Higher Education Quality

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Ratings Framework defines higher education quality as consisting of three elements: Access, Affordability, and Outcomes.

I was curious to learn how undergraduate and graduate students define quality in higher education. So, I conducted a survey in the second week of January 2015 (click on the image below to view a .pdf file):


Here is what I learned from the 65 students surveyed:

  • Students view of higher education quality is more broadly defined than by Access, Affordability, and Outcomes, and also more nuanced.
  • Professors do many things that detract from students’ perception of higher education quality.
  • Administrators do many things that detract from students’ perception of higher education quality.
  • Students want their college education experience to prepare well for the working world that they will graduate in to.

There is clearly a gap between what higher education offers and what students want and when viewed in the context of quality. The longer this gap remains, the more likely it is that other forms of education and training will become more appealing to students. This will put downward pressure on enrollment and create long-term cost problems.

While the sample size is small, the results are consistent with my other surveys of students in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

These results could be unique to my regional comprehensive public institution, but I suspect the are broadly applicable to colleges and universities higher and lower in ranking, public or private, and small or large.

Why don’t you conduct surveys asking the questions that I have asked and share your results here?

Lean for University Leaders

Let me know if you are interested in having me speak to your senior university administration team about Lean management as it applies to higher education – for administrative processes, academic processes, or both.

I can do a free 90 minute meeting via Skype. This offer is only for non-profit institutions of higher education.

dt_qPrior to our meeting online, there is a reading assignment and a homework assignment (i.e. flipped classroom). Each participant must read both We Can Do It and The Lean Professor and take notes using the fillable .pdf form at right (right click to save, use as many pages as needed).

Then, meet as a team prior to our meeting to discuss what you read and create a consolidated list of discussion topics and questions, again using the form at right. Send this to me a few days before our meeting.

Contact me if you are interested so we can work out the remaining details.

Imaginary Customers

Most professors and many administrators have great difficulty accepting the idea of students as customers. Some put great effort into finding ways to describe students as anything but customers. They are partners, they are empowered learners, they are producers, and so on.

The resistance to accept students as customers is perhaps because most people do not like to serve others, even though it may be their job to do so. In truth, we would rather be served. Let’s face it; many highly educated professors view it as a professional come-down to “serve” 18 year old “know-nothing” students. Professors who would rather be served by students are likely to be poor teachers compared to those who see it as their duty to serve students.

Couple that with the many problems that exist in higher education with respect to teaching: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. If faculty cannot accept students as customers, then it is unlikely that problems associated with teaching – the core mission of colleges and universities – will be recognized and corrected.

The inability to accept students as customer in higher education is an interesting problem that perhaps can be solved by looking to the field of mathematics. It is reminiscent of the long-ago fight among mathematicians who resisted the idea of imaginary numbers (e.g. 3i, whose square is -9). Complex numbers, the correct term for imaginary numbers, were not widely accepted by mathematicians until the late 1700s – nearly 1700 years after they were conceived.

Negative numbers were an abstraction up to the middle 1500s. It made intuitive sense to have 3 apples, but it did not make sense to have -3 apples. What does it mean to have -3 apples? You have have 3 apples or no apples, but not -3 apples. Once mathematicians began to accept the idea of imaginary numbers, it enabled them to solve important real-world problems that they could not otherwise solve, or solve important problems in simpler ways (i.e. polynomials).

So it is with students as “customers.” Thinking of students as imaginary customers, Ci, is useful for solving important real-world problems in higher education or making those problems easier to solve: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

Professors invariably think of “customer” in the context of consumption and commercial transactions, which they abhor because they comprehend the university as something other than a business. Consumption and commercial transactions are concrete contexts that our minds immediately default to. But, customer can also be used to denote attitudes and desires – abstract contexts that we are much less familiar with. Yet, this would help us comprehend what humans – students – want and focus our efforts on providing that.

Automatic reversion to the concrete context of “customer” is an excuse to preserve the status quo and ignore the need to recognize and correct problems. This leaves professors stuck in the past, wedded to ineffective pedagogies, mistake-filled teaching, students who forget what they learned the moment the last class is ends, and so on.

