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What’s In It for the Cat? CMS Policy as Coordinated Autonomy

Cats are autonomous creatures of mysterious mind. Trying to ‘herd cats’ assures frustration because it opposes two forces: control and independence. ‘Enticing cats,’ aka organizing the self-interests of faculty, aligns motivation and independence, unleashing remarkable agility, grace, and concerted movement toward a goal. ‘Coordinating autonomy’ is the proper model for setting CMS policies to achieve institutional goals.

The dissertation had focused on the development of three early online courses from Ohio State’s College of the Arts. The process the candidate had presented was intriguing because each of the three course teams had elected to work in isolation, consciously choosing not to learn from each other’s successes and failures. Were these case studies unique to the Arts, bastion of self-expression and individualism; or had the Arts again laid bare the obvious so we could see the universal? We concluded it was the latter; individuals inherently resist control until persuaded social oversight is in their self-interest.

Anthony Giddens describes organizations as consisting of agency and structure. Agency -- actions and energy that lead to outcomes -- is the domain of the self-directed individual. Structure -- environmental factors that support or thwart agency -- is the domain of institutions; or more accurately, the agency and history of administration. Our colleagues in the Arts wanted to control both structure and agency to preserve their self-direction. Most administrations abhor the waste of resources involved in perpetual ‘re-inventing the wheel,’ portrayed by our guarded entrepreneurs. Their challenge is to marshal independent agency toward structurally beneficial outcomes. "Because it is policy" is seldom an effective slogan to align independent thinking and institutional goals.

Jim Davis, Associate Vice Chancellor for Information Technology at UCLA, uses the phrase "coordinated autonomy" to describe the running of a large, decentralized university. The phrase captures an appropriate strategy for introducing new services and systems in universities. Pessimists describe gaining compliance as ‘herding cats,’ and the phrase carries the notion of external control that guarantees failure. A better approach is to establish incentive structures that lead individuals to reach decisions that benefit the group. This is the essence of coordinating autonomy.

Let’s start with an easy example. In 1998, we surveyed the use of course management systems across Ohio State University’s 21 colleges and five campuses. We discovered six local WebCT licenses; each priced at $3,000 per annum. At the time, WebCT also offered an institutional license for a yearly fee of $12,000. We pooled the campus resources, purchased one institutional license and invested the collaboration windfall in training. This consensus was easily reached; each partnering group continued to operate its own services at a reduced cost. What would happen if that improved resource allocation came with a loss of local control?

We tested this premise three years later. A popular course posted a set of images for student review prior to autumn quarter exam week. The instructor preferred to maintain the image collection locally, on a server at the end of a 10MB/second network connection. This autonomy came at a high price -- the server repeatedly crashed from excess traffic, the building e-mail services disrupted, and the faculty member’s phone rang off the hook. The image collection was moved to a more robust server resident on the campus backbone. Additional resources flowed to the large-scale problem of image management, benefiting both the individual and the community.

What other online course practices might benefit from concerted action to serve both the individual and the campus at large? End of quarter grade submission is a candidate on almost all campuses. Until last year, OSU’s system for grade submission required downloading grades from the CMS to the instructor’s local computer and then uploading them to the Registrar. Across all instructors and courses using the CMS, this amounted to a massive waste of time and energy. Working with a multi-section Biology course, we piloted a prototype for electronic grade submission directly from the CMS to the Registrar. Shortly thereafter, the procedures were adopted widely, and voluntarily, across the campus.

We’ve learned that coordinated autonomy also serves both individual and campus needs in staffing help desks and providing network security. The massive cost and disruption caused by viruses (security) and misdirected student queries (multiple help desks) has encouraged campus-wide collaboration in both of these areas. Building ADA-compliant Web sites is a third area that benefits from common campus practices.

So when should an institution encourage distributed agency rather than administrative collectivism? At the point where too little is known about the problem at hand to standardize the solution. We can promote best practices in license purchasing, network administration, security, ADA compliance, and help desk that align the energies of the majority of our end user community members. We succeed by clearly communicating these benefits, rather than by setting policy edicts. On the other hand, we are still in the early stages of understanding effective use of CMS as distinct from its efficient use. Here we should let the course design teams play, capitalizing on their experimental zeal.

Effective CMS deployment rests on administrators building structures that unleash agency from all individuals that make up the educational system. Policy that paralyzes, or even neutralizes individual sense of agency, inhibits discovery and social benefit in spite of the best intentions. Successful CMS implementations operate through coordinated autonomy not legislated conformance.

Giddens, A. The theory of structuration. Referenced from the World Wide Web November 29, 2003.

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