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Forest, trees; you know. (a short list of interesting 2015 topics)

This week the “best of 2015” lists are pouring into my inbox. I have missed a lot – a side effect of doctoral studies being tunnel vision. My field of view has been forcefully narrowed to the topics in our coursework and attempts at “real” research. I miss many of the things that contribute to the bigger picture. Forest, trees; you know.

Scanning the headlines in these best of 2015 lists (and recalling the news I did get a chance to read) here’s a few thoughts as the year ends:

Higher Ed Campus IT.

A theme I noticed in the 2015 EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues report was staffing (1). Hiring and retaining staff; developing staff to respond to and manage changing IT needs on campus; funding IT. For comparison, these annual reports generally list technical things like LMS, mobile technology and wireless connectivity. A focus on the humans running IT was unusual.

Because the focus is on staffing and management, it is also a spotlight on the CIO – the chief information officer. Does the CIO have the power they need to deliver what is expected (2, 4)? Are they positioned to make strategic decisions? What lines of communication exist between the IT office and the academic departments? and between the IT office and administration? Are the assumptions about technology held by administration and academics being addressed (fear, skepticism, uncertainty, optimism)?

Cloud technology isn’t new but higher ed is notoriously slow to formally adopt new technology, but IT has been moving closer to the center of the radar screen as more institutions adopt cloud-based enterprise apps like Google (email, productivity), Workday (HRIS; finance) and Canvas (LMS) [oh, yeah; and that MOOC thing]. Risk aversion, security concerns, and general resistance to change influence decisions to move to the cloud or not (4). But reports are showing a positive impact for IT staff which might mitigate some of the IT issues noted earlier.

I have long advocated for reviewing and updating job descriptions and job skills for academic technologists. HTML skills and an awareness of social media isn’t enough. Academic technologists need to know basic programming; in fact all enterprise systems admins should know enough to get started customizing cloud-based solutions (3).

  1. Top 10 IT Issues, 2015. (EDUCAUSE, January 12, 2015)
  2. Taking the Lead: How IT Delivers the Experience Students Expect. (evoLLLution, March 19, 2015)
  3. Gartner Says Modernization and Digital Transformation Projects Are Behind Growth in Enterprise Application Software Market. (Gartner Press Release, August 27, 2015)
  4. Waiting for the Cloud. (evoLLLution, December 18, 2015)

Personalized learning.

This fall, in one of my courses, I had to work on a group project that required 8-10 hours of collaboration over a period of five days. Collaborative work is a challenge for me because my subconscious assumes that it is easier to “do it myself” than spend time talking, listening and compromising. I definitely understand the benefit for teaching with group work (fewer papers/projects to grade) and know it’s a practical skill that needs to be nurtured as it will be used again and again by both scholars and practitioners. But I also see a need to provide different opportunities for learners to apply new information to generate knowledge. Isn’t that the core of “personalized learning”? – fostering learning environments and learning experiences best suited for each student.

Teachers on every level (K12 through higher ed) have plenty of balls to juggle trying to deliver curriculum and manage their classrooms as it is; tailoring curriculum and learning experiences at an individual level is like juggling chainsaws and kittens. Someone is bound to get hurt. But technology is supposed to help solve this problem. Learning analytics are supposed to predict what students will want or need next based on past performance and activity (1) but at the same time teachers are fighting back saying machines can’t do their job.

I immediately cringed when I read that Facebook is diddling with education (2, 3).  But, according to the press, the Facebook personalized learning tool is separate from Facebook and it’s there talent not their platform that they are exploiting.

Notably, Linkedin is also diddling with education since they acquired, an online collection of training courses. This seems more logical – Linkedin has a ton of data about job skills and job descriptions and could, if they want to, suggest Lynda courses that would help prepare a user for their next career move. Perfectly logical.

But Facebook and public schools? This is all fine and dandy and the folks at Fb are saying the program they have been piloting has been successful at the schools where it was developed. But the thing to remember about pilot testing is that it is usually not objective. Sites with a high probability of success are selected. Time will tell if this – or any – personalized learning application can make or break the success of your average (or below average) student in your average (or below average) classroom. If Fb wants to pony up some cash to experiment, so be it; but there is still a lot more that needs to be done independent of the technology. Teachers, administrators, parents and students all need to what personalized learning is, and understand how and in what context personalized learning makes sense, then find the right tool for the job. It won’t be a solitary solution for such a complex problem. Keep poking the box, Mark (and Bill & Melinda and everyone else).

