The Business of Small Colleges Is . . . Not Business

Four recent news items that I believe are additional evidence of a trend that is going to poke a large hole in the finances of many small, private colleges and universities in the U.S. — a hole that is going to help make some of these institutions insolvent:

First, an online program will replace the residential MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Second, Iowa Wesleyan University has signed an articulation agreement with Kishwaukee College, a community college located three hundred miles away in another state, whereby students complete three years of study at Kishwaukee and obtain a bachelor’s degree in business from Iowa Wesleyan with a fourth year of online courses.

Third, Linfield College is shedding approximately one-fifth of its tenured and tenure-track faculty positions. Undergraduate enrollments at Linfield’s main campus and in its online programs have declined precipitously, while the size of its nursing program in Portland has been flat. My guess is that the college’s leadership has decided to radically shrink its liberal arts curriculum and focus on offering degrees in business in addition to nursing.

Fourth, as described in this New York Times article, data indicates that there is often an inverse relationship between the cost of a graduate program and its quality.

Business programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have been cash cows for small U.S. colleges and universities for decades. But in 2019, why pursue this field of study at a small, struggling, largely-unknown college when one can get the same degree online at less expense from a much larger, better-resourced, nationally-reputable state university? Iowa Wesleyan has been in a death spiral for some time. The chances of its articulation agreement attracting enough business degree-completion students to pull the school back from the brink are slim to none. The same is true of an institution like Linfield College. Offering business degrees at a higher price than more-prestigious competitors does nothing to differentiate either institution in the market.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

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An Augar of a hard future

Nope

One of the things that British HE loves is a good review: we have them all the time, to help wile away the hours until our next Research Evaluation.

Best of all, reviews mean you don’t have to actually do anything: just wait for the report, then ‘consider it’, then hope that no one pushes you too hard for actual action.

The latest in the long line is the Augar report, which looks at the (sorry) state of financing the sector. It would be fair to say that no-one is too keen on its findings in the round.

The problem is money: there’s not really enough of it and right now too much is felt to come from students. The big shift from direct funding to student-attached money took place a decade or more ago, but opposition to rising fees has become a shibboleth of those who worry about access and form an easy political target.

But if you cut back how much students have to pay in directly – as Augar suggests, by cutting back fees – there’s a shortfall. Either the government picks up the tab – Augar’s preference – or the sector contracts and consolidates to generate efficiencies.

Oddly, the government doesn’t seem mad-keen on the former, even as it’s not quite yet ready to do the latter.

Throw in a leadership contest in the governing party and you have the ideal recipe for “let’s not deal with it now”, that old favourite of HE policy.

I’m interested in this at multiple levels, not least as someone with a job in the sector. But it also points to the challenges facing the UK in its state of Brexiting.

One of the big sells for a post-EU UK has been its role as a global leader in HE: the country punches well above its weight on any metric you care to mention and no Brexiteers’ speech is complete without reference to our global universities.

But this doesn’t happen by itself: the sector has never been self-sustaining and autonomous: student fees are guaranteed by the government, who also provide the money for many of the major research councils. Yes, universities are run as businesses, but none could cope without that public support.

Partly, that reflects the nature of HE. Augar decries ‘mickey mouse’ degrees (back in the news again) for their lack of commercial value. But education isn’t just (or even, particularly) about narrow financial gain: it’s about helping people become more than they were, to make sense of the world around them. Learning is its own reward (which is nice, but still needs money to make it happen).

So the dilemma remains: stick with the current (unpopular) system; increase central funding (when belts might need tightening); or risk compromising the eco-system of British HE that is generally acclaimed to be A Good Thing.

In this, it’s a bit like Brexit: there are no good choices and there are no cost-free choices.

Maybe we need another review to sort it out.

What do you want from your L&T event?

Teaching’s done for me now, so it’s heads up for the summer round of getting out of the office conferences.

Not the conference venue… I think

Somehow – probably as a function of signing up to everything I could during the busy spring of Brexit – I’ve got a pile of events to attend, so it’s a good moment to reflect on what the point of such things might be.

I write that not despondently, but hopefully, since my experience of L&T events has generally been much more positive than the usual round of academic conferences. They tend to be more focused – by definition – plus the vibe is more constructive.

A new one for me – and everyone, in fact, since it’s the first time out -will be the International Teaching and Learning Conference, running in Brighton next month (co-organised by Amanda, of this parish), a mash-up from the PSA and APSA.

