Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bob Zemsky: Mission-sensitive and market-smart universities?

Bob Zemsky is Chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education and author of Making Reform Work, which was written in response to the disappointing outcome of the Spelling Commission (I don't know what this is).

People have been trying to reform higher education for decades (read "A Nation at Risk"), and Zemsky seems to have been involved in higher ed policy since the 1970s.  But I don't know where this speech is going...

Maybe about the still-unresolved need to integrate the courses and the faculty into a well designed coherent curriculum.  This problem, clearly identified 25 years ago, hasn't been solved.  Will it ever be?  The "money bet", a Las Vegas term referring to the most probable expectation, is that no, it won't (because it hasn't in 25 years).

But maybe, he says, this is the moment when the money bet is wrong.  The recession means that the public money isn't coming in to the public universities as it used to.  It's also sending the public universities more students (teach more with less), and the extra students are not as well prepared as the usual ones.

The other force for change is what we're finally learning about learning.  Read "The Art of Changing the Brain".  Learning is physical changes in the brain, not just philosophical and metaphorical.  For example, neurosciences tells us that we can't tell students to forget what they already know - instead we have to start by having them tell us what they already 'know'.

We need to learn from the for-profit institutions (the interesting ones, not the sleazy ones):  Why are they succeeding?  Unlike us, they put real money into courses at the front end, and the people who teach don't own the curricula.  Thus their transfer system works seamlessly, whereas ours doesn't.  Professional Masters degrees are becoming a big target for them.  Practical problems of the public universities:  too many students don't finish, and teaching costs too much.

"It's the curriculum, stupid!"  Not under-enrolled courses but over-enrolled students.  Students graduate with 145 credits in programs with 120-credits.  What's wrong?  Consider Oshkosh University.  It gets 1/3 of their students from community colleges, but the credits don't transfer to the courses they need (not even the 'general education' requirements.  The curriculum requirements are driven by inter-departmental turf wars and by what faculty want to teach, not by what the students need.  Faculty and departments need to stop being independent contractors; "we have to return to collective action."

We need to get rid of the curricular smorgasbord, even though both the students and the faculty like it.  Students don't connect the learning from different courses, and neither do we.

How to end the era of faculty as independent contractors?  He likes collective action by the faculty rather than profit-driven corporate-style decisions.


Undergraduate programs in engineering have better curricula, better faculty teamwork and good learning 'closure' at the end of the program, and might be good models (build on what is working).  Also architecture, nursing, and small business schools.  But Arts and Sciences faculty find these models distasteful.  And we talk about distribution requirements rather than outcome requirements.

Funding shortfalls have led administrations to push financial problems on to faculty, treating them even more like independent contractors.

Universities and community colleges need to work together on curriculum.

Liberal Arts doesn't easily give 'closure' because it doesn't aim to prepare students for specific jobs, but to make them ready for a changing job market.  But the job market is for health and business services now, so maybe we should prepare our students for this.

Faculty complain that this would take choice away from students.  But students aren't really ready for these choices, and the real faculty concern is that choice is being taken away from them.

1 comment:

Aletheia said...

I love this approach to teaching. Higher education needs a curricula revolution!