It’s fair to imagine that one of the 2013 ‘words of the year‘ will be MOOC (which is not really a word, but an acronym that stands for Massive Open Online Course). It seems that everywhere you look in the higher education and professional development space we are seeing MOOC’s talked about and debated.
HBR editor Eric Hellwig, writing for the HBR blog, reported on a recent panel on MOOC’s held at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos with leaders like Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and Larry Summers. His report reflects the exuberance of the MOOC and the techno-deterministic spirit of much of the discourse on these tools:
The advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium so far. I say this for two main reasons. First, for the enormously transformative impact MOOCs can have on literally billions of people in the world. Second, for the equally disruptive effect MOOCs will inevitably have on the global education industry.
One of the panelists was Stanford professor Daphne Coller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers offering more than 200 courses to millions of students worldwide. Coller has convinced top faculty at leading universities to provide high quality digital courses through Coursera for free and the result has surprised her.
We’re at 2.4 million students now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned on this is I underestimated the amount of impact this would have around the world. I really didn’t envision this scale and this impact this quickly.
Of these panelists, Peter Thiel may be the most controversial. He has spoken at length about the need to revamp education and sees technology and platforms like Facebook as a means to do it. (It’s worth noting that Theil was also an early investor in Facebook). He points to the multiple roles that education plays well beyond learning and suggests that when we go beyond that goal we start creating false economies of value within higher education:
You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the nature of education as a good?’ Ideally you want it to be learning. But it also functions as insurance. Parents will pay a lot of money for insurance against cracks in our society. Education as insurance has something to be said because it connects to the economy. You know computer science, you can get a job. But education also functions as a tournament. You do well if you go to a top school but for everyone else the diploma is a dunce hat in disguise. People need to understand what they’re trying to do? Is it insurance? A tournament? Learning?
Among Thiel’s biggest concerns is with the current educational system’s ability to support the kind of innovative thinking needed to make technological and scientific breakthroughs. So steadfast is he in the belief that some of the best minds are rotting in traditional classrooms that he founded the Thiel Fellowship, a scholarship fund to support promising young entrepreneurs in dropping out of school to pursue their ambitions of making social impact.
Thiel is disrupting education by taking learning away from the educational institutions charged with providing it. MOOC providers are seeking to develop a business model that puts them in the drivers seat of education and learning, drawing potential revenues away from traditional educational institutions. This will no doubt add to the pressures that universities and colleges are already facing as they rationalize ever more of what they do.
Education For All, Learning For Whom?
Free online learning of the calibre provided by Stanford University, Caltech, Harvard University, University of Toronto, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute for anyone, anywhere sounds like a dream come true.
In some ways it is. In others, it’s an illusion.
It’s been suggested that less than 10 per cent of those enrolled in a MOOC complete it. And of this 10 per cent, it isn’t clear what they learn, how well they learn it, and what kind of application (if any) that content is made to issues away from the course. Online courses with video tutorials, self-organized learning and largely uni-directional teaching bring together the best of former teaching methods like instructional TV, self-help, and classroom lectures.
The problem is that this ‘best’ isn’t particularly effective. A 2000 meta-analysis of distance instructional methods found:
There does not appear to be a difference in achievement between distance and traditional learners. Of the ten instructional features that were analyzed, only three had an impact on student achievement. These three features were type of interaction available during a broadcast, type of course, and type of remote site. There was an insufficient number of studies to ascertain whether or not the education level of the distance learners effected their achievement in the course (Machtmes & Asher, 2000).
While this review was done before widespread Internet use, the methods included reflected the same list above with one- or two-way audio and video. The studies were also done on programs that were designed for credit, not voluntary non-credit courses. Research on motivation will show that optional programs are far less likely to engender behavioural shifts than those that are mandated.
So who then is benefitting from MOOC’s? We don’t yet know, but it is likely those with time to attend to the content, high levels of intrinsic motivation (< PDF), the technological tools to succeed, and the environment that is ready to support integration of content into practice. That’s a tall order.
We are in the early days of MOOC’s and its too soon to tell how successful they will be. However, theoretically there is relatively little reason to expect that they will produce the kind of results worthy of hyperbole — at east not with those already accustomed to alternatives. To offer a MOOC from a world-class university to a learner somewhere in the world where education is but a distant dream achieves a great deal. But to transfer MOOC’s to replace more interactive and engaging methods — usually face-to-face — and expect great learning is a bit implausible.
