Of the litany of offenses commonly attributable to for-profit education, MOOCs, and other forms of distance education, one of the most incendiary is the thoughtless “unbundling” of the faculty role from the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service. This unbundling, a corporate approach to education, is blasted as a blasphemous affront to the core values that all educators share about teaching and learning. But as a recent presentation at the Association for the Study of Higher Education demonstrated, faculty unbundling has been happening for centuries.
Ever since the good ol’ days when Harvard University’s president was also the chief faculty member, admissions officer, and resident director, the faculty role has continually moved toward narrow specialization. As Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar demonstrated in their paper “Unbundling the Faculty Role in Higher Education: A Theoretical Review,” events such as the formation of the student affairs profession in the late 1800s simply made official a trend that had been informally occurring for many years. The wholesale transition at many large research institutions to formalizing graduate assistants as the primary instructors in many courses unbundled the faculty role even more, enabling tenured professors to focus more on highly-valued research. But never in higher education have we seen such clean distinctions as we do now in the distance education sector.
At some of these institutions, one faculty member will design a course, another will provide the content, and still another will lead discussion and grade assignments. This approach is not a distinctly for-profit invention however, as some of the leading non-profits use this same strategy with their MOOCs. To listen to more traditional educators, this commodification of education is an atrocity. I would argue, however, that the current state in most colleges is actually more heinous. By forcing most faculty into a one-size-fits-all job description, we are not only using faculty resources poorly but diminishing educational quality in the process.
For example, consider Professors Smith and Wesson. Professor Smith loves the classroom and has a knack for it. He dedicates significant time to class preparation and student feedback. He’s beloved by his students, but not quite respected by his colleagues because of his relative absence of peer-reviewed publications. Professor Smith has a weak research agenda and will be denied tenure next year because of this lack of productivity — a looming reality that distracts him away from what he does best.
Professor Wesson has no such problems. An able researcher and writer, she publishes prolifically and received tenure last year. Her research draws significant attention and funding to her department. But because she can’t quite buy out all of her courses, her students are annually afflicted by her dry lectures and perplexing tests. She is unresponsive and openly disinterested in anyone but her graduate assistants. Her advisees often leave her supervision and instead work with Professor Smith, conveniently freeing Professor Wesson to focus more on her research agenda and graduate students.
To be fair, this could be a bit of a caricature. But like any good caricature, this picture draws attention to the dominant characteristics of the subject. What it reveals is that a one-size-fits-all model ends up rewarding research, penalizing teaching, and poorly serving students.
This approach stands far and away from what we know about effective organizations. Gallup, publishers of the StrengthsFinder assessment, shows again and again how organizations that utilize their employees’ strengths are more productive and have a more satisfied workforce. That means that if an institution were to adopt an approach that enabled each faculty member to specialize in his or her areas of strength and interest, faculty members would be happier, students would be better served, and the organization overall would be much more effective.
On paper, the shift is simple. Instead of hiring three faculty to each teach two classes a year, advise 10 students, secure a few grants, and write two peer-reviewed articles, each faculty member would specialize in (or carry a higher volume of) one of the areas for the whole department. A researcher could, dare I say, just do research and advise the few students who shared that agenda. A teacher could focus on understanding and honing the classroom craft and spend less time on committee work. Each department would tweak its balance according to the unique strengths and interests of its faculty and could use new hires to recalibrate that balance as time went on and interests or personnel shifted. In sum, excellence in research would not be valued at greater or lesser levels than excellence in teaching or service. Instead, excellence would be valued in every area. If what Gallup says is true, this strengths-based department would outperform a traditionally-oriented one by leaps and bounds in terms of total research output and teaching quality. After all, what faculty would honestly argue with getting to spend more of its time doing what it wanted to do while simultaneously benefiting its institution?
The reality is much more complicated, though. Teaching, even at many liberal arts institutions, is at best a second-rate cousin to research production, and quality of advising or service may not even be truly considered in the tenure and promotion process. Thus, many colleges have backed themselves into a corner by espousing the equal values of teaching, research, and service while only truly rewarding research.
