Rearranging Our Sense of What’s Possible

In his recent post titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky writes a few very important things about the future of higher education that I believe we need to pay attention to. This paragraph sums up why:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

MOOCs, I believe, are currently a place-holder for Big Changes A’ Comin’. I actually don’t think MOOCs as we know them now (in all of their various forms) will BE the change; I think they are instead indicators that change is happening now. And Shirky says why:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system …

I, for one, do want change to come to higher education — I deeply want improved access to meaningful and significant learning experiences. But I don’t think of students as an “audience for education.” This implies a somewhat passive, receiving role for learners. (And thus the MOOCs that are recordings of superstar professors giving their lectures aren’t that exciting for me.)

Change – Thank you zacklur on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

The change I want to see is focused not on how content is delivered because content delivery is not learning (though this will surely be part of it), but in how we engage learners in processing that content, integrating it with their own learning and experience and other ideas from other sources, and making some sense of it all. I want to see changes in how we help our learners and ourselves develop our capabilities to be able to work and communicate effectively with others, to be creative in solving our world’s significant social and environmental challenges, to deeply value diversity and experience and wisdom, and to excel at critical self-reflection and ongoing learning. As I’ve written before, enough with the ivory tower that privileges obtaining certain kinds of knowledge and privileges who gets to obtain it. More and more, our non-ivory towers are doing this same thing, and not even realizing it.

My biggest fear right now is actually not that higher education is changing;  I fear that if we’re not careful with how it’s changing — not careful and super-intentional as we lead these changes — that more people, not fewer, will be shut out of significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences.  MOOCs might solve part of the access problem for delivering content and perhaps even being able to work through that content with others; MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem to significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences. For one thing, MOOCs do not at all address the digital divide, which I believe is still an issue in our world.

Furthermore, problematically, we still are attached this construct called a degree that is supposed to represent learning and ability. This is evidenced in Shirky’s post:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

I think it’s ok if learning becomes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree if by offering degrees we are really only aiming for students just getting degrees. Unless we can focus on ensuring meaningful, engaging processes and experiences of learning, then why bother? I am as compelled by the piece of paper as I am by the archaic representations of learning such as seat time. I am thus also compelled to lead change in particular ways — with learning and access to it at the center of decision-making and innovation and resourcing — because I  actually believe in the value of rearranging our sense of what’s possible. When we rearrange our sense of what’s possible, we can ensure that our students can, too.

And THAT changes everything.


Mr. Messy Meets Higher Education

Meet Mr. Messy, from a book of the same title:

Mr. Messy is a friend of my kid Mac, who for some reason is intrigued by Mr. Messy. We haven’t even read the book (so in fact I don’t know what it’s about), but we have seen his picture and sometimes it looks to Mac like Mr. Messy is:

a) wrapped up in pink silly putty, or

b) covered in strawberry jam, or

c) “like a flower with arms and feet!”

All of these scenarios might sound pretty neat if you are 3 — eh, hem, I mean 3 and 1/2 — years old.

For us grown-ups, though, messy may not be as fun. Messy means things are not simple, clean, or clear. Messy means being able to live in ambiguity (per my mother’s motto: “We’ll see…”). Messy means that emotions can be involved, that learning is tough, that life is sometimes challenging, that the world can be a difficult place. And as such, messy also provides opportunities. Learning to deal with messy means we get to problem-solve, think differently, find a way, and figure out how to navigate the rough and tumble seas, and then celebrate arrival to dry land and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Without messy, we’d likely be bored. And without messy we probably wouldn’t learn much.

To celebrate messy, let me share another goodie from The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal,by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc:

If higher education cannot deal with the messiness of real life, educated people will not be prepared to use their knowledge amid the complexities and the cruelties that constantly threaten to undo civilization. And they clearly will not know how to use their knowledge with wisdom, compassion, and love. . . If higher education does not help people learn how and why to take the risks of love, its moral contributions to the world will fall short of its potential. (pgs. 38-39)

I like the idea of addressing messy with love because love represents embracing something fully and being devoted and caring. Dean Dad recently suggested that we should “tolerate” ambiguity by reframing it, and he has a great point in asking us to consider this:

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

Um, that’s easy: Possibility, learning experience, and growing pains, please!