Yet, with what we are offering now to students in the form of large classes, disconnected curricula, and didactic instruction MOOC’s offer an attractive option. What it loses is the experience of learning that is not packaged in a class. This means a change to campus life, the informal and serendipitous learning that comes from being in the same physical space interacting with each other, and may seriously limit the use of thinking and creative tools that design thinking and applied creativity demand. (for a detailed look at MOOC’s and the modern university check out Nathan Harden’s essay in the American Interest).
There is much ado about MOOC’s, but is this a Shakespearian tragedy in the making for learners?
Photo credit: iStockPhoto used under license.
What is quality when we speak of learning? In this third post in series on education and evaluation metrics the issue of quality is within graduate and professional education is explored with more questions than answers about the very nature of learning itself.
But what does learning really mean and do we set the system up to adequately assess whether people do it or not and whether that has any positive impact on what they do in their practice.
What do you mean when you say learning?
The late psychologist Seymour Sarason asked the above question with the aim of provoking discussion and reflection on the nature and possible outcomes of educational reform. Far from being glib, Sarason felt this question exposed the slippery nature of the concept of learning as used in the context of educational programming and policy. It’s a worthwhile question when considering the value of university and professional education programming. What do we mean when we say learners are learning?
The answer to this question exposes the assumptions behind the efforts to provide quality educational experiences to those we call learners. To be a learner one must learn…something.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning this way:
the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught: these children experienced difficulties in learning | [ as modifier ] : an important learning process.
• knowledge acquired in this way: I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters.
This might sufficiently answer Dr Sarason except there is no sense of what the content is or whether that content is appropriate, sufficient, timely or well-supported with evidence (research or practice-based); the quality of learning.
Knowledge translation professionals know that learning through evidence is not achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach and that the match between what professionals need and what is available is rarely clean and simple (if it was, there would be little need for KT). The very premise of knowledge translation is that content itself is not enough and that sometimes it requires another process to help people learn from it. This content is also about what Larry Green argues: practice-based evidence is needed to get better evidence-based practice.
How do we know when learning is the answer (and what are the questions)?
If our metric of success in education is that those who engage in educational programming learn, how do we know whether what they have learned is of good quality? How do we know what is learned is sufficient or appropriately timed? Who determines what is appropriate and how is that tested? These are all questions pertaining to learning and the answers to them depend greatly on context. Yet, if context matters then the next question might be: what is the scope of this context and how are its parameters set?
Some might choose academic discipline as the boundary condition. To take learning itself as an example, how might we know if learning is a psychology problem or a sociology problem (or something else)? If it is a problem for the field of psychology, when does it become educational psychology, cognitive psychology, community psychology or one of the other subdisciplines looking at the brain, behaviour, or social organization? Successful learning through all of these lenses means something very different across conditions.
Yet, consider the last time you completed some form of assessment on your learning. Did you get asked about the context in which that learning took place? When you were asked questions about what you learned on your post-learning assessment:
- Did it take into account the learning context of delivery, reception, use, and possible ways to scaffold knowledge to other things?
- Did your learner evaluation form ask how you intended to use the material taught? Did you have an answer for that and might that answer change over time?
- Did it ask if your experience of the learning event matched what the teachers and organized expected you to gain and did you know what that really was?
- Did you know at the time of completing the evaluation whether what you were exposed to was relevant to the problems you needed to solve or would need to solve in the future?
- Did you get asked if you were interested in the material presented and did that even matter?
- Was there an assumption that the material you were exposed to could only be thought of in one way and did you know what that way was prior to the experience? If you didn’t think of the material in the way that the instructors intended did you just prove that the first of these two questions is problematic?
Years of work in post-secondary teaching and continuing professional education suggests to me that your answer to these questions was most likely “no”, except the very last one.
These many questions are not posed to antagonize educators (or “learners”, too) for there are no single or right answers to any of them. Rather, these are intended to extend Seymour Sarason’s question to the present day and put in the context of graduate and professional education at a time when both areas are being rethought and rationalized.
