April 29, 2017

Don’t want to retire? Alternatives to dying on campus

Tony looking old

Kaskie, B. et al. (2012) Promoting Workplace Longevity and Desirable Retirement Pathways Within Academic Institutions TIAFF-CREF Institute, March

Marcus, J. (2015) Aging faculty who won’t leave thwart universities’ attempts to cut costs The Hechinger Report, October 9

The problem

I couldn’t resist this one. Students who wish their boring old prof would just die in the middle of his lecture should be careful what they wish for: it’s increasingly likely to happen.

The problem is that old, tenured faculty just won’t quit, goddammit, now that mandatory retirement at 65 has been abolished. (I retired when there was still mandatory retirement. Three years later I got a letter from the Faculty Association saying that mandatory retirement had been abolished at UBC. I was terrified: I thought I would have to go back.)

While 36 percent of all workers plan to put off their retirements beyond the age of 65, the proportion of university and college faculty who intend to delay stepping down is more than double that, according to Kaskie et al., who are from the University of Iowa.

The Hechinger Report reports that:

It’s a big, big problem for universities that are trying to cut costs and improve productivity, making it harder for them to respond to declining enrollments and changing student demand for new kinds of majors, and blocking younger PhDs from entering the workforce.

Kaskie et al. note that:

Developing a strategic response to the continued aging of the academic workforce must become a higher priority among leaders of higher education.

They go on to suggest a number of such strategic responses:

  • wellness programs tailored for aging employees; (Yoga for mechanical engineers?)
  • offering workplace accommodations most useful to aging employees (presumably even lower teaching loads, and not after bed time)
  • developing retirement pathways varied in structure and not offered consistently to both faculty and staff. (I don’t see that one getting much traction with activist faculty).

So I’m not sure these strategies will have much effect. Old profs know when they are on to a good thing.

Solutions

Asking profs to retire early because it will save the university money is more likely to make them stay on longer, just to spite the administration. Indeed, it is the administration you would like to avoid if you can, with all those boring meetings, and the barriers to doing what you really want to do that are constantly thrown up by the administration.

So, as an old and happily retired prof, I have a couple of suggestions for my younger colleagues approaching 65 that eluded the researchers at the University of Iowa.

1. Teach online

Many profs want to stay on for the teaching. You rightly claim that after 35 years in the field, you still have much to offer. You could still do this by stepping down from full-time work, and working as an adjunct faculty teaching online, not so much for the money (you will be shocked to realise how little adjuncts are paid, and even more grateful for your more than generous pension), but for the flexibility and the contact with students.

Online teaching can be done from home, and at whatever time you like, so long as the work is covered. No more dreary commutes and no more avoiding that terrible colleague down the corridor who always buttonholes you with her latest paranoia. Teaching online will not only help keep you engaged and up to date in your subject, but the social media you learn to use may even help you to communicate with your grandchildren.

You will be surprised how satisfying online teaching is (especially if you get some training and experience before you retire.)

2. Become a consultant

This is a more personal solution and won’t work for everyone, but it sure worked for me. Many professors develop strong and valuable contacts outside the university where their expertise is needed and appreciated. You may well be the only person with the knowledge and experience in your field (and if you’re not, what have you been doing for the last 35 years?).

What’s hard for people to understand is the wonderful freedom you have as a self-employed consultant. You can – and should – tell it as it is. No more obfuscating or worrying about the consequences of speaking bluntly. That’s what you are paid for, and as a consultant you may be the only one who can speak truth to power.

I have to say that most of the time, I wasn’t saying anything that someone in the organisation didn’t know already – and listening is even more important than talking as a consultant – but often these people within the organisation who do know are not being listened to. Pay someone else a gob of money for the same advice and it’s more likely to be acted on. And if it isn’t, who cares? You just walk away at the end of the contract, thus avoiding the frustration of so many jobs when you can’t do what you want to do.