It’s a good example of the competing visions of what L&T events can do.

Firstly, there’s pedagogic research: systematic efforts to understand the dynamics of student learning and instructor activity. It’s still more common in the US than the UK since the latter doesn’t have the same institutionalisation of such work in career promotion processes, but there’s still a good number of people working on this, aided by the high level of connection with European colleagues.

Secondly, there’s reflection on the practice of L&T in general terms. I’m going to be running a roundtable discussion at the conference on how Brexit challenges how and what we teach: like other such examples, it’s a chance to step back and think about the environment in which we work.

And thirdly, there’s sharing practice. Here’s where there’s a lot more diversity. EuroTLC, for example, is much more about hands-on demos of things we do (or could do) in the classroom, while other events are more about more conference-like papers on one’s case-study.

All of these things are valuable: theory and practice need to inform each other, while also keeping an eye on the shifting sands of our sector (and institutions).

But the balance is one that sits somewhat uneasily with many. For a long time, the cry from colleagues was “give me something I can actually use”, but when we organised events that did that, they then looked for the things behind it.

As ever, there’s never a solution that going to work for everyone on this: we’re all at different places professionally, plus we might not even been aware of our requirements in the round.

My own approach has been to look for what I need from several different places and formats, rather than just one. I’m fortunate that I get invited to contribute to quite a few things, but given the number of events out there, it’s not so hard to get a spread of stuff that could work for you.

And with that in mind, I’ll be posting back from Brighton on the conference, plus pestering Amanda to do the same.

Innovating in Large Groups: Pair work as a strategy for student engagement

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Theresa Reidy.

Shpend Voca provides an excellent resource for academics working with large student groups in this chapter on pair work. Building interaction into sessions with students can become a challenge when group numbers exceed the 40-50 mark but this chapter reminds us that innovation and engagement should not be traded when faced with larger student groups.

The chapter is important in four respects.

First, Voca strikes a chord with the opening discussion of the traditional lecture as a passive format and in referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy, highlights the low level learning outcomes which students experience and achieve through this approach. In this sense, the challenge that lecturers face with big groups is clearly set out in the opening section of the chapter.

Second, several examples of discrete engagement strategies which can be used with large groups are elaborated. This is perhaps the most important part of the chapter in that it provides specific options for teaching staff to use in their own practice. The options given include pausing during lectures to allow students to speak with the person sitting next to them to discuss the material provided up to that point, and clarify notes. This is a simple idea and one that could be especially valuable for early year undergraduate students. The author includes further options, which build on this starting suggestion.

The third noteworthy aspect of the chapter relates directly to the robust research design used to evaluate the use of pair work. A clear approach is taken with data collected through several routes. Student evaluations, final grades and a peer observation rubric are used in what is essentially a natural experiment, as there is also a control group taking the same module but without the pair work strategy. This multi-pronged strategy allows for a rigorous interrogation of the pair work and a persuasive presentation of the outcomes.

Which brings me to the final point, the chapter provides conclusive evidence that pair work in large groups enhances the overall learning experience of students. The student evaluations were positive, the learning dividend notable in the comparison with the control group who did not have pair work incorporated into their classes. Indeed, the author downplays the outcomes in the final discussion, they could have been more positive about the pair work given the solid evidence supporting its impact.

Introducing pair work was a small change deployed in a challenging classroom environment but one that delivered clear and demonstrable outcomes. That is the take away message from the chapter and hopefully will one that will be absorbed by colleagues seeking to make their own practice more engaging and effective for students.

This is an important and useful contribution to the scholarship of teaching and learning in the sciences. It is well written, in an accessible style and the structure lends itself to those who are interested in pedagogy and also to those seeking practical advice and guidance. It should be read widely.

What’s good for me and what’s good for my students?

Evidently, my existential rut continues.

Last week I had three separate occasions teaching on the same subject, plus also getting filmed talking about that subject too.

I’d been a bit anxious about this concatenation of coverage, even if it was on my research specialisation: talk enough about something and eventually you end up saying all you’ve got to say. Or worse, I might forget who’d I’d said what to whom.

In the end, that was not a problem: I’d been good about defining quite clearly what each session was focused on, so the internal consistency was fine, as was relationship between the different bits.

However, each time I was doing something quite different.