Learning to innovate (and being wrong)
A problem with the way much of our graduate and professional education is set up is that it presumes to have the answers to what learning is and seeks to deliver the content that fills a gap in knowledge within a very narrow interpretation. This is based on an assumption that what was relevant in the past is both still appropriate now and will be in the future unless we are speaking of a history lesson. However, innovation and discovery — and indeed learning itself — is based on failure, discomfort and not knowing the answers as much as building on what has come before us. There is no doubt that a certain base level of knowledge is required to do most professional and scientific work and that building a core is important, but it is far from sufficient.
The learning systems we’ve created for ourselves are based on a factory model of education, not for addressing complexity or dynamic systems like we find in most social worlds. We do not have a complex adaptive learning system in place, one that supports innovation (and the failures that produce new learning) because:
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. – Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk 2006
The above quote comes from education advocate Sir Ken Robinson in a humorous and poignant TED talk delivered in 2006 and then built on further in a second talk in 2010. Robinson lays bare the assumptions behind much of our educational system and how it is structured. He also exposes the problem we face in advancing innovation (my choice of term) because we have designed a system that actively seeks to discourage wide swaths of learning that could support it, particularly with the arts.
Robinson points to the conditions of interdisciplinary learning and creativity that emerge when we free ourselves of the factory model of learning that much of our education is set up, “producing” educated people. If we are assessing learning and we go outside of our traditional disciplines how can we assess whether what we teach is “learned” if we have no standard to compare it to? Therein lies the rub with the current models and metrics.
If we are to innovate and create the evidence to support it we need to be wrong. That means creating educational experiences that allow students to be wrong and have that be right. If that is the case, then it means building an education system that draws on the past, but also creates possibilities for new knowledge and learning anchored in experimentation and transcends disciplines when necessary. It also means asking questions about what it means to learn and what quality means in the context of this experimental learning process.
If education is to transform itself and base that transformation on any form of evidence then getting the right metrics to evaluate these changes is imperative and quality of education might just need to be one of them.
Post-secondary and continuing education is continuing to be rationalized in ways that are transforming the very foundation of the enterprise. Funding is a major driver of change in this field: how much is available, when it flows, where it comes from, what is funded, and who gets the funding are questions on the minds of those running the academy.
At the centre of the focus of this funding issue is the job market. Training qualified professionals for the job market in various forms has been one of the roles a university has played for more than a century. Now that role has become central.
Let’s consider what that means and what it could do in shaping the various possible futures of the university. This second in a series looking at the post-secondary and continuing education focuses on the metrics of jobs.
“What are all these people going do?”
The employability of graduates is now the holy grail of education industry statistics. Earlier this year I was sitting on the stage at an academic convocation with a senior colleague staring out at a sea of soon-to-be-graduates when he leaned over and asked the question quoted above. Staring at a sea of masters and doctoral graduates numbered in the hundreds and knowing that this ceremony was held twice per year, the question stuck and remains without an answer.
Maybe there were enough jobs for that cohort, but this process gets repeated twice each year at universities around the world and each year that I’ve been a professor those numbers (of graduates) seem to go up. Some of our programs in the health sciences are admitting three times the number of students than they were just ten years ago. There is much demand for education (as judged by departmental applications), but are there jobs demanding this kind of education in its current form?
Yes, the Baby Boom is moving into an age of retirement and increasing needs for health services, but do we need to graduate 80+ Physical or Occupational Therapists to meet this need this year? Do we need a few dozen more epidemiologists or health promotion specialists to add to the pool? How about psychologists or social workers: how many of those do we need? The answer from my colleagues in these fields is: We don’t know.
Chasing the Wind
Jobs are a red herring. It’s one thing to have a job, but is it the job that you trained for? (And is having that job even a reasonable goal?) Being employed is not the same as building a career. What if you were trained perfectly for a job that no longer existed? Imagine a Blacksmith in the 20th century or a Bloodletter. These questions are not asked, nor is much asked about quality of education relative to the pressures of recruitment, cost-cutting and educational rationalization. Most of us don’t know what quality education is in real terms because we are measuring it (if we are measuring anything at all besides jobs) by standards set for the jobs of the past, not the future (or even the present?).
“Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” – Wayne Gretzky
Jobs are living things and very few in 2013 will resemble what they did even 10 years ago. The citizens of the developing world are entering this rapidly changing job market ready for change (See also McKinsey Global Institute report on future of work in advanced economies) because they don’t have the old ways to rely on. They are primed for change and if professional education is to meet the needs of a changing world, it needs to change too. It means getting serious about learning.