However, if you want to be successful as a consultant, there are some things you should do before you leave the university:

  • first, build up that network of external contacts who may be future clients, and develop some goodwill and ‘name recognition’ – perhaps by offering free advice over a cup of coffee;
  • start doing some serious consultancy work before you retire from the university. Most institutions will allow up to one day a week for public service or consultancies. Be careful though to avoid conflict of interest. Make sure your Dean or head of department knows what you are doing. In some circumstances, it may be necessary for contracts to be with the university, rather than you as an individual, while you are still working for the university. If so, discuss the possibility of continuing as an independent contractor when you leave, both with the external client and with your institution. Remember that there are benefits to the university in your leaving; being able to take contracts with you is then part of the negotiation;
  • find a good accountant and incorporate your consultancy company, before you leave. You need to be careful about taxes, and you also need to have a system in place for accurately tracking consultancy income and expenses. It is particularly important to keep your consultancy income and expenses clearly separate from your personal income and expenses. A good accountant can be really helpful with this. It will depend on the circumstances, but I managed to live on my pensions and invest the consultancy income, thus providing financial security well into the future, while having an extra store of money for the occasional special holiday or family gathering.

Becoming a consultant enabled me to work more or less the amount I wanted to until I was 75. Even then I only stopped working as a paid consultant to do the third solution.

3. Write a book

Yes, you’ve probably already written several academic books, but stopping to write a book when you are towards the end of a career has a number of advantages.

First, you need the time that comes when you are no longer working full time. Second, you can step back a little and look at your career’s work in a broader perspective. Probably most of the books you have written have been rather narrowly focused and technical. When you are retired you can see the big picture. Now is a chance to pull all your knowledge and experience together into a readable, more widely accessible book, a kind of lifetime perspective on a topic.

In other words, it’s your legacy. If somewhat challenging – and who doesn’t need a challenge when retiring? – writing such a book can be immensely satisfying.

Conclusion

No, it’s not a good enough reason – for you at any rate – to retire just to save the university some money. But there is life after and outside the university. I had the most satisfying years of work in my life after leaving the university, although I loved what I was doing there. And seriously, universities do need new blood – and you don’t have to spill yours to make it happen.

Developing a coherent approach to mobile learning

The JIBC Emergency Social Services app

The JIBC Emergency Social Services app

The Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) is an unusual organization, focusing on the training of police, fire, corrections and paramedical personnel, as well as providing training for social service departments of the BC provincial government.

Tannis Morgan, Associate Dean, JIBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Innovation, has just posted a very interesting post, Mobile Learning at an Applied Institution, on why and how JIBC has developed its mobile learning strategy, which includes issuing pre-loaded iPads to participants in some programs. If you have any interest in mobile learning, the post is well worth reading. You should click on the graphic at the end of the post under ‘Presentation for ETUG 2014’ for more information from slides prepared for an ETUG workshop.

Particularly worth noting is that most of JIBC’s mobile applications are open and free, because the materials are of direct value to all personnel working in this area, whether they are taking a JIBC course or not. Making the material developed for clients such as the government’s emergency social services department open and free has resulted in more enrolments, as employees and managers see the value of the service that JIBC is providing.

The success or otherwise of online students in the California Community College system

 Online offerings vary widely across subject

Johnson, H. and Mejia, M. (2014) Online learning and student outcomes in California’s community colleges San Francisco CA: Public Policy Institute of California, 20 pp

I’m not a great fan of studies into completion rates in online learning, because most studies fail to take into account a whole range of factors outside of the mode of delivery that influence student outcomes. However, this study is an exception. Conducted by researchers at the highly influential PPIC, it takes a very careful look at how well students across the whole California community college system (CCCS) do in online learning, and there are some very interesting findings that may not come as a surprise to experienced observers of online learning, but will certainly provide fodder for both supporters and skeptics of online learning.