There was one conventional lecture, one set of seminars and one Q&A-type session to support a flipped lecture. Plus that filming.

Now I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I gave a good lecture: it flowed, it had coherence, the students were engaged (and occasionally entertained) and I even got a little round of applause at the end.

Lovely.

But it was also the session that I worried gave the least to the audience: they were passive recipients, rather than active learners. In the Q&A and in the seminars, the content was driven by their needs and learning processes: even the filmed lecture is going to become part of a more interactive package.

However, my ability to give lectures seemed to be better than my ability to give the other formats (not that they were bad, to be clear: just not as good as the lecture).

So what to do?

Stick with what I’m best at, or focus on what I understand to be best for my students’ learning?

Of course, I’m setting up a bit of a false choice here: my evaluation of my relative capacities is completely anecdotal, plus I know that the evidence about pedagogic formats isn’t completely nailed down.

However, the point still stands, because our subjective view of such situations shapes how we engage with pedagogy: I think we all know plenty of people who stick with what they know because they’re good at it, or at least better at it than some other approach they’ve not tried before.

The difficulty is separating our anxiety/indifference about new pedagogies from any more objective limitation on our ability to use them. My personal view is that just because I not smashing it in my seminars, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing them: instead, I should be trying to identify and address my weaknesses.

What am I good at?

I’ve just been reading I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s very engaging life of Nietzsche, mainly because I knew nothing about the man or his work.

As well as being a good read, and to appreciate much better the intentional ambiguities of Nietzsche’s thoughts, it was also very striking to see a story of someone finding their place in the world.

Also an excellent improviser on the piano…

From those of you unfamiliar with the details, Nietzsche was a brilliant philologist, in an age when philology was the very highest discipline in German academia.

After only three semesters as an undergraduate at university, Basle wrote to him in Leipzig to offer him a chair in the subject, on the recommendation of his tutor: impressive for a 24 year old.

But for me it was even more impressive that relatively quickly Nietzsche decided that he didn’t want to be a philologist, but a philosopher. Having tried to make that switch within the university system, and failed, he struck out on his own.

Now you may quibble that he only made his big breakthroughs just at the point he lost his mind and that these things might be connected, but the point still stands: life, for Nietzsche, was about overcoming yourself, loving your fate while simultaneously making the most of your situation.

I see this as a somewhat more positive message than my usual go-tos in philosophy, the Existentialists, who make the very good point that life is meaningless, but who seem to be a bit too “I’m having such fun” to ring quite true.

But what does this have to do with you and me?

I think it’s partly a function of the time of year: teaching’s coming to an end, we’re all exhausted, not least because of the pile of research activity waving to us from the other end of the desk. Talking with various colleagues, it’s the time of “why do I do this? should I be doing this?”

That’s a difficult conversation to have with yourself and with others: indeed, I’m regularly struck by people who I consider to be very able, competent and enthusiastic about their work who turn out to be not so sure it’s what they want to be doing. Success does not necessarily mean satisfaction, as young Nietzsche found out.

Even if we don’t have the idea to tear down the foundations of Western civilisation and thought, it is still good to recognise and engage with these feelings inside us,

I know that I derive great enjoyment from my work, in part because it is so varied and irregular, but I also know that this is a source of anxiety: what will come next? How will I cope? Where does it lead?

Thinking back to my previous post, it’s really essential to have a good support network, people you can talk with, frankly and openly. That can be friends, family, colleagues, it’s not really important who, as long as you recognise that you don’t have to tread your path alone.

As Nietzsche noted, it’s all too easy to fall back into comforting patterns of behaviour and not to ask yourself difficult questions, but ultimately it’s only by doing that you progress, a sentiment that shouldn’t be so problematic for academics. You don’t have to buy into the rest of it, but acknowledging your situation and what you want from it all isn’t the worst thing to do.

And if all that’s a bit heavy, wait until you find out what I’m reading next.

On motivation: you had my interest, but now you have my attention

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Silviu Piros

Barbora’s chapter provokes from the onset: ‘It Takes Two to Tango: How to get IR students engaged in their learning’. First, it provokes the reader to shift attention from a teacher-centred to a student-centred approach to delivering education. Second, it challenges the reader to consider innovation not for the sake of just ‘doing things differently’, but to solve an ever-growing real-life problem – in this case – increasingly lower attention spans and rapidly waning engagement levels. Finally, it encourages the reader to take own charge by equipping him both with a practical DIY-kit of how the design of such a course could look like, as well as critically observing and empirically evaluating its results.