This discrepancy between an institution’s mission and its rewards structure is most apparent at universities that already seem to take this diverse approach by designating certain faculty members as lecturers (teaching), research associates (research), or coordinators (service). Experience shows that these roles do not command nearly the same level of prestige or job security that a traditional faculty member experiences. Consequently, a shift toward a true strengths-based approach would necessitate a concurrent shift in policies, and more importantly, institutional culture. And since a cultural movement of this caliber would directly conflict with the values cultivated by the research universities that grant most faculty members’ doctorates, these changes are no insignificant matter.
I don’t pretend to have any magic solutions to make those shifts happen. I can say with some assurance that it would need to start with strong senior leadership and a willing (or at least adequately dissatisfied) faculty. But if these changes are worth making, then the conversation is also worth having. Perhaps rather than denouncing for-profits or MOOCs for unbundling the sacred faculty role, faculty members should welcome the challenge and propose their own ways to do so.
Josh Wymore is a doctoral student in the higher education program at Pennsylvania State University.
The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.
Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?
Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks?
The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.
"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."
Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation. Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.
Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information. How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?
The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm. The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.
While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.
Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.
What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students. After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.
This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.) Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.
Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.
The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills.
The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.
We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices.
With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time. In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.
Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.
Submitted by Paul Fain on February 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Pearson, the education-technology company, this week announced that it has created a new digital badging system, dubbed Acclaim. The open platform, which the company rolled out this week at a Silicon Valley event on badging, allows learners to display their skills, knowledge and achievements on the Web. The Mozilla Foundation and Blackboard have also worked on digital badging, having collaborated on a separate platform.
Whether we call it protesting, mudslinging, or “digital hate,” as Chancellor Phyllis Wise did in her blog post addressing University of Illinois’ Twitter incident, there is nothing new about very public, incendiary criticism occurring online — or in person. Racist and derogatory slurs and innuendos happen every day, in our college and university student centers, in our residence halls, out on the field at games. And numerous colleges and universities have felt the wrath of social media outrage in response to a decision, changes in leadership, and other developments.
As those of us in higher education know all too well, we lack the time, staff and resources to police our students on the Internet through disciplinary action. It’s simply not feasible or reasonable, nor is it conducive to free speech.
Our colleges and universities need to take a proactive stance and realize that digital identity development – something that thought leaders such as Eric Stoller have highlighted as part of the conversation defining student affairs and higher education – can and should be a part of our institutional curriculums. This is more than just a major in social media that focuses on marketing skills, or the occasional guest speaker at a student event. This goes beyond our coaches handing out guidelines to athletes.
This is student affairs and academic leadership making a commitment to offer educational outreach and resources to students campus-wide, ideally through first-year courses, so that all freshmen benefit. Colleges are increasingly offering classes that cover important topics like financial literacy, as part of their orientation classes for incoming students. What if more colleges and universities devoted some orientation class time to digital identity topics such as personal branding, where students were required to critically examine case studies of individuals (companies, politicians, actors, etc.) who suffered the consequences of doing something awful online? Such an exercise would surely help them realize their mistakes live on in infamy online. Knowing how to unplug and be present and in the moment is another area where first-year students would benefit from receiving ideas and resources to discuss and develop with one another. Basic digital literacy skills, such as knowing the professional benefits of writing emails so that they don’t come across as casual, flippant texts to friends, would be worth sharing in a first-year course experience for all incoming students.
Career services also has a part to play in providing regular, ongoing guidance and resources so students can market their ideas, potential and leadership online, not just their senior years, but right from the beginning, as part of their experiences in pursuing internships, degrees and ultimately, jobs. If you talk to your average college students, surprisingly, some of them think LinkedIn is something that their parents use, not something they should be tapping into to network and explore jobs and internship options. If career services counselors started working with them early on to develop LinkedIn profiles, imagine how much easier it might be for students to research great internships and connect with potential employers, alumni and mentors throughout their time in college.
