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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Liberal Arts

February 09

Skills and Youth

What with the Advisory Council on Growth’s paper on skills, and the Expert Panel on Youth Employment wrapping up, public policy is suddenly back to a focus on skills – and in particular what skills youth should have.  So, let’s talk about that.

While some in the federal government will state forcefully that they are not – repeat NOT- going to be like the previous government and tell students what fields they should study (read: welding), literally every time skills come up they start babbling about coding, tech and whatnot.  So as near as I can tell, this government is just as directive about skills as the previous one, it’s just that a) they’re pushing a different set of skills and b) they aren’t actively trashing programs of study they see as less valuable, the way the Tories did with sociology.

The Liberals’ urge to get everyone tech-ing is understandable, if shallow.  What’s the one part of the youth labour market where kids are doing better than ever?  Engineering and computer science.  Are tech-enabled industries the wave of the future?  Well, kinda, depending on your definition of what that means.  But let’s think a little bit more about what that means.

Consider what I would call “hard” tech skills: the people who actually do code or computer science for a living. There’s just not that many of them around.  And here’s a secret: even if Canada becomes some kind of massive tech haven, there still won’t be that many around.  It’s simply not a high-employment industry.  Defining it really ambitiously and assuming high rates of growth, these jobs might equal five percent of the labor force.  So, yeah, let’s increase the size of engineering and CS programs, a bit.  But that’s not a skills solution for the economy as a whole.  We need something for the other 95% of the population.

Now, there’s a broader set of tech skills that matter to a broader subsection of the population.  Some people call these “coding skills” but it’s actually closer to digital literacy.  Basically, people who work with databases all the time – whether they are in accounting or sales or advertising or what have you – can become more productive if they better understand the logic behind databases and have some understanding of how algorithms might improve their use.  Artists and designers can command higher salaries if they have some digital skills.  To be clear – this doesn’t mean we need more credentials in these areas.  It means we need more people in the workforce who possess thee skills as part of their toolkit.  They could learn this stuff through coding schools or “bootcamps”, or maybe more colleges and universities could integrate these skills into existing programs but more likely most people are going to acquire these skills informally.  Which is fine, as long as they have them.

But still, put those two sets of tech skills together and you’re covering maybe a quarter of the labour force.  And that’s not good enough.  What are we going to do for everyone else?

No one has a crystal ball that can help understand what jobs of the future look like.  But it does seem the case that if technology is going to be as disruptive as the tech-boosters think it will be, then a lot of jobs are going to be automated.  In fact, human employment will be increasingly be concentrated in things that computers or robots cannot do.  And in the main, those are either jobs that require a wide variety of physical skills or jobs that involve judgement and empathy.  Last year, Geoff Colvin wrote a book on this subject called Humans are Underrated, which is worth reading if you’re into this topic.

Put it this way.  We’ve got a minority of our future workers who will be working hard to make better robots and algorithms to do things humans can’t do (at least not near the price computers can do it).  But we’re also going to have a majority of our future workers who are going to have to work hard at making themselves unreplaceable by machines by employing very human skills like empathy and narrative.  Why in the name of all that’s holy would we focus our energies just on the first group of workers?  Why not acknowledge what’s actually happening in the labour market and say: we’re going to work on both?

A final point about skills and youth.  As I noted back here something really does seem to have changed in the labour market after 2008.  Full-time enrolment rates in particular have shifted downwards – but this is much more pronounced among the younger age groups (15-19) than it is among older ones (25-29).  This is consistent with a theory of skills-biased technological change: younger people have fewer skills than older ones.  But be careful here in equating the acquisition of skills with obtaining an education.  Employers want people who can get a job done: by and large when they talk about “skills shortages” what they actually mean is “experienced worker shortages”, because to them acquired tacit knowledge matter at least as much formally-acquired knowledge.   To put that a little more concisely: it’s not just that education is more important than ever, but experience is also more important than ever, especially for young people.

I know the Expert Panel will be thinking about these issues, because they kindly invited me to a roundtable event last week and we talked about all this (thanks, Vass!).  But the people who really need to be thinking about these issues are colleges and universities – perhaps more the latter than the former.  Study after study for the last two decades have shown that the number one reason students attend university is to get a god job.

