Saturday, December 7, 2013

The World Famous Problem

I spend many a happy weekend day looking for lighthouses.  I track my quarry through small towns, two lane roads and all matter of rural settings.   Many of the towns that I visit have a restaurant, a bar or a store that heralds itself as a  Famous Diner or home of so and so's Famous Hot Dogs or Pizza or Chili.  I never eat at any of these places, so I can't comment on the food.  While it is possible that all of these establishments are famous or even world famous I've never heard of any of them so I question this.  It's easy to put up a sign and hard to check on a reputation.  I doubt anyone gets hurt.  On balance, this process is also found in other arenas.

 One of those areas is colleges and universities. Reputation is important in higher education and all the players know that.  The general logic is that you go to the best place you can get into.  How do we know what the best places are? 

Everybody knows that Harvard and Oxford are wicket good schools.  There is general consensus about a lot of other places.  After that, we are not always so sure.

We have rankings (which everybody criticizes but seem to be a part of everybody's advertising) which are generally limited to whole  institutions but occasionally deal with departments and professional schools.  The criteria used vary widely.  Some are reputation rankings and others use a set of factors to judge the effort.  A lot of this is a judgement call but its better than nothing.

Rankings cost money so not everything gets ranked.  This means that in a lot of ways you are on your own in figuring out what the best really is.  Being famous might help (although Hitler is famous) but how do we know that a particular program is famous?  Like the restaurants that I pass up on my weekend trips, many programs claim to be famous or notable or the best.  Nobody advertises that they are a low quality program.  They often offer some reasons about why they are the best.  Here is a short list:

1)  We were the first or we have a program that has existed for a long time.  This says a lot about persistence but little about quality.  While it stands to reason that poor quality programs would go out of business, that isn't always true.Survival is often more about politics than quality.

2)  We are expensive.  Also not a measure of quality.  You don't always get what you pay for.  

3)  We are the Largest Program:  Size doesn't equal quality.  In some cases it doesn't mean a lot of resources.   On the other hand it is often difficult for small programs to mobilize the effort to achieve renown.

4)  We are highly selective.  This doesn't mean that your program is any good--it means that your incoming students are.  It also might mean that you have really good advertising or that you are situated in an attractive city, have tons of financial aid or have the reputation as a fun campus.

5)  Top People hold us in high regard.  What people are those?  How do you know?  Is it in writing anywhere?  I don't believe anything that isn't in writing.  If everybody knows it, somebody wrote it down.  At that point, you can deal with source credibility.   Other than that, it's gossip.

6)  Accreditation makes us the best.  Sorry--accreditation means that you met a set of standards.  Those standards are often very basic. You know what they call the person who graduates last from medical school--answer: Doctor.

7)  All of Our People Went to Great Schools.  How wonderful.  Were they any good there?  What have they done since?  Just because people had potential doesn't mean they did anything with it.

Quality, particularly quality in graduate and professional education, depends on  having an excellent faculty, cutting edge research, first quality students and a well developed curriculum.  It needs good leadership.  It needs faculty who are part of the important conversations in their professions and in their disciplinary specialties.  If this sounds like hard work, you can be sure that it is--it's a lot easier to hang out a sign.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The World Famous Problem

I like to go on road trips (largely looking at lighthouses) and I have seen a lot of small town America in the process. It is rare that I see a town of any size without a world famous or at least a famous restaurant. Most of these places look like average eating establishments and I doubt that most are referenced in the tour books or restaurant guides.  But famous doesn't really mean anything beyond well known and maybe well thought of and as long as it isn't qualified by something like "World" or "Nationally" it might be very well true that this is the most famous restaurant in a small town.  Restaurants actually have criteria.  There is the ratings the health department provides and then there are offline and online ranking systems.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Honey, I shrunk the Enrollment!!!

Tuition is an important source of income for many academic programs, a fact that leads to considerable anxiety when numbers of students are declining.  While some universities never encounter overall declines in numbers of students (although individual programs may experience declines), others always fret over their numbers.  Most institutions have sophisticated enrollment management strategies and developed marketing plans.

