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The Heart of the Digital University

In a Q&A, authors Frank McCluskey and Melanie Winter discuss how the forces that have brought about the current crop of challenges in higher education are the same ones that can help solve them.

"We are seeing the birth of a new kind of institution." So begins a new book by Frank McCluskey and Melanie Winter that examines how digital technologies have disrupted nearly every aspect of the traditional university. The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies, and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education argues that the forces that have brought about the current crop of challenges in higher education are the same ones that can help solve them.

Both McCluskey and Winter have seen what works and doesn't work in their faculty and administrative positions at numerous institutions, both traditional and online and for-profit and not-for-profit, including Yale, American Public University System, Walden, and Shenandoah. What they say they've learned is that the university must come to grips with the way the digital revolution has changed the acquisition, storage, and transmission of information.

Recently, the authors spoke with about what changes in an environment where continual data collection is possible, how one university was able to keep its tuition the same for more than a decade, and why institutions need to become learning-centered (rather than teacher-centered or bureaucracy-centered) organizations.

Dian Schaffhauser: You tie the rise of digital technologies to a decline of faculty governance. Can academic freedom be maintained in an environment where every aspect of activity and progress is recorded, measured, and presumably monitored?

Frank Bryce McCluskey: This is a great question--and a difficult one. In the old days, when you were in college, the professor would close the door. Whatever they did was a secret. When the class was over, it evaporated, except for student notes. In a sense, nobody knew what the professor did. There was an air of mystery, almost like a papal conclave. It was secret. How they graded was secret. How they prepared lectures was secret. But when a digital class is over, there's a record of how many responses there were, how students did, at what point [in instruction] response fell off. There are all kinds of [data] points you can look at and say, "Here you were successful, here you were less successful." Because it is data, other people at the university are empowered too, not just the professors.

Melanie Lynn Winter: I was a registrar and also a director of institutional research at my last university. I was responsible for a lot of non-academic interaction with faculty and also a lot of data collection for the institution at large. The faculty always perceived me as being intrusive and having oversight far beyond what I needed to have oversight on, when I was, in fact, just reporting data to the constituencies and the administration that were asking for it. So I think it's telling that the perception of my role was greater than my role actually was.

McCluskey: This is where the idea of a Chinese wall comes in. You want faculty to be empowered. You want to be an academic institution, not just a business. At the same time, how do you make sure the academics control the academic quality and the business side controls the rest of it?

You write about how there's a rise of this whole new management class running the operations. How do you keep that management class from encroaching on faculty decision-making? And how do you get the faculty to take up the charge that this is all for the good of the institution? In other words, how do you make the switch to the learning-centered model

Winter: The learning institution involves the entire university--every role in the university, the students, faculty, the administration. Everyone becomes part of the learning-centered model. To do that there has to be, I think, distinct roles, [where] the academics are going to be able to rule their realm and the bureaucratic people are going to do their thing.

McCluskey: The whole university has to be a learning machine. From every interaction you have to teach the students or teach the faculty or teach the staff something.

Give examples of things the faculty should control--and what the "manager class" should be in charge of.

McCluskey: The faculty should control academic quality, what subjects should be taught and how they should be taught. They should control the pedagogy. They're very good about that. But at the same time, there are some areas that faculty are not expert in.

Winter: I think the administrative side of the university has to control the technology. They absolutely have to because the university functions off of that technology. They need to control the interpretation of the data and the business operations of the university. I think there has to be a dialog with the academics on the interpretation of the data. So it can't be the administrative side alone interpreting, but they have to have the ultimate responsibility for making change.

You just said academic quality should be in the purview of the faculty, but then you have these measurements going on. So how do you make those work together?

McCluskey: Quality can be quantified in a sense. For example, at the American Public University System we had 38 different measures in the classroom. We looked at the number of students dropping out, failing, withdrawing, grade distribution, number of responses per week. You could see where [instructors] were way off or way out there.

Here's the important thing. You need academic wisdom. For example, for Arabic 1 and 2 and Calculus 1 and 2 the dropout rate is higher than in English or political science. You need a certain wisdom to say, OK, just because there's a higher dropout rate doesn't mean the person is a bad teacher; it means we have to look at a range of things.

At American Public when you had that data--that transparency into all of those measures--would it be the faculty senate or something like that that's making decisions about whether a particular faculty member needed some kind of professional development?

McCluskey: We had something called program reviews. We'd all sit down with big books of data. The academic team ran the meeting. The provost office would be there, the registrar, the instructional designer, institutional research, admissions folks. In advance, we'd present the faculty and dean with a lot of data on each course: This course has a huge dropout rate, this faculty member is failing every student, etc.

By the time we entered that big room, we'd have had a lot of pre-conversations about the data, not to beat people over the head but to understand, here's where we're succeeding, here's where we can succeed better. The goal of the institution is to have people learning. When people aren't learning, that's not good for the students or the institution.

Let me give you an example. We have a lot of sections of History 101. If in one section you were really off the mark in terms of the number of student responses and dropout, failure, or withdrawal rate, it would be pretty clear that might be an area you'd want to take a look at. So we'd be able to see as a group and have a conversation. In the beginning those conversations were difficult.

Winter: Typically, it's not the faculty senate that gets engaged in conversations at this level. It's more the deans, the provost or chief academic officer, the program managers--those sorts of people that are involved in the more academic administration side that deals with the academic teaching/learning side of the university.

