Thanks for Attending our 3/30/12 Workshop on the Future of Teaching in Higher Education (Summary of Discussions)

Workshop March 30:  What is the Future of Teaching in Higher Education?

Dave Mazella welcomed the participants to the final workshop of the Spring Semester, and urged everyone to share ideas they have about future workshops to be held in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Frank Holt opened the proceedings with a disclaimer. As an ancient historian, he might not be the best-equipped person to discuss the future. Still he offered a “water-cooler” viewpoint as a starting place for discussion. The vision he shared was somewhat bleak.

Pressures on higher education are growing to increase the ratio of college graduates in our population. There will be demands for more degrees, more access, more accountability, more relevance to employment, and less cost. (Pressures are already on us to create a B.A. that costs less than $10,000.) It is likely this will redefine the experience in institutions of higher learning.

There will be more part-time students, who will demand a self-service education with the speed and efficiencies of Ikea over Ethan Allen. There will be an increasing divide between research and teaching. The teaching function will be outsourced to for-profit retailers such as textbook and software vendors and online universities such as Phoenix University. Teaching will develop into a “Hollywood” model, where instructors become “stars” unaffiliated with any particular institution, and who offer their wares directly to the marketplace. Instructors will be expected to seek corporate sponsorship. The thousands of introductory courses now taught will eventually be serviced by a handful of star quality packages leased back to universities for use by their students. New entities will create institutions of higher learning with special slants on education, such as religious and government groups, corporations, and even political organizations. The ability to offer credentials such as the B.A, will end up in new hands. Brick and mortar universities will take on the role of the Grand Tour in Victorian England – a form of conspicuous consumption indulged in only by the very rich.

Holt ended his talk by saying that he hopes this vision is wrong, but processes that tend in these directions are already underway.

There was a lively discussion, which included the following points (not necessarily in chronological order).

President Khator’s call for UH to do a better job of servicing the needs of the City of Houston opens the question: what exactly does our city need?

The ability to offer credentials is beside the point. The real question is what exactly do our students need to do well in their lives? For-profit educators do a better job at focusing on education with demonstrable immediate payoffs. Maybe, but occupational training is not sufficient in an economy where needed job skills are rapidly evolving. What students need is training in general skills that can be applied to a fluid workplace.

At the moment, universities have a monopoly on credentials that blocks the development of independent global online educational sites. When this monopoly is broken, there will be a thunderbolt, and universities will be in deep trouble.

We need to learn how to partner with publishers and software vendors and ask for grants from them to create course materials.  Yes but we may end up becoming a service organization for our sponsors. Like food contractors, we will become contractors for educational services. Well, we are already dependent on courseware vendors to some degree. Adoption of grading systems is being heavily marketed by vendors offering perks like conference travel.

What really matters for an institution is not its competitive pricing but its ability to compete in the race for institutional reputation. This is how we attract good faculty and good students. But limiting admission to only the best students restricts access. The new emphasis on accountability emphasizes fast and cheap education, but the students we have are not ready to handle college level work. Of 2,000 students entering our introductory math courses, half of them know next to nothing. This is a problem all the way up to the graduate level, where we are forced to dumb down what we teach. So called “efficiency” and lower DWIF rates are near impossible to achieve when students come poorly prepared. Is it my fault if I must award an F to a student who never showed up to class in the first place? Students display a YouTube philosophy where education means taking the path of least resistance to a degree. American culture does not value knowledge. On-demand education means to students that they do not need to learn it now. What they do not realize is their short-cut strategy does not pay off in learning the skills they badly need.

UH probably has as many students now as it can handle. In the future, the state is more likely to pay us for degrees granted than for class enrollment. As the total state contribution declines, it is in our interest to abandon the old model where we let in everyone to see who washes out. Instead, we might improve our faculty to student ratio, and concentrate on quality in admissions. On the other hand, it is not likely that we will be seeing fewer students, nor will they be significantly better prepared. We have to face that reality.

The challenge is to do more with fewer resources. This raises the problem of quality management, where we are way behind. The reason is that academic freedom limits he degree to which demands for improvement get converted into reform. All that is left is continuous quality improvement, which some of us engage in, but which is not widely enough practiced.

Outsourcing has already imposed a massive cost to our economy. Outsourcing in education will be a disaster. Yes, but we already engage in outsourcing to community colleges, since their credits automatically transfer to UH.

We need to make clear what it is that we do that is different from community colleges. One answer is that we generate knowledge, another is that we offer higher quality teaching where students are engaged in research and come to understand the importance of research. Excellence in undergraduate teaching can be part of what makes us unique. It is easy to sell the idea that quality of teaching in for-profit institutions is comparable to ours, but this is false. We should emphasize the skills (such as leaderships, and writing) that are hard to develop online. Some students are happy to remain anonymous in large classes.  But students trained in small classes in basic skills are snapped up in the job market. There is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The very fact that class attendance is so strongly correlated with good grades shows the value of face-to-face learning.

