Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?

Originally posted 16 June 2017

I saw the best minds of my institution distracted by madness, meeting endlessly in vain, poring themselves over balance sheets all day looking for the do-able fix…

I’ve watched and listened for the last several years as my institution thrashed and muttered things about reinventing itself and formulating a new business model and becoming financially sustainable.

Most disturbing has been what strikes me as an almost fanatic commitment to not running the college like a business because of a fear of “running the college like a business.”

What I mean by that is that people who are rightfully concerned about those who would turn education into a financialized commodity, an institution that serves corporate overlords, and all the rest chased away ordinary business and organizational management sense driving higher education toward amateurish and disastrous practices.

I’ve spent the last few years looking for translatable lessons that might be useful for those of us who actually understand education to build our institutions into robust, successful, and sustainable enterprises so that we can hold off the small-minded interests that would be delighted to take advantage of our incompetence.

In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article George Day describes a powerful method for assessing risk and reward tradeoffs in innovation. I think Day’s ideas can be adapted to the situation of a small college like ours and I a lot of the decisions and discussions that have occurred over the last several years, and especially in the last few months, demonstrate the pathology of an organization behaving in precisely the opposite direction from these ideas.

Day is writing about how an organization should evaluate innovation opportunities. He advocates for any potential innovation to be evaluated by asking “Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?”

These questions can be adapted to an evaluation of both ongoing operations, innovations, and remedial moves taken in response to emergency conditions.

Let’s start with “is it real?”

The question refers both to products and markets. In our case the two are closely related but should be assessed separately.

When we say “product” we mainly mean the programs we offer – majors, degrees, courses, credentials. When we say “market” we mean both the market of people who want to buy our product – enroll – and a post-graduation market for people with the credentials we offer.

Is the product real? In industry this means “does the technology to build this thing actually exist?” In higher education we have to ask whether there are courses, or whether courses could be designed, that would add up to some credential or program we ponder.  We have to ask is this the kind of thing that one can do in four years or two years or alongside the rest of one’s education? Is it coherent? Legible?

Is the market real? Is there actually a desire/need for what we are thinking of doing?  Can the student for whom it is perfect actually purchase it?  Is the size of the market big enough for us to be able to get this off the ground?  WILL the potential “customer” buy it (at the price at which we will need to ask)?

Can we win?

Again, the question has two sides: the “product” and the “company.”

Can the product win? Is this thing we want to offer better than the alternatives? How established are the alternatives?  If the people who would want our thing are currently using something else, why would they switch? Can we survive expected responses from the competition?

Can the organization win?  Do we have superior faculty and staff who can work on this? Do we have the necessary experience and skills to do this well at the necessary scale and over the necessary time frame?  Are there effective internal champions to create and sustain interest and enthusiasm?  Do we really understand the market and have the capacity to listen to its signals?

Is it worth doing?

Is this move likely to be profitable? “Profitable” is a simple idea – do returns exceed expenses – but we need to think carefully about what goes into this. When are we going to have to invest how much capital?  What marketing expenditures are necessary to give the idea a chance? What future development and revision will starting this commit us to?  What are we doing now that we will do less of as we divert personnel and resources to this new endeavor?

Does this project make strategic sense? Does this new program or change fit with our organizational growth strategy? Or is it taking us off in a direction that will distract us from what we are trying to do?

An extremely important part of thinking about whether something makes strategic sense is whether the project will generate a platform on which other things can be built. Does the initiative allow us to develop policies and practices that can be used for other things? Are we building up skills and experiences among our faculty and staff that we can use to build and enhance other programs?

The “is-it-real-can-we-win-is-it-worth-doing” filter is not a magic bullet, but it is an example of some adaptable wisdom that could make a gigantic difference in the ways faculty and administrators think about change and renewal.

Hack Your Organizational Problems

“Hackathons” are cool. But who knows what they really are and how they work?  This makes them ideal things for clueless managers to do poorly. But if we take a little time to understand their “why” and “how” they do represent a potentially useful organizational form that could have a positive impact on sclerotic, inertia bound institutions. For higher educational organizations they have special potential for moving beyond “we tried that 5 years ago” and “not invented here” and for making actual interdisciplinary teams actually effective and the experience of working on institutional problems inspiring instead of demoralizing.
This post from is a good starting point because of how it manages to convey the essence of hackathoning outside the context of coding.
That essence is group process bound in space and time that focuses effort on well defined challenges in a short, structured design sprint.  The elements are important:
  • space/time
  • defined chalenge
  • structured process.
Especially the last.

