Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Framework and Summary of Class Discussion on 10-28

I am going to try to write this in a neutral way where questions are posed but answers aren't offered up. So the conclusions could go either way. But at least in some cases I will try to list the set of possible conclusions from which to choose. Also, I will belabor some things because some students missed the class and this written explanation may help more than the recording of the session.

We started by talking about meta skills that all students need to learn and what we hope all students will have acquired at some level of proficiency by the time they graduate. On this I asserted the categories, more or less. A few students offered up others which either were subsidiary categories (I will illustrate below) or were different labels for the same categories. The three we ended up with are:

1. Communication
2. Learning to learn
3. Citizenship

We didn't talk much about Communication because we already heard about it from the College CIOs visit and because the class is in agreement that it is a fundamental skill of high importance. We did talk about learning to learn. Somebody (sorry, I won't give attribution because I can't remember who said what) talked about Critical Thinking, to which I responded that is the inside academia name for learning to learn. You may say they are not identical. For this purpose, let's say they are. Somebody else talked about information technology skills to which I responded that is subsidiary to learning to learn. I think we got agreement on that. Somebody else talked about research skills in a particular field. My response there was that you can't become skilled about learning to learn skills in the abstract. You have to talk about those skills in reference to some field. There is the question of whether the learning to learn parts translate to other fields. It's the part that do translate that are the meta skills. Some things you learn about a field are quite specific to that field, no doubt.

We then talked a bit about Citizenship. Here we talked about group work, we talked about leadership, and we mentioned responsibility and ethics. Someone asked whether ethics was a citizenship thing or its own separate category. My answer in class was to leave that as a pending question. But I'd like to amend myself on this and say it is part of citizenship for this purpose. We're better off having a shorter list of meta skills, where each member of the list is distinct but itself broad. I think the list above does that.

We then talked about how the meta skills are learned. One place for learning them is in class. I believe it is the aim of the Campus for the education offered up to significantly enhance student meta skills. We also said, however, that students can very well learn these skills from experience. We talked about experiential learning as an alternative to formal instruction, in some ways superior to formal instruction. (I don't like the jargon, but experiential learning is said to be "authentic". I do take the point to which the jargon refers.)

We then talked about typical places for students where experiential learning occurs. Members of the class offered up the two obvious categories - internships and RSOs. We also talked a little bit about service learning and then lumped everything else into a category called "other."

We then asked whether experiential learning gets course credit and the why or why not of that. It does in some instances that are well orchestrated, student teaching in schools was mentioned, as was a program in Applied Health Studies (though here my memory fails as to the specifics of the program). But much experiential learning does not receive course credit and some that does is only available in a capstone course setting. The reason for this is that the university must "certify" that specified learning objectives are met. That certification comes from a faculty member on campus. It's hard for a faculty member to do this when the experiential learning happens outside the university and outside the experience of the faculty member. If this certification were to occur beyond the faculty member's normal work, it would require substantial effort. The student teaching works because the relationship is conceived as a triangle from the get go between teacher in the school, the faculty member on campus, and the student teacher who operates in both places. Other types of experiential learning where the faculty member is not so integrated in are much harder to monitor. Alternatively, integrating in the faculty member itself often takes substantial work, which may not be the sort of work the Campus rewards. This is why much service learning is only available as a capstone offering.

At this point we brought in Drucker, focusing on chapter 5. We talked about Social Problems and divided those into two categories, problems created by society as a whole or problems created specifically by the enterprise as it goes about achieving its mission. Drucker says the enterprise is responsible for fixing those latter problems. Regarding the former problems, the enterprise may or may not have the responsibility, according to Drucker, depending on whether it has the competence to provide a solution. The enterprise should not extend beyond its competence to fix social problems created by society as a whole.

Drucker talks about possible solutions to the social problems. The first is to abandon the activity that causes the problem. This is best if the activity itself is not tied to what the enterprise produces. The second is to make a new business out of solving the social problem. This is a good solution when it is possible. The third is to introduce regulation to best manage the social problem, when creating a profitable business is not possible.

Up till this point, much if not all of the above is definitional in nature, and I think everyone in class got this much. What follows is beyond definitional and I think there was some substantial confusion.

We talked about the disengagement pact, who has responsibility to solve it, and then whether the solution could turn into a "profitable business." Faculty disengagement, where it occurs, is clearly the responsibility of the Campus, since faculty are employees of the Campus. Student disengagement, where it occurs, may be a societal problem caused by the rigidity of approach in K-12, in which case the Campus role to address this issue depends on its competence to do, which may explain some of the tepid programs we do see. Alternatively, it may be caused by the high enrollment courses first-year students take, in which case the Campus does have responsibility to fix it.

We asked whether a possible solution to the student side of the disengagement pact issue can be profitable. We asked what does it mean for a solution to be profitable, since Campus is a not-for-profit institution. I suggested to view this on straight economic terms. A profitable solution either raises revenues or it lowers costs (or both). I did note that the profit so generated would be used to offset other areas on Campus that are less profitable. The Campus is looking at a significant budget shortfall in the future given the state government's budget deficit. If profit could be generated, it surely would go to help make up the shortfall.

At this point it is worth being extremely skeptical, but with that to consider possible alternatives. It may be that the status quo is the best alternative. It may be that some change is better.