As I’ve just run through, jobs are about experience and skills.  Could be tech skills, could be empathy/narrative skills: either is fine.  Slowly, institutions are coming around to the idea that experience matters and so work-integrated learning is expanding.  Great.  Hard tech skills?  We’ve got a lot of that covered.  Integrating second-level tech skills into other programs in Arts, Science and business.  Getting there (in some places, anyway).  But the narrative/empathy stuff?  I know some people blather on about how humanities give you these skills somehow by osmosis, but do they really?  Who’s checking?  How is it being measured?  And why on earth would we want to limit that stuff to the Liberal Arts anyway?

If I were a university President, these are the kinds of things I’d be asking my Deans to think about.

April 06

Fuzzy Skills

About a month ago, Universities Canada held a meeting to talk up the Liberal Arts.  I wasn’t there, and can only go by what I saw on twitter and what I can glean from this University Affairs article which you can read here.  But if the conversation was actually anything like what the sub-head suggests it was (we need better stories!), I’m not impressed.

At one level, “we need better stories” is always true.  Good communication is always worthwhile.  But if you claim that’s all you need then basically you’re saying that actual changes in practices are not necessary. We here in academia are fine, it’s you ignorant lot out there who are the problem – and once we tell better stories, you will see the light.   It’s arrogant, frankly.  More introspection about needed pedgagogical changes and less “we need better stories”, please (I note that Mount Allison’s Robert Campbell at least took that tack – good on him).

Moreover if you look at the “good” stories that Arts faculties want to tell, you’ll find they’re pretty much all about how various social scientists have changed public policy.  Very little is about the humanities (a result perhaps of the usual Canadian confusion about the distinction between “Arts”, “Liberal Arts” and “Humanities”).  At best, you get some vague words about how humanities promotes “soft skills”, which frankly isn’t very helpful.  Partly that’s because “soft skills” as a term is somewhat gendered (and thus likely to turn off males) and partly because there’s very little evidence that humanities education does much to foster that cluster of personality traits, social graces, and all that other stuff which clusters around “emotional intelligence”.  It’s possible – maybe even likely – that humanities graduates might possess these skills, but that may simply be a question of who chooses to enter these fields rather than what skills get developed by the disciplines.

Yet I think there is a simple and unambiguous way to sell the humanities: they are not about soft skills,   they are about “fuzzy skills”.    They are about ambiguity.  They are about pattern recognition.  They are about developing and testing hypotheses in areas of human affairs where evidence is always partial and never clear-cut.  Humanities graduates are not about following rules; they are about interpreting rules when the context changes.  

And you know what?  Doing that kind of interpretation well is *hard*.  The worst mistake the humanities have ever made is accepting the public impression that not being an “exact” science means humanities are “easy”.  They are not.  Good work in the humanities is hard precisely because there are many possible answers to a question.  The difficulty lies in sifting the more plausible from the less plausible (unless of course you dive completely into the post-modernist “I’m OK you’re OK” intellectual rathole where every answer is equally correct; then humanities is just nonsense). 

Think about the world of espionage and intelligence: this is extraordinarily difficult work precisely because we never have enough information and empathy to know exactly what a target is thinking or might be doing.  But it is precisely the synthesis of information from across a wide range of disciplines, and the close reading of texts – what we used to call philology-  that allows us to make competent guesses.  Quantitative data analysis is useful in this (and lord knows we probably shouldn’t let humanities students graduates without some understanding of statistics and probability); but so too are the basic “fuzzy skills” taught in humanities programs.  When business talks about “critical thinking” skills it is precisely this kind of analysis and decision-making, writ small, that they are talking about.

I think that’s a pretty good story for the humanities.  The problem is that for these good stories to work, humanities faculties have to live up to them.  Simply telling a good story isn’t enough. Curricula (and more importantly assessment) need to be re-designed in order to show how these fuzzy skills are actually being taught and absorbed.  No more assuming students get these non-disciplinary skills by osmosis because “everybody knows” that’s what humanities do.  Design for fuzzy skills.  Incorporate them.  Measure them.

And then you’ll have both a good story and a good reality.  That would be real and welcome progress.

December 04

Defending Liberal Arts: Try Using Data

A few weeks back, I wrote about the Liberals Arts/humanities, and some really bad arguments both for and against them.  As usual when I write these, I got a lot of feedback to the effect of: “well, how would you defend the Liberal Arts, smart guy”?  Which, you know, fair enough.  So, here’s my answer.