Higher Ed: The Times, They Are A-Changin’

Increasing segmentation of potential student market, lots of new entrants (education providers), new demand for “just in time” learning, aggregators as brokers between providers and students, conventional faith in higher ed brand value may be overstated.


To Reach the New Market for Education, Colleges Have Some Learning to Do

Afew weeks ago, I moderated a panel discussion at the South by Southwest education conference, in Austin, Tex. Known as SXSWedu, the gathering is in only its fourth year and already draws some 6,500 entrepreneurs, educators, investors, and policy makers, easily surpassing the attendance at many of the annual meetings held by the various higher-education associations.
Many of the education providers who showed up in Austin were relatively new players in the field. They don’t yet have the brand names of traditional colleges that have built their reputation over generations by offering degrees and certificates through the factory-model, one-size-fits-all delivery method of modern higher education.
But what these new entrants have been able to do relatively quickly is divide the massive higher-education market into segments based on what students want and need, and then create offerings that appeal to only a slice or two of the overall market. Such a lean approach, of not trying to serve everyone, is definitely cheaper, and often better, for meeting student demands.

Optimal Deployment of Higher Ed’s Most Valuable Resource

I met Steve Mintz when he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 2006. He’s a smart historian and serious scholar who also cares about teaching. He teaches at U Texas Austin where he also serves as Director of the UT System’s new Institute for Transformational Learning. He’s a leading authority on the history of families and children, author/editor of 13 books, past president of H-Net, creator of the Digital History website, and was recently inducted into the Society of American Historians.
In this Inside Higher Ed column he suggests we think creatively about “curricular optimization” – not the conventional “fewer bigger classes” approach but one that is grounded in the recognition that faculty represent our most valuable institutional resource and, as such, its best deployment ought to be a top priority.

Other Pieces by Steve Mintz in IHE

A Modest Suggestion for GE Reform

From Majoring in the 21st Century blog…

When, as is usually the case, nobody has actually put forward a coherent critique that exposes what’s wrong with the current system and why it needs to be thrown out and replaced, consider an innovation process that’s different from the usual approach in higher education.

What if we challenge ourselves to start by repackaging and repurposing what we have, thereby really identifying what things about it could be corrected, tweaked, turbo-charged, etc. to make it live up to its promise. Usually, the fact of the matter is we were stoked about it when we invented it and neither world nor students nor we have changed that much; it’s what we’ve let happen to it since that is the problem. Unless we can focus on how one deals with those things, we will almost certainly see the same thing happen to a new plan.

So before embarking on a giant do-over, perhaps…

Tell Them Why I

Develop coherent and persuasive description of why we have a GE program and what it is supposed to achieve.

Tell Them Why II

Build into orientation each year an academic address in which a faculty member is charged with coming up with a creative and compelling explanation of, argument for, the GE program both in principle and in particular. A few years of this will provide us with some internal dialog on what it means and why it is there as well as providing a foundation for all subsequent advising around GE.

Collect data

Write a short bit of code which would count ALL gen-ed fulfilling courses to see how the distribution is. In other words, take as given that we have a set of areas and we have a set of courses that relate to them. Apart from meeting minimal requirements, what does the distribution of “general education” actually look like for a class of graduates? (coding note: need to filter by major so we do not bias results based on distribution of majors).

Use Design to Change Attitudes

Move away from the “check box” mentality by re-configuring Banner and MAPs so they don’t simply indicate that a requirement has been fulfilled, but rather track and document how and how many times each requirement has been fulfilled, providing both student and anyone who looks at the transcript a visualization of her general education. Include the rationales described above in the transcript/MAP.

Thus, instead of this…

They’d see this:

(Not 95) Theses on General Education Reform, etc.