We can think of students as partners, empowered learners, and producers and keep teaching as we have always done, or we can think of students as imaginary customers, Ci, and get on with the work of solving important real-world problems in higher education and fulfill our role as professors who serve students.

Let’s hope it does not take another 700-plus years since the founding of University of Bologna in 1088 for Ci to be widely accepted by academics in higher education.

College Productivity

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Colleges Need a Business Productivity Audit” (28 December), authors Frank Mussano and Robert Iosue argue that colleges should be audited as business are “to identify unprofitable practices.” Audits are the answer to structural problems when one knows nothing about process improvement. While audits, done well, can be helpful in identify problems and providing single-point direction for corrective actions, they do not normally results in a fundamental re-evaluation of processes and the go-to-market strategy.

In the case of higher education, the prevailing view has been that it is a non-competitive sellers’ market. This was a major strategic error because it assumed that markets would not one day turn into competitive buyers’ markets. As a result, costs have risen dramatically over the last 15-20 years. But now, people are not willing to pay the high tuition prices that they once willingly accepted.

But, what is most remarkable about Mussano and Robert Iosue’s opinion article is the comments made by readers, all of whom have at least earned an undergraduate degree. The comments show that the real failure of higher education, whether the tuition price is low or high, is an inability to think critically. Teacher get an “F” for their efforts to teach people how to think critically. Graduates get an “F ” for not applying critical thinking that they learned in college (and in earlier years of schooling).

Many comments starkly reveal poor critical thinking skills. For example:

  • The effect, high tuition prices, is due to a singular cause such as government tuition subsidies.
  • The state Department of Motor Vehicles is inefficient, therefore all federal government agencies are inefficient.
  • Federal bureaucracies have the lowest productivity.
  • High administrative labor costs are the result of government control (rules and regulations).
  • For-profit colleges are more efficient that not-for-profit because they are for-profit.
  • Academics have too much power over administrators.
  • High costs are the result of progressives running higher education institutions.
  • High costs are the result of many faux studies programs.

As teachers, we can do a better job of making it clear to students that critical thinking is not just something one does while in school and forgets about upon graduation. It is a practical approach to comprehending a problem and identifying practical solutions in the real world.

For example, federal and state bureaucracies, agencies, etc., have low productivity (and high costs) due to batch-and-queue material and information processing, not simply because they are bureaucracies. If students were taught this, then that would open the door to inquiry as to how to improve processes in was that increase productivity (and reduce costs) without harming people (workers, customers, etc.).

2014 Top Lean Higher Ed Blog Posts

Thank you for reading my blog! I truly appreciate your time and interest. There are many more good articles to come in 2015. I encourage you to post your thoughts and opinions.

Here are the top 20 most viewed articles in 2014:

Teaching Surveys – Interim Results
What Is Good Quality Teaching? – Survey Results
Priceless Small Improvements
Lean Must Do No Harm
Same Six Criticisms of Lean
The Value Of Higher Education
My Student Course Evaluations
Lean Teaching Visual Controls
Improving Critical Thinking
Hire More Faculty
Visual Controls To Improve Student Learning
Why Professors Can’t Teach
Running on University Time
The University As Manufacturer
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
Selling Change to Finance VPs
How Could We Be So Stupid!
Class Participation
Engaging Colleagues and Administrators
Good Writer or Good Thinker?

“All Deans Are A**holes”

My father, Cesare Emiliani, was a professor and long-time department chair of the geology department at the University of Miami. He was an accomplished scientist (one of Nobel Prize winner [1934] Harold Urey’s graduate students, with future Nobel Prize winner [1960] Willard Libby serving on his Ph.D. thesis committee) and a man whose knowledge spanned biology, chemistry, physics, geology, arts, history, religion, and languages (Italian, Spanish, German, French, Latin, and Greek). He was a true Renaissance man with a brilliant sense of humor.

He began his academic career in 1957 teaching graduate students at a satellite campus in Key Biscayne, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. He then moved to main campus in Coral Gables in the early 1970s to teach undergraduate students. He still had graduate students, but he loved teaching undergraduate students (especially first year students) and getting them excited about the sciences. He did that until 1992, when he retired at the age of 70.