The humanities, at root, are about pattern recognition in the same way that the sciences and the social sciences are: they just seek patterns in different areas of human affairs – in music, in literature, and in the narrative of history.  And though humanities cannot test hypotheses about patterns using the same kinds of experimental methods as elsewhere, they can nevertheless promote greater understanding of thorough synthesis.  Or, to paraphrase William Cronon’s famous essay, the humanities are about making connections, only connections.  In a networked world, that’s a valuable skill.

None of this, to me, is in doubt.  What is in doubt is whether this promise made by the humanities and Liberal Arts is actually delivered upon.  Other disciplines synthesize and make connections, too.  They promote critical thinking (the idea that other disciplines, disciplines founded on the scientific method, don’t promote critical thinking is the most arrogant and stupid canard promoted by people in the humanities).  What the humanities desperately need is some proof that what they claim is true is, in fact, true.  They need some data.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at the Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts education.  This was an elaborate, longitudinal, multi-institutional study to look at how students in liberal arts programs develop over time.  Students took a battery of tests – on critical reasoning, intercultural effectiveness, moral character, leadership, etc. – at various points in their academic career to see the effects of Liberal Arts teaching, holding constant the effects of things like gender, age, race, prior GPA, etc.  You can read about the results here – and do read them, because it is an interesting study.

At one level, the results are pretty much what we always thought: students do better if they are in classes where the teaching is clear and well-organized, and they learn more where they are challenged to do things, like applying theories to practical problems in new contexts, or integrating ideas from different courses in a project, or engaging in reflective learning.  And as can be seen here in the summary of results, the biggest positive effects of liberal arts education are on moral reasoning, critical thinking, and leadership skills (academic motivation, unfortunately, actually seems to go down over time).

So: mostly good for Liberal Arts/humanities, right?  Not quite.  Let me quote the most interesting bit: the research found that “even with controls for student pre-college characteristics and academic major, students attending liberal arts colleges (as compared to their peers at research universities and regional institutions) reported significantly higher levels of clarity and organization in the instruction they received, as well as a significantly higher frequency of experiences on all three of the deep-learning scales.”  In other words, the effects of Liberal Arts on students in Liberal Arts colleges are significantly greater than the effects on students studying similar programs in other, larger institutions.  That is to say, it’s the teaching environment and teaching practices, not the subject matter itself, which seems to make more of a difference.

Now, this does not suggest that Liberal Arts/humanities can’t deliver those kinds of benefits at larger universities; it’s just to say that for it to deliver those benefits, the focus needs to be on providing the subject matter using quite specific teaching practices and – not to beat around the bush – keeping class sizes down (which may in turn have implications for teaching loads and research activity, but that’s another story).

There are some good stories for the Liberal Arts in the Wabash data, and some not so good stories.  But the point is, there is data.  There are some actual facts and insights that can be used to improve programs, to make them better at producing well-rounded critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, the inquiry itself is what’s important.  Humanities’ biggest problem isn’t that it’s got nothing to sell; it’s that too frequently they act like they have nothing to learn.  If more institutions adopted Wabash-like approaches, and acted upon them, my guess is the Liberal Arts would get a lot more respect than they currently do.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

May 26

Game-Changing Institutional Alliances

A couple of weeks ago, Arizona State University and EdX announced an institutional tie-up, which received a fair bit of publicity.  Basically, the deal was that EdX – a well-known MOOC platform, owned jointly by Harvard and MIT – would help ASU put an undisclosed (but judging by the rollout, somewhere between 15 and 20) number of its big first-year courses online.  There were two startling things about this announcement:

1)      The MOOCs are not time-delimited, requiring students to start and move ahead synchronously.  It is much more an on-demand learning system;

2)      Arizona state is prepared to offer actual credit – up to one year’s worth – to students who complete the courses, provided they pay a fee to do so.

The value proposition here is simple: give higher education a try at no, or minimal, cost; if you do well, pay the fee, get the credit, and use the credit at ASU, or transfer it to anywhere in the world (ASU is promising not to indicate whether the credits were delivered in person or online, since “they are identical”).  ASU is calling this the Global Freshman Academy, with the implication being that people from around the world will tryout higher education in this way.