General Education reform has a long history in higher education of being a no-win zone. Correct that: in any given GenEd campaign there is often a player or group of players who manage to get something out of it (e.g., an administrator or administrator want-to-be who gets credit for shepherding the program through to approval (and to be fair, it’s probably good training) or a department that gets a influx of resources it will never lose (even when GE is next revised) or sometimes a group of faculty who have opted out of discipline-based work and now rise to institutional importance).
The kudos and benefits, though, are almost never dependent on whether the program actually works and there is never any accountability for problems associated with the diversion of time, energy, and resources required by the program.
I share the Camelot-esque urge to champion the life of the mind, to fight against the forces of mediocrity in the modern world, really educate our students for the 21st century, and just generally to work for a better tomorrow, but I’ve seen this windmill tilted at too many times not to offer some ideas, collected over the years, about GenEd revisions. Offered partly in the spirit of provocation and healthy debate, but mostly on the (naive) optimistic belief that it IS possible to do better at higher education reform than is usually the case. The problem is that the ruts in the road are deep ones indeed.
    1. Almost no one will ever select a college on the basis of a general education program unless the program is that there are no GE requirements.
    2. The process usually begins with someone saying “everyone knows the current system is broken and needs to be updated.” Ever was it so. Ever will it be.
    3. After the program is in place, students and faculty will invest a lot of time and energy “getting around the rules” to make individual educations make sense.
    4. GenEd gets revamped every decade or so. Neither the stuff of GenEd nor the nature of students really changes THAT much. Thus the “new” is mostly recapitulations and recombinations of old. 
    5. Where is cost-benefit analysis when you need it? How much goes into the process? How much does it cost to implement? What’s the outcome? Listen and you’ll hear that the value can’t be measured.
    1. GenEd is an introduction to the breadth of inquiry in the university?
    2. GenEd is a set of skills and areas of knowledge that every graduate should possess?
    3. GenEd should inculcate a set of values that specialized training in majors omit?
    4. GenEd is basic skills that are necessary to succeed in specialized training in majors?
    5. GenEd should inculcate ideas students need as citizen but not taught in the major?
    6. GenEd should insure that students do not graduate as narrow vocational specialists?
    7. GenEd should be material common to all/most majors to make education more efficient?
    1. The design of a GenEd program is an organizational process, not an intellectual one.
    2. GenEd rules shape/channel resources (enrollment, FTE, budget); much of the conversation is actually about that.
    3. No GE program worth doing will please all. A compromise no one opposes is likely crap. 
    4. Who is GenEd for? What is GenEd for? Who benefits? Who pays? Write the answers out.
    5. The problem with the current program is usually implementation, not concept.  “GE is a mess” is unhelpful starting point; it’s a mess because of implementation, and the same people will implement the new one so it likely will have the same implementation failures.
    6. Least Common Denominator is very weak conceptual foundation for GenEd. Be skeptical about “what EVERY student should have.”
    1. Many proposals for GenEd translate as (1) students should have my (our!) values (2) every student should study what I teach.
      • General rule: if it’s my pet peeve or my pet project, it’s not general education.
      • Leaders should discourage “my ‘baby’ is the be all and end all” talk. 
      • Perhaps a simple rule that you cannot advocate for your own area as part of GE.
      • Keep track of which disciplines’ are most certain their subject is essential.
    2. Alternatively, use bottom up approach. Ask each “major” to write down: “A student of X needs some W and Y as foundations for, extensions of, and complements to X.” Encourage inventive thinking. Then build on that database.
    1. Look to history: GenEd as contrasted with major course of study. 
    2. Liberal arts is not same as humanities and fine arts.
    3. How come it’s not a crisis that art students can’t do math?
    4. “The Core” and related terms mean different things in different institutional contexts. 
    5. The “outside the course” rhetoric in higher ed discourse is sort of “anti-professor.” 
    6. When did “community engagement” become a fundamental responsibility of educational institutions? Why did this happen? Ask questions; don’t take things for granted.
    1. Let’s be at a little skeptical about imposing morality/ideology via “requiring everyone to take a course on X.” Very hard to find examples in history of this working well.
    2. Best test of a GE concept might be thought experiment: would it work if not required? 
    3. All of the “values,” “mindsets,” “orientations,” etc. that one is inclined to require courses on because they are institutionally important should be a part of everything we teach. If not, then they are NOT actually institutionally important, you are just wishing they were.
    1. Nobody knows what critical thinking is. Perhaps start by figuring out what we mean by it.
    2. Ask anyone who says “it’s a problem that…” to explain how they know that it is a problem and how we could detect when it was not a problem anymore.
    3. Purge all documents of “red herrings” (things that might very well be true and good but which distract from matter at hand). For example “faculty need support for digital technologies and data management in the classroom” or “need to acknowledge how hard faculty already work blah blah blah.”
    4. Perhaps outlaw any sentence that included the phrase “we used to…”
    5. “Competencies” is a buzz word. Interrogate buzzwords; don’t parrot buzzwords.
    1. Arguments for foreign languages often amount to (1) other schools do it; or (2) it’s good for you (plus, usually, unsaid, “it was good for me”). Maybe, but, as champions of critical thinking, we should do better at motivating what would be a really big student and institutional investment and diversion of resources. 
    2. Studying a language or going on a study abroad may not provide “global literacy” – it often turns one into a fan of one country, region, language, etc. It may transcend localism, but it’s not necessarily “global” per se.
    3. Do students currently chose to take foreign languages? Have the foreign language departments managed to enroll to capacity? Find out why before trying to accomplish this with a requirement. 
    4. Ask why would we require, say, four semesters of this one of area of learning but not others?
    1. What is the actual evidence that things like “community engagement” are really something that we are not doing enough of? How do you know?
    2. The future of higher ed for small second tier institutions will be strongly based on transfer students. Almost all GenEd will of necessity be something we accept as already done as a part of the transfer articulation agreements. This is likely simply part of the physics of the future of higher education in the US for many schools.
    3. Every time someone suggests “X” is our core value, ask two things. First, does X really distinguish us from other places? Second, can we ethically have students on average incur $30k in debt for an education based on X? Is that what families sacrifice for?
    1. Is your accreditation agency dominated by people from institutions you admire?  Are its publications ones you look to for inspiration?  What good is likely to come from basing a curriculum on their concepts? The answer is one thing: it is a path to a “compromise” that would not be a mere medley of all the competing ideas we faculty have. This might be important, but be clear about it.
    2. Are you impressed by the ideas of the folks who are pushing assessment nationally? Do they strike you as the right sources of new GE ideas?
    3. Are the thought leaders from American K12 education who have started to work in higher ed space the ones you would turn to for ideas on improving college and university education?
    1. Institute multiple general education requirement schemes. See which ones students opt for. See which ones seem to deliver best results.
    2. Have a fully articulated general education program but don’t make it required. Can you persuade students it is a good idea.
    3. Structure your requirements as “do at least 4 of these 7 things” and keep track of what people do and engage in some serious research about why they make those choices.
    4. Provide a strict, cohort based option (you are given a schedule of GE courses when you start and the group takes them together over a few years) and see how many students sign up for it and what effects it has.