In the mid-1980s I was pursuing my Ph.D. in engineering at Brown University. I came home to Coral Gables on winter break to spend some time with the family. One evening my father was cooking steaks on the barbecue in the backyard. We were drinking a few beers and got into a discussion about teaching and university administration. He quickly pointed out to me the following observation, based on decades of experience in dealing with many deans: “All deans are assholes.” (For an example in the context of deductive thinking, click here and scroll down to the word “deduction,” then click on the speaker icon).

Why did he say this? My father was a tireless advocate for students, working 60 to 70 hours per week to obtain research funding for graduate students, teaching three undergraduate courses per semester (as department chair), creating new courses and programs that would excite students, and administering the affairs of the department. He taught in a energetic and engaging way; students loved him. He would take a couple of students along to lunch a few times a week for a hamburger and meet other students at the campus bar after work for a few beers to discuss science. He was a generous person who fed students minds as well as their bodies.

In contrast, deans often are not student advocates. Their role is focused on budgets, meetings, reports, paperwork, internal politics, etc. – bureaucracy and the status quo, not process improvement. The job itself, as traditionally thought of and performed, automatically makes deans less of an advocate for students than faculty, unless certain precautions are taken. Deans’ inattention to students causes friction among professors who believe that teaching, learning, and student success is the core mission of the university. That’s why my father thought, in his experience, that all deans were assholes.

A while after telling me that “All deans are assholes,” my father said: “You’d make an excellent dean.” Hmmm. That seemed like a mixed message if ever there was one: A wonderful, loving father saying I too could be an asshole dean. That puzzled me for quite a number of years, but I think I have figured it out.

When I look at the typical job description for a dean, it is apparent that one must, in most cases, be an asshole. It is an unwritten key job requirement necessary in order to get a job done that cannot actually be done. The typical job description is written in haughty language, encompasses more than can actually be done, is unreasonable in time frame for accomplishments, and is impractical in the myriad capabilities that it seeks. It seeks a singular hero while requiring that one excel at collaborating with others. The term of appointment is short, usually three years, in anticipation of dissention and conflict with faculty. Such job descriptions are sure to attract candidates who interview well but who actually do lousy work. Hence, “All deans are assholes.” Q.E.D.

Many capable faculty members shun the job because they see how the work and decisions reduce student advocacy and disconnects the dean from the core mission of the university. Perhaps one thing that could help reduce the number of asshole deans is a job description that attracts candidates who interview actually do great work but may interview poorly. It would be a job description that is ambitious but realistic, practical yet progressive, and one that propels the school forward in recognizably distinctive ways in the eyes of students, payers, and employers. It should also highlight the need for a dean that sacrifices self for others and who can join the staff and faculty to work together as a team that does good things for students.

Let’s compare a recent dean job description for the College of Business Administration from the University of Rhode Island* (position number 107078, posted 12.10.2014) to a proposed dean job description that I would find appealing, would result in a dean less likely to be an asshole, and align the dean with faculty and staff to the core mission of the university: teaching, learning, and students success (click on image to enlarge. Click here for .pdf version):







Perhaps my father thought I’d be a good dean because I would figure out how not to be an asshole dean. Maybe one day we’ll see if he is right. If he is, then I would need to figure out what to do about that asshole provost.


* Disclosure: I am alumni of the University of Rhode Island , M.S. Chemical Engineering ’84

A Lost Decade

Throughout my first five years as a professor, beginning in 1999, I carefully followed the news and trends of higher education. Peering over the horizon, it was clear that Lean management could help university administrators address current and future challenges – but only if they were open minded and willing to change.

Ten years ago, in December 2004, I wrote the article, below, which first appeared online in early 2005. Looking back on what I wrote, I see that we have suffered a lost decade; one in which administrative and academic processes could have been improved but were not, and which would have protect some institutions against the turmoil in higher education that has developed in recent years.

That says a lot about higher education leaders. Without any intent to blame, they are doing no favors to anyone – not students, payers, employers, faculty, or staff – by continuing to do mostly the same things as they have long done, only harder. Internal processes that were built over decades to serve sellers’ markets fail when the market shifts to a buyers’ market. College and university leaders need to recognize this fundamental reality and begin to replace current leadership and management practices with new ones that better serve higher education’s stakeholders.