If education is rationalizing itself to focus more on jobs, then it also needs to get serious about clarifying what jobs mean, defining what ‘success’ looks like for a graduate, and whether those jobs are designed for where the proverbial puck is now or for where it is going.
Disruptive Learning / Disturbed Education
“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus
I’ve pointed out that learners have an uneasy relationship with learning principally because it means disrupting things. This is a topic I’ll be covering in greater depth in a future post, but if one considers how our social, economic, and environmental systems are changing it is not unreasonable to call this the age of disruption .
Change in complex systems is often logarithmic, not linear. It may be massively punctuated like a Lévy Flight or it could be closer to a random walk. In environments with a change coefficient that is large the level of attention must be more fine-grained than 5-year reviews. It requires developmental evaluation methods and learning organizations, not just conventional approaches to generating and assessing feedback. It requires mindful attention and contemplative inquiry to guide a regular reflective practice if one is to pay attention to the subtleties in change that could have enormous impact.
For example, if journalists and news media waited every five years to assess the state of their profession, they would have missed out on Twitter and come late to blogging, two of their (now) powerful sources of competition and tools of the trade. Some have waited, which is why they are no longer around. Metrics for journalism education today might consider the amount of exposure and proficiency in social media use, digital photography, use of handheld tools for communication, and real-time reporting skills. Metrics of the past might focus on newspapers and radio broadcasting. Which mindset, skillset and toolset would you rather be trained in today?
Questions for educators, learners (and evaluators):
Whether health sciences, journalism, human services or any field, what might some questions be that can help determine the role of job training in professional education? Here are five starters:
1. What is the state of your profession right now and are you training people for existing in this state? Are you preparing people for the next evolution?
2. Where is your field of practice going? What are the possible futures for your profession in the next 5, 10, and 20 years? Will it still exist? Are you a blacksmith looking for more horses in the automobile age or Steve Jobs waiting to attract people to a new graphical user interface?
3. Is your mindset, skillset or toolset in need of re-consideration? Does it still do the job you’ve hired it to do?
4. What do people need that your skills can help with? What unfilled needs and expectations are there in the world that your mindset, skillset and toolset could solve?
5. What would happen if your field of practice disappeared? How else could you apply what you know to making the contribution you wish to make and earn a living? What other skills, tools and ways of thinking would you need to adapt?
Design thinking can greatly help shape the way that one conceives of a problem, works through possible options, and develops prototypes to address the needs of the present and the future. Foresight methods help lay additional context for design and systems thinking by providing ways to anticipate possible futures for any given field. Lastly, knowing what the state of things are now and how they got to where they are now can help determine the path dependencies that education may have fallen into.
We can’t change what we don’t see and better foresight, hindsight and present sight is critical to better ensuring that education outcomes are not imagined, but based on something that can actually improve learning.
Next to the church, the university may be the most enduring formal institution in our society. And like nearly every institution from banking to manufacturing to healthcare and even the church, the university is facing a major disruption from social and technological change.
The church’s (simplified) purpose is to provide a place of worship, communion and education on matters of faith and spiritual guidance.
The university is a place for preparing people to be better citizens, scientists or scholars, and professionals and to advance understanding of our world and universe.
Just as many question how well the church is realizing its purpose, so too are many questioning the university and how it is faring in its mission and purpose.
CENSEmaking returns to a discussion started last year with a requiem for the dream of a university no longer experienced by someone who aspired to serve within it. Following my advice to new scholars and attempts to peel back the curtain to show more about what university looks like for those outside it, it seems appropriate to revisit that discussion to explore the state of post-secondary education as another year passes.
This is the first in a series of upcoming posts looking at the future(s) of learning and professional education.
Universities are rethinking things in a big way led by changes to the way they are funded. Quoting from a recent article in the Globe and Mail on the state of funding for Canadian universities:
Midsize Canadian universities are starting a new kind of cost-cutting exercise as they face the prospect of prolonged austerity and sustained pressure to show their graduates are succeeding.
Administrators have tended to slash budgets equally across the board, leaving it up to each dean and department to set targets inside their faculties. Now, Canadian schools are importing a movement from the United States in which economic hardship is viewed as an opportunity to refocus scarce dollars on faculties that deliver.
