28.1.06

MORE PRODUCTIVITY FOLLIES. Playing School, Irreverently, begins a fisking of yet another proposal, this time from within the university, to turn the undergraduate degree into something else. (I'm using the Academic Universe feature from the Northern Illinois University library to get the article.) Profgrrrrl objects, first, to the assertion that it's faculty salaries that are somehow responsible for the university's difficulties.
Let's see. So the university is in the business of educating, we're the ones who do the educating, we're paid far less than we would be in the private sector (for those of us who have that as an option), we work all kinds of crazy hours, we pay for a lot of things on our own that private sector employees never do (how much did you out of pocket for books, travel, home office supplies last year?) ... but our salaries and support, meager as they are (at least at public institutions) are too much for the system to bear?
She's also got some thoughts about the outsourcing the proposal introduces. Here are the specifics from the proposal.
Outsource some courses and programs. Many training firms sell their services to businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Why not make those services available to college students? Although some of the training is technical and highly specific, much of it is not. Colleges could save money, offer a more diverse education, and increase quality by hiring some of those vendors. Students could also save money if colleges were willing to award academic credit for some of those programs.For example, Dale Carnegie Training, founded in 1912, operates in over 65 countries and has about six million graduates. Each of its programs is carefully developed, frequently evaluated and updated, and survives because of its commercial success. Relatively few colleges waive students' tuition or give academic credit for its courses. Yet I recently completed the introductory course, which presents Carnegie's theories of human relations, and saw a remarkable transformation in those who attended. People who mumbled during their first speech won speaking awards by the end.
And our forensics departments can't do this? Oh, and maybe stimulate some higher-order thinking skills about rhetorical devices at the same time. The business interest in winning friends and influencing people is in selling the product. Perhaps the higher-order skills include "seeing through the spin," something that affects commercial success with a time lag. (Are you listening, General Motors?) Profgrrrrl sees where this proposal is going.
This is all an argument for being a technical institute rather than offering a liberal arts education. Coplin's other suggestions follow suit: offer credit for life experience; let students teach themselves via school activities and service projects (and use their free/cheap labor, too!); give certificates rather than degrees.
Not to mention that the service learning can easily be captured by the Welfare State to get some cheap labor for public programs that would otherwise have negative benefit-cost ratios.

Back to the proposal.
Similarly, student-affairs divisions often provide "training" usually in the form of one-day conferences or half-day seminars to members of Greek and other student groups. If those programs were organized around a list of curriculum standards, academic credit could be offered. Athletics programs also present an opportunity for students to learn the skills that employers seek, like working with and influencing people, using statistics, and solving problems. Why not develop an applied-statistics course in which students analyze the data on their own and their team's performance? Or why not create a business course in which students study management theories as they apply to their coaches?
Because you'd have to hire somebody who understood small-sample properties and selection biases? Or does the proposal envision the students doing peer-review of the journals?

It gets better.
If existing staff members taught such courses, the instruction costs would already be included in the budget; if more staff members were needed, they would be less expensive than traditional faculty members. At the same time, enriching student activities to make them worthy of academic credit could teach students some of the skills they most need but don't normally learn in traditional courses.
The opportunity costs are nonexistent???

Now, think about this.

Meanwhile the traditional four-year degree has lost its academic focus at most colleges. A program of 120 hours cannot be coherent, given the fragmented and overspecialized nature of higher education. Such programs are burdened by marginally relevant requirements courses that students neither want nor need, despite protestations by some faculty members that the 120-hour, broad-based approach is important in developing students' critical-thinking skills. If institutions unbundled their programs, students would pay less and get more.

To illustrate the wasteful cost of ignoring certificates in favor of degrees, consider the homeland-security programs that some colleges now offer. Because the field is so new, a large body of knowledge surrounding it has not yet emerged. Consequently students interested in specific course work directly related to homeland security will be spending countless hours in meeting basic liberal-arts or general-education requirements and dealing with scholarly ruminations in whatever major they take. Why not let those students focus on relevant courses and award them a certificate instead of a degree?

Consider a number of counter-arguments. First, this proposal is making a point I have been making for years: that the core curriculum is coreless. The author would prefer to abolish the core requirements. I advocate a core grounded in the trivium and quadrivium. The current cafeteria approach to distribution requirements is incoherent. The higher order skills a core curriculum, or some linking of Big Ideas among disciplines, develops enable graduates to make connections they otherwise might not. Second, the homeland security courses are meaningless without practitioners having some of that grounding. Northern Illinois recently got some money (it doesn't hurt to be in the Speaker's district?) to offer homeland security courses. Specifically,
“When looking at homeland security, it's looking at being aware,” said Mary Pritchard, health and human services associate dean. “We'll focus on awareness, prevention, protection, response to disasters and recovery. We'll study both natural disasters and human-made disasters.”It will be the first class students take for a five-course certificate. The following courses will be more specific to students' areas of study, such as how health services or communications organizations should deal with disasters.
Note that "should." Consider those "scholarly ruminations." There might be a reason "emergency powers" are limited in scope and duration. There might be reasons to be skeptical of warrantless monitoring of mobile 'phone conversations, or of implied consent for your library records to be in the public domain, or of contact tracing of anyone with an exotic disease. Perhaps the line employee with the wand at the airport (coming soon to a train station near you?) doesn't have to know that. The manager does. A high school that does its job properly will have the wand-wielder ready. A liberal arts core with a homeland security major or emphasis will better serve the manager.

The proposal saves its greatest silliness for the end.

While bringing resources, managing the educational environment, and evaluating performance are already roles that are identified for faculty members, most professors approach them in the traditional ways: lecturing, discussing ideas, and grading tests and assignments. They need to recognize that "teaching is not telling" and to accept the reality that costs must be contained and quality increased.

Some faculty members bristle at the idea that they are "workers" who have a responsibility to serve their clients even as they lobby for higher wages, more freedom, and fewer demands. But, as Nancy E. Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse, has said, the university is a "public good." Developing programs that cut costs will improve access for low-income students and can also improve the quality of education for all students. If that is not in the public good, what is?

First, to provide teaching that is something other than simply "telling" and then scoring scan sheets is to accept smaller classes with more rigorous grading. To provide it on line is to require student and professor alike to spend a lot more time on task than the take-notes-take-tests-take-Friday-off contemporary experience. To leave much of the work to the students themselves is to sanction a bull session in lieu of learning.

Second, the public good argument is specious. The proposal seeks to cut out the "scholarly ruminations" in favor of greater practical training. Do taxpayers have an obligation to subsidize the future higher earnings of their neighbors? And certainly the author is aware that nobody pays list price at Syracuse. (That makes identifying tuition inflation nigh impossible, but I want to return to that another day.) Universities have plenty of opportunity to practice first-degree price discrimination, and practice it they do. The traditional system of "need-based" financial aid lowers the price low-income students pay, without necessarily lowering the quality of instruction. (The recent rediscovery of merit scholarships suggests that a different kind of role model, namely someone with good study and life management skills, has some value to the university. But that, too, is for another time.)

Yes, higher education requires some repairs. But that is not the same thing as viewing any change in the way things are done as a repair.

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