  1. This Robot Tutor Will Make Personalizing Education Easy. (Wired, August 26, 2015)
  2. Facebook Looks To Tackle Personalized Learning In The Classroom (TechCrunch, September 3, 2015)
  3. Facebook Moves Into ‘Personalized Learning’ With Charter Network (Education Week, September 16, 2015)


If you have read prior posts in this blog, you know that I changed doctoral programs after having lost faith in the first one I selected. It just so happens that the college where I began was undergoing an accreditation review while I was there. Our program director let us know what was going on, and asked if it would be OK if we met the with visitors during one of our class periods. At the time, I was in the 2nd of two cohorts in the EdD program and each cohort had four students (down from 6 each) and we all met with the visitors together. I wonder if that made it seem like we had a “healthy” class size (it wasn’t). We were asked if we liked the teachers, the coursework, but not asked if we felt ready for research or felt confident in completing the program. I totally get that the success of doctoral programs is measured differently from traditional undergrad programs and is not enveloped in all the stuff people are saying about graduation rates and student debt, but the accrediting agencies evaluate graduate programs, too. It might be worth keeping in mind when thinking about what accreditors should do or what they are designed to do.

From what I have seen and learned about accreditation, there is an air of “keep doing what you’re doing and everything will be OK” which, I think, is due to faith in a system that has survived 300 years of economic highs and lows and significant environment and cultural changes (think: colonial colleges; A&M colleges; land grant universities; black colleges after the Civil War, and later, integration of blacks at white colleges; the emergence of online learning). There seems to be a willingness to make incremental change based on mountains of historical data (what has been done) instead of responding quickly to external influences (like the feds taking control of student loan programs; and economic recessions). The accreditors are members of the academe; reviewers do the same things at their institutions that is being done at the institutions they evaluate. It’s not a wolf-minding-the-sheep scenario and there isn’t a shepherd telling the herd what to do; it’s sheep minding sheep.

With a high national default rate in student loans, people are questioning if accreditors are doing enough to protect students from debt accumulation (1,2,3). Some blame accreditors for allowing schools to operate with low or very low graduation rates (grad rates are linked to student success and ability to repay loans). According to a WSJ article, 26 out of 3,000 institutions have lost accreditation in the last 15 years, mostly for financial problems and not because of graduation rates. The feds have been putting pressure on schools to do more to combat student loan defaults while simultaneously pressuring them to enroll more first generation and minority students. These at-risk student groups are more likely to need financial aid and are more likely to not finish college – a double-whammy and almost a guaranteed loan default.

Student graduation rates are calculated primarily on the traditional student beginning full-time undergraduate study right after high school and finishing up within 6 years. Many schools are trying various methods to increase the graduation rate but there is no guarantee it will translate to loan repayment and the feds are trying to force schools to make public student debt and graduation rates then couple that with earnings data (most likely from the IRS) so that students can choose a school that will get them to where they want to be financially. But a graduate’s earned income being sufficient to pay for housing, transportation and student loan repayment is still dependent on the job market and how much debt needs to be repaid. And students have a variety of reasons, beyond cost for choosing the school they choose.

Students choose schools that have a brand name that matters to them, a price tag they can afford, and/or a program that they need for their chosen career. Campus culture, athletics, reputation, and location also play a role. No matter where they go, academics believe quality programming is what makes the student experience. The feds want everyone to go to college somewhere, anywhere (ahem, funny that they manage student loan programs), pushing the college=middle-class agenda, which means lowering the cost of access (but they won’t increase funding to higher education). Accreditors aren’t involved in the funding stuff; just the program stuff so why blame them for student debt? It’s a loop, a cycle. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else.

Key things to remember about this issue are a) accreditors/reviewers are volunteers from peer institutions (For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged. Matthew 7.2) b) the purpose of accrediting agencies is to review curriculum and programming, finances and governance (not grad rates, job placement and graduate earnings) and c) we’re talking about the same organizations and same self-governance that fuels “best colleges and universities” reports that attract applicants. It is in the best interest of the academic parties to sugarcoat everything, keep business as usual, and let the government deal with the student debt issue. I suspect that by the time an alternative (3) is established, the whole higher ed industry will be facing a whole new set of problems.

  1. The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite (WSJ, June 17, 2015) *no WSJ access? read summary in EdDive.
  2. Game Change for Accreditation? (RollCall; June 20, 2015)
  3. No Love, But No Alternative (Inside Higher Ed, September 1, 2015)

Image: Jessica Hagy @