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Northwestern J-School Drops Accreditation

Northwestern University's journalism school has dropped its specialized accreditation, The Chicago Tribune reported. The school -- generally considered among the country's top journalism programs -- was up for renewal by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and opted not to go through the process. Northwestern, as a university, maintains institutional accreditation, so students are still eligible for federal student aid.

Bradley Hamm, dean of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, told the Tribune, "Our goal is always to be the best in the world, and this process doesn't get us there. We just don't find that the review provides us with anything beyond what we already know today. It's relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn't lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It's sort of a low bar."

The accreditor declined to comment on that statement.

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West Virginia Loosens Public University Oversight

A newly signed West Virginia bill cuts the authority of the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, a move backers say will give local campuses more decision-making flexibility and increase efficiency as potential budget cuts loom over public higher education in the state.

Governor Jim Justice signed the bill Tuesday, according to WAJR.com. It gives West Virginia University, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine more power over their hiring, firing and operations. It also could allow them to avoid some fees.

Presidents at the three universities supported the legislation, saying it aligns the state with others where large public universities gained greater autonomy as state funding fell for higher education.

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Nontenured faculty should not be assessed by student evaluations in this politically charged era (essay)

Now that more that 75 percent of the instructors teaching in higher education in the United States do not have tenure, it is important to think about how the current political climate might affect those vulnerable teachers. Although we should pay attention to how all faculty are being threatened, nontenured faculty are in an especially vulnerable position because they often lack any type of academic freedom or shared governance rights. In other words, they are a class without representation, and they usually can be let go at any time for any reason. That type of precarious employment, which is spreading all over the world to all types of occupations, creates a high level of professional insecurity and helps to feed the power of the growing managerial class.

In the case of higher education, we need to recognize that this new faculty majority often relies on getting high student evaluations in order to keep their jobs or earn pay increases. The emphasis on pleasing students not only can result in grade inflation and defensive teaching, but it also places the teacher in an impossible situation when dealing with political issues in a polarized environment. While some students want teachers to talk about political issues, many students will turn against an instructor who does not share their own ideological perspective. Sometimes that type of political disagreement is transformed in student evaluations into vague complaints about the teacher’s attitude or personality.

In this fraught cultural environment, practically everyone feels that they are being censored or silenced or ignored. For example, some of my conservative students have told me that they feel like they are the real minorities on campus, and even though Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, they still think they cannot express their true opinions. On the other side, some of my self-identified progressive activist students believe that political correctness makes it hard to have an open discussion: from their perspective, since anything can be perceived as a microaggression, people tend to silence themselves. Moreover, the themes of political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warnings and free speech have become contentious issues on both the right and the left.

What I am describing is an educational environment where almost everyone is afraid to speak. The nontenured faculty members are fearful of losing their jobs, the conservative students see themselves as a censored minority and the progressive students are afraid of being called out for their privilege or lack of political correctness. Making matters worse is that students are often socialized by their large lecture classes to simply remain passive and silent.

It appears that we are facing a perfect storm where free speech and real debate are no longer possible. One way of countering this culture is to stop relying on student evaluations to assess nontenured faculty. If we want teachers to promote open dialogue in their classes, they should not have to be afraid that they will lose their jobs for promoting the free exchange of ideas. Therefore, we need to rely more on the peer review of instruction, and we have to stop using the easy way out. In short, we have to change how nontenured faculty members are evaluated.

Non-tenure-track faculty should be empowered to observe and review one another’s courses using established review criteria. It is also helpful to have experienced faculty with expertise in pedagogy involved in the peer-review process of teaching. By examining and discussing effective instructional methods, all faculty members can participate in improving the quality of education.

It is also essential that to protect free speech and open academic dialogue, we should realize that the majority of faculty members no longer have academic freedom or the right to vote in their departments and faculty senates. In order to change this undemocratic situation, tenured professors should understand that it is to their advantage to extend academic freedom and shared governance to all faculty members, regardless of their tenure status. If we do not work together to fight back against the current political climate, we will all suffer together.

Robert Samuels teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the president of UC-AFT. His forthcoming book is The Politics of Writing Studies.

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Essay: Improving student success may mean fixing subpar courses

Not long ago, San Francisco investor and entrepreneur John Greathouse penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming he found a solution to the tech industry’s diversity problem. Because of rampant bias in the tech industry, Greathouse suggested female job candidates should “create an online presence that obscures their gender” in order to improve their employment prospects.

The response was swift and vicious. Concealing one’s gender in response to bias addresses the symptom rather than the disease (biased hiring managers/employers and biased hiring practices). Greathouse, critics contend, offered a “Band-aid”: a superficial and ephemeral solution that avoids dealing with a deep-seated systemic challenge.