The academic community is now giving a more attention to student motivation and engagement in the classroom. The instant and constant access to a ubiquitous mass of information has in turn diminished attention spans and the ‘digital natives’ or ‘Gen Z’ – who are now starting their undergraduate studies – are being the most affected group.

Continuously focusing for 90 minutes during a classic lecture, as well as thorough note-taking are becoming serious challenges undergraduate students are often struggling with.

On this backdrop, Barbora reveals her tri-fold challenge that required an innovative approach: to teach an optional course on a perceivably ‘exotic’ topic (Arctic Geopolitics), with an only pass/fail grade, to a mixed cohort of bachelor students with variable affinities and interest in the subject. Her approach aimed at systematically tackling all these perceived weaknesses through a strategy that would gradually shift students’ extrinsic motivation in the course (i.e. the engagement delivered through topic and classroom activities) with genuine intrinsic motivation (that is driven from within).

Thus, she designed and developed her course based on three pillars: expert skype lectures, in-class group work, and interactive mini-lectures. With this mix of methods, the danger of losing students’ interest and engagement in a 90-minute lecture was skirted, as each of the three components brought a different angle while keeping everybody constantly involved: be it through practical Q&As in the expert sessions, interaction with the course convenor in the mini-lectures, or peer interaction during group work.

The effort associated with building such a curriculum is praiseworthy. The risks associated with it, make is so even more.

The technology-enabled expert sessions are a great tool for creating momentum on a theme, and exposing students to real-life scenarios, however the failure of technology on the spot, or the sudden unavailability of the expert will have a serious  impact on the overall outcome of the course and will impact negatively motivation levels, and therefore it needs to be factored in.

Similarly – and this is something the chapter considers – the importance of design in the group activity and the pitfalls of failing to keep students engaged during the group sessions should not be overlooked.

What makes this chapter a great and commendable reading is indeed its openness. Openness to challenge, to change, to reconsider. The key message Barbora conveys throughout this chapter is straightforward: the ever-changing needs of our students drive teaching and learning innovation, and with the right amount of commitment and determination, each new provocation will make for a great opportunity to move things forward.

Advice to my younger self

I’ve finally to attending a networking event for Early Career Researchers at the conference I’m at, having decided that I’m far enough down the line to have something useful to say.

(Why yes, I have recently had a birthday. Why do you ask?)

The idea is a pretty standard one: speed-dating round the room to make some contacts and share some ideas. It’s a really good format for semi-structured getting-to-know-yous.

Of course, me being me, I’ve spent a couple of days talking through ideas with my partner, who’s also an academic: what is the most useful advice you could give someone if you only had a couple of minutes?

Since I don’t see why I should limit my unburdening to the ECRs at the conference, here’s my shot.

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A Tale of Two Conferences

With apologies to Charles Dickens.

I recently presented at nearly back-to-back conferences that were not, strictly speaking, devoted to my areas of expertise. While I think it’s always good to go beyond one’s comfort zone, the experience again illustrated a principle upon which Simon and I have occasionally commented: academic conferences often don’t reflect workplace realities. To wit:

The first conference, of the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), was held in Washington, DC. Until you found out it wasn’t. I had immediately noticed from the call for proposals, unlike my wife/colleague, that the conference site was actually a 30-minute drive south, in Maryland. Public transit, including from the airport, took 90 minutes. While the hotel itself was gorgeous, its location represented additional expense and inconvenience for attendees, especially for those with limited or no financial support from their home institutions.

But the greater problem, in my opinion: it was the usual routine of presenting obscure research, completely unrelated to teaching, to mostly empty rooms. Hardly anyone who attended the conference has or will have a career that is entirely research-focused. In other words, the conference was organized to serve an audience that doesn’t exist.

The second conference, Eastern Regional Campus Compact, was a bit better in this regard, as one might expect from an organization whose mission is community engagement. But it still demonstrated the disconnect between conference format and audience. My contribution was an interactive workshop on teaching techniques, which drew a crowd of about fifty people, with some spilling out into the corridor — a clear sign of interest. The other sessions I attended, organized as traditional panels, attracted a half dozen or fewer people.

As I mention in the post at the link shown above, the economics of these kinds of conferences are backwards and not sustainable.