Monday, March 31, 2014

This is Your Brain on Pen and Paper


Just Say No to the Fetish of Interdisciplinarity?

Jerry Jacobs, a Penn professor, is the kind of smart guy who I find worth listening to even when my first impression of what he is up to is negative. In his new book, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press), he marshals evidence and analysis to question the contemporary enthusiasm for all things interdisciplinary. He counsels skepticism and questions whether fields that are most open to external ideas are in fact the most intellectually dynamic. 

Perhaps most relevant to the small college ecosystem is his argument that erasing disciplinary boundaries is more a organizational strategy than an intellectual one. It often involves ceding control from faculty to administration over budgets, hiring, and curriculum; it is a manifestation of the managerial ideology prevalent in higher education rather simply an idea whose time has come. 

From Inside Higher Ed

Friday, March 28, 2014

Switch Fonts, Save Ink (and dollars)

In the news over the last few days, reports about a kid whose science fair project was to compute how much the government could save by changing fonts. Long story short: some type faces require considerably less ink than others; the federal government prints lots and lots of documents; it buys a lot of ink and toner for its printers; it could buy less if it changed fonts.

Garamond, a typeface that requires about 25% less than other common fonts (such as Times New Roman), was  created by Claude Garamont in the early 16th century. How much could a school like our save? Not millions, a fair guess might be 10-20% of toner/ink costs.

See Also

FBOW, A List Colleges Probably Want to Be Ranked Highly On's Return on Investment listings. The methodology is questionable. The data insufficient and unsystematic. But at least some audiences probably paying attention. 

It'd be unethical, of course, to encourage top earning alums to submit their information and, of course, no schools do that. 

But cynicism  and methodological concerns aside, some kind of conversation about return on investment is important. And while it needs to be more nuanced than just salaries and bonuses, it also needs to rise above the empty platitudes about critical thinking and lifelong learning. 

NOTE: if you go to the site, try it with and without financial aid included and be sure to click on the "?" to get explanation of the numbers.

Napolitano Calls Online Courses Just "a tool for the toolbox"

First smart remarks about online higher education that I've heard in a while.  Perhaps staring down terrorists and such for a few years gives a person the guts they need to techie hype and politician pressure.

From the LA Times
University of California President Janet Napolitano struck a rare blow for rational education practice this week by pushing back strongly against the craze for online learning courses. Online education isn't a panacea, she said; it's not for everyone, it's not cheap, and if it's done right it may not even save money. 
Are you listening, Gov. Brown? 
Napolitano, who took over at UC in September, made her remarks Monday during an appearance sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California. Some 500 spectators were present in person and, ahem, online. Her remarks can be seen on YouTube here
Asked by PPIC President Mark Baldassare about UC initiatives in the online space, Napolitano moved promptly to separate fact from fantasy. She called the development of online courses merely "a tool for the toolbox."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NPR Airs "Paying for College" Series

NPR aired a piece by Eric Westervelt on 25 March titled "Decoding College Financial Aid" (8:18) in their "Paying for College" series.
Many high school seniors are hearing from colleges about admissions and financial aid. Scott Juedes, director of Student Financial Services at Wellesley College, gives tips on decoding aid offers.
A companion text piece "Some Common Misconceptions About Paying For College" lays out some useful information the reporter learned while doing the story:
In reporting on students navigating the maze of college costs and financial aid, I kept running into misconceptions about paying for a degree. Here are some of the most common ones: 
Low-income students get most of their college financial aid needs met and rich kids don't have to worry, so it's mainly the middle class that gets squeezed. 
It's a common misperception and "it's simply not true," says Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success, an independent, nonprofit research and advocacy group. Take Pell Grants, which go to low- and moderate-income families. A majority of Pell recipients are families with incomes under $50,000 a year. Those students "are much more likely to have loans and to owe more when they graduate from a four-year school than all other students," she says.

Related Stories on Financial Aid and Cost of College

Single Sex Education, Science, and Belief

One's scientific "spidey sense" should tingle when a report on research talks about "opponents of" and "proponents of," but just the same, with grains and dashes of salt taken as needed, this article brings us some updates on the conversation about research into the advantages of single sex education (mostly, here, in the pre-college context). 

Those of us who teach in single sex environments know it makes a difference, but we should admit that our convictions are convictions not knowledge, and we should be open to conver-sations not just about whether it makes a difference but how it might be making a difference.
"Why is there such disagreement over the benefits of single-sex education? Methodology is the key sticking point."
"Last month a meta-analysis of 184 studies covering 1.6 million students from 21 countries indicated that any purported benefits to single-sex education over coeducation, when looking at well-designed, controlled studies, are nonexistent to minimal."
"The methodology is challenging."

