Academic Efficiencies

On Saturday my colleague Jeff Gold and I addressed a meeting of the CSU Alumni Council at our San Bernardino campus.  He was there to demonstrate the Student Success Dashboard that presents system-wide information about our students and what helps or slows their progress to degree.  I set up that part with the presentation here, to explain why and how we use such data.  You can download a copy by right clicking on this picture.

Academic Efficiencies and Effectiveness

guilds, part one

woman-teaching-geometryAround 1200 A.D., guilds of students and guilds of masters coalesced into the first colleges and universities in Europe, institutions to which we trace our own origins today. Over the next five or six centuries the guilds had a long, slow fade, until the industrial revolution passed them by altogether.

By then it seemed quaint, even harmful, to let local associations of craftsmen set the terms of their trade.  They had become a fetter to open markets and innovation.  And their local focus was embarrassing and provincial, making the guilds a kind of capitulation to the very isolation we were conquering with technology.

So, as I was taught in my history classes:  bad guilds, good riddance.  But lately I’ve wondered whether they’re due for a comeback.

I’m not talking about their battles on wages and prices, waged these days by unions and  lawyers.  I mean their role as curators, stewards of secret professional knowledge.

Their return could address a couple of challenges we face in higher education, while tapping into something that feels essentially quirky and human.

Challenge #1.  Last year Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey published Adapting by Design as part of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.  In it they observe:

Over the last 40 years, the traditional model of the academic profession—full-time tenure-track professorships that focus on the triadic responsibilities of teaching, research, and service—has been eroded by a rising trend toward greater contingency. This trend has broken those responsibilities apart, with faculty members increasingly finding themselves focusing primarily on either teaching or research and having tenuous connections to the academic community on their own campuses and to other scholars in their disciplines more broadly.

In other words faculty jobs are fracturing, and going freelance.  As a result, those of us charged with organizing the enterprise have a harder time filling committee assignments, making long-term plans, or appealing to institutional commitment.  We’re building culture with the same number of bricks, but a lot less mortar.

Challenge #2.  A growing body of evidence suggests that what we know works educationally is impossible to scale administratively.  Not just tricky, but literally, by definition, impossible.

group work

Think for a second about your own experience with a powerful episode of learning, whether you were the student, teacher, or bystander.  Almost certainly what made it work was the investment of attention, study, and struggle on the part of the student, with a proportional outlay of expertise and personal commitment from the teacher.  Both sides had to share some ground rules and expectations, as well as trust and permission to take risks, often deeply personal ones that drew on, and maybe challenged, each party’s sense of identity.

As administrators we know a handful of contexts that make such episodes likelier:  service learning, undergraduate research, a well-crafted classroom presentation, peer mentoring, seminar classrooms.  But simply knowing that, and creating class schedules and funding models that replicate them, doesn’t assure that good education will happen.

What does assure that is known, but only intuitively, ineffably – making it in effect a secret knowledge, available to those who work on it every day, the insiders to the profession.

We at the college level aren’t the only ones struggling with this.  I’d argue that the last two decades of testing mania in K-12 is a symptom of the frustration policymakers feel when they try to pin down what exactly makes learning happen.

And outside of education altogether, a 2014 New Yorker Atul Gawande article called “Slow Ideas” describes a similar problem in health care.  In fact, it’s so uncannily similar to this challenge in my work that three different sets of colleagues have passed it along to me, even though they don’t know each other, and the article never mentions higher education.

Among the senders were Charles Blaich and Kathy Wise of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.  For years they have watched as my CSU friends and I struggle to define and assess the high-impact practices that we believe make a difference.  We would like very much to know what works and for whom, so we can support it and replicate it.  You might charitably call this “early work.”

The Wabash team’s recommendation of this article was part of a longer lament we were sharing over the NSF’s infatuation with the randomized control trial.  Even after recent cuts, this powerful, wealthy government agency continues to exercise stunning influence over how universities practice science, and science education, and the science of education.  In turn, other federal funders perceive the NSF evidentiary criteria as the gold standard.