Some MOOC-skeptics like Johnathan Rees are going bananas, calling this the apocalypse, because now MOOCs are actually going to be for credit.  I’m not sold on this.  The price-per-credit on these courses isn’t cheap, isn’t covered by student aid, and it’s not entirely clear to me why you’d want to go after 30 credits in this way, when there’s no guarantee any other institution is going to accept them.  In short, I’m not sure the demand for this is actually there.  Similar projects – albeit with distinctly less-slick marketing – have already failed spectacularly at the University of California and the University of Illinois.

But there’s another project out there that, despite receiving less publicity, is probably more important, and that’s the tie-up between Harvard and Amherst.  Amherst is a liberal Arts college, and like arts colleges (and for that matter, Arts faculties everywhere), it sees the value in helping students get some Business education at the same time.  But rather than develop its own business capabilities, it has decided to outsource the whole thing to Harvard (via, again, EdX).  The Cambridge institution supplies the content, but students who finish the courses receive Amherst credit.

This full-on outsourcing of the production of internal credits is fascinating for a couple of reasons, and not just because Amherst famously called a time-out on MOOCs two years ago.  It’s fascinating from a management viewpoint simply because it opens up possibilities for institutions to extend programming in certain fields, without necessarily incurring the permanent cost increases that would be entailed in hiring tenured staff.

It’s also fascinating from a branding/reputation point of view.  For a deal like this to work, you need to have an institution of lesser prestige decide that it has more to gain by outsourcing part of its work to a more prestigious institution.  And you have to have a more-prestigious institution that is prepared to gamble its own reputation by associating itself with a lesser-prestige institution.  Harvard is unlikely to do this kind of deal with Southwestern North Carolina State, for instance, but it could easily do it with any Tier 1 Liberal Arts School.

In Canada, you can imagine where this kind of thing might be headed.  UBC, McGill, and U of T (all of which are charter members of EdX) are all in a position to offer these kind of deals to comprehensive universities (and some of the more selective undergraduate schools, like Mount Allison).  One can also see how this kind of association might be useful from the smaller institution’s perspective:  Acadia finds it hard to hold on to students in the face of competition from Dalhousie, which can simply out-compete them on breadth of offerings?  Why not do a deal with McGill to increase its own breadth of courses?

More radically, this could be a way to continue to offer classes in fields of study where numbers at any single institution aren’t very large, and hence are quite expensive to offer?  Why not let UBC offer zoology at institutions across the country?  What’s to stop Alberta and Toronto being near-monopolistic providers of Slavic Language courses to the whole country?

It’s not all going to happen tomorrow, of course: higher education is, after all, the single most conservative industry in the world.  But this kind of alliance has the potential to produce far-ranging effects, especially in the ways institutions choose to specialize and focus their own offerings.  Harvard says it has several more Amherst-like deals in the pipeline.  Watch this space.

April 17

Spring 2015 Reading List

Some notes on books recently read:

University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century, by Peter MacKinnon.  I really wanted to like this book before I started it.  Since I started working in this field, few university Presidents have had such a profound positive effect on their institution as Peter McKinnon did at the University of Saskatchewan.  And how can you not love someone who says stuff like: “weak academic departments tend to perpetuate themselves because of their reluctance to apply standards higher than they see reflected in themselves”?

That said, the book is a bit uneven.  Where he has real passion and a good story to tell from his time at the University of Saskatchewan (e.g. chapters on collective bargaining and tenure), he’s flat-out great.  Where he has less passion, and the narrative is mostly stitched together from things like AUCC reports, it’s much less compelling.  And I’m not 100% sure he needed to take such a shot as his successor, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, over the Buckingham affair.  Still, worth a read.  Buy it.

Designing the New American University, by Michael Crow and William Dabars.  As with MacKinnon’s work, I really wanted to like this book before I started it.  The re-think of the relationships between department and faculties at Arizona State under Crow’s watch is quite intriguing (see this Change article from 2009), and is that rare thing in higher education: a genuinely innovative model.  And how can you not love an American university President who thinks the main problem of elite American universities is that they aren’t enough like elite Canadian universities (i.e. large)?

The problem is, this book – co-authored with University of Arizona historian William Dabars – is a tedious slog.  Very little of it is actually about ASU; far, far too many pages are devoted to a history of higher education, which breaks little new ground and is written in a plodding, name-dropping style that repeatedly had me wishing to hurl the book across the room.  There are a few interesting bits in chapters 5 and 7 on ASU, but even then Crow talks a lot about the fabulous results ASU has achieved, while saying very little about the practical tactics of how ASU achieved a re-conceptualization  (which is what any sane editor would have told them was the interesting bit).  Anyways, save your money, skip this book, and read this free download of articles about ASU instead.