Lean in Higher Education

The time is right for higher education administrators,faculty, and staff to begin applying Lean management to their business. The consequences of not doing so could be fatal.

Most U.S. colleges and universities face a never-ending struggle to deliver valuable educational services while at the same time maintaining a viable financial position. The normal route for doing both is simply to raise more money from donors and pass cost increases along to customers – not only students – or their parents or the companies that students work for – but also to the companies, state, and federal agencies that fund research.

This inexorable rise in prices, often at rates that greatly exceed the rate of inflation, places unwanted burdens on those who must pay the costs of education and research. This can’t go on forever. Surely factors will emerge in the near future that force a change in current pricing practices and value propositions.

University administrators, faculty, and staff have a choice. They can change voluntarily, in an orderly manner while the opportunity exists to do so, or be forced to change when power inevitably shifts to those who pay the bills. Every institution will be affected in some way – even the top-ranked ones – and the shift could occur very rapidly as the cost to deliver information and knowledge drops.

As the population of college-aged students begins to decline in some regions of the U.S. after 2010, administrators will face new challenges that they are not yet prepared to address.

A likely scenario is:

  • Oversupply of capable higher education service providers
  • Degree programs that are not differentiated between competitors
  • Growth of for-profit educational service providers
  • Growth of the distance education market via the Internet
  • Having to compete on the basis of price

In addition, education standards have become increasingly uniform across the globe, aided by international accreditationbodies such as AACSB International for business schools or ABET for engineering schools [1]. This means that undergraduate engineering or graduate business degree programs in U.S. schools are substantially the same as those offered by schools in Canada or Germany, or by schools in developing nations such as China or Poland (and also taught in English).

If most undergraduate and graduate degree programs are substantially the same, either in reality or perception, then wouldn’t most senior corporate executives seek labor that provides the needed capability at the lowest price? Indeed, we are now witnessing the early stages of offshore outsourcing of white-collar “knowledge worker” jobs in information technology, human resources, finance, engineering, law, and medicine. The pace of offshoring white-collar jobs is certain to increase in the coming years and further build the global labor market. In addition to significant job losses, this will also depress the salaries of U.S.-based knowledge workers who are fortunate to retain their jobs.

If it does not pay to obtain an undergraduate or graduate degree, then some potential students will migrate to jobs that can not be outsourced offshore such as emergency medical technician, nurse, plumber, carpenter, electrician, hotel and restaurant services, etc. – honorable trades, to be sure. However, enrollment in degree programs will decline more quickly as potential students seek alternatives, and make a bad situation even worse. As a result, some schools will go out of business, some will merge with other schools, and others will exist for a period of time as zombie (half-dead, half-alive) schools.

University administrators, even those at top-tier U.S. schools, should be alarmed because what could happen to higher education is no different than what has already happened to the U.S. steel, electronics, automotive, furniture, and textile industries. And the same thing is now happening to service industries such as customer support, financial analysis, and drug research. While it is true that market dynamics often provide a useful and necessary culling of the weak players, it also offers compelling opportunities to improve and become even stronger.

It seems conditions are forming which could drastically alter the business of higher education as we know it today. Managing through this new phase will be an unpleasant task. So how can institutions willing to face this new reality adapt? One way they can is to do what managers usually do: they lay people off, eliminate programs, cut back on services, close branch campuses, etc. These worn-out solutions will lead to unhappy customers and higher levels of job dissatisfaction among those left to carry out the teaching and provide student services – and could also hasten the school’s demise.

Is there a better way to deal with this situation? Of course there is. We need only to reflect on what some managers do when confronted with major upheaval in their industry. They begin to implement Lean management to reduce costs, improve quality, simplify processes, gain market share, stabilize or grow employment, and better satisfy customers.

The question is, will college and university administrators, faculty, and staff wait until the crisis lands upon them, or will they act now to improve?