If we are to parse through this language, one will see it that points to a new way of evaluating the impact of the university and how it makes decisions about what to invest in:
“Instead of making decisions based on internal political factors or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, or whatever else has gone on in the past, it’s time for us to shift to a culture of evidence,” said Robert C. Dickeson, the U.S. consultant at the heart of the crusade against across-the-board cuts.
Ah, evidence. This powerful concept is the bedrock of science , has transformed the way medicine is practiced and is now being applied to the ‘business’ of education. In Canada, universities are now seeking data about its product to inform its strategic decisions. Some universities are doing more of this than others in applying some form of evidence to their policy and strategy to deal with current funding challenges:
The University of Guelph has gone furthest. Facing a $32-million shortfall over the next four years, Guelph’s leaders hired Dr. Dickeson for help after an invitation to a workshop he runs landed in provost Maureen Mancuso’s inbox. He was on hand at a Guelph University town-hall meeting in late November where president Alastair Summerlee laid out the challenge: rising costs, flat government funding and capped tuition, combined with a shortage of space to keep boosting enrolment.
“People outside of our institutions are full of a rhetoric around ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?’” Dr. Summerlee told a crowd of about 300. “These things make a case for actually trying to prioritize what we’re doing. … We need to act now.”
The plan is Darwinian. Each of the university’s nearly 600 programs and services, from undergraduate biology to the parking office, has to complete a “program information report” answering 10 criteria, to be reviewed and ranked by a task force of faculty, staff and students.
Embedded in the middle of this quote is the line: ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?’
I have been involved in academic governance and policy making for 20 years first as a student representative at the undergraduate and graduate level and later as a full-time faculty member. The timing of my post-secondary life coincided with the last major shift in educational funding and rationalization that began in the early 1990′s with the first introduction of student fees and the start of philanthropic named sponsorship in Canadian universities. Prior to this time, students tuition was all they paid to access services and get an eduction and buildings, faculties and facilities were named based on criteria that was not tied to specific donations.
Despite all of this, quality was rarely a term used explicitly to shape strategy.
Money Matters and Defining Quality
I have never — not once — witnessed a major decision made on the basis of educational quality when juxtaposed against financial concerns. I’ve been a student, trainee or faculty member at five different universities and a visiting or guest lecturer or examiner at many more institutions worldwide and never have I seen quality of education trump fiscal or logistical issues on matters of great significance. Sure, there are small decisions to include particular content into a course or program or invite/disinvite a particular speaker based on perceptions of quality , but no program I’ve known chose, for example, to limit recruitment or enrolment because there were not enough resources to give a quality experience to students.
So if universities are now being judged on quality, what does this mean in practice?
Is quality about jobs? If so, then are they the jobs that students want, the ones they get (which may not be the same thing), the ones that students are trained for, or the ones that the market produces?
Is quality about what gets taught, what gets learned, or what gets applied? If it is some combination, then in what measure?
Is quality about what the market asks for or what the world’s citizens and its ecosystem (including plants, animals and oceans) demand?
Is quality about training people for jobs and roles that have traditionally existed, exist now, or may emerge in the future?
Is quality about the canon, questioning the canon, or re-discovering or creating new canons? Or all of them?
These are some of the questions worth asking if we wish to understand what the futures of the university might be and whether any of those possible futures mean not existing at all. Stay tuned.
Photo University by martybell from Deviant Art.
What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.
There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).
Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).
So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):
- To Artists. Those who share their creative outputs with the world openly and encourage us to see and think differently. Artistry can be aesthetic, part of performance and innovation (says Hilary Austen), and something that Seth Godin believes we all are, when we listen to what is important. Its the writers, performers, teachers, journalists, and engaged audiences that are all part of the creative tapestry around us when they choose to make their art available.
- To those scientists and researchers who spur exploration and share what they learn widely and openly and make the world better through making their work accessible, including supporting open access of scientific knowledge. The world has too many hoarders. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants because they bent down to help us up.
- To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
- To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
- To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
- To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
- To every person that smiles freely and often (and at me!). Smiles are contagious (PDF – example)
- To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
- To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
- To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
- To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
- To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
- To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
- To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.
Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.