STEM Women: Perhaps Many Paths and Many Destinations


Optimal Deployment of Higher Ed's Most Valuable Resource

I met Steve Mintz when he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 2006. He's a smart historian and serious scholar who also cares about teaching. He teaches at U Texas Austin where he also serves as Director of the UT System's new Institute for Transformational Learning. He's a leading authority on the history of families and children, author/editor of 13 books, past president of H-Net, creator of the Digital History website, and was recently inducted into the Society of American Historians.

In this Inside Higher Ed column he suggests we think creatively about "curricular optimization" - not the conventional "fewer bigger classes" approach but one that is grounded in the recognition that faculty represent our most valuable institutional resource and, as such, its best deployment ought to be a top priority.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Yale's Rick Levin to Head Coursera

Forbes online reports:

Continue Reading at Forbes

See Also

The "Completion Agenda" and GenEd Reform

Discussions and debates among faculty and administrators often occur in the context of conversations and machinations happening several levels up from faculty meetings and the gatherings of deans.

In 28 March Chronicle of Higher Education Dan Berrett describes several institutions where administrators and faculty don't see eye to eye about curricular changes associated with "the completion agenda." Of note:
  • curricular changes get pushed through over objections with justified by the need to "smooth the transfer of credits between institutions"
  • supporters of credit hour changes trumpet state concerns as "a big problem"
  • the debate is framed as changes that support completion vs. academic quality
  • the Lumina Foundation and its "Degree Qualifications Profile" are in the background
  • at one school, a core humanities requirement gets replaced by a course on "leadership "based in part on a self-help book by Steven R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People."
The institutions mentioned include Alamo Colleges in Texas, CUNY's Queens College, Fort Lewis College in Colorado.

See Also

Why is Educational Technology so Inelegant?

In this IHE blog post Joshua Kim asks a simple question: why isn't educational technology more elegant? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the way the EdTech market works: most of the purchases are done by people who don't actually use the software and most of the users don't have a choice about what software to use. 

A common pathology in higher education is that decision-makers get to impose decisions on staff, faculty, and students with little accountability. The tracking of outputs and outcomes related to inputs is so lax that the costs of decisions are impossible to ascertain.  

I've proposed what I call the "iPhone test" as a thought experiment for those who want to do better: the next time you are buying software for faculty or working up a policy on course revisions or designing a form for students to fill out, imagine that people are free to ignore it or have to pay $100 to use it. Can you make it elegant enough vis-à-vis their daily work that they would?  Can you design it in such a manner that the main reaction is "this is cool"? 

Higher Education in the Media

The icons below link to indexes of Higher Education related stories in these media outlets.

For Some Colleges Financial Challenges Continue

This article from current Chronicle of Higher Education describes
a number of small colleges that continue to teeter on the edge even after the wider economic recovery.

Some factors that seem common in these stories are small size, niche focus (e.g., geographic or religious), recent lavish expenditures on attractive new facilities,(especially non-academic ones), and poorly timed optimism around fundraising.
Responses including layoffs, cutting under-enrolled programs, selling non-core real estate, drastic tuition cuts, expanding online offerings, adding professional programs

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cool Looking Tool for "Grading" with MS Word

As usual, just when you think of something, it turns out someone's already developed it a few years before.  I haven't tried this product, but some friends have suggested it (over Facebook, if you are wondering). It's from "11 Trees," a company whose tagline is "Solutions for Writers, Teachers, and Editors"

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fraternities and the Organizational Ethics of Higher Education

Don't be distracted by the lurid, even bizarre, events narrated at the start of the article.  What it's really about is the organizational distortion of priorities in higher education and the legal question of "Who Assumes the Risks of College Life?" It's a fascinating tale of finance, insurance, and the use of "good" lawyering to protect organizations and blame individuals. A story of how the very organizations to which kids pledge loyalty turn on them at the first sign of trouble. Long story short: fraternity organizations self insure; members are "covered" only if they don't break any of the rules; fraternity behavior consists of breaking the rules; that behavior frequently leads to tragedies and disasters. But then, what organization would want to put its fate in the hands of large groups of 20 year old men?

A Modest Suggestion for GE Reform

From Majoring in the 21st Century blog...

When, as is usually the case, nobody has actually put forward a coherent critique that exposes what's wrong with the current system and why it needs to be thrown out and replaced, consider an innovation process that's different from the usual approach in higher education.