Professors have written dozens of scholarly papers in recent years illustrating the application of Lean principles and practices to higher education, including: quality function deployment, hoshin kanri, and kaizen. They know there is waste in higher education.

So there are many people out there who want to improve, and are willing to lead the way. And it’s not just faculty. Some administrators and most staff personnel also know there is much room for improving degree programs and related student services. But great ideas are not so great until they are transformed into broad-based action.

Inevitably, however, people in service businesses must overcome the common bias that Lean is a “manufacturing thing,” and understand there are many more similarities than differences between manufacturing and service businesses. Administrators, faculty, and staff must avoid the trap of viewing higher education as a special case where Lean does not apply.

People who are not encumbered by mistaken views, and also accept that students are customers – in balance with the mission of higher education – will want to participate in kaizen to improve individual courses, degree programs, and student services. This will lead to multiple characteristics that clearly differentiate one school from others as seen by customers and lead to positive outcomes.

I think it is relevant to mention my own experience with Lean management in manufacturing and service industries. With the help of extensive training by Shingijutsu consultants in the mid-1990’s, we learned and applied Lean management principles and practices in the manufacturing shop and later in supply chains.

Our teams achieved remarkable results, even though our understanding of Lean at that time was somewhat limited by our manufacturing shop floor focus. But we learned many important things about process improvement that laid the foundation for understanding how to improve non-manufacturing processes.

Upon becoming a university professor in the fall of 1999, it was clear to me there was an enormous amount of waste in all facets of higher education – admissions process, advising, individual courses, degree programs, student services, etc. So

I did four things:

  • Led efforts to reduce confusion and rework by simplifying the school’s programs and requirements.
  • Conducted seminars for faculty on Lean management and important tools such as root cause analysis.
  • Applied Lean principles and practices to the courses I taught [2] (with great success!).
  • Gained the participation of faculty, staff, alumni, and senior managers to improve a graduate M.S. in management degree program using kaizen [3].

The rationale for improvement and related implementation efforts are described in recent papers that I have written (see notes 2 and 3). To make a long story short, Lean principles and practices can be successfully applied to higher education – which should be no surprise. We used improvement processes that were either exactly the same or very close to those long used in industrial manufacturing settings.

Another opportunity is to include Lean principles and practices in all courses – not just in operations management courses. This will result in curricula that teach students how to continuously improve any process and utilize human resources in ways that demonstrate respect for people [4]. It will produce graduates with clearly identifiable value-adding knowledge and capabilities such as creating innovative products or services and improving productivity through fundamental process improvement [5].

Further, students educated in Lean principles and practices – understanding waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness, value stream mapping, kaizen, respect for people, balance, etc. – will be much more highly valued by corporate managers because applying this knowledge leads to better outcomes for all key stakeholders. Plus, it will be harder to outsource their capabilities. And it will also clearly differentiate the programs offered by some U.S. colleges and universities.

But is important to be totally consistent: educators can’t just teach Lean principles and practices, they must also apply it to their business.

By the way, another thing that U.S. college and university personnel will have to worry about is non-U.S. institutions of higher education adopting Lean principles and practices first, thus making both their schools and graduates more desirable than U.S. schools and its graduates.

So the message is: Don’t miss this golden opportunity to apply Lean to university management, and also to teach Lean principles and practices to students across a variety of disciplines includes arts, sciences, engineering, management, medicine, etc.

You can help by lobbying your alma mater to adopt Lean management.

[1] Predictably, neither AACSB International (www.aacsb.edu) nor ABET (www.abet.org) suggest or explicitly require educators to teach Lean principles and practices in their respective accreditation standards. This illustrates how obscure Lean is in higher education. Thus, educators have broad leeway to teach concepts, principles, tools, etc., that can maximize waste as well as those that eliminate waste. Unfortunately, teaching people the “leastwaste way” to think, behave, and work are not yet highly regarded by accreditation bodies. Also, customer demand for this type of education is weak at the present time, in part because the value proposition has not been articulated.
[2] M.L. Emiliani, “Improving Business School Courses by Applying Lean Principles and Practices,” Quality Assurance in Education , Vol. 12, No. 4, 175-187, 2004.
[3] M.L. Emiliani, “Using Kaizen to Improve Graduate Business School Degree Programs,” Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 37-52, 2005.
[4] Toyota Motor Corporation, “The Toyota Way 2001,” internal document, Toyota City, Japan, April 2001.
[5] M.L. Emiliani, “Is Management Education Beneficial to Society?,” Management Decision, Vol. 42, No. 3/4, pp. 481-498, 2004.