What are you grateful for?
Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The gap between what academics do and what those outside of the academy think they do is enormous. The mysteriousness and elite status that universities enjoy may actually serve to undermine the very values of inquiry and education that it seeks to promote. In this second in series of posts on academic life, I take you behind the curtain of Academic Land of Oz to illustrate what life for at least one professor looks like.
‘Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully
The academic world has been my home for my entire adult life and one that I helped to build and shape along with my peers with the aim of making a contribution to our collective knowledge, the education of (mostly) young professionals, and hopefully enriching all of our lives along the way with insight drawn from research. This is what the public thinks happens in universities and, to a large extent, they are right. But the way this is done, the roles people play, and the manner in which the academic system is designed and operates is as much of a mystery you will find in our society. But perhaps its time to (un)build it**.
And unlike the Wizard of Oz, this mystery does more to harm those both building it and experiencing it from the outside. How? In part, because times are changing quickly and public institutions along with it. When times are tight, there is little appetite to support professors sitting in their offices, thinking deep thoughts, doing research that has tangential value for society, teaching badly to undergrads and only to small groups of grad students, and taking four months off in the summer and three during the December holidays.
The first part of the problem is that this perception is widely off the mark from reality.
The second part is that universities seem to be doing a poor job of correcting this perception.
For starters, universities are investing a lot less in faculty than people think. In my six years, my university itself only picked up only a small portion of my salary. The rest was through a philanthropic donation, salary awards I earned from both government-funded research programs (e.g., the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), contracts with community service groups, or sometimes from grants. Unlike other countries, Canada doesn’t have a system where investigators can easily draw a salary from the operating grants they receive. Thus, I could afford research assistants, equipment and travel, so long as I didn’t get paid.
To cover this, I had to get separate career awards to pay for my salary and as these awards typically covered less than 50% of my wage, I needed multiple revenue streams at the same time. This meant writing 2-3 times the number of grants that a tenured faculty would have to write. To make matters worse, there are a lot more people in my position than there are tenured faculty so the competition was and is stiff.
In the current CAUT Bulletin, Tom Booth writes about this further in the context of academic freedom and the US system:
It is disturbing to note that only 41 per cent of faculty members in universities in the U.S. are tenured or tenure stream. The majority of those will be retiring in the next 10 years and unless the current trend to replace tenured academic staff with non-tenure track appointments is reversed, the next decade will likely see tenured faculty representing only 20 per cent of American university teaching and research staff.
Earlier research by Harold Bauder (PDF) on academic labour segmentation in Canada found, among other things:
In Canada, academic labour has been depreciating over the previous decades. For example, faculty salaries declined relative to total expenditures of universities, from more than 31 percent in the late 1970s to roughly 19 percent in 2004 (CAUT, 2006, 4). In addition, the faculty-student ratio at Canadian universities has changed. While in the 1992-1993 academic year there were on average only 18.8 full-time students for every full-time faculty member, eleven years later there were 23.7 (CAUT, 2006, 51).
For more on the problematic faculty math in Canada, check out the CAUT’s report on the state of university teaching (PDF).
But the research side of the equation isn’t faring much better. Last February I profiled the declining state of things in the United States, which is mirroring Canada. Scientists Johannes Wheeldon and Richard Gordon recently pointed this out in a column in the Huffington Post, stating:
The role of research funding to an academic’s career has never been more important, and yet there is an emerging consensus that the way we organize our system of research grants is broken. While concerns about Canada’s model of research funding are longstanding, in recent years they have become increasingly stark. These include perpetual underfunding, charges of bias, and an over-reliance on the peer review system, which favours orthodoxy over innovation.
In short: if you’re a young researcher your share of the funding pie is smaller than ever. If you want to innovate, your prospects are even worse.
Yes, but what about academic freedom? That does exist, for now. In all my years at my university my boss (the Chair or Director) came to visit me only a handful of times. No one checks when I arrive or leave, nobody even cares if I work from home or a desert island. As long as I show up for my teaching duties, respect academic procedures, and continue to produce good research, the university system doesn’t much care what I do with my day-to-day activities. That is a real blessing and supports creative thinking about big problems.