Why the study is important

Several reasons:

  • California’s community colleges offer more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment
  • Over the past ten years, online course enrollment has increased by almost 850,000, while traditional course enrollment has declined by almost 285,000.
  • Community colleges are more likely than other institutions of higher education [in the USA] to serve nontraditional students. These students often have employment and family obligations and therefore may potentially benefit the most from online learning.
  • The state of California is investing $57 million over the next five to six years for online learning initiatives within the California Community College system
  • The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) provided … access to unique longitudinal student- and course-level data from all of the state’s 112 community colleges

Main findings

  • Between 2008–09 and 2011–12, total credit enrollment at California’s community colleges declined by almost a million. The scarcity of traditional courses has been a factor in the huge increase in online enrollments. With the state cutting support to community colleges by more than $1.5 billion between 2007–08 and 2011–12, community colleges experienced an unprecedented falloff in enrollment 
  • online course success rates are between 11 and 14 percentage points lower than traditional course success rates.
  • in the long term, students who take online classes tend to be more successful than those who enroll only in traditional courses…students who take at least some online courses are more likely than those who take only traditional courses to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year institution.
  • for students juggling school, family and work obligations, the ability to maintain a full-time load by mixing in one or two online courses per term may outweigh the lower chances of succeeding in each particular online course.
  • if a student’s choice is between taking an online course or waiting for the course to be offered in a classroom at a convenient time, taking the online course can help expedite completion or transfer
  • participation in online courses has increased for each of the state’s largest ethnic groups—and online enrollment rates for African American students, an underrepresented group in higher education in California, are particularly high. However, these rates are much lower among Latino students.

Main recommendations

  • move from ad hoc offerings to more strategic planning of online courses
  • improve the ability to transfer credits between community colleges and between colleges and the state’s universities
  • improve the design and provide more consistency in the quality of online courses between institutions
  • adopt a standardized learning management system across all colleges
  • collect systematic information on the cost of developing and maintaining online courses

My comments

This is another excellent and succinct research report on online learning, with a very strong methodology and important results, even if I am not at all surprised by the outcomes. I would expect online completion rates for individual courses to be lower than for traditional courses as students taking online courses often have a wider range of other commitments to manage than full-time, on campus students.

Similarly, I’m not surprised that online course success is lightly lower for community colleges than for universities (if we take both the figures from Ontario and my own experience as a DE director) and for certain ethnic groups who suffer from a range of socio-economic disadvantages. Online learning is more demanding and requires more experience in studying. Post-graduate students tend to do better at online learning than undergraduate students, and final year undergraduate students tend to do better than first year undergraduate students. Nevertheless, as the study clearly indicates, over the long term online learning provides not only increased access but also a greater chance of success for certain kinds of students.

I am worried though that online learning in California has ‘succeeded’ because of the massive cuts to campus-based education. It is better than nothing, but online learning deserves to be considered in its own right, not as a cheaper alternative to campus-based education. Online learning is not a panacea. Different students have different needs, and a successful public post secondary education system should cater to all needs. In the meantime, this is one of the most useful studies on online completion rates.

 

 

 

An analysis of OERs for adult education in Europe

oerukFalconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

McGill, L., Falconer, I., Dempster, J.A., Littlejohn, A. and Beetham, H. Journeys to Open Educational Practice:  UKOER/SCORE Review Final Report. JISC, 2013

OER4Adults

The first report, with the short title of OER4Adults, is an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe.

The report is based on an analysis of the OER4Adults inventory of over 150 OER initiatives of relevance to adult education and lifelong learning in Europe, and on a survey of the leaders of 36 OER initiatives that focus on adult and lifelong learners in Europe.

The analysis revealed 6 ‘tensions’ that drive developing practices around OER in adult learning (extracted from the Executive Summary):

Open versus free

There is considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. Low awareness of licensing is pronounced among adult educators and lifelong learners; common practice is to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about IPR. The confusion [is compounded] by restrictive but ‘free’ practices (such as many MOOCs). [Such confusion] is a barrier to collaboration across sectors that can produce OER of value to adult learners, and hinders the collection of evidence of the benefits of OER with a consequent threat to funding streams.