The temptation to optimize the path that people take through dysfunctional systems isn’t, of course, limited to hiring practices. It is a familiar pattern in a higher education discourse obsessed with predictive analytics -- one that all too often avoids tough conversations about poor instruction and outdated pedagogy.

This temptation to fix people rather than dysfunctional systems reminded me of current conversations in education technology around how new technologies can improve student success. Specifically, the interplay between two powerful new approaches: predictive analytics and adaptive learning technologies.

Using predictive analytics as an early warning system to predict which student is likely to fail is becoming commonplace. The goal is as clear as it is noble: reduce the number of college dropouts by intervening early.

The New America Foundation recently published “The Promise and Peril of Predictive Analytics in Higher Education,” a report detailing ethical concerns involved in using data to make predictions and its impact on underrepresented students. (I served on the advisory board for the project.) Yet the report overlooks the fact that, despite well-intentioned efforts, early warning systems put the responsibility to change on the student when what those of us whose job is to improve student success -- educators, administrators and policy makers -- really must do is change the system.

To illustrate, consider this example: in 2007, my colleague Ganga Prusty, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, inherited a course in first-year engineering mechanics that had a 31 percent failure rate. The high-enrollment, introductory-level course teaches students concepts and techniques to solve real-world engineering problems. Success in engineering mechanics is a prerequisite for most engineering-related majors. The high failure rate meant that nearly a third of students couldn’t live up to their dreams of becoming engineers. And this, mind you, in an economy that’s starved for STEM graduates!

At the time, I was doing my Ph.D. building something I called the adaptive e-learning platform -- years later it would become the technology behind Smart Sparrow, the company I founded -- trying to find ways to create digital learning experiences that are more than PDFs and PowerPoints. I was introduced to Prusty because our dean thought it would be useful to try to apply this new technology to real-world problems. I found myself for the first time trying to find new solutions for what is essentially a very old problem: student success.

Yes, Prusty could have intervened with at-risk students and advised them to consider another major, but is that what he should have done? Should he not instead have discovered why the course was failing one in three students, and tried to fix it?

Prusty and his team did the latter and started by identifying “threshold concepts,” a term Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land introduced in 2003 that refers to core concepts that, once understood, transform perception of a given subject. After identifying the course’s threshold concepts, Prusty and his team designed adaptive tutorials to teach engineering students what they needed to know.

Prusty’s adaptive tutorials are a form of smart digital homework. They take students about an hour or two to complete as they work on solving problems with interactive simulations and receive feedback that is based on what they do.

For example, students learn how to analyze the mechanical forces that act on beams of a bridge by designing a bridge and driving simulated cars on it, measuring in the environment whether the forces they calculated were accurate. The system is “intelligent” because it can provide feedback based on the specific mistakes the student makes (called “adaptive feedback”). If the tutorial detects that a student would benefit from more examples or content, it dynamically changes the activity to show that content (called “adaptive pathways”).

Prusty and his team designed four adaptive tutorials in all, delivered weekly to students and targeting the threshold concepts and common misconceptions students had.

It worked. Not only did students begin to enjoy doing homework -- an achievement in its own right -- but they also performed better in the course’s assessments. Prusty’s team did not stop there, however. They analyzed the way students learned using these adaptive tutorials, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and then improved the tutorials. Over time, Prusty’s team built and introduced eight more adaptive tutorials.

The result? After a few years, the failure rate dropped to 5 percent. That happened while using the same course, syllabus and final exam, and while growing the number of students by 70 percent. The only difference was the number and the quality of adaptive tutorials used.

Prusty replicated the process in another course (a more advanced course in mechanics of solids), and the failure rate dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Now let’s imagine that instead, we could have used predictive analytics to identify failing students. What would we have done? We probably would have found a clever way to identify students likely to fail the course and gently suggested alternative degree programs. But would that have been the ethical thing to do?

Put another way, if you have a course with a high failure rate, should you use technology to predict who’s going to fail and alert them? Or should you fix the course? The former will improve your institution’s graduation rates, and the latter will have you try to convince your faculty to address the issue.

Which one is easier? Which one is more ethical? What happens when student success and institutional outcomes conflict?

It is all too easy to design Band-aid solutions to higher education’s completion crisis while ignoring more complex problems -- such as courses that are simply not good enough when we have an opportunity to redesign them entirely. Predictive analytics and adaptive learning are two sides of the same coin. But we will fall short at true improvement if we stop at analytics.

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an educational-technology company that helps faculty members create better courses by making them more active and adaptive. He is also a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and an adjunct academic in the University of New South Wales Australia’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, where he co-supervises research students in intelligent tutoring systems and learning design.

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More Law School Courses for Adjuncts?

The American Bar Association is mulling whether to eliminate a requirement that full-time faculty members teach at least half of every law school's upper-level courses.