Yet, while I could sleep in almost any day, I never did. I could take a long weekend anytime, but instead was in the office. Visiting a cottage? Sure, so long as there was Internet access and plugs for a laptop. See the world! — just make sure you keep on top of your email. Family time is wonderful as long as there’s time to write before and after. My average workweek was 90 hours for the past two years. And while work does inspire me, too much of anything is not good for long periods of time. Oh yes, and did I mention that I study health promotion? The power of social norms, and of what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, is akin to the Death Star‘s tractor beam, only you don’t see it; it’s deep within us.
None of these were enforced activities, but they are the norm. My faculty colleagues — young and old, tenured or not — work long hours all year. The system is set up for it. For example, the Tri-Council grants in Canada — SSHRC, CIHR, and NSERC – and many of the major health charities that fund research all have deadlines that require registration (pre-proposals) at times between August 15th and October 30th, which happens to coincide with things like: 1) summer vacation for most North Americans and Europeans (in August and the months before when you organize the research plan), 2) start of classes and the academic year, 3) orientation of new students, and 4) student awards and bursaries (for which we serve as referees to write letters of support). Just try and get a date for anything longer than lunch with an academic doing research during this time.
Grading? Our exams and papers are due at my institution on December 21, which means Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Years Day are all grading holidays. Pass the gravy on this turkey.
And we are the ones who invented this system!
None of what I am writing is meant to garner sympathy for me personally. I made these choices in my career with a hope it would lead to something good for the world, myself and those I care about. Sometimes I succeeded and others not, but they were my choices that I live with, whether wise or not. What I am doing is trying to paint the picture for others about the environment that I and other faculty and staff like me live in every day. This is not the idyllic life that the public thinks it is. And while the professor is still among the most respected professions out there, it will fall flat if times get tight and people are looking for more for less and we faculty are seen (misguidedly) as having more while others have less.
But what about pay? That’s a tricky one. I get a wage that I have no complaints about in absolute terms. I make well above the Canadian average, but not something that is anywhere close to being indexed to education. Considering I have 16 years of post-secondary education (education that I paid to have), I could have done a lot better going into other fields. But as a wise colleague of mine once said about pay in professor-dom: “you won’t get rich, but you’ll never be poor” . That counts for something.
At the same time, on an hourly basis, my pay goes downhill. And at some point, time becomes worth far more than anything I have to offer financially. I also have the support to spend money on my job. Indeed, teaching supplies, continuous learning, staff rewards (and continued education for them), and the incidentals from the job cost money for which there are few mechanism to pay from in most traditional centres. They come from somewhere and that’s the faculty member’s pocket, just as elementary and secondary school teachers often pay for school supplies. We believe so strongly in what we do we’ll do it without recognition or compensation.
We are a tribe that is as foreign to the public as the San people in Africa were to the first European explorers. But like a tribe we have behaviours that are not always pro-social.
Just as members of street gangs earn most of their livelihood from theft, academics gain most of theirs from careers. Being a member in good standing of a gang and a supergang is crucially important for advancement of one’s career. There is little chance of advancement in the academy without hard work, but flaunting membership in gang and clan can certainly supplement or even substitute for talent and intelligence. Clearly and repeatedly showing one’s loyalty to these groups can be most helpful in obtaining research grants and acceptance of publications, twin lifebloods of the academic career. – Scheff, T.J. (1995), Academic gangs. Crime, Law, and Social Change 23: 157-162.
It is a strange space to be in. Alien.
While I don’t particularly like the system we’ve created, it is what it is — today. But it can change if we — all of us — stop and pay attention to what it really is and work to make it what we want it to be. Well established institutions are hard to change because the practices within them are so deeply entrenched in a culture that is often accepted as is.
As this series unfolds, I’ll explore some more of these themes in detail.
The message to my fellow academics is this:
The modern university system has a lot of problems, yet our mandate and potential to contribute to the world through our research, teaching and social consulting is as big and needed as ever. Society needs us when we’re at our best, but we are doing more to undermine our best at our peril. We need to fix the system now otherwise forces beyond ourselves will force the changes on us in ways that may not be conducive to good scholarship, equity, and effective public service.
For those who like the system as it is, let me leave you with this quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s book, The Leopard:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change..
I don’t think we want things to stay as they are. But, we do want some things to stay the same.
This is the latest in the Alien Shores series of reflections on life in academia from one who is about to leave it.