But there’s a deep, troubling flaw in this reasoning, a misguided belief that significant difference in educational outcomes arises from a variable that can be isolated.  Instead, with interpersonal activity like learning or healthcare or a decent home life, it’s often the subtle contexts that matter, the interaction effects among hundreds or thousands of variables.

newyorker slow ideasWhich brings us to Gawande’s article, and the idea of slow change.  He dismisses the usual brute-force policy levers, and the isolated practices that lend themselves to easy duplication and enforcement from a distance.  Instead he calls for a sophisticated approach to culture change.

Taking the example of preventing neonatal hypothermia by swaddling the infant next to the mother, he writes:

Neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.  “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.

Gawande continues:

Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, [Everett] Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

He goes on to cite a rule of thumb from pharmaceutical sales, that it takes “seven touches” before an idea or product has been sufficiently internalized to close the deal.  And each touch is person-to-person, making social change slow, pricey, and labor-intensive.  It can be scaled, but only by growing the army of implementers, counselors, and practitioners.

So think about that rule of seven touches, and what it could do for propagating the “secret knowledge” of great educational practice.

Our HIPs and pedagogical victories may be facilitated by policy, but the assurance of quality that effects deep learning can’t be won from a distance.  Instead it needs to flourish in the medium of some kind of culture, some environment in which everyone knows what they mean by X, and X becomes what we do.

But now think about that article from Kezar and Maxey, and the increasingly contingent faculty.  Seven touches?  Get real.  These days, most of us can’t even get one – not with the people who actually teach.  Unless it’s their turn in the classroom, our adjuncts aren’t on campus.

Which brings me, finally, to guilds – and that essentially human idiosyncrasy that may bail us out.  Stay tuned.




what “large-scale” means

Office of the ChancellorI work at headquarters for the California State University, a system that employs and/or educates half a million people, not counting the friends, families, dependents.  It’s a footprint on the order of Sasquatch.

There are a couple of hundred indisputably sovereign nations in the world.  If the CSU were one of them, then by population thirty of those nations would be smaller.  If you compared our annual budget to their GDPs as compiled by the United Nations, you get about the same ranking.  170 countries are bigger the CSU, and 30 are smaller.

So, what’s it like to work in a single building charged with running a small country?  Mostly humbling.  It can get boring, but only when you forget what’s at stake.  This kind of scale eludes comprehension.

I think this is best expressed by the questions people pose in their first year of working with us.  (I asked the same ones.)  They show how very hard it is to adapt psychically to genuine scale.

  •  “Big building.  Which floor of this is yours?”  (It all is.  Yes, really.  And the capital of Belize may take up some space, too.)
  • “We need a list of all the projects we work on, and all their acronyms.  This is out of control.”  (Yes, it is.  But you’re overseeing something more like an ecosystem than a business.)
  • “I want to know which of our universities work well and which ones don’t, in rank order.”  (We might create such a ranking but it would hide more than it would show, a little like sorting people by IQ.)

There is a balancing act here, a need to welcome the surprise and frustration of newcomers, especially the ones from outside of higher ed altogether.  Their reactions tell us how we can do better.

epistemological humiliation

But we also need somehow to educate them about the limits of statewide policy and institutional data, in a context that’s mostly interpersonal, human, and hard to count.

On several recent occasions I’ve had to do this, and I always find myself at a loss.  It’s not that we don’t believe we have a beneficial impact, just that it doesn’t always lend itself to metrics, or even confident assertions of cause and effect.

An analogy:  if enough Earthlings walk to work instead of drive, then we have reason to believe we’ll slow global warming, but we may never know how to calculate that in degrees Celsius per year.  Similarly, if more CSU employees give a rip about student success and completion than they used to, then we should see a reduction in drop-out rates.  But those rates are affected by many other things too, and so there’s a lot of blind faith involved.  A lot.

