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.

Professors’ Credibility Problem

Higher education has been undergoing much scrutiny in recent years, from the price of tuition and student debt to time to graduation and job placement. Professors, of course, are not silent in voicing their opinions on what has gone wrong. Their lines of argumentation focus on inept administration, commercialization and corporatization of the university, unwarranted government intrusion, academically lazy students, politician’s short-sighted utilitarian view higher education, the proliferation of adjuncts, cost-cutting, resource-consuming athletic programs, online courses, and so on. (See the November-December 2014 issue of Academy, for example).

It seems that everyone and everything is at fault EXCEPT for professors and the teaching work that they do. How can teaching be perfect while everything else is a major problem? It is not possible. Careful study of the value-creating work performed by any organization shows it to be full of problems – what in Lean management is called waste, unevenness, and uneasonableness. The work processes associated with teaching – the value-creating work in higher education – are no different. They are full of waste, unevenness, and uneasonableness.

My data show that professors, whether full-time or part-time, are very much part of the problem, and that teaching is a much lower quality activity than anyone wants to admit. (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

While anyone can criticize, and perhaps do so with insight and clarity, one stands on better footing if they have reflected their own work and can demonstrate efforts to vigorously and continuously improve their teaching. Some professors do this, as I have done, but most do not. Credibility rests on a foundation of tangible evidence of improvement, not on endless, unsubstantiated talk of excellence as professors (and administrators) are known to do.

The professorial attitude of innocence in relation to the ills of higher education is enabled by college and university administrators who are willfully ignorant of poor teaching or unwilling to challenge the teaching staff to continuously improve their work. Most university leaders are unwilling to do this because they expose themselves to the ire of faculty and no confidence votes if they cannot provide data to prove that teaching is of poor quality and also provide the means by which to improve teaching. In other words, college and university leaders cannot lead efforts to improve teaching if they do not recognize the need to improve teaching and if they do not know how to improve teaching.

So, we are mostly leaderless when it comes to improving teaching. Professors have two broad choices in the routes that they can take to improve teaching. One approach is to incorporate the results of decades of research on how to improve teaching effectiveness. This would likely be a mostly one-time improvement. Another approach is to learn Lean principles and practices and apply them to teaching, which serves as the basis for continuous improvement.

It will be no surprise to you that I favor the second approach because I believe it is simpler and more accessible to most professors, and that it incorporates much of the best of what decades of research findings have to offer. Thus, while the route may be different, the desired result of improved teaching will be achieved more quickly and more effectively through the application of Lean principles and practices.

Third International Conference on LSS for Higher Ed

I will be speaking at the Third International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 8-9 June 2015. This is going to be a great conference with lots of great speakers. Learn from their experiences and share your own by submitting a paper and by attending the conference.

The tile and description of my keynote talk is below.

Application of Lean to Teaching Lean principles and practices have been applied to higher education in recent years, but almost exclusively to improve administrative processes. This talk will describe how Lean has been applied to improve an academic process, teaching, over a 15 year period. Benefits for students include more focused course content, clearer expectations, unambiguous learning outcomes, greater ability to focus on learning, and more timely feedback. Benefits for professors include better course design and organization, fewer teaching errors, improved student engagement, focused assignments, and simplified grading. Student evaluation data show that professors can achieve a 0.5 to 1.5 point increase in student evaluation scores for overall excellence of course and instructor using the Lean teaching pedagogy.

I will also be delivering a workshop on Lean teaching where I will share the specific methods that I have used in developing the Lean teaching pedagogy. We can have a great dialog together with professors from around the world. I hope to see you there!

Students Must Demand Change

Many people – administrators, faculty, students, parents, employers – are far too accepting of poor teaching in higher education. This situation has gone uncorrected for years and years. Students, being the most affected stakeholder, should demand better. But they do not. Why? Perhaps it is because they feel faculty and administrators are indifferent to their concerns, or they prefer to remain focused on the goal: graduation. Whatever it may be, the typical result is slow or no improvement in teaching.

Surely students are frustrated with the quality of their education. But, are they finally ready to do something about it? Are they ready to become activists to bring about positive reforms?

byteaching_welearnI would like to see students become more responsible for their own education, and I would like them to articulate the high-level outcomes that they desire from higher education. In particular, I would like to see students create a student-led movement that identifies the changes that are needed in teaching – from both classroom (and online) and policy perspectives – and organize in creative, peaceful ways to protest and pressure administrators and faculty to make those changes become reality – either on the basis of an individual institution or more broadly across all higher education institutions.

How would faculty and administrators react to a student-led movement to improving teaching? Probably not well, because it threatens the status quo. But, that reaction would inform students that their movement is exactly what is needed.