The pressure is on for higher education to get with the program and be more relevant to what students need to become gainfully employed after college. How far into the future will these hateful tweets haunt University of Illinois students once they start looking for jobs? My guess is forever. How will these students, many of whom have grown up in a highly digitized world where communication is immediate and readily shared through numerous technologies, realize their potential as online ambassadors without some sort of educational outreach?
The other glaring part of the weird, uncertain, ever-changing journey of social media is that these problems — which range from online gaffes and faux pas to blatant racism and sexism – are not just limited to our students. Our faculty and staff are struggling with digital engagement and how to share their thoughts and ideas online in ways that don’t damage their reputations and that of our colleges and universities. There are plenty of examples of educators being reprimanded or even fired because of poor behavior on social media. Perhaps that’s why higher education has been slow to address the need for digital identity development. Many of us employed at our institutions are grappling with the best way to use social media, at a time when technology is transforming our industry. We’ve yet to really tap into a universal, comprehensive way to address this issue at most of our colleges and universities. To bring things full circle and make digital identity development fully integrated into higher education, we need to provide more training for faculty and staff, so they have a better understanding of why digital identity matters. That’s got to be part of the mix.
As Chancellor Wise wrote, “we still have work to do” in response to the University of Illinois incident. And that work must go beyond one-time disciplinary actions to address something larger, something that is fundamentally lacking at most of our institutions: providing digital identity development educational outreach and support to our campus communities, across the board.
Becca Ramspott is a communications specialist at Frostburg State University.
Submitted by Paul Fain on February 5, 2014 - 3:00am
Educational Testing Service this week announced that it is offering digital badges that students can earn by taking two assessments the group released last year. Those tests -- the Proficiency Profile and iSkills assessments -- seek to measure what students learn in college. They are not designed to be used by employers, for now at least. But they might have job market potential at some point.
Now students can earn digital badges based on their performance on the two assessments. For example, badges are linked to all four skill areas the Proficiency Profile measures: mathematics, writing, reading and critical thinking. The badges can be added to a Mozilla "backpack" and shared with an "unlimited number of recipients in academia and beyond," ETS said in a news release.
A study published today in the journal mBio finds that an alternative version of an introductory laboratory course for undergraduates can significantly increase the odds that students will complete the course and take a second year of science. The alternative system -- in which students do actual science rather than replicating various experiments -- was designed with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Matt Reed’s recent column on experimental sites and competency-based education (CBE) offers just the kind of thoughtful analysis we’ve come to expect of his columns. He raises important questions about the role of faculty, the efficacy of approaches that include less instructional interaction, the viability of pay-for-performance aid models, and more. The answers to those questions today? We don’t know. And that’s why we need to support the Department of Education’s experimental sites proposal, to create safe places in which to explore the kind of thoughtful and constructive questions that Matt poses.
Last year saw the dizzying ascendency of the massive open online course, driven by some combination of their blue chip provenance, their creators’ triumphant claims, and the smitten embrace of popular media outlets (especially TheNew York Times).
To the satisfaction and relief of some, MOOCs have come back to earth. Still in search of a purpose (the job they are “hired to do,” to use a Clay Christensen phrase), a business model, and an ideal user scenario, MOOCs are entering a more useful and realistic phase of their development. A lot of smart, mission-driven people are working on MOOC 3.0 (everyone forgets about MOOC 1.0 that came before Coursera and edX put MOOCs on the map) and we’ll see if MOOCs are 21st-century content, a platform innovation, or a powerful new disruptive presence in the educational landscape.
Competency-based education is the hot new innovation, at least in its latest incarnation, largely untethered to the structure of courses and credits, the basic building blocks of curriculums and thus learning. In truth, CBE has been around for decades and pioneered by accredited nonprofits like Excelsior, Charter Oaks, and Western Governors University. They have been joined by a growing number of new providers including the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, Brandman University, Capella University, Lipscomb University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and my own Southern New Hampshire University. Another 30 or more institutions are working on their own CBE offerings.