This was very difficult at American. I was there when the efforts were initially being made to understand, what are we looking at, what are we trying to measure? There was a lot of backlash from the faculty and academic administration about that look at the data and how a specific teacher was doing. They didn't want transparency there. That was a difficult concept.

How that was resolved? Was it a matter of giving people time to get used to the use of data?

McCluskey: It was a matter of time, and letting them know this wasn't just hitting them over the head with data. It was a conversation in which they were empowered, they were learning, and it was all for the better good.

You write about how American Public didn't raise its tuition once between 2001 and 2012 even as other colleges were raising their tuition by double digits every year. Is it really possible to go to that extreme in an institution that isn't being transformed or reorganized from the ground up as American Military University was when it morphed into American Public University System?

Winter: We think not. We think that it would require re-engineering. The whole philosophy of American Public was to make a kind of "greased chute" for the students, so they were as limited in interactions as necessary to get in, get registered, and get into the classroom, and do their work. They had opportunities to reach out digitally if they needed help, but the [starting point] was to make things as easy and seamless as possible for the students.

McCluskey: To give you [a counterpoint], in my first school, we'd line up as faculty members with our grade sheets in the registrar's office. I'd read her the names of the students and the grades, and she'd type them into the computer, because we didn't have access. It would take me hours to do this. Once the faculty could enter their own grades online, that took away all that time and labor. There are countless other processes they've figured out how to digitize.

Winter: We both believe that faculty are changing in general. They are the product of their generation. They're using technology more. They are just in general using it in their classrooms more and more. I think that this is changing because of our students and our faculty and the people like us who are the dinosaurs are retiring and moving onto other things.

You make the point early in the book that professors typically aren't trained in pedagogy. Do you think that with time and with the use of data being used more in institutions, this could somehow help them become better at instruction?

Winter: I'm just thinking about the rise of a role in academia which is more of an academic administrative role, like the center for teaching and learning, which has people who are academic helping faculty adopt or learn technology that will help them facilitate their classrooms. If faculty aren't taught pedagogy, this is another opportunity for the continuing education opportunities for faculty in the current institutions. I think this is a relatively new role.

McCluskey: In 1947 the Truman Commission advised PhDs to take courses in education. Today in 2013 it's still not being done.

In my experience with working with people in those centers of learning, it's always voluntary and there tends to be a core of instructors who are willing to try new things.

McCluskey: The early adopters. The good news is that as colleges are hiring today, they're looking for people who are going to be getting their feet wet in new technology.

You liken a professor to a craftsman or artisan creating something totally unique each time he presents a lecture. So when that's captured on a streaming video, what's lost or gained there?

McCluskey: Our freedom to improvise has gone way down. What has gone way up is our students' understanding about what's required, what the rules are, what makes for a good grade, what they need to do, and how to be successful.

Winter: It used to be you wanted to have your degree from a given school because it was close to you, affordable, or it had a reputation you wanted. And it seems like we're heading more toward patching together our education. The military is a prime example. If they want to achieve a degree, they get courses from a lot of different schools as they move around. Well, I think that mobility is coming with the new structure of education.

Do you think we'll really only find success in that when we get away from the idea of the Carnegie hour, where seat time equates to credits?

McCluskey: The Department of Education [recently] put out a letter on how to evaluate competency-based education, something that Western Governors University is doing. That's the idea of the badge: Can you execute these three things? The Carnegie unit was just how long you sat in the seat in a physical classroom while the teacher taught. That's what it meant. That's got nothing to do with anything.

Winter: As a lot of students will tell you.

How would that competency be defined? Would you pull together a bunch of a people who are experts in this stuff to negotiate some kind of agreement about what you need to know if you are taking anthropology 101, for example?

Winter: Instead of the Carnegie unit, it becomes the Carnegie Competency Model or something. The student completed this course, and got this grade, and that counts toward that progression for that degree.

You recommend that most colleges start providing a transparent series of metrics regarding what graduates should expect. You also mention the Department of Education providing a scorecard showing college costs, graduation rates, and employment rates. That's now available; is it what you had in mind?

Winter: I think there has to be some sort of standard stuff that can go across the universities regardless of type. But it also has to be geared toward specific types of schools, because they're so different.

McCluskey: It's so one-size-fits-all with some of the regulations. At one school, all the students graduate and they make good money when they get out. That's Harvard. There may be a tribal college or an urban community college where the graduation rate is way below Harvard or Yale yet they may be doing a better job at teaching their graduates, and they may be doing an astounding job within that class of schools. We think there should be more attention paid to the type of schools and what they're trying to accomplish.

We're part of the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework project, which is trying to come up with some common metrics of success.

In your book you reference a college that used a course specifically intended to improve retention, which was a requirement for all first-year students. Results showed that it had the opposite effect--that those who had avoided taking it graduated in larger numbers. But those results were buried by faculty, and the institution continued on as if it never had the data in the first place. So how can other schools avoid the same fate?

Winter: This is a huge cultural shift that needs to be adopted by institutions wholly. They have to embrace learning and whatever that means for making change. It's not that someone is a bad teacher; it's that they need to change the way they're teaching. The data shows it's not really working. Let's look at the data and figure this out. Mistakes are a [means] of finding our way to different paths. Nothing's wrong. You just keep learning and moving forward. Everybody needs to subscribe to that.

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