How does your typical provost think?

1 02 2014

That report came out of the budget forum that I wrote about last week in Vitae. Most of it isn’t very interesting, but I think what our chancellor says at the end here is well worth repeating.

“We live in a world in which the public has decided that they’re going to invest less in higher education across this country and it happened in this state.”

This (yet again) reminded me of something that reclaimuc has written, this time about the Frederick Wiseman film “At Berkeley.” As reclaimuc sees it (and I agree) that film is mostly about heroic administrators trying to fashion a world class university out of constantly worsening budget situation. The money isn’t coming back, these administrative heroes tell us, so we all have to do more with less.

One way to do more with less is with technology. As Clay Shirky recently explained:

Interest in using the internet to slash the price of higher education is being driven in part by hope for new methods of teaching, but also by frustration with the existing system. The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests. It’s the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

What we have here then is two different ways of killing higher education as we know it. One is through plain old starvation. The other is through disruption. Of course, implement these two different ways at the same time and it becomes twice as likely that the patient will expire. This is particularly true when the cost of disruption generally comes out of the resources that keep the rest of the university going.

Daphne Koller of Coursera knows this, or at least she claims to know this. As she told the TED blog recently:

“We understand the higher ed ecosystem at this point better than most people, and I don’t think they [the VCs] claim to have a deep understanding of how your typical provost thinks.

How does the typical provost think? It should hardly be controversial to suggest that the typical provost thinks that cutting the cost of higher education is their reason for being. Yet Daphne Koller has also said (both here and elsewhere) that her MOOCs should not replace an on-campus university education. But wait a second, doesn’t she know how provosts think? What if this whole MOOCs shouldn’t replace a real university education thing is just for plausible deniability? After all, if you’re going to be a party to a murder, you don’t want to be caught holding the murder weapon.

Sebastian Thrun, on the other hand, actually wants you to think that he’s one of the good guys. He told TED:

I mostly stay awake at night thinking about pedagogy, about what will this digital medium end up looking like.

Let’s take him at his word here, OK? What he’s worrying about then is how to make the unacceptable acceptable. How can he, Sebatian Thrun, create a medium that will not be as good as a conventional university education, but be just good enough to his new (post-pivot) corporate clients. I got to hand it to him, at least he tells it like it is.

Unfortunately, Udacity, Coursera and even edX all have a hand in this murder. Every last resource that goes to them (or to build a CSU campus in South Denver for that matter) is money that could be going to make conventional. existing education better. Instead, we have to experiment so that we can do more with less, with absolutely no guarantee that any of those experiments will be successful in the short run, let alone the long run.

Can we spend a little less time talking about the future of higher ed and more time on its present? What do the administrators of the present owe their students of the here and now? The editorial board of the Daily Texan has this one pegged with respect to MOOCs:

The University hasn’t laid out long-term goals for the MOOCs, and the numbers don’t bode particularly well for the courses’ overall success. Still, the System says they will continue funding UT’s MOOCs to the tune of $150,000-$300,000 to produce each new online course. We’re confused as to why an unproven and unused educational experiment that isn’t even aimed at UT students is something the System feels they should continue funding.

Get enough MOOCs going and that kind of money adds up. The student journalists down in Austin understand this:

The MOOCs were, apparently, designed without revenue in mind, though the System invested $10 million to both develop the MOOCs and to host the courses on edX, an online platform created by Harvard and MIT…

The System should stop investing millions of dollars on gambles like these, which lack financial exit strategies and viable forms of revenue. If the founding structure of a project doesn’t include a business model for growth and profitability for the University, who is expected to fund it?

Unfortunately, administrators aren’t paid the big bucks to administer anymore. They’re paid to gamble in order to let the public off the hook from having to invest in higher ed the way that they used to do. After all, what happens if they lose? It just means that their predictions about the outdated model that is American higher education were right in the first place.

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5 responses

1 02 2014
Spanish Prof

My provost (middle of the road religious university) almost lost his job because for 18 months, he stood firm against the Board of Trustees that was pressuring him to adopt MOOCs as for credit classes to cut costs. He refused. On the other hand, he is pressuring everybody to move as many classes online as possible, and there is very little concern for pedagogy. I offered to move some upper level Spanish classes, something I believe could work well online. No, they wanted SPAN 1 and 2, something even the most devoted distance learning advocate tells you is a very bad idea.

1 02 2014
Spanish Prof

My point being, sometimes I wish I could label the upper administrators into good and bad guys more easily,.

1 02 2014
Contingent Cassandra

Spanish Prof’s experience is instructive, I think. What many administrators pushing online ed of various sorts want, I’m pretty sure, is not so much to bring down the overall cost of instruction for the students’ sake (though that’s what they tend to talk about), as to find a way to teach the intro/gen ed classes that pretty much every student has to take as cheaply as possible, so that they can divert part of the revenue flow from those classes to other university activities, while holding tuition more or less steady. In fact, they’ve probably already been doing just this for several decades (well, except for the holding-tuition-steady part), but they’re now at the blood-from-a-stone point with both the tuition-payers (students and/or parents) and the faculty teaching those courses (mostly adjuncts). So, anything massive and free (at least to the institution) sounds very tempting. The fact that intro/gen ed classes are the worst ones to teach online (because online ed works best for people who have to some degree learned how to learn), and that some of the benefits of online classes (flexible scheduling, the ability to gather interested students from a wide geographical area, even different institutions) make a lot of sense for upper-level classes (or graduate programs, where some of the notable successes of entire online-only or alternatively-scheduled hybrid programs have occurred) are irrelevant, because they’re not thinking pedagogically.

By contrast, the non-administrator true believers (both inside and outside the academy) are mostly people, I suspect, who just haven’t grasped the fact that they (both now and in their former, 18-22-year-old incarnations) are very different than the average college student. That’s something that college professors have to learn pretty early on if they’re to succeed in teaching intro courses, and one of the main things that non-teachers with romantic ideas about teaching and learning tend not to grasp.

2 02 2014

Provosts THINK? Mine doesn’t. Mine is happy to suck up whatever the president spews about online classes being the direction of our university.

4 02 2014
Sherman Dorn (@shermandorn)

I’m much more of a “love the provost, hate poor decisions” guy. When I was in the position to do so as campus faculty union head, I loudly praised our provost and president when they made the right decisions and criticized the wrong decisions.

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