Traditional versus new approaches

The majority of OER providers have traditional Higher Education views of teacher-directed pedagogy that are out of line with the direction in which adult learning is heading. Furthermore, the question of credit for OER study that is appropriate to lifelong and workplace learners is seldom tackled. The findings raise the possibility that approaches that work well in a university context may be less appropriate elsewhere. Cross-sector collaboration between universities and those who know the lifelong learning context could lead to more effective resources.

Altruism versus marketisation

Individuals working in OER initiatives are strongly altruistic in their motivations, and these ideals engender strong commitment and team working. However, they tend to overlook the wider social context in which open learning initiatives are being supported by institutions primarily because of the brand recognition they create, and the importance of brand, as opposed to quality, in learner choice of resources. Brand is particularly significant for adult learners whose digital literacy tends to be low.

Community versus openness

Community-building is seen by initiatives as essential for successful uptake of OER. Communities can raise awareness, spread practice, and boost confidence. But equally a community can, by its norms, be closed in practice to ‘others’. Transferring resources produced in one community such as a university to another such as a group of workplace learners can be difficult. This makes collaboration across sectors particularly important at resource development stage. The open licence is essential in enabling such collaboration.

Mass participation versus quality

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. This is particularly significant given the low ability of lifelong learners to evaluate resources for themselves. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

Add-on versus embedded funding

Initiatives focused on adult learning contexts tend to have more diverse funding streams than those focused on more formal educational contexts. They are less likely to be reliant on government funding and more likely to be involved in cross-sector partnerships or exchanges. They have a larger community base and greater embeddedness in ongoing practices, rather than being perceived as a one-off funded ‘project’ that comes to an end when the funding ends. They are less worried about the ongoing sustainability of their work.

Journeys to Open Educational Practice

This is a report on the evaluation and synthesis of the JISC/HE Academy OER Phase 3 programme in the United Kingdom (which is part of but separate from the European Union – you need to be British – or Canadian – to understand this.)

Main findings (taken from Summary of Key Lessons Learned):

Culture and Practice

In the past, many sharing and technology change projects were hampered by the attitude of participants, and while negative views of open practices are still the case for many, this is rapidly changing with tutors and senior managers becoming more receptive to open practices and using technology. … However, working with OER [Open Educational Resources] and open practices is not a straight forward process with issues remaining in communication, training, legal, procedural, practical and infrastructural areas…All of this activity is substantial and mean[s] that even [those experienced on OER projects] were not able to leapfrog or simplify many of the stages every OER project has to engage in. 

Releasing and using OER

it is also important to consider the OER freedoms (c.f. UNESCO Access2OER report). In that framework, there are three essential freedoms inherent in “open”, which are legal freedom, technical freedom, and educational freedom. Legal freedom embodies licensing, and is the main OER freedom recognised. Technical freedoms include the freedom to access easily, to download, to disaggregate easily, etc. Finally, educational freedom captures whether the resource is sufficiently open for it to be adaptable to various circumstances, and easy to understand and localise. …. Overall, this threefold “freedoms”-based approach to OER enables users to take ownership, to change and adapt, and thus to participate as fully as possible and develop their own capabilities.

Institutional processes

Existing institutional policies for IPR, teaching, learning and assessment, quality and marketing may need to be adapted to incorporate OER and OEP into institution-wide practice. These include:

  • policies specifically on OER or OEP  
  • staff development activities
  • digital literacy activities
  • institutional infrastructure to support OERs

Detailed examples to illustrate all these and other findings are given in the report.

Conclusions

These two reports are essential reading for anyone interested in developing or using open educational resources, and really need to be read in full. The reports bring together a great range of experience in the actual practice of open educational resources, as distinct from the rhetoric.

