Wednesday, November 26, 2008

You might want to start saving up to send your kids to a private university.

In light of heavy budget cuts and an economy that continues to deteriorate, the Tennessee Board of Regents is looking for ways to save money. Specifically, the TBR wants to change its current business model so that Tennessee's universities achieve "a greater level of productivity" particularly in the way that faculty interact with students. The TBR is seeking ways to save money in the long term by reinventing the way that college instructors disseminate information to their students, and the board recently sent a memo to its university presidents seeking input from the universities on ways to accomplish this goal.

The memo briefly describes the way that the TBR sees the current educational experience and then asks if this model can be changed:

(My questions and comments will be added in bold.)

The faculty is the overseer of the educational process, and the business model for higher education recognizes the importance of the faculty's role. Our current business model (Education is simply a business whose only concern is a bottom line?) has faculty teaching courses populated by students. What are the possibilities for the role of faculty evolving more toward the orchestrators of an educational process to the point they are not directly involved in the dissemination of course material (Is that all that faculty do--simply deliver information?) in a classroom setting? Would such an evolution provide opportunity for a business model that increases efficiency while continuing to improve the quality of students' educational experience?

Within this concept there could be possibilities for productivity and quality enhancement in at least the following five areas: 1) collaboration across a large system; 2) empowering students with technology for understanding a concept and for drill and practice (How does technology replace discussion for understanding a concept?); 3) collaboration among students (Students forming study groups? What a novel concept!) and use of advanced students to assist beginning students (Tutoring sessions? Nothing new there.), along with a similar peer to peer collaboration by faculty (Do the administrators think that faculty do not already share ideas with each other?); 4) focusing by faculty on learning outcomes and using technology to deliver and monitor the learning process (Students already spend enough time focusing on the outcome--the final grade. Most of them don't really care about the "learning process." I guess faculty are supposed to shift their attention away from getting students to learn something and just "teach to the test" so to speak.); and 5) abandoning some of the ingrained structures that restrict our approach to traditional models.

How could these goals be accomplished? The memo goes on to outline possiblities, some of the more "interesting" of which are:

  • Increase the number of students completing on-line courses by taking steps such as
Providing a discounted tuition to students who expect to work online with no direct support from a faculty member except oversight of testing and grading when the student is ready. (So teachers simply post assignments and grade tests. No discussion of concepts.)

Specifying in the curriculum that students must take a defined number of on-line courses in order to graduate at the baccalaureate and associate levels.

Designing master's level degrees and work to be taken exclusively on-line. (Shouldn't earning a higher degree involve intensive discussion of theories and concepts? The collaboration between students that is spoken of earlier cannot take place in an exclusively online setting.)

  • Formalize a system that anticipates even greater use of adjuncts (part-time, low paid faculty--one cannot live on adjunct salary alone) to help in the delivery of education under the oversight of full-time faculty and clearly delineate and expand that relationship (Senior, PhD level faculty spending less time in the classroom where students could benefit from their knowledge and experience?).
  • Build into students' curriculum and into financial aid that advanced students are expected to assist beginning students and financially support the advanced students in that effort (We already do this to an extent with the use of graduate students to teach labs and some beginning courses such as freshman writing or math).

Obviously the TBR would like to see more students enroll in more online courses which are taught by fewer full time faculty. While some courses are perfectly suited for conversion to an online format, others simply cannot make the transition without seriously affecting how much a student comprehends the material. If achieving "a greater level of productivity" means simply reducing the amount of money spent while boosting the grade point averages of its graduates, then the TBR is on the right track. However, if the TBR wants to produce graduates who are knowledgeable in their chosen fields of study, then this is the wrong way to go about it.

I would imagine that this type of discussion is taking place not only in Tennessee, but in many states in our country. I just thought that those of you who have children who may attend a state university sometime in the future may want to be aware of what the bean counters have in mind for higher education.

You can see the entire memo here.


Ayatollah Mugsy said...

I smell a consulting firm ...

JMG said...

Yeah, this stuff obviously was not thought up by educators.

Tony Arnold said...

Probably Haliburton.

Looks like the TBR wants to cut overhead and long-term benefit costs. They could care less about educating.

The type of approach laid out in the memo will only exacerbate an already decaying education system in which education admin is abdicating its responsibility and blaming faculty and students for the results and behaviors.

In this memo they clearly believe that they can abdicate system and process design to technology as if it were a person rather than an inanimate tool.

How did the administrators get to be this dumb. Probably went through TN public education.

If this country does not fix the quality and integrity of public education, we are in deep trouble. Fleeing to private schools is not the answer. Only the well-off will get an education.

And fixing the problem is not just about throwing money at the problem or pulling money away from it.

JMG said...

I know one thing: If I expect to keep my job long term, I need to get busy and design my courses for online consumption. I can upload writing assignments and grade them just as well as the next warm body can. Heck, if I have to teach 125 students each semester, I might as well make it easier on myself.

Tony Arnold said...

But they won't be getting your repartee personally. And even if they don't get smarter from it, it is half the fun of teaching.

I was going to write witty repartee, but when I looked up repartee for spelling, I realized it that would be redundant, even though you see it that way often.

I probably just did more research than the majority of your students do for their assignments.

JMG said...

You did!

You are right. Teaching completely online would be a drag. I have fun going to class and interacting with the students.

And even if I did require discussion boards or blogs, they wouldn't put the effort into it that they need to to make it interesting like we do here.

Tony Arnold said...

My next comment is not to disparage online teachers.

However, I think schools run a higher risk of getting instructors in online classes who are more motivated by spare cash with minimal effort than those who are motivated by the interaction and desire to help students.

It is why I think most adjuncts do a pretty good job. They are doing it for the desire to help (plus they assign little busy work because they have not time for it either).

I like the small bit of extra cash I get, but it does not come close to compensating for the time I spend. I could put in the same effort consulting on the side and make a lot more money. I have little motivation to eat up my free time making more money.
But I love trying to give my engineering students a piece of education that is very difficult to get in school and that primarily comes from work experience.

If I can give them just a small percentage of that knowledge proactively, it provides them a competitive advantage over their graduating peers in the market place. This does nots how in their initial pay, but will show in their immediate success after taking a job.

And I have gotten feedback from past students that this is working. When I get that feedback, that is my real payment. It feels great.

One trend I am seeing from my seniors that I don't really like, is too many are going directly to grad school. In engineering, that is not that big a help. I am a firm believer that they can get more from their graduate investment if they have at least 3-5 years practical experience. There is no substitute for the learning context this creates.

JMG said...

I agree with you about some people's attitudes toward their online teaching. Just from my supplemental use of online activities for my classes, I know that to have a successful online class takes lots of work.

As far as adjunct faculty, I adjuncted for a semester for very little money. I agree that most adjuncts teach because they love the rewards that you mentioned. That's definitely the best part of my job. But an adjunct professor, as you mentioned, has very little extra time to devote to good one on one time with students.

However, and adjunct's salary won't pay the bills and hardly ever comes with benefits, so most adjunct work at a regular job as well. When universities rely heavily on adjunct faculty, they can't supply the necessary educational experience for students simply because adjuncts don't have the time or energy to devote to continued learning and research. (The same for faculty like myself who routinely teach five classes.)

Tony, I'll bet you're a really good teacher!

Tony Arnold said...

You would have to ask my students. I try to be. Sometimes I feel like I am working with a brick wall though.