One idea that was mentioned was to get students involved in Campus sanctioned experiential learning activities as freshmen. If such experiential learning was educative in terms of helping learn the meta skills, and if a faculty member on campus could reasonably certify that was the fact, then that activity might reasonably substitute for taking some large classes as Freshmen. There is an expression, with enough "ifs" you can put Paris in a bottle. So the assumptions need to be challenged. We talked about some internships being low level grunt work. Those internships are not sufficiently educative. We talked about if the faculty member is not involved, verifying whether the activity is educative can be difficult. We also talked about if the faculty member is involved it can nonetheless be costly. On that last point, some would say the solution lacks scalability. A profitable solution would not stumble on any of these points. That is a stern requirement.

We didn't have time but could equally talk about a solution where the Freshmen volunteer for experiential learning opportunities outside of a class session. This becomes an add on for them. There doesn't need to be faculty verification in this case. This seems to me pretty much the status quo. One wonders why there would be broad uptake by the students, since it doesn't seem to be happening now.

We didn't spend much time in class today on this, but the logical follow up would be on looking at peer mentoring the same way. We need to ask whether for the mentors the activity is educative in terms of producing the meta skills, whether the activity can be monitored effectively by a faculty member to certify that, and whether if so it can substitute for other courses the mentors might otherwise take. We also need to ask from the mentee side of the equation whether the mentoring actually does something of substance to address the disengagement. On that point many of you are skeptical based on your own prior experience with mentoring. I would argue here that those experiences were set up so they weren't sufficiently intensive. For something to work on both sides of the equation it needs to be quite an intensive activity. In class today there was some discussion to the effect that even if it did work on all these counts, it could still not substitute for courses in the major, which are essential toward the intellectual maturation of the student as the student learns the discipline. I argued that could go either way. It would be very good to put more flesh on that bone. So I hope some (or all) of you write about this before our course concludes. One particular issue that should be fleshed out is whether the peer mentoring is an option, creating another path for the student or if instead it became a requirement for all students and which of those alternatives makes more sense.

We didn't talk about it substituting for gen ed requirements, only substituting for courses in the major, but perhaps that should be considered here too. Some of you might argue that all course requirements are essential. Others might take a different position. I do want to note that the Zemsky proposal for a 3-year college degree forces one to take a side of this argument, one way or the other, quite apart from considering the disengagement pact. I don't know whether we can fit this into the class project or not, but having some writing on that argument would really help to set the full context of the project.

The last point to mention on whether the solution could be profitable is that the peer mentors could also volunteer (or do just for general course credit, not to substitute out of other specific requirements). We noted in class that most students don't have a lot of free elective time, at least that is so for the students in our class, so the course credit approach might help in some cases but not broadly. We didn't talk about students volunteering to be mentors and the issue of what non-course time would have to be given up to enable being a peer mentor. (I'm assuming here that the mentees, otherwise disengaged, have time on their hands to be a mentee. That assumption also needs to be challenged.) Potentially this avenue should be explored vigorously as well. A strong volunteer program might work better than trying to have a program where other course requirements are dropped. It remains, however, how to generate the strong volunteer program.

This, I believe describes all the possibilities for the question of whether there is a profitable solution. Which you think is best (including the status quo) depends on how you think the questions should be answered. We should argue about that. It may be that no alternative other than the status quo is profitable.

There is then the question of whether a non-profit oriented and regulated solution to peer mentoring might make sense, which is what Drucker recommends to look at if the profitable solution comes to naught. One can look at this as an intra-campus college issue on our own Campus. Suppose an individual college wanted to encourage peer mentoring to combat student disengagement from the large classes it offers, and to make things concrete suppose that college is LAS, since it offers the bulk of the Gen Ed courses. LAS reduces course requirements in the major for those who do mentoring. But LAS can only do that for those majors within the college. Since LAS is a net importer of students for Gen Ed, it will need peer mentors from other colleges. But those other colleges haven't changed their course requirements. So there aren't enough peer mentors. There is the further factor that if the other colleges went along then rightfully this would be a net income transfer to LAS, because the peer mentoring would be for work done in LAS. The other colleges won't want that net income transfer to LAS because they lose money on that deal. So any solution would have to be at the Campus level to deal both with getting mentors from outside LAS and on the income transfer issue so the other colleges would play along. It's the sort of regulation that would be necessary. The Faculty Senate and the Provost's office would both have to see it this way to make this happen.

There might also be inter-campus issues about implementing such a program. If Illinois did this but Michigan did not would some students perceive Michigan to be more rigorous because it has retained all the within major course requirements. If you can't make this move because of the impact on recruiting (incidentally, this issue also could be there on the intra-campus single college implementation) then it would have to be implemented everywhere in order for it to happen at all. To get it implemented everywhere, the accrediting agencies, both the general ones and the ones for the specific disciplines, would have to take up the call.

The above framework is perhaps a lot to digest. I would appreciate comments of the form - I understand what is said about x, but I don't get what this means about y. Then we can use class time to follow up on this.

One last point in case this is not obvious. I don't believe the status quo is the best available alternative. This would not be a good project for a course on effective change if it were. Also note that as an economist I believe in tradeoffs and making a cost-benefit analysis on proposed solutions. If, for example, taking away some requirements in the major and substituting peer mentoring created some loss in terms student preparation in that major, but the peer mentoring created a win with student engagement, then if the size of the win is big enough I'd say that alternative is better. If you didn't allow for tradeoffs and instead insisted that the win has to occur in all dimensions, that approach tends to make the status quo triumph.

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