Locus of Authority, by William Bowen and E.M Tobin.  I had no particular reason to think I would like this book, because I find former Princeton President William Bowen’s writing style to be that of a tedious blowhard.  That said, it actually ended up being a light and interesting history of governance in American universities, combined with an argument that governance today is in not bad shape, except that professors should on no account have any control over whether the courses they offer are in-person or online.  If this seems like an oddly specific preoccupation, you need to know Bowen’s consultancy outfit is really big on online delivery.  Buy it if you’re a governance freak, don’t if you’re not.

Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in Americaby Jeffrey Docking with Carman Curton.  I had no idea what to think of this book, because I’d never heard of Jeffrey Docking of Adrian College, the small liberal arts school in Michigan where he is President.  Since I work with some small institutions, the book’s subtitle is what attracted me.  According to Docking, the answer to saving small liberal arts colleges is “more Div III football”.

I was a bit befuddled by this, but this article actually makes the case pretty simply: kids in the US will pay a lot of money to be part of a sports team, and since Div III sports are cheap (no scholarships), this actually works out pretty well for institutions  What Docking is really saying, of course, is that the answer to shortages of funds is: more students.  At almost any cost, you need more students.  In other words, the way to save small liberal arts colleges is to make them somewhat larger liberal arts colleges.  This would not come as a surprise to any of our U4 universities (Bishop’s, Mount Allison, Acadia, St. FX); they’ve been doing this for years, only without the benefit of the $25,000 tuitions US Liberal Arts colleges can demand.  Buy this book if you for some reason are proposing an Athletics-led strategic enrolment plan; otherwise, just know that there is a literature on Athletics-led strategic enrolment plans.

Have a good weekend.

November 24

The Arts Problem(s)

There’s no polite way to say this: Canadian universities have an Arts problem.

At the heart of institutions’ looming fiscal problems is their inability to convince major customer groups (government, students) to pay the desired price for the product they’re offering.  The reason for this, mainly, is the perception that the product on offer is not value-for-money.  Part of this is due to our ludicrously opaque student aid systems, which lead students and families and politicians into thinking that net tuition is a heck of a lot higher than it actually is (see here for more on that, or here for the full report).  But part of it also has to do with the fact that people are under the impression that returns on education ain’t what they used to be.

That’s not entirely fair, of course.   The recession is responsible for most of the downturn in graduate jobs, not some sudden change in what the market “wants” in terms of skills.  And it’s not even true that returns are falling for all fields of study: some have held up relatively well in recent years.  But it is a problem in Arts.  Look what data from the annual survey of Ontario Graduates says: though employment rates remain high, the actual monetary returns are very bad at the moment – down roughly 20% in real terms over the past few years.

Figure 1: Average Income (in $2013) Two Years After Graduation, Ontario Graduating Classes from 2003-2011, Selected Disciplines

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Not surprisingly, students are voting with their feet.  Look at the pattern of applications by program in Ontario: after a series of small declines in Arts, last year saw a decline of 10%.

Figure 2: Share of Total Applications to Ontario Universities, by Selected Fields of Study, 2003-14

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The point here is that, increasingly, the perception of Arts is that they aren’t very useful.  And yes, it’s annoying that people want to reduce education to considerations of short-term employment, but it is what it is.  When we ask people to pay so much (either privately or via tax dollars), people expect results, and they aren’t seeing them.

So something has to change in the Arts; not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all of higher education, which is being tarred with the same brush.  And that something is a greater focus on employability.

Now, even saying something like that causes paroxysm among some: “I’m not going to create cannon-fodder for the knowledge economy, etc. etc.”  But as I’ve said before, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of talented academics to devise a curriculum that meets both the traditional aims of a liberal arts degree, and that places more emphasis on employability skills (what is the ability to critically appraise arguments, appreciate complex chains of causation, and clear and effective writing if not employability skills?).  Indeed, I’ve even suggested there are some good models available from fields like medicine to do exactly this.

But if fixing the Arts was as simple as that, it probably would have happened already.  The biggest problem with Arts isn’t that the curriculum is difficult to alter, it’s that to a large extent curriculum simply doesn’t exist.  For decades, Arts faculties in North America have been headed inexorably towards a “buffet”, where if you take a few courses from column A, a few from column B, and we’ll call it a degree as long as the credit hours line-up.  Or, more bluntly, there is no curriculum, there’s just a bunch of courses.  This is completely unlike Arts faculties in the rest of the world, where course choice is more limited and degrees are much more structured.