Grants For Improving Teaching

Should universities give money to professors for improving teaching, or should they spend the money for other purposes such as scholarships or reducing the price of tuition or eliminating fees? The need to improve the quality and effectiveness of teaching is beyond question (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education). But, should universities pay for that activity, or should it be part of the normal job duties of professors?

You likely know that I have been continuously improving my teaching through the application of Lean principles and practices for 15 years. But, did you know that I never received any grants for this work, nor have I ever applied for any? It never occurred for me to even ask. And did you know that when money does need to be spent to engage in some trial and error teaching or conduct some teaching experiments, I pay for that out of my own pocket?

Perhaps my error was in listening to sensei from Japan who trained me in Lean management.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports in “How Big Money Can Encourage Calculated Risks in the Classroom” (11 December 2014) that Harvard University and the University of Michigan will devote $40 million and $25 million to improve teaching. Grants of up to $50,000 are available to faculty to take “calculated risks in their courses,” with grants as high at $3 million to scale up teaching experiments.

My feeling is that this is a waste of money, and funds are better directed towards students in need of financial assistance. Faculty trained in the scientific method should be applying the scientific method to teaching as part of their normal job routine. The fact that the quality and effectiveness of teaching remains low for decades is not due to a lack of funds, but instead a lack of intrinsic motivation, poor professional performance, flawed faculty evaluation systems, lack of attention by university leaders to the principal value-creating activity in a university, and so on.

According the article:

“‘Harvard and Michigan are opinion leaders,’ says Dan Bern­stein, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and a former director of its Center for Teaching Excellence.”

No, Harvard and Michigan are opinion laggards.

Chihiro Nakao, one of my senseis, is a great teacher. I have learned many many things from him. You can benefit from his teachings as well. The first applies to university leaders, from department chair to president:

“I’m surprised you are paying engineers [teachers] to make heavy, complex, expensive, tooling [teach poorly]. It’s kindergarten, not professional.”

“A manager who cannot identify 100 things to improve before lunch should not be allowed to eat lunch.”

The second applies to faculty:

“Professionals receive wages. To get paid as professional, you have to apply intelligence to make things better.”

 “You are paid for yesterday. Professionals must think about making things better tomorrow.”

“When you are paid by the company, you must think of new things.”

Faculty should improve their teaching a little bit every day, rather than waiting for extrinsic motivators to appear in order to improve their teaching. The former respects students, while the latter does not.

Educating Minds Online

I am not fundamentally opposed to online higher education, particularly for courses that are not in students’ major, where explicit knowledge is high and tacit knowledge is low, serving students in remote locations, or similar rationale. Yet it seems, whether we like it or not, that higher education is heading towards a two-tier higher education system: online for those with less financial resources, and face-to-face for those with greater financial resources. This is driven in large part by the difficulty of improving the teaching productivity and effectiveness under present conditions.

Absent any major change in pedagogy and teacher qualifications, we could be headed in directions that do not yield he intended outcome: better educated students. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Educating Minds Online” (8 December 2014), speaks highly of a book written by Michelle Miller that guides faculty towards greater success in online education, particularly for public universities that serve a wide geographic region. My concern is narrow and pertains to the increased use of quizzes to demonstrate “mastery” of a subject. Below is an excerpt from the article, followed by my commentary:

“‘In many traditional courses you also can’t do things like offer repeated quiz attempts with different questions, or adapt the quiz to the topics that individual students are having the most trouble with.'”

Generally, students don’t like quizzes. So, will more quizzes actually lead to “mastery,” or does it present to students more annoying wickets that they must pass through in order to earn a passing grade and receive course credits on the way to their ultimate objective: graduation? It seems likely that students will cheat in order to progress through online courses that contain many quizzes and tests and which they have little interest in.

