It Is Time for Some Real Accountability

In a feature article for University Business, Ioanna Opidee provides an overview of the major trends related to postsecondary teaching that we might expect in 2015.

Opidee focuses on what she asserts will be four increasing areas of emphasis:

1. Academic Return on Investment

2. Competencies at the Core

3. Flipped Classrooms and Evolving MOOCs

4. Data and Metrics

Let’s look at each of these areas, in terms of what Opidee emphasizes and what ought to be emphasized.

1. Opidee is correct, I think, in forecasting that as the out-of-pocket cost of higher education increases, politicians will contain to bemoan what they perceive as the continuing “inefficiencies” on the instructional side and the “disappointing outcomes.”

So I think that it is time for faculty to start aggressively publicizing a number of real truths:

–that the same politicians who are being so critical of the performance of our colleges and universities have been cutting funding to those institutions, shifting the cost to students, and making it much more difficult for students to complete degrees because more than ever they need to hold jobs to supplement the loans that they are being forced to take to cover tuition and fees;

–that “efficiencies” have been squeezed out of the instructional side for the past four decades and the major effect has been to lower the quality of instruction, again making it more difficult for many students to succeed, whether or not there are deficiencies in their academic preparation;

–that until the major driver of costs—administrative bloat—becomes a focus in these discussions, there is no reason to take them seriously;

–and that measuring students’ return on investment by the initial employment that they obtain after graduating is pointless since most people in the workforce will shift not just jobs but careers six or seven times over their working lives; this volatility in the economy is the primary reason why higher education cannot be conflated with job training because it is, in fact, a very inefficient way of training someone for a specific job; but it can be a very efficient and effective way to prepare someone for a labor market in which the skills that all employers say that they value—such as effective communication, critical thinking, cross-disciplinary approaches, and flexible organizational strategies—will continue to have paramount importance.

2. Opidee is correct that competencies are the next bandwagon onto which the corporatizers and privatizers want us to jump.

For a change, we should fight this “innovation” from the outset by pointing out as forcefully as possible and as often as necessary:

–that “competencies” are nothing new and that simply dressing them up with technology-driven delivery and assessments will not make them any more pedagogically viable or credible; in fact, given the recent track record of technology-driven “innovations,” one can argue that there is every reason to believe that making them more technology-driven will serve only to make them less pedagogically viable and credible;

–that increasing the number of people in the workforce who hold degrees is only a worthwhile goal, a worthwhile investment, if the degrees retain the value that they currently have; if the value of the degrees is undermined by their having been earned through cheap gimmicks, then their value to employers declines and their costliness for students in proportion to their actual value increases; to illustrate this reality, there needs to be more focus on the actual value of the degrees awarded by the online for-profits—on the salaries that graduates have been able to earn as a ratio to the cost of the degrees; the completion rates have been so abysmal among students enrolled with those institutions that the very marginal value of the degrees to the small percentage of students who actually complete them has not continued to receive enough attention.

3. Opidee is correct that the flipped classroom seems to be a pedagogical innovation that has value and will have some staying power.

But what she fails to point out is that the flipped classroom is actually more instructionally intensive than the conventional lecture and that it is therefore a very different “innovation” than most of the others currently being promoted—most notably, competency-based education, which, if Western Governors University is used as a model, makes any interaction with faculty completely superfluous.

Likewise, her suggestion that MOOCs may evolve into some sort of a complement to the flipped-classroom mode of instruction seems to me to be simply a way to keep open some possibility that those who have invested heavily in MOOCs might be able to recoup some of their investments. For, to be most effective, I think that the online materials used in the flipped-classroom mode of instruction need to be tailored to what is being done hands-on in the classroom: that is, I don’t see how some generically prepared materials will meet those needs.

4. While highlighting the increased emphasis on data analysis, Opidee does include some skepticism about whether an increasing reliance on such metrics will help more students to be successful or simply serve to mask an erosion of academic standards that facilitates an increase graduation rates.

But I think that faculty should begin raising several additional issues:

–whether the increase in student services staff to manage the data analysis is actually a cost-effective way of improving student outcomes, especially since it is very likely that the revenues to cover those costs will probably be found through more “savings” achieved in direct instructional costs;

–whether the elimination of developmental and remedial courses, largely because those credit hours don’t apply toward a degree, has actually been just a strategy to open the way for a more bureaucratic, less effective, and more costly way of meeting the same basic student needs;

–and whether all of this analysis of data is being driven more by independent research supporting its pedagogical efficacy or more by the lobbying of consultants and their corporate clients.

And that may be the biggest point to be made here: it is time to start calculating the profits that corporations are deriving from public higher education—especially since those profits are now largely coming directly out of the pockets and the future earnings of our students.

Just as institutional revenues are now clearly being directed more to administrative rather than instructional staffing, I am very certain that the revenues now being directed to corporations also exceed the direct allocations for instructional staffing.

It is time to ask why all of the profiteering is being ignored and why faculty should be blamed for institutional excesses over which faculty have little or no control.

It is time to ask why the primary victims of the corporatization and privatization of higher education—the students and the faculty—very conveniently continue to be assigned most of the blame for the dismal results of that corporatization and privatization.

It is time to demand some real accountability—from everyone whose interests are being served by the current mess.

_________________________

The full text of Opidee’s article, “Outlook on Teaching,” is available at: http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/outlook-teaching-academic-return-investment

 

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