So here’s the real issue: the preliminary work required to improve curriculum – that is, getting folks to realize there’s a curriculum in the first place – is therefore pretty massive.  And this is why it’s likely that, even though Arts needs to improve quickly to stem declining enrolments, it’s unlikely that change will actually occur quickly.

In the best of all worlds, this is a task people should have started working on years ago.  But as they say, the second-best time to start anything is now.  We should roll up our sleeves and get cracking.

September 29

Differentiation and Branding From the Student Perspective

One question that always comes up (or should come up, anyway) in discussions of university branding and positioning is: “how different is our institution, really”?  Well, for a few years, when we ran the Globe and Mail Canadian University Report survey, we used to ask students questions that would allow us to see how different students thought their university was.  The results were… interesting.

We asked students to locate their institution on an 11-point double-ended scale.  Did they think their institution was more focussed on graduate students or undergraduates?  Was it focussed on a couple of key fields of study, or more spread out?  Focussed on global issues or local ones?  Was it open to new ideas, or cautious about them? Did students have to be self-sufficient, or was the institution a nurturing one?  Was the curriculum more theoretical or applied? Was the student body homogeneous or diverse?  And, broadly, was it professor-centred or student-centred?  We could then plot their answers on a spidergram to show how institutions differed from one another.  What we found was an interesting degree of clustering, which allowed us to make specific categorizations of institutions.

The most definable groups of institutions were what we called the Liberal Arts schools – mostly small schools where students described their institution as undergrad-focussed, very nurturing, and not focussed on a particular field of study.  This includes the usual suspects at Acadia, Mt. Allison. St. FX, but also the religious schools (e.g. Redeemer, Trinity Western), the Western Colleges (Brescia, Huron, King’s) and Guelph (but not Trent).  The other big clustering of schools were what we called the “graduate-focussed schools”.  This was basically the U-15, minus McGill, U of T St. George (though the other U of T campuses qualified), Waterloo, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, but including Carleton, SFU and Concordia.  These two groups position themselves on the spidergram as follows:

Figure 1: Positioning Results for “Graduate” and “Liberal Arts” Schools

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Note: The further a line is to the edge of the spidergram, the more the value tends towards the first word in the axis description (e.g. “graduate” rather than “undergraduate”).

There were a number of individual schools that had very distinct profiles.  Waterloo, for instance, looks entirely unlike every other institution. Students there are much more likely to describe their institution as open to change (a trait which is significantly correlated with student satisfaction), and much more likely to describe their institution as being “focussed” on a few key areas.  OCAD University was by far the most likely to be described as having an applied curriculum and a student-centred program.  McGIll and Toronto (St. George) had weirdly identical results (i.e. their students described them in *exactly* the same terms), describing them as being much more global, much more graduate focussed, and much more sink-or-swim (i.e. NOT nurturing) than other schools.

Figure 2: Positioning Results for OCAD University, University of Waterloo and McGill/University of Toronto (St. George)

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Now, here’s the important bit.  The results from every other school in the country, from Trent to Saint Mary’s, to Fraser Valley, to Saskatchewan and Manitoba – were basically one big lump.  None of these institutions really stood out in any way – basically, students just described these places as “school”.  None had any real distinguishing characteristics on which you could build a sensible brand.  If they had a colour, they would be beige.

If you view higher education as one more social service where the goal is provide a uniform product to students everywhere, this is a good thing.  But if you think universities should be distinct entities, catering to varying niche tastes that evolve over time, it’s a pretty depressing picture.

November 20

Intelligent Deployment of MOOCs

Since the likelihood is that venture-capital funded MOOCs are going to fade out, and (in one way or another) the format is going to come more closely under the control of universities, it’s worth thinking more about where exactly MOOCs can be of greatest use within higher education systems.

The basic challenge is that MOOCs are individual courses, but what matters for most students is a degree.  The only way MOOCs genuinely make sense as part of a higher education system (as opposed to being a stand-alone edutainment product) is if they can be arranged in such a way as to be part of a larger curriculum.  The key issue, then, is how to integrate MOOCs into such a framework.