At the program or department level, however it is not that simple.  University strategies take the lead. The unit is left with less maneuvering room.  What seems to be more problematic however,  is the way that many programs approach their marketing efforts.

Academics are not well known for their ability to promote even good ideas and it is truly remarkable that people who are trained to analyze complex problems are often willing to tie enrollment decline to a single variable. It's been my experience that it is almost never true that one thing is to blame for declining enrollments. It also means that one thing will probably not turn it around. Marketers tell us that organizations create a marketing mix encompassing product, price, promotion and place.

Fundamentally, a healthy department, program or unit has found a way to integrate the teaching, research and service in synergistic ways. It has a sense of purpose and everyone works together to address the needs of the students, the academy and society.  It is a welcoming place that seems like a center of important activity.  There is a focus on something good.  People want to be there.  Programs like this still do not sell themselves, but they are certainly easier to promote than those that move away from this model.  They also create more social value.

Not everybody works in a place like that.  Having said that, it might still be possible to create products

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Professions Need to Have a MOOC

The growth of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is a development that promises to make significant change in Higher Education.  Coming on the heels of a huge expansion of online education, MOOCs have the possibility of changing further the troubled business model of higher education. 

Basically a MOOC makes courses available to a wide range of people, often for free. There are a number of major providers that involve courses from a range of universities. This means that you can take a course for free and in certain cases get certification for it.

Higher education provides, among other things, the transmission of knowledge (instruction) and and the granting of degrees (credentialing). While online courses changes the dynamics on the instructional side of higher education, MOOCs have the potential of changing the credentialing side.

This is important to the professions because future professions receive their initial status as a consequence of some activity of higher education. Professional schools and professional programs have long been part of higher education (there are exceptions) and what changes one part of the system impacts all areas of the system.  Even a casual reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education have seen how this dynamic plays out in professional education.

There are differences between what professional programs do and what traditional academic programs do and those variations must be considered.  Large graduate enrollments are common in the professions and unheard of in most traditional disciplines.  This has made professional programs the cash cows of universities while traditional disciplines look to their undergraduate enrollments (mostly lower division general ed courses) to support much smaller graduate efforts. Recruiting and marketing is also almost completely different.  Most traditional discipline recruit through scholarly networks while professional schools tend to favor graduate fairs and mass media advertising.  By the same token, intellectual ability is often not as important as professional suitability as a criteria for student performance. Practica are an important part of most professional education. These conflicts are often difficult to deal with in the traditional bricks and mortar institutions.  

If MOOCs develop along traditional lines, it is unlikely that professional schools will be happy with the results. Open education and professional education have a number of conflicting interests and some of those interests are critical to profession building.

There are broader reasons for professions to become involved in the MOOC movement.  The boundaries between academic institutions and other aspects of society are becoming more fluid and the MOOC movement can be a major movement in that direction.  Learning continues for the life of the professional and this changes the way that happens.

Professionals are, in many ways, the original knowledge workers.  This means that there is both a huge initial knowledge base as well as a continued demand for the acquisition of new knowledge. The potential support of lifelong learning in a MOOC environment makes continuing education both easier and harder. It makes the delivery option potentially easier and might support the credentialing function as well (creating an interesting potential conflict between universities and private CEU providers). This potential might be lost or delayed if MOOCs concentrate only on traditional college courses.

Given the consequences for professions and professional education, it is clear that the MOOC movement is potentially important.  Two strategies present themselves.  First, the professions might use their considerable influence to affect the development of the MOOC movement and the major MOOC providers.  This would be difficult because the platforms are already quite advanced and changes might be both difficult and expensive.

While it might seem like a daunting task, a better strategy might be profession specific MOOCs sponsored by professional associations and professional schools. This could support and variety of approaches and needs.  It can incorporate professional norms and controls as well as gatekeeping issues.

I make no representation that this will be easy but consider this: knowledge is what separates professionals from technicians.  The MOOC revolution can radically change the way that knowledge is transmitted.  That can be either a dagger at the heart of the professions or a movement to the bright future that the professions need and want.