After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought

The latest swing of the MOOC headline pendulum is way over on the “complete bust” end of the evaluation spectrum but they represent a very big solution in search of a problem and as such are not likely to disappear as fast as they emerged.

I stand by most of the points I made in my 2012 talk on MOOCs and small liberal arts colleges.  The main one was that we should we should avoid the urge to imitate and compete but embrace the opportunity to borrow and adapt the tools being developed in connection with MOOCs.

In today’s NYT we read about several high-profile flops in MOOC-land and evaluation research that suggests that MOOCs so far have been reaching “already educated” folks rather than those without access to higher education, undermining one of their primary public selling points. I would caution against over-embracing: as I said in the 2012 talk, the bandwagon is a hand-basket.

Other recent MOOC-related articles in the NYT…

Six Hats and Better Meetings

Almost nobody likes meetings and almost everybody will agree that precious little ever seems to get accomplished in meetings.  And yet we keep on having them.  There are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve meetings and one useful insight is that there are different kinds of meetings and some techniques work better for some kinds than for others.

One intriguing approach for meetings of collaborative teams developed by E. deBono is called “six hats.”  I first came across it when my step-son learned about it in a week-long workshop on team-work that he participated in during “Independent Activities Period” (IAP) at MIT.  They are teaching it to young engineers as a set of skills right alongside integration by parts and balancing equations.

The basic idea is to recognize that there are different genres of contribution to conversations and that it can be helpful to recognize and manage/organize these.  They are:

  • Yellow = ideas, speculation, “how about…”, “what if…”
  • Red = feelings, emotions, intuitions
  • Blue = agenda, sequence, process, rules of the road
  • Green = creative, options, alternatives
  • White = facts & figures, observations not interpretations, usuble info, checked facts
  • Black = criticism, flaw-finding, no need to be balanced or fair

Participants can self-consciously identify the kind of contribution they are making, a facilitator can ask for specific genres, or the agenda can be dedicated to a specific sequence of contribution types.

Here are some slides from a 2010 talk I gave for Division of Student Life staff on the technique:

See Also