I think at the moment there are two settings in which this is both possible and desirable.  The first, which was recently profiled in the Chronicle, is exemplified by a project called Kepler in Rwanda.  The project advises students on how to put together a set of MOOCs in such a way that they can pass challenge exams for competency-based degrees, such as those offered by places like Southern New Hampshire State.  The MOOCs can be from anywhere; the value-added role of the institutions is to create a curriculum out of the many hundreds of MOOCs on offer, and to certify that learning has occurred.  This isn’t a model that would be especially appealing to North American students, but it could work in much of Africa and Asia where the local alternatives are weak.

The second setting is North American Liberal Arts colleges.  Yes, really.  Liberal Arts’ schools’ Achilles heel is scale; when you’ve only got 100-200 faculty, it’s tough to offer anything like a full range of courses.  Now, imagine you really want to offer a course on Renaissance Art, but you simply can’t afford permanent faculty with that degree of specialization.  Well, why not allow a MOOC for credit (assuming there’s already a decent one out there)?  That is, use the MOOC as a base, but have your own instructors (possibly sessionals) run discussion sessions, and also set and grade a test at the end?  In this scenario, the institution’s role would be to guide discussions and, as in Kepler, to certify the learning – but the main content provision would be unbundled and outsourced.  It’s not ideal, perhaps, but this kind of approach would allow small, cash-strapped institutions to maintain or expand their breadth at reasonable cost – and it could preserve the idea that intense discussions are the core of Liberal Arts.

(Why not do this at larger schools, too?  No reason, but by definition if they are larger they probably have more staff to start with, and hence fewer gaps in the curriculum).

The key in both cases, as you can see, is that MOOCs themselves need to be unbundled.  They have (the better ones do anyway) plenty of good qualities as learning tools,  but outside math-based disciplines, where right and wrong answers can be identified by machines, no one thinks MOOC assessment mechanisms are worth a damn.  Putting that part of the learning process back in institutions’ hands is key to making MOOCs fit for purpose.

December 06

The Benefits of Liberal Arts: Are Humanities Fit for Purpose?

The “liberal” in “liberal arts” derives from the latin root for “free,” but not the way that most people think. The medieval Liberal Arts were not free in the sense that they promoted freedom or free thinking, but rather in the sense that it was the education that “free” people (i.e., the rich) chose to pursue. The term connotes conspicuous consumption rather than freedom.

Because Liberal Arts – and in particular the humanities – were always the preserve of the elite, they have retained an aura of providing people with “higher skills”: creativity, critical thinking, cultural awareness, problem solving, communication skills, and so forth. But in the modern university, this puts teachers in the Liberal Arts in a bit of an anomalous position. Think about this for a bit: we get engineers to teach engineering, doctors to teach medicine. But we leave creativity, critical thinking and problem solving to… classicists? English teachers? It is not belittling these disciplines in the slightest to ask why it is that we think that people trained in these areas have some gifts for imparting creativity, etc., that professors trained in other disciplines do not.

Obviously, humanities disciplines do inculcate these skills to some extent. The work of Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, bleak as it generally is, makes it pretty clear that students in these disciplines seem to have better educational outcomes in terms of cognitive development. Whether that’s due to something innate in the disciplines or something innate about the kinds of young people who enrol in these courses is a bit of an open question. At best, you can say that creativity, critical thinking, etc., are poorly-understood epiphenomena of the humanities.

I’m fairly sure we can do better than this. Let’s say there is something innate in humanities disciplines that promote critical thinking, etc. If what we care about is the outcomes, rather than mastery of the disciplines themselves, shouldn’t we design curricula specifically around these outcomes? Shouldn’t professors in these disciplines receive instruction at some point in how to develop these skills?

Of course, the problem is that at Canadian institutions most of our Arts faculties offer students smorgasboards of courses rather than curricula per se. And many professors would be offended at the notion that they are primarily in the business of teaching transferable skills rather than teaching mastery of a discipline. Yet, justifying the Arts in terms of precisely these transferable skills has become routine.

It raises an inevitable question: if that’s the justification for the liberal arts and humanities, is the professoriate in these fields actually fit for purpose?

Geneviève Bergeron
Hélène Colgan
Nathalie Croteau
Barbara Daigneault
Anne-Marie Edward
Maud Haviernick
Maryse Laganière
Maryse Leclair
Anne-Marie Lemay
Sonia Pelletier
Michèle Richard
Annie St-Arneault
Annie Turcotte
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

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