It can be seen that while progress is being made in the acceptance and use of OERs, it is still a hard struggle. What seems a very simple idea in principle becomes exceedingly complex in practice. This of course is due partly to restrictive copyright and licensing rules in many countries, but also due to a large degree on institutional and cultural issues. Organizations such as the Creative Commons are working hard to deal with the technical and legal issues. The institutional and cultural barriers are more difficult to resolve but are not limited to just OERs. Such barriers really inhibit all use of learning technologies in ways that enable their potential to be fully exploited.

Having said that, if OERs are to be adopted on a large scale, thought needs to be given to simplifying the process, so that individual instructors or even course teams do not have to worry about the legal, technical and educational barriers. This requires some pretty smart institutional processes to be put in place to support OER use and adoption, as well as a good deal of faculty development and training. Until that is done, academics will be reluctant to change.

A MOOC platform open to all?

© RubyLane.com, 2013

Empson, R. (2013) edX Merges With Stanford’s Class2Go To Build An Open-Source Online Learning Platform Tech Crunch, April 3

Empson, R. (2012) Class2Go: Stanford’s New Open-Source Platform For Online Education Tech Crunch, September 17

Markoff, J. (2013) Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break New York Times, April 4

Stanford engineers have developed an open source MOOC platform called Course2Go that is different from the proprietary platforms developed and used by Coursera and Udemy.

What makes it different is

its early dedication to building and maintaining a totally open-source platform. This means that the platform aims to be both free of cost and of pricey IP, while professors are free to contribute to Class2Go’s code and get involved in the development of the platform, as well as to collaborate with other institutions and organizations.

Rather than build its own platform, edX has decided to make use of Course2Go.

Although not stated in those terms, Class2Go will no longer be focused on building its own, independent platform, and instead its team will devote all of its attention to helping edX go open-source. In other words, Stanford will be integrating all of the features of its existing Class2Go platform into the edX platform, using Class2Go’s infrastructure as an internal platform for online coursework for on-campus and distance learners.

As of June 1, the company said, developers everywhere will be able to freely access the source code of the edX learning platform, including code for its Learning Management System (LMS); Studio, a course authoring tool; xBlock, an application programming interface (API) for integrating third-party learning objects; and machine grading API’s. In addition, edX will look to encourage participation from third-party developers by providing technical and process guidelines as well as additional support.

At the same time, edX has announced that it has developed a tool for automatically grading essay-type answers based on the use of artificial intelligence.

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not.

The New York Times article also presents some of the standard criticisms to automated essay marking, which to date has serious issues regarding validity, i.e. nonsense answers that use the right words get highly graded, while valid answers that use non-standard wording are failed or marked lowly.

Comment

The development of an open source MOOC platform seems to me to not only make a lot of sense technologically (how many different MOOC platforms do we need?), but more importantly allows any institution to offer its own MOOC without having to go through commercial operators such as Coursera. This will substantially bring down the cost of participating in MOOCs for most institutions (see a later post coming shortly). However, more consideration needs to be given to less objectivist or behaviourist approaches to teaching when developing these tools. For instance, it would be good to see Course2Go developing software (and the accompanying human approaches) to manage discussion groups on a large scale.

The bigger question is when will these Ivy League engineers start talking to educators about pedagogy, educational validity, and the nature of learning? I have no objection in principle about researching and developing teaching approaches that will work on a very large scale, so long as they adequately deal with the essentials of teaching and learning, and not just build what is relatively easy to develop in engineering terms.

This is what makes the current focus within x-MOOCs so infuriating. There is clearly huge potential for some major breakthroughs in developing large-scale, low-cost education, but some recognition that this needs to be a team effort that requires educational as well as engineering input on an equal basis is absolutely essential, otherwise it can end up being an extremely dangerous and destructive development, given the weight given to Ivy League developments in the mainstream media.