selective private universities admit just 13% of applicants and spend $75,000 on each student, while less selective privates admit 67% of applicants and spend $21,000 per student.
  7. It is important, said Broad, that we provide better counseling to explain to students (especially those without family resources) that "not every student can afford to attend every institution."  
  8. We have done a great job expanding access to college, say Broad. 
  9. The classic iron triangle of higher education (which I've dissected many times, including in a blog for the Board of Regents) is now outdated, according to Broad, and must be rethought with a focus on innovation.
  10. The key innovation lies in online courses and services.  Broad said "isn't it time for us to take lessons from private business?" and pointed to MOOCs.  Udacity, Coursera, and EdX "will help higher education meet the forces of change," she reported. Of course, Broad noted the usual concerns about academic quality, and then said that we could be confident that ACE was helping ensure quality control. Specifically, she said that ACE had been "retained" by the MOOCs to assess quality.
Before providing my own comments, here is a taste of what the audience at WISCAPE had to say in response. First, a graduate student asked about the implications for academic labor, noting his concern that graduate student training opportunities would be diminished if MOOCs were the main mechanism for course delivery.  Broad responded that graduate student experiences with regard to teaching were already subpar.  A staff member asked how we might alter tenure incentives to focus more on innovative teaching, and Broad said she didn't know.  A faculty member asked about how MOOCs generate money for their schools-- and Broad said that remained to be seen.  And finally, the Chief Information Officer of UW-Madison noted that broadband access, critical to online education, is woefully insufficient in some parts of the country, and asked Broad to do the lobbying to help shore it up. In response, Broad suggested that he contact the Obama Administration and let her know what they said.

Ok.  I was struggling to stay silent throughout all of this for one major reason:  There is a abundant gulf between the (mainly accurate) trends among undergraduates and institutions that Broad described and the solution she offered.  So I asked her: "If on the one hand we know that the number of economically disadvantaged students in higher education is growing, and many colleges and universities have fewer resources with which to serve them, how can we expect a solution (MOOCS) which provide less student contact (particular the hands-on kind important to success of first generation students) and no additional revenue to help?"  

Her response was that our current model is broken, and that she would not want to be the person to "underestimate the potential of disadvantaged students to benefit from MOOCs" as much as any other student.

Hmm.  Well.  

First, this must be the new version of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for higher education.  Now it's the skeptic of MOOCs who doubts the potential of poor students, rather than the potential of the proposed educational plan? This was especially remarkable since the comment was directed at a researcher who spends inordinate amounts of time with the same Pell recipients she was discussing-- who, by the way, would take offense at being termed "Pell dependent."  (Recall when welfare receipt became welfare dependence, folks?)  What I know, from spending time on the campuses of community colleges and less-selective institutions, is that their students prize their time with people-- they are happy to have technology be a part of instruction, but it cannot replace personal interaction.  If anything, perhaps MOOCs are best suited to the sorts of students increasingly in the minority/nontraditional category of higher education-- like the artificial intelligence students with whom Sebastian Thrum discovered his love for teaching online.

Second, it is uncommon for academics like Broad to uncritically accept and repeat claims that a system is simply "broken," without questioning how and why it broke and for whose benefit it is broken. To her credit, Broad alluded to politics when questioning the right of the federal government to be involved in the work of colleges and universities.  But she did not address the broader trends resulting in the defunding of education and research, the push towards "innovation" generated in the private sector, or the increasing focus on the deficits of students rather than the institutions serving them.  When declaring the push for access a "success," she failed to note that the chances of attaining a bachelor's degree for students born in the bottom income quintile is less than one in ten.  Moreover, instead of pointing to states for diminishing appropriations for higher education and driving up tuition, and institutions for catering to the rich students rather than keeping college affordable, she blamed students for their poor choices with regard to loans.

In the end, the picture Broad painted today was not so much of higher education at a "crossroads," but rather a disturbing vision of colleges and universities frantically trying to pull up the drawbridge and create a new moat for their protection. To keep out those unwashed masses of unkempt nontraditional students, and prevent federal "intrusion" colleges and universities can no longer simply raise tuition-- the public will not stand for it. Instead, they must shift to protecting the elite survivors (the A institutions, I think she called them) by generating MOOC courses that can be launched into the cloud to create a virtual wall -- satisfying those new degree-seekers whom colleges and universities will never adapt to serve in person the way their administrators and professors will serve their own kids.  Such efforts will only thrive at the most elite places, since as Broad noted, MOOCs require course release time to develop-- and the reality, despite her statement to the contrary, is that such time is incredibly rare these days. 

Will "quality" postsecondary education survive?  Does is now exist?  Color me unimpressed by the fact that ACE has been "retained" by the MOOCs.  A look at ACE's website and reports suggests close ties between the two, and tight relations with the Gates Foundation-- not what you want to see when looking for independent assessment.  And more importantly, it seems that the persistence of elite status among those powerful institutions fueling ACE's fire depends on the success of the MOOCs.  For without these educational alternatives, a real revolution might erupt-- with the masses actually demanding the same types of rich college experiences that American undergraduates are famous for enjoying.