They would surely find partners in the process, such as myself, and perhaps you as well, to help make positive change and an enduring commitment to continuous improvement come about.

Read: “Better All The Time” by James Surowiecki (The New Yorker, 10 November 2014)

Weekly Learning Reflections

This semester I introduced a form for graduate students to use during the semester to document key learning week-by-week. It is called the “Weekly Leaning Reflection.”

The course, Supply Chain Strategy, is taught as a hybrid, meaning about 50 percent of the classes are face-to-face and 50 percent of the classes are online. My concern was that in the weeks we did not meet face-to-face, some of the key learnings might be missed.

Weekly Learning Reflection

So far, it seems to be helpful for those students who really want to get some lasting knowledge from the course. Here is what a student had to say:

“You’re weekly reflection sheet is a great tool. I wished I had had it for TM590 and TM572. When finished, it and the visual control will help as a reminder of the important points and learnings of the class. I will use the same idea in my future classes, it is easy to forget certain aspects when you stretch the course work over five years!”

I intend to introduce this form into my other courses. You may find it useful to do so as well.

Bosses Flunk Critical Thinking

I have commented previously (here, here, and here) about how bosses want new hires to possess good critical thinking skills. But, due to a lack of critical thinking, bosses mistakenly ask for critical thinking when what they really want is people who can solve problems.

It looks like bosses did not learn much about critical thinking in college or graduate school. While critical thinking should be part of problem-solving, problems can be solved (albeit poorly) without critical thinking. That is what most bosses want. The phrase, “Just fix it; I don’t care how you do it,” sums it up nicely.

Most bosses want young people who have been trained by their professors in how to solve small problems within their work area, to relieve burdens on management. What they have difficulty realizing is that many of these problems are created by bad policies and poor management decisions. New hires, therefore, are expected to clean up after management’s messes, among their other duties.

Most bosses do not want young people to think critically about the their decisions and speak truth to power. New hires will get in trouble for doing that. Bosses do not want young employees (or anyone else) to critique their decisions, because they would find many (most?) decisions are made with a lack of evidence, misinterpretation of evidence, the use of illogical thinking, conformation bias, closed-minded rationalizations, insufficient analysis, etc.

In Lean management, employees are taught to recognize and correct problems using structured problem-solving processes such as PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen, all of which are derivatives of the scientific method, which, of course, require critical thinking. The difference is that organizations whose leaders understand and practice Lean correctly, foster a no-blame and open communication environment so that any employee, new or not, can speak truth to power. And, management takes responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills through daily coaching.

Professors, such as myself, who teach PDCA, A3 reports, and kaizen give students the problem-solving skills that employers want. The difference is that most leaders do not understand and practice Lean correctly (if at all), and foster a blame environment that shuts down information flow so that employees cannot speak truth to power. New hires learn this quickly. Predictably, management does not take responsibility for developing and improving employees’ problem-solving skills. Employees must develop it themselves, if they wish to do so.

Professors can teach students the problem-solving methods that managers in industry want, but it is up to managers to develop that skill into something more than rote problem-solving devoid of critical thinking.

Quality Education Charade

It seems whenever a college or university is criticized for tuition increases, the defense given is: “This allows us to provide the high-quality education that students and families deserve.” Everyone accepts that without question – with no critical thinking. Hmmm.

Of course, quality in higher education is loosely defined and poorly measured. Despite this, the near-universal claim by colleges and universities that the education they offer is “high quality” bears close scrutiny. Fundamentally, any service that is offered via batch-and-queue processes will be not only low quality, but also high cost compared to what it could be if the service was offered via flow (smaller batches, and no queues).

My experience in developing Lean Teaching and the simple data that I have collected suggest that higher education (both academic and administrative processes, must be significantly improved before one can claim it is “high quality.” Then, continuously improved thereafter.

Have a look at my data and I think you will see that the claim of “high quality” is based more on perception than on facts:

Of course, my surveys should be replicated on a larger scale to test the accuracy of the findings. Nevertheless, I am certain they are directionally correct and identify real problems large and small that degrade the quality of higher education and increase its costs.

But, in order to improve, one has to recognize the existence of problems. College and university administrators cannot lead improvement if they don’t now about problems. The question, then, is why don’t they know about these problems?

In most cases, there is some sort of organizational dysfunction that prevents leaders from seeing problems, plus a perception that the rudimentary problems identified in my surveys were corrected long ago. Invariably, along with that are some forward-looking initiatives that are perceived as vital to the success of the institution, and which take precedence over backward-looking recurring process problems that negatively affect students, payers, faculty, and staff.