What if we challenge ourselves to start by repackaging and repurposing what we have, thereby really identifying what things about it could be corrected, tweaked, turbo-charged, etc. to make it live up to its promise. Usually, the fact of the matter is we were stoked about it when we invented it and neither world nor students nor we have changed that much; it's what we've let happen to it since that is the problem. Unless we can focus on how one deals with those things, we will almost certainly see the same thing happen to a new plan.

So before embarking on a giant do-over, perhaps...

Tell Them Why I

Develop coherent and persuasive description of why we have a GE program and what it is supposed to achieve.

Tell Them Why II

Build into orientation each year an academic address in which a faculty member is charged with coming up with a creative and compelling explanation of, argument for, the GE program both in principle and in particular. A few years of this will provide us with some internal dialog on what it means and why it is there as well as providing a foundation for all subsequent advising around GE.

Collect data

Write a short bit of code which would count ALL gen-ed fulfilling courses to see how the distribution is. In other words, take as given that we have a set of areas and we have a set of courses that relate to them. Apart from meeting minimal requirements, what does the distribution of "general education" actually look like for a class of graduates? (coding note: need to filter by major so we do not bias results based on distribution of majors).

Use Design to Change Attitudes

Move away from the "check box" mentality by re-configuring Banner and MAPs so they don't simply indicate that a requirement has been fulfilled, but rather track and document how and how many times each requirement has been fulfilled, providing both student and anyone who looks at the transcript a visualization of her general education. Include the rationales described above in the transcript/MAP.

Thus, instead of this…

They'd see this:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Advising Parents of Soon-to-be-College-Students

One way to pop oneself out of one's institutional bubble is to listen in on conversations among the folks whose attention (and dollars) we are trying to attract.  Related to this is what advice are they getting? Here's a Twitter feed from Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading sociologist of higher education, giving advice to parents of kids about to go to college in a forum last night (19 March 2014). Some food for thought for those of us running the institutions these parents and students are considering.

Note that the Tweets are in reverse chronological order.

@saragoldrickrab: If there is Greek Life on campus ask what % pledge. If higher than 10, run away!!!! #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask yourself if the college offers your student a great education at that price or just more elite peers. Buying friends? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask child what it meant when they said they got "real college experience" during that visit. What specifically did they learn? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: If you save on academic year you can send your kid to do great things in summers too, preparing for grad school or career #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Investing $20-60,000 in the education of an 18 year old is not smart, period. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: A great student at a less selective school gets into honors classes fast, tons of faculty attention, learns to teach others #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: If your student is going 2 grad school spend less on undergrad! We love applicants from less common schools #diversity #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Students miss out on high-risk social scene of 4 year but miss little academically by doing first 2 at comm college. Save $$$ #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: But if I were u: send 18 year old 2 a comm college 4 two years while they share an apartment nearby. If they succeed- transfer. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Is on campus transportation free? Off? How does on campus housing cost compare to off? How much is parking? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Look at campus: how are students dressed? What are they carrying? Can your child afford to fit in? Will college help w that $? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask about how faculty and staff are trained in student mental health. Gatekeeper programs or better?? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: And what advising training do faculty receive? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask about % of parents taking PLUS loans. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask about academic advising- do faculty do it for freshmen? Or advisors only? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrabb: If out of state, ask if tuition is expected to be raised in next 5 years and whether you will be held harmless if it is. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask what off-campus jobs are common, what they pay, how many hours they offer, what transportation is avail. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Go to the aid office: is there a line outside? (Shouldn't be). Go to library: line for computers? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask financial aid what financial counseling is provided to students before borrowing loans? Federal minimum or more? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask financial aid what per-student institutional grant aid budget is? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask financial aid what % of qualified students actually get campus work- study jobs? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: When visiting college ask how any fancy gyms/ student unions etc were funded. Out of your tuition? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask financial aid if they "front load" grant aid or guarantee aid looks similar for years 1-4 & if tuition rises does aid? #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: On visits students should look 4 whether undergrads feel they know they profs, go 2 office hours, like their TAs #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: If student wants research experience ask % students who graduate having had it. Many aspire, few get it. #campuslife

@saragoldrickrab: Ask every college what % of intro courses are taught by tenured faculty? How much is president paid compared 2 professors? #campuschat

@saragoldrickrab: When considering cost please look at full "cost of attendance" not just tuition. There's another 60% to pay. #campuschat