Ultimately, for us folks who work and learn in higher education (hopefully there’s overlap there, right?), I think that love — in the way my kid seems to love Mr. Messy — is likely more sustainable and impactful than tolerance. To me, tolerance means I put up with something that might bother me (e.g., I tolerate my husband’s inherent need to reload the dishwasher after I’ve loaded it); love, though, means we can embrace the messy and, as Dean Dad proposes, work to make a difference.

My kid loves Mr. Messy.

And I am trying to, too. Even when he’s covered in strawberry jam (or in this case, nutella).

Meet Mr. Messy: Loving ambiguity one waffle at a time.

Yah, What They Said!

I can't find a way to credit this picture because I can't seem to find its original source! Research conundrum!

A few of my favorite selections from chapters in Field Guide to Academic Leadership (edited by Robert Diamond), one of our books for the Assessment Leadership Academy:

“The most appropriate solutions to the problems lie in shared commitment to and responsibility for good practice.” ~Michael Theall, Evaluation and Assessment – An Institutional Context

“The opportunity for critical reflection — a chance to put our strong academic values of systematic inquiry and questioning of assumptions to use — is lost in the desire to get the thing done.”   ~ John Wergin, Academic Program Review

“…change is a scholarly act (Ramaley, 2000) … Informed, respectful, thoughtful dialogue is the greatest learning tool of any organization today, and few of us know how to do it.” ~ Judith Ramaley, Moving Mountains – Institutional Culture and Transformational Change

A Tricycle Approach: Teaching, Learning, Assessment

Two thought-provoking essays about assessment for and about learning have been published in the last few weeks, and both have my nog prattling.

Wagenaar’s point might be best summed up in this final statement:

Let’s not do assessment just because it is mandated. Let’s not do it to make accreditation agencies happy or because everyone else is doing it. Let’s do it to improve learning.

Wagenaar makes the strong point that assessment done well and appropriately focused can improve student learning, faculty learning,  courses, programs, and institutions, which is more important (and motivating) than doing assessment for accountability or comparative purposes. (To which some of us might just say, “Um, yeah!”)

Walsh’s point might be summed up with this scenario:

If groups of faculty were to think deeply and systematically over a number of years about student learning and student success, they could create for their own institutions and the wider field a more robust evidence-based culture of learning, a “science of improvement,” as groups of medical leaders are advancing for their profession.

An effort like this at one institution would require the gradual creation of highly-intentional learning (not teaching) cultures with explicit cycles of improvement in place throughout the college or university, starting with academic departments and working up from there.

In other words, assessment could better serve students, teachers, and institutions if it became more about how students (and the rest of us) learn and not only what they learn. This becomes even more relevant, Walsh contends, in the information age where the “what” is easily accessible, and the “why” and “how” are critical skills for our capacity for ongoing learning.

I have always believed that the best assessment work is situated in genuine inquiry about learning and teaching — in, as Walsh might call it, curiosity.  A burning question or set of questions — perhaps about the what and the how — is formed and re-formed; ways to address or answer that question are identified; and, as typically occurs and as I would hope, more questions emerge from the process. It’s iterative. It’s dynamic. It’s transformative.

Or it can be.

Peter Ewell, in his 2009 NILOA white paper Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension posed the dichotomy between assessment for accountability and for improvement this way: Assessment for improvement (which could mean learning) is formative, internally focused, and engaging. On the other hand, assessment for accountability is summative (resulting in judgment), externally focused, and compliance-oriented. Ewell identified some strategies for institutions to effectively manage the tension between the two, to almost reconcile the two purposes and find ways to make both work together.

Sadly, I fear assessment has become associated and often incorrectly conflated with accountability and accreditation, as was the case at the NWCCU workshop I attended last week during which one presenter kept using the words — and their meanings — interchangeably. For faculty, it has become about workload (at least for faculty at my institution) — one. more. thing. to. do.  I am still left with a sinking sense that even though there are many folks thinking about assessment as and for learning (which, frankly, is truly not that radical if you “get” it), there are still many more thinking that it’s an add-on, a must-do, instead of something that’s truly valued — the necessary and exciting 3rd wheel of the teaching-learning-assessment tricycle.