The Department of Education is exercising its authority to create experimental sites and has invited proposals for administering federal financial aid funds in new ways that support CBE models, and the White House is calling for more innovation and putting its weight behind CBE. The leading higher education associations – including EDUCAUSE, CAEL, AAC&U, and ACE – are joining in and announcing new initiatives, webinars, and meetings.
Accreditors are releasing new guidelines for CBE programs and the administration continues to pressure them by raising the possibility of new validation systems better suited to support innovative new delivery models. Think tanks and foundations have added their intellectual and financial backing to the effort. The hope, one I share, is that CBE can deliver on the holy triad of quality, cost (access), and completion.
This is a very different set of circumstances than those that have characterized the MOOC movement. CBE has an actual track record of success in its earlier iterations, is being embraced by powerful stakeholders, is being developed by institutions with deep understanding of the students they seek to serve, and is being tied into the established financial system of funding.
More importantly, CBE offers a fundamental change at the core of our higher education “system”: making learning non-negotiable and the claims for learning clear while making time variable. This is a profound change and stands to reverse the long slow erosion of quality in higher education. It is so fundamental a change that we hardly yet know all its implications for our world. For example:
If the claims we make for student learning really are non-negotiable, we will likely see a drop in completion rates, at least for some length of time;
We will have a lot of work to do around assessment, still difficult terrain in higher education;
The Department of Education, entrusted to protect billions of taxpayer dollars, will need reassurance that we have in place measures that guard against fraud;
If competencies are a new “currency” replacing credit hours, we will need to work out the “exchange rates” if we are to have a system that does not replicate the waste and inefficiencies of the current credit hour and transfer system.
Faculty roles are likely to be redefined, at least in some models, and a profession long in transition, and some would say under siege, will be further impacted;
Student information and learning management systems are not designed for these new models, yet form the administrative backbone that supports everything from registration to transcripts to billing to financial aid to... well, almost everything we do.
Accreditation standards, even new ones, will be tested and will have to evolve to reflect the lessons we learn over time.
In other words, if CBE is finally a movement, it is like many new movements still in search of the basics. It lacks a taxonomy, an agreed-upon nomenclature, the aforementioned exchange rate, a widely accepted form of documentation (what is the right form of CBE transcript?), the supporting systems, and experience with a wide variety of students.
This is why the Department of Education’s proposed experimental sites are so important. The key word here is experiment. Institutions need safe spaces in which to try new things, new rules by which to operate, the ability to rethink fundamental assumptions about how we deliver learning and support students, trying new models for costing and paying, and tolerance for mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it isn’t really innovation that’s going on.
We need a range of approaches to see what works best for what students in what settings. In return, institutions engaged in the work have to do their part. That includes collecting and providing data with a level of transparency that our industry has historically resisted (higher education is a culture that innately resists accountability outside of student grades), putting aside underlying competitive impulses to share what we learn, and finding ways to support students and quickly address the mistakes we must inevitably make (remembering that we never “play” with student welfare).
Experimental sites are important for what they allow, but also for what they (should) fend off. We should beware a premature setting of standards or guidelines. We should beware a premature overturn of the credit hour, flawed as it is, before we have worked out its substitute (or more likely, complementary system). We should beware an opening of the gates like the one that attended online learning, when unscrupulous players entered the market and abused the system for enormous gains at enormous costs for students and the federal government.
In other words, we need just the kind of good questions that Matt Reed poses in his recent column. We need leading thinkers like CAEL and AAC&U to help us think through the big questions before us. We need EDUCAUSE to help us spec out new systems and technologies. And we need to try various models, collect data, and work through the significant questions still in front of us so we can better inform policy-making and the reauthorization discussion now getting under way.
Traditional higher education is not going away any time soon, but CBE has the potential to both provide new affordable, high-quality pathways to students and to challenge our incumbent delivery models to better identify the claims they make for learning and how they know. Those demands, whatever CBE turns out to be, are not going away either and CBE can function like the industry’s R&D lab. The proposed experimental sites align with that very useful role and deserve our collective support.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.