This is hard to learn, and for those of us who work here, it’s a realization that is itself subject to a limited understanding, mingled with cross-currents of defeatism, middle age, the gravitational tug of the comfort zone.  I hear myself comparing our educational institutions to complex systems like the weather, and I sound like the used-up lifers I came here eager to replace.

I don’t know if there’s an antidote for that epistemological humiliation in between cause and effect, but there is a palliative:  trust in colleagues.  From our end of the biome, about all we can do is point out problems, share solutions from other places, and remind people why they want to do well.  Then get out of the way.

It’s weird to call this work, but it sure is hard.


cybersecurity, autism, and agency

cyberspy vs. cyberspyA telling episode of Frontline on an American terrorist went into implications of the Snowden revelations on NSA surveillance of Americans. Turns out all those reams of data and metadata on our phone calls, the internet browsing histories, and the GPS locations that the feds have been gathering didn’t help anyone identify David Coleman Headley as a terrorist; instead it was useful only after the fact, to corroborate the findings of traditional police work, mostly by interviews with witnesses and confidential informants.

Closer to home, employers are telling educators that cybersecurity needs more college graduates, with more interdisciplinary thinking. To which outsiders may justifiably ask, “huh?” We thought it was all coding, hackers vs. hackers.  What gives?

I think I know what gives, when I see the Snowden story.

Central Station 001Or when I picture you sitting inside a train station, strangers sprinkled around the lobby. Someone you don’t know sits nearby and immediately strikes up a conversation with you, uninvited.

It’s a bit odd, so at this point you become alert for the socially and interpersonally inappropriate. Why is this stranger approaching you to talk?  The intentions and mental health of your new acquaintance become suddenly relevant, and something you test for. How’s the eye contact? The assumed level of familiarity? Are you getting sized up for a sales pitch?  An assault? Evangelism?  If you stand up to leave, will you be followed?

In other words, our safety and effectiveness as socially and technologically connected beings rely on intercultural, interpersonal fluency.  There’s something essentially human in our ability to recognize and respond to the telling departure from normal behavior, and this is essential to good cybersecurity.  It’s the skills you deploy when a friend’s email account is hacked and you get a fishy request for money:  it’s not the identity that’s off, but the behavior.  That gets harder to spot when it’s people you don’t know well, who may live in countries with entirely different social and cultural expectations.

As the employers are telling us, work like that takes a college degree, not just IT training.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while — that Frontline episode was almost a year ago — but was reminded of it unexpectedly last week.  I was talking to a professor at CSU Monterey Bay about what exactly we should measure to demonstrate “engaged learning,” something I am paid to wonder regularly on behalf of the state.

He said it’s in the student’s behavior after the engaging experience, in this case service learning.  He said faculty will comment on a new energy behind the student’s decision of what to major in, or of what to do after college, or even about what’s going on in other fields.  He and his colleagues sense it not as shades of development but instead as a nearly binary condition: there’s something in the student now that didn’t used to be.

That observation, of a moment of growth that’s unambiguous to people who’ve taught for a while, reminded me of the train station example above, that interpersonal knack we can develop for reading and understanding each other, for recognizing the tells of a meaningful difference.


I think fields outside of higher education and cybersecurity may be better at recognizing, naming, and counting such behavioral transitions, because they’ve been working on this longer, and I think we could learn from them.

For example, there don’t seem to be chemical or genetic markers for autism; instead the diagnosis is made entirely by observing someone’s conduct.  There’s some controversy around it and the borders are murky, but educators might benefit from similar skills.

So could everyone else.  Good observation is more vital as we get more connected, giving individuals more potential impact on the rest of us than they used to have.

I’m not arguing for a state of mutual perpetual surveillance, but think we undersestimate the extent to which we’re all in this together.  A better understanding of behavioral markers helps with cybersecurity, sure, and also for better clinical diagnoses.  But we also need it — glaringly — to identify and preempt active shooters, for example, or to get past the present limits of our criminal justice system.

And, maybe, we need it to better orient our enormous and expensive higher education machinery toward the development of personal agency and responsibility.

Image credits:  Condren RailsCollege Hill Independent