Mac on a tricycle. See how excited he is to have all three wheels?

Thankfully, I am not alone in wrestling with these questions and concerns, and in trying to figure out ways to help my colleagues learn about their students’ learning — the how and the what (and maybe even the why!). This year I am honored to be invited to participate in the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy. The Academy’s learning goals, pedagogy, and faculty (including Ewell) have me buzzing in my seat — I can’t wait to get started.

I suspect I will use PrattleNog as a learning journal along the way — a place to process ideas, to share insights, to untangle conundrums, and to learn how to make that tricycle ride smoothly, meaningfully, and enjoyably. I invite you to come along on my journey and to contribute your ideas as well.

Looking Forward

Montgomery Improvement Association Booklet, ca. 1960

Looking forward. That’s what I am doing, like the Montgomery Improvement Association. I think, in effect, an “Improvement Association”  is what our Assessment Committee has defined in our creation of the Marylhurst Assessment Program.

A few weeks back, I read a white paper written by Peter Ewell (aka “The Assessment God”) titled Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension, which was commissioned by the The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. In this article, Ewell articulates two paradigms that exist around assessment in higher education: 1) assessment to be accountable to others, such as funders or accreditors, and 2) assessment to be focused more internally, on improvement. The distinction he describes in this way:

Accountability requires the entity be held accountable to demonstrate, with evidence, conformity with an established standard of process or outcome. The associated incentive for that entitity is to look as good as possible, regardless of the underlying performance. Improvement, in turn, entails an opposite set of incentives. Deficiencies in performance must be faithfully detected and reported so they can be acted upon.  (p. 7)

In addition to articulating the tensions that exist around, within, and across these two paradigms, Ewell commented upon the aspects and importance of culture in thinking about and navigating these tensions. As I’ve gradually been moving into my new role here (Dean for Learning & Program Assessment), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to our “assessment culture” — what it is, is becoming, and might need to be to make student learning and program assessment as meaningful as possible.

As my position description was being circulated among faculty, questions such as “Does this person have authority over programs?” and “Will programs be accountable to this person?” arose. The answer was always “No,” and after reading this article, I am grateful for that. The dichotomy that Ewell presents is also present in institutional roles — in my role, should I be seeking departments to be accountable to me, or seeking ways to build capacity in order to support improvement?

The latter, thank you.

But that returns me to the question of our assessment culture, which implies a shared set of understandings, meanings, and maybe even goals. I would like to believe that my colleagues and I share a passion for teaching and learning (and not just for our subject areas or our students as individuals), and that we value assessment as the key mechanism that helps us understand what we do as teachers, its effects, and how we might continue to improve them — individually and programmatically.  I would like to believe that we share an understanding of what I keep calling the “balanced stool” of teaching, learning, and assessment (it has three legs and if you cut one short, the stool wobbles).  I would also like to believe that pleasing accreditors or funders isn’t our purpose (or at least our primary purpose) in pursuing assessment of student learning and, ultimately, programs. I’m not so sure this is true. I am not sure we all share much of any particular approach when it comes to assessment. Diverse perspectives are healthy in an organization, but so are shared values and purposes.

What I do know is that one idea has kept echoing in my head since reading this article:  Ewell’s notion of the importance of the collective.  Ewell writes this (my own inserts in brackets):

…we must emphasize a commitment to a collective responsibility for teaching and learning and their results. Instead of seeing assessment as an aspect of higher education’s responsibility to its funders [or accreditors], both faculty and academic leaders need to see it as part of our accountability to ourselves [and our students] (p. 15).

Indeed, it is becoming more clear to me that I want to — very intentionally — take the improvement paradigm to heart and to practice in my role.  I want to support continuing to create a culture that takes collective responsibility to make sure that 3-legged stool stands up and doesn’t wobble; that it provides good support to us and to our students; that it’s focused on improvement.

Necessary to a true collective, though, is also an open system — a way for feedback (critical and positive) to inform and change practice as needed. So I seek that from my colleagues; I seek open communication about assessment challenges, departments’ needs, and how the Assessment Program (and me at its helm) is doing.

Yep – like the Montgomery Improvement Association, I am looking forward.

(Thanks to the US National Archives for making the Montgomery Improvement Association picture publically available on Flickr.)