It is crucial to our mission that we do not decouple teaching from research, and that we make clear to the public the importance of research. But the reality is that the main value at UH is research and relatively meager resources are devoted to integrating research with teaching. Furthermore, the ratio of tenure track jobs is decreasing, so that more and more teaching is done by instructors without a research mission. Workload policies may take us in the same direction, by shifting the teaching load to faculty who are not productive enough researchers.

We could partner with high schools and community colleges to better prepare the students who come to us. The best students are ones who do not come directly from community colleges, but who have had a year or to get ready.

Most of the forces that will change higher education are out of our control, so let’s think about what we can control. We need communicate with people who will be making the crucial decisions, the people who are in control. The question was asked: how many people here belong to the AAUP? Almost no one did.

Another suggestion for what we can control is to refuse to cooperate with publishers who convert education into a commodity. Yes, but we need to learn how to use online instruction and other techniques in the best ways to teach large numbers of students well. We are not going to have the small classes that would be found in an ideal university.

The best argument to those in control is to cite events like this workshop. This shows our commitment to teaching, improves our reputation, and is something we can control.

Dave Mazella closed the session by saying that he hoped that the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) could take a more active role in communicating with administrators. As faculty, we tend to operate in splendid isolation. It is better to band together than suffer in silence. We are not alone. There are many universities like ours who are facing the same issues, so research on what they are doing can be helpful to us. You are invited to participate in the CTE blog, not to just to gripe about the issue, but to develop solutions to the problems that face us. We need to organize at the department and faculty levels to improve teaching at UH. Revising a course here or there is not enough. We need to work together in a committed and systematic way. If you are interested in helping by joining CTE, please get in touch, as we are opening up the membership of CTE.


DM postscript: On the subject of Distance Education and Hybrid Education models in the high-quality education of the future, I am going to quote myself from earlier blog posts, and ask everyone to consider Ed Glaeser‘s highly useful dictum about online interactions:

My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley [Brint et al.]).

The study by Brint et al. linked above contains a description of online education that constitutes a warning, I think, for any institution that embraces online education as a means for cost-control and swelling enrollments:

Eventually a new “digital divide” will likely separate institutions that can afford to maintain control over the means of their online production and those that cannot. This divide will correspond to two educational cultures: one oriented primarily to training (“learning just the skills and content you need”) and the other to higher education in the traditional sense – with its stress on creative activity, capacity development, theory and methods, contexts for understanding, and critical approaches to existing knowledge.

It is imperative, then, to maintain quality in online programs as in all other forms of content delivery, if we wish to remain competitive with other institutions in reputational terms.

UPDATED: This Moody’s Higher Education Sector Outlook report for 2012 provides plenty of fodder for both optimists and pessimists.  (Found in our Division of Administration and Finance’s remarkably useful Budget page)

Look particularly at frames 12-13, which talk about the “broken” Higher Ed Model, and the declines of governmental support.

Having highlighted all the challenges we face, I still think that questions of quality and reputation, especially in regard to instruction, are paramount for institutions like ours.  See, for example, this quote: “Student demand and net tuition growth remain strongest for those that are most affordable, reputable, and programmatically diversified” (frame 7).  The question becomes how, and for whom, we define “quality.”



3 Comments on “Thanks for Attending our 3/30/12 Workshop on the Future of Teaching in Higher Education (Summary of Discussions)”

  1. Leonard Bachman says:

    Okay, so to summarize our conversation, we are being continually asked to have more profound impacts with more students who are increasingly less prepared while progressively using fewer resources and seeing our real wages constantly decline. All the while, we have less control, more responsibility, increasing transparency, mounting assessment, and closer scrutiny and accountability. In the background we face competition from for-profit universities who have figured out how to make money at this, while our state support is declining because of costs of educating the workforce they demand we produce… or perhaps we will just be replaced by automated course packets and publicly available online learning web sites. This is either the most cynical and defeatist perspective possible, or it is the greatest call to transcendence and transformation imaginable. I would like to choose the latter case.

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Leonard, I think your summary is accurate, but I’m a big believer in finding opportunities in seemingly insoluble problems. As I pointed out Friday, tenured and tenure-track faculty have in fact lots of discretion about what they do in the classroom, though of course class sizes are chair- or departmentally-determined. Are they maximizing their possibilities there? Similarly, many of the decisions about at least the distribution of workload receive input from the faculty. And faculty can call for better, more relevant evaluation of teaching that focuses on the real issues, and demand things more rational rewards for things like course creation and curricular work. To the extent the curriculum is the collective product of the faculty, the faculty can adapt the curriculum to these needs. So where could faculty direct their energies most productively?

    • Leonard Bachman says:

      Thanks for sharing your optimism. I put my faith in a program of assessment and operationally defined learning outcomes. In real terms that just means actualizing faculty reflection and introspection into what we do. The external validation (accreditation) follows.

      We will have control and recognition for what we do as soon as we commit to real and ongoing internal self-critique. Conversations like the CTE forum promote this of course. If all of us interested in good teaching will do as you suggest and call for “relevant evaluation” then I believe we can get there. I am a bit suspicious of people who shun the notion of collective reflection. Popper would remind us that the academy is a World Three situation of intersubjective shared constructions; not a World Two condition of personal intuition and belief.

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