** and yes, I know that un-building is not correct use of the English language. But deconstruct, take down, demolish or pull apart don’t work here. I am using my academic privilege to make words up
Unravel the mystery and crank up Sarah McLachlan and think about what these words mean for our business…
Sarah McLachlan “Building a Mystery”: excerpt
You live in a church
Where you sleep with voodoo dolls
And you won’t give up the search
For the ghosts in the halls
You wear sandals in the snow
And a smile that won’t wash away
Can you look out the window
Without your shadow getting in the way?
You’re so beautiful
With an edge and charm
But so careful
When I’m in your arms
‘Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully
I teach a class on systems thinking perspectives on public health. This past week we discussed the role of narratives and storytelling as ways to learn about systems and how to organize diverse information and how to make sense of it all.
For those working in systems thinking and complexity science within a public health context, there is much to be excited about in terms of opportunities, much less to be excited about when it comes to knowledge synthesis. That is, there isn’t a lot out there to synthesize when someone wants to study a problem from a systems perspective. Particularly if one is looking for clues as to what kind of evidence can inform decision making. Indeed, a great deal of the problems that systems thinkers face in many fields have no substantive body of evidence to support decision making.
And even if there was such a body, complex systems are often so dynamic that evidence becomes hard to apply because the contexts in which that knowledge is generated is so particular. Even on the same subject, a study of complexity or system dynamics might only provide guidance on ways to approach other problems, rather than prescriptive strategies. That’s complexity and systems for you.
But knowing that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the problems in some depth. Those looking to take on systems problems tend to find two main questions (challenges) starting out: what are the boundaries of the system, and how does all the information within those boundaries fit together?
To answer these questions, I had my class consider the story of their problem. As part of the course, each student is asked to concentrate on one subject of personal interest and last week I asked the class to consider the story of the problem that they are wrestling with in their research and health promotion work. These public health problems include issues of workplace wellness, HIV/Hepatitis co-infection in prisons, healthy fathering, the application of design to health, youth engagement, environmental sustainability and resilience and more, so there is much to talk about.
Storytelling suffers from being that thing you did as kids like the photo above or something you do for fun, but isn’t widely considered a valid tool for exploring complex systems. It is this myth that I sought to dispel in my class, because when you start telling the story of system, remarkable things happen and much sense can be made from relatively little information.
I started off with some reference sources from the always interesting and insightful Dave Snowden, drawing on two of his earlier papers on narrative and organizational strategy. Dave’s written extensively on this topic, including role that paradox plays in stories, with many other resources found here. What this did was frame the issue not just of one of stories, but large and small narrative patterns that shape the way that people understand the system they are in.
In the case of the students in my class, they are all dealing with subject material for which there is little material on systems thinking to use as a start point. For most of them, they have little idea of where they are within that system relative to the problem at hand. Storytelling provides an opportunity to cover a lot of ground and organize the information that we already know about a system into a manner that allows us some sense-making opportunity. Sometimes there are large stories and grand narratives to which they belong, but often it is the small exchanges or micro-narratives that we work with. Both provide much fodder for systems thinking.
What makes a story is a coherent organization of information, characters, a plot, tension or conflict, a setting and a point of view. With these elements one starts to provide the context and boundary conditions for imagining a system and thus, the foundations for a model of it.
This can be done through long-form narrative or something simple like a haiku (in fact, one of the learners in the class wrote a series of haikus on her topic).
When you write out your story, notice what gets included and what does not.
- What emotions are present (if any)?
- Is there any reliance on past knowledge (or evidence)?
- Are there characters that are more prominent and, if so, why?
- What is the tension or unresolved conflict in the story?
- Why was the setting chosen and what limits does it impose?
- Are you avoiding parts of the system in storytelling intentionally? Or, are you choosing to tell the story in a manner that hides or obscures parts of it you feel uncomfortable with?
These are some of the questions that a systems thinker can ask of the story that is produced, and the answers provide insight into what the system holds, how its organized, and how you as an agent of inquiry and change intend to influence it. The goal isn’t to create the best model or the right model, for neither of those exist. What is about is creating appropriate, useful models. And as George Box famously said about models:
All models are false. Some models are useful
All stories are fiction, but for systems thinkers, some stories are useful.
** Photo from the New York Public Library via The Commons Flickr pool . No copyright exists.