A committee of the ABA, which accredits law schools, earlier this month recommended eliminating the requirement. The group is accepting public comments and has scheduled a July hearing on the proposal.

Kyle McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit group, was cautiously supportive of the ABA's possible move, with some caveats.

"Faculty expenditures are among the highest line items on a school's budget. I have no problem with the ABA providing schools more flexibility in hiring, as long as schools study and indicate how they measure the effectiveness of their teachers, including full-time faculty already on staff," McEntee said via email. "Part-time teaching resources are a real opportunity to bring down the costs of legal education, while satisfying the demands of the practicing bar. But it also has the potential to create an army of aimless, well-intentioned adjuncts."

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Lawmakers Complain, Tennessee Chattanooga Fires Reporter

After pushback from Tennessee lawmakers about how a journalist handled herself while reporting on the state’s transgender bathroom access legislation, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired the journalist, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

The journalist, Jacqui Helbert, worked for WUTC, an NPR affiliate station that receives funding from UTC.

Earlier this month, Helbert was reporting on Tennessee’s “bathroom bill,” which would have required all students in the state, including transgender students, to use restrooms and dressing rooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. The bill failed last week.

As part of the reporting for her story, Helbert went with a group of high school students to the state capital, where they met with state senators about the bill.

At the meeting, Helbert held a 22-inch fuzzy microphone, headphones and other recording equipment in a crowd of 20 or so high school students, but she did not explicitly declare herself a journalist to lawmakers. When her story aired, the lawmakers accused Helbert of failing to abide by journalistic ethics.

“It was glaringly obvious who I was,” said Helbert, who also wore an NPR press pass openly at the event.

Lawmakers, including State Senator Kevin Brooks, said the information shared during the meeting with high schoolers was not intended to be public.

“I don’t recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter,” Brooks said. “I was meeting with kids. These were young children.”

In a meeting the following week, lawmakers met with UTC officials to discuss a separate matter. However, during this meeting, they discussed concerns about Helbert’s story, noting that UTC receives state funding.

The Times Free Press reported that UTC provided $510,000 to WUTC in 2016.

On Friday, the university released a statement about its decision to terminate Helbert.

“The university's decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics,” the statement said. “We believe the news-gathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve.”

Helbert’s story has since been removed from the WUTC website.

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Costs of UNC Athletics Scandal Near $18M

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has accrued nearly $18 million in legal costs stemming from the decades-long scandal involving fake classes that appeared to benefit athletes disproportionately, The News & Observer reported.

The $17.6 million spent to date has gone toward an NCAA investigation, lawsuits filed by former athletes against the university, several law firms representing the institution, public relations costs to manage the scandal and the review, redaction and release of public records to news organizations. UNC has produced at least 1.7 million records related to the investigation.

UNC will not be paying off those legal costs with tuition dollars or state funds, officials told The News & Observer, and it’s very likely the university will be billed for additional legal fees in the coming months, as some of the lawsuits are ongoing.

The scandal in question spanned about 18 years and involved over 3,000 students -- half of them athletes. Some UNC employees were pushing students to take “paper classes” that were not taught by university faculty members and did not meet in person. In these courses, students received high marks on the single required assignment regardless of accuracy or quality.

It is widely considered one of the most far-reaching cases of academic fraud in higher education history.

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Merger Between Assessment Firms Taskstream and Tk20

Taskstream, a New York City-based company that works with colleges and higher education associations on assessment, accreditation and e-portfolios, this week announced that it is merging with Tk20, an Austin, Tex.-based firm that also provides services related to learning assessment and accreditation.

The new company, Taskstream-Tk20, will be an assessment management platform focused on helping colleges "measure, analyze and report learning data to improve student and institutional outcomes." (Disclosure: Last year Quad Partners invested in Taskstream. Quad is a private equity firm that since 2014 has had a controlling ownership share in Inside Higher Ed.)

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Upper Iowa put on notice after staff members mishandled financial aid, changed grades

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Investigation found that staff members improperly handled financial aid funds and changed student grades.

Senate Blocks Teacher Prep Rules

The Senate blocked teacher-prep rules issued by the Obama administration last year through a joint resolution under the Congressional Review Act. Republicans in the House began the process to block the rules in February.

The rules were finalized after a years-long process and received backing from education reform groups. But they were opposed by Republicans as well as teachers' unions that have traditionally been aligned with the Democrats.

On Thursday, 17 higher ed organizations, including the American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, signed on to a letter supporting the measure.

“Overturning this regulation says that states -- not a distant department in Washington, D.C. -- are responsible for evaluating whether a college’s program gives teachers the skills they need to help their students learn,” said Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, in a statement. “The department’s regulation also would force states to evaluate teachers in a way that Congress specifically prohibited in the bill to fix No Child Left Behind that got 85 votes in the Senate. I look forward to President Trump’s signature.”

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