“Miller is referring there to the well-established ‘testing effect,’ which describes the learning boost that comes when students are required to make frequent efforts to draw material from their memory and use it in different contexts. As many researchers have argued, the power of the testing effect is not limited to testing or quizzing: Any time we ask students to recall and work with information—rather than simply presenting it to them for review or study—we are strengthening their learning.”

I don’t disagree that the testing effect is well-established. However, if students are asked to recall information that is largely disconnected from the “real world” (i.e. lacking practical application) then it seems likely that the impact of the testing effect will be short-term. Isn’t higher education intended to have positive effects on students’ work and life for the long term? I teach for the long-term, not the short-term.

“The same is true, Miller noted, ‘for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice.'”

The words: “we can… present them as many times as we want” come across to me as: “I’m the teacher and I am going to force you to master the subject through frequent quizzes and other activities even if you do not like the subject and cannot intellectually or emotionally connect to it.” What does the student want? Probably something along these lines: What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education. Online education allows administrators to tie “student success” (grades) to teacher evaluation in ways that may not reflect actual learning or effective pedagogy for recall of information years after the course was taken.

“‘In a way,’ she added, ‘this approach to technology is an extension of the idea that students should spend more time actually performing the skills we want them to master and less time listening to other people talking about the skills we want them to master. This mind-set is one that prevails among the best teachers, and it’s one I think more of us are coming around to.'”

That depends. Students will dislike time spent (wasted) performing skills that teachers want them to master that lacks relevancy and connection to the real world. Overall, this seems to me like an effort to continue traditional ways of teaching, aided by technology, rather than completely re-thinking how we teach and the skills and capabilities of the people hired to teach. Students like ways of teaching that focus on learning, not testing and other activities that professors deem necessary, and they value professors with significant real-world work experience.

Lastly, it should be obvious to every teacher that “mastery” of a subject cannot be achieved by taking a course for 14 weeks, just as mastery of a musical instrument cannot be achieved by taking music lessons twice a week for 14 weeks. Effortful practice in the classroom will take students only so far. To really master a subject, they must engage in effortful practice in the real world. And, the reality is they will likely do this for no more than 10 percent of the subjects they encounter as undergraduate students – most of which will be in their major area of study.

I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts.

Buyers’ Market Changes Everything

Click here and here to learn what happens when a higher education rapidly transitions from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market, a shift made possible by a bad economy, high tuition costs, limited job availability for graduates, outsourcing, and oversupply of educational institutions.

I’ve commented numerous times on the shift in higher education from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market (see Visions For Change, Dear Business School Dean, Competition in Higher Education, and Who Needs to Improve?).

The existence of a sellers’ market over many decades means that the management, faculty, and staff become complacent as a result of being insulated from competition. They have developed mindsets, processes, and policies that make it very difficult for them to quickly adjust to competitive buyers’ market. So they scramble and do what everyone else does; budget cutting and price cutting. The most effective solution to the problem, as they see it, it to lay off faculty, staff, close campuses, utilize shared services, bundling degree programs, discount tuition, increase value and number of scholarships, and so on. They weaken themselves in the hope of remaining strong.

Notice, however, they will do anything and everything except improve the product: courses and degree program(s).

It seems possible that the U.S. and Europe will experience a long-term stagnant economy as Japan has for the last 20-plus years. That means more degree programs, colleges, and universities will flip from sellers’ to buyers’ markets. The transition is already well under way.

Instead, universities will need to improve productivity, reduce costs through process improvement, limit the quantity of courses and programs offered, substantially improve quality (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education), and expand the value proposition for students, payers, and employers. And, they must do all of this without harming people: students, payers, employers, staff, faculty, communities, and so on. How can that be done?

Organizations that face dire conditions have choices. Broadly speaking, they can do what everyone else does and hope to be one of the survivors. Or, they can take actions that assure they will will be one of the survivors. The conventional approach to management delivers the former possibility, while Lean management virtually guarantees the latter.

So, it would be wise to abandon the conventional management practice that has left so many institutions unprepared to compete and being the transition to new system of progressive management practice designed to serve buyers’ markets.