In other words, there is a remarkable lack of critical thinking in higher education. It is ironic that segments of higher education could fail due to a lack of critical thinking. It is further evidence that they have graduated defective products, for they are victims of the system that they have perpetuated.

Education and Satisfaction

Are education and student satisfaction antithetical, as is argued in this article written by Prof. Joanna Williams in Times Higher Education (16 October 2014)? The premise is that resources are expended on facilities and services to ensure student satisfaction erodes the authority and importance of academic work and subject matter knowledge.

Of course, there is some truth in the article. However, as readers of this blog know well, the quality of teaching and value of higher education can be greatly improved, while the prevalence of teaching errors means that only a small percent of professors are truly good at what they do.

This passage in the article caught my eye:

“Speak to students, and many say they resent being treated as customers. They do not want people to think they ‘bought’ their degree. Their desire to reject the label of ‘customer’ reflects a desire to work hard and learn.”

In my experience, students do think of themselves as customers and expect better administrative and academic services for the tuition and fees that they pay. Though, I have not yet come across students in public higher education who have expressed a concern of the appearance that their degree has been bought.

I understand the frustration expressed in the article, which has more to do with the diversion of resources from academics for facilities and services. In my own university, academic advising performed by full-time staff advisors is seen as critical for helping students chose their major area of study, financial aid, course scheduling, progression through their program of study, and graduation. Perhaps so. With the exception of choosing a major and financial aid, the staff function is duplicates the academic advising that professors conduct twice a year with undergraduate students in their department.

advising_jobs1So, while department chairs and faculty are unsuccessful in obtaining new faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers, the administration budgets over $9,000,000 to more than double the number of full-time advising staff as shown in the image to the right (click here for source p.84; red boxes are mine).

This request to hire an additional 54 people, 15 of which would be located at my campus (at a cost of $969,994), has a far better chance at being funded than just one additional revenue-generating faculty line in my department to support our undergraduate manufacturing management and graduate technology management programs.

This is the kind of management decision that drive faculty nuts.

Of course, there is no effort to understand and improve the advising processes performed by staff and faculty, as Lean thinkers would do. That will surely lead to a doubling in student advising capacity for both staff and faculty, while greatly improving quality and significantly reducing the time to takes to advise students. That would save $9,000,000, thereby reducing the cost of higher education. Or, much of the $9,000,000 could be used to fund revenue-generating faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers.

Education and student satisfaction are antithetical to faculty who don’t know Lean. For those that do, education and student satisfaction must go together for the good of all. To argue otherwise will cause delays in improvement and worsen higher education’s many problems.

Enrollment Goals and Tuition Revenue

A recent article in The Chronicle for High EducationGoals for Enrollment and Tuition Revenue Elude Many Colleges” (13 October 2014, subscription required), gives interesting insights on the simplistic and unimaginative actions taken by colleges and universities when enrollment goals and tuition revenue are not met.

che_imageThe graphic to the right is from the article (click to enlarge). The actions taken are (approximately in order of the number of institutions taking said actions):

  • Improve enrollment-management operations
  • Start new programs to attract students
  • Put more resources into marketing
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs
  • Reduce campus services or operations
  • Raise discount rates

The survey limited responses to these seven items. Perhaps people are doing other things as well, but these are likely to be the focus areas. Let’s deconstruct these and compare it to how a Lean organization would deal with the challenge of meeting enrollment (sales) and tuition (revenue) goals.

Conventional Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is results-focused, i.e. do whatever you can to solve today’s problem, worry about tomorrow’s problems later.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to hire people (spend money) and improve a few key processes in an ad-hoc manner.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to make informed guesses as to at what students and industry wants.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to hire people and spend money.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to throw away past investments because they do not deliver a financial return at the present time.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs means to reduce costs by getting rid of people.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to reduce costs by reducing or outsourcing campus services or operations.
  • Raise discount rates means to spend money.

Lean Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is process and results-focused. People would use of structured problem-solving processes (i.e. the scientific method) and kaizen (“spend ideas, not money”), to improve the results for today and establish a foundation for continuous improvement in order to respond effectively to tomorrow’s problems.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to carefully identify new areas of study based on quantitative and qualitative data, involving students, payers, and employers.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to understand the causes of low enrollment and improve the the academic programs prior to combining or eliminating them; involve key stakeholders in the process.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs are the last resort, and signifies that senior administrators (president and provost) have failed and must resign.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to identify services and operations seen as valuable by students, payers, and employers and improve them.
  • Raise discount rates means means to improve the value proposition for students, payers, and employers before resorting to discounts (and perhaps even raise prices if the perception of value is great).

I hope that this example effectively illustrates the difference between conventional management and Lean management, and how Lean is much better suited for dealing with the kinds of common problems that educational institutions face.