Morgan at Burning Man 2014. (Image Credit: Nicole Radziwill)
Do you teach introductory statistics or data science? Need some help planning your fall class?
I apply the 10 Principles ofBurning Manin the design and conduct of all my undergraduate and graduate-level courses, including my introductory statistics class (which has a heavy focus on R and data science) at JMU. This means that I consider learning to be emergent, and as a result, it often doesn’t follow a prescribed path of achieving specified learning objectives. However, in certain courses, I still feel like it’s important to provide a general structure to help guide the way! This also helps the students get a sense of our general trajectory over the course of the semester, and do readings in advance if they’re ready.
Since several people have asked for a copy, here is the SYLLABUS that I use for my 15-week class (that also uses the “informal” TEXTBOOK I wrote this past spring). We meet twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes each session. The class is designed for undergraduate sophomores, but there are always students from all levels enrolled. The course is intended to provide an introduction to (frequentist) statistical thinking, but with an applied focus that has practical data analysis at its core.
My goal is simple. At the end of the semester, I want students to be able to:
Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to
May’s ASQ “View from the Q” post by Julia McIntosh explores the link between quality and education, a theme that emerged in discussions at this May’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) in Dallas. As a college professor, this is a subject I think about all the time.
Here’s the issue: higher quality in education should yield a stronger, more capable workforce. But there are some disconnects here in practice. As Julia remarks, “students in the U.S. are praised for poor performance or for ‘just showing up’… as a result, they expect to be celebrated for mediocrity, rather than for quality.” This doesn’t bode well for effectively constructing a long-term pipeline of new talent.
From the quality perspective, what can we do to improve education? I’ll address this from the perspective of post-secondary higher education, those critical (usually four) years between graduating from high school and landing that all-important entry-level job. My recipe has three ingredients, explored in this three-part post. First, we need to shift our collective consciousness.
#1 Higher education is NOT a service industry. But it’s become big business, so it’s natural that administrators have picked up on the jargon of corporations. I read articles all the time that talk about how students are customers, attending classes where they are provided good customer service by their professors and the universities. According to this analogy, the degree is the product that the student can hold for perpetuity… a token of supposed capabilities that can be exchanged for jobs and money… an “investment in their future earnings potential.”
In March, the Chronicle of Higher Education provided a great explanation of why this position is fundamentally flawed:
Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.
Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that “customer service” implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The “well-structured” point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.
It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.
– See more at: http://m.chronicle.com/article/Faculty-Members-Are-Not/145363/#sthash.ZgvMp94X.D6wokNur.dpuf
To me, the notion of “student as customer” in the traditional sense is absurd, because education is about a co-creative experience. Education is about exercising your critical and analytical thinking skills, learning about yourself and what you’re good at (and what you enjoy), and learning how to relate to others. It’s about gradually, and through practice, becoming better at all of the above. It’s about discovering new meaning in yourself and in the world. It is as much a product of the people around you, getting educated at the same time, as it is the subject matter you’re exploring. It’s a transformation that happens within you — and is not a service that can be provided FOR you or TO you. You’re in charge of how well that education will “work” — if at all.
It’s kind of like trying to recast the church in the language of corporate jargon. Is your priest or minister your service provider? What is customer satisfaction if you attend church? Do you really have a right to demand it? If you don’t agree with everything your religious advisor says, or how they say it, do you have a right to complain (because they’re not meeting your needs)? Of course church is different than college… spiritual advisors don’t try to grade you, nor do they hold that all-important “degree” for you to advance to the next level. To be able to move forward in life with a solid spiritual foundation. You can achieve salvation, you know, but only if you get at least a 2.5 GPA and don’t fail any of your primary doctrine courses or commit sins that are too big.
You get in what you put out. If you sign up for a gym and never exercise, or go there and don’t use the equipment, are you going to be dissatisfied as a customer?Probably not, because you know that you have a critical role to play in how well the gym works for you. You are paying a certain number of dollars a month for the privilege of being able to use the facilities, and benefit from the resources (physical and intellectual) provided by the environment.
Ironically, if we regularly used a framework like SERVQUAL to assess the quality of higher education, we’d be focusing on more of the right things: competence, courtesy, credibility, security, access, communication, knowing the customer/beneficiary, physical evidence of service, reliability, responsiveness. This does not reduce the concept of customer satisfaction to just how happy the consumer is upon delivery of the service, but integrates the nature of service delivery and the critical role of the customer in co-creating the experience of satisfaction.
The current educational model makes achieving high quality in terms dimension like SERVQUAL’s difficult, if not impossible: using this as a framework, a student who discovers they really shouldn’t be in college (but should be working in a bakery or a hair salon instead, to achieve their personal goals) would be evidence of a high quality educational environment. Abandoning pursuit of a degree to pursue interests or a lifestyle that’s ultimately more satisfying to an individual… well, I don’t know of many colleges (or students!) who would consider that indicative of a high quality education.
I have ONE very subjective and utopian proposal for how we could adapt the system of higher education in the US to more effectively achieve these outcomes. The nice thing is, this particular proposal could be implemented by one university at a time. It is totally based on my own dream – a system that I think would have been VERY COOL had it been in place 20 years ago when I started college – and a system that I could still see myself taking advantage of NOW for getting even more education.
It is theEMERGENT UNIVERSITY DEGREEconcept.
(Note that I haven’t vetted this idea against business plans, cash flows, faculty load balancing, or other peoples’ opinions. Just a dream that hopefully will stimulate ideas for those who read this. This is 100% stream of consciousness rambling for fun!)
Imagine this kind of world: You decide you want to “go to college”. There is no “admissions” process because you don’t have to commit to a particular path or a particular major or a particular institution. You just get to start taking a class or two (on a first-come-first-serve or space-available basis) and see where it leads. Or maybe you take one or two of those online courses with a zillion students in them, just to see if you can do it and if you LIKE it. A gateway drug, if you will, to getting more education.
You don’t take any classes you don’t want to take, but some classes might require prerequisites, and so you will need to complete those before completing the classes with material you really want to learn. You take a class as many times as it takes you to achieve a particular minimum performance level… or not. You could also take a class a second or third time to qualify at a higher level of performance (same idea as getting a Six Sigma Green Belt, then moving on to get the Black Belt). If you are having a hard time achieving the required performance, then you have a choice: stop taking the class, and start exploring OTHER paths that would get you a degree, or keep taking the class as many times as you need to in order to learn the stuff. (Yes, that could get costly… but that’s reality. In an organization that’s trying to innovate, it might take a multitude of tries to get somewhere… and that organization will need to decide