The Invasion Has Already Begun

Space_Invaders_style.png BY JONATHAN REES AND JONATHAN PORITZ

A lot of people we know were beating up on an essay by Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. [See, for instance, Hank Reichman’s analysis here.] We certainly agree that putting tenure on some kind of clock won’t do anything to save universities money in the great scheme of things, and that the costs of that kind of proposal on morale and productivity would be so huge that they’d likely be far more costly than whatever money letting go the occasional tenured faculty member after thirty years might bring.

Yet there’s another part of Selingo’s article that we found quite eye-opening. He writes:

“While not the panacea that many in Silicon Valley suggest, technology can reduce instructional costs with the same or even better results. The nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation has redesigned courses on more than 200 campuses, reducing costs an average of 34 percent by using, among other things, software and low-stakes testing.”

Pay careful attention to the subject in the second sentence of that quotation. It doesn’t say “The nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation has helped faculty at 200 campuses redesign their courses…,” it says, “The nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation has redesigned courses…”. Silly us, we thought that redesigning courses, whether with technology or not, was our job, not the job of some outside nonprofit.

Visitors to the Center’s website through that Washington Post link will see that faculty are mostly depicted there as an impediment to redesign that need to be overcome rather than partners in the process. For example, this is from the Center’s new pamphlet, “HOW TO ORGANIZE A CAMPUS-WIDE COURSE REDESIGN PROGRAM USING NCAT’S METHODOLOGY:”

“About two-thirds of institutions have reported challenges around redesign when it comes to achieving faculty consensus within a department. Some of the challenges were attributed to leadership issues—for example, interim department chairs who were reluctant to press resisting faculty. All institutions stress the need for strong leadership and administrative support to overcome those challenges. Some team leaders thought they had solved the problem of faculty buy-in at the outset but were surprised to find they had not communicated as effectively as they thought they had. Team leaders thought they had their colleagues’ support, but when the redesign got under way, they discovered that the opposition was stronger than anticipated. Those issues underline the importance of constant communication to check signals and maintain momentum.”

Kudos to the Center for trying to keep faculty in the loop, but they are also quite open about what should happen to anyone who stands in the way of their utopia of “software and low-stakes testing.”:

“NCAT views course redesign as a means to an end: the transformation of the campus community’s understanding of the relationship between quality and cost. After several rounds of running a grantlike course redesign program, an institution needs to integrate course redesign into its campus resource allocation strategy….

That strategy includes rewarding those departments and schools that engage in redesign and penalizing those that do not—by using a combination of carrots and sticks. There are many ways to do this such as creating an incentive fund, cutting those who redesign by a smaller percentage than those who do not during times of budgetary reductions, and funding by a larger percentage those who redesign versus those who do not.”

We can’t say we precisely predicted this sort of thing in our new article in Academe, “Academic Governance on the Virtual Shop Floor,” but for two faculty members who never heard of the National Center for Academic Transformation before the Selingo article came out, we came mighty close. As we explain near the beginning of our essay:

“If administrators can assume more control over a virtual academic shop floor than they have had over the traditional face-to-face classroom environment, then the traditional prerogatives of faculty over their classrooms will likely disappear as well. Faculty governance is an essential tool not just for maintaining the faculty’s role in upholding the quality of a university education but also for ensuring the faculty’s economic survival. Preserving faculty governance at a time when faculty prerogatives are under attack requires understanding the way that technology threatens to tilt the power relationship between professors and administrators even further toward the employers’ side than it already is.”

It’s not as if we’re against all forms of course redesign, especially with technology. If individual faculty want to participate in any partnership that the National Center for Academic Transformation wants to offer, then so be it. If that takes carrots, then let the administration offer them carrots. As long as faculty retain final control over the design of their own courses that’s fine by us. It’s the sticks that have us worried.

To abruptly switch metaphors, alien forces are currently landing on Planet Faculty, and we’re not convinced they’re entirely friendly. Involuntary course redesign through technology has the potential to both destroy the quality of education and the traditional prerogative of faculty to control their own classrooms. Indeed, the penchant of administrators to fetishize technology at all costs will likely make attacks on tenure far worse in the coming years. Worse yet, whether the solution is low-stakes testing or full automation, technological changes implemented solely to save costs present the alarming possibility that course redesign could render faculty at all levels of employment completely obsolete.

Sugar coat the invasion all you like with carrots and cash prizes for complacent faculty, involuntary course redesign remains an invasion nonetheless.


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One thought on “The Invasion Has Already Begun

  1. It’s one of the strategems of the Education Deform movement. By positioning faculty as sticks in the mud who just want to say “no” to everything, we can’t even deny the accusation without sounding like we’re confirming it. Sad that a group of people, many of whom really are sometimes the smartest people in the room, have gotten so consumed with their own awesomeness that they can’t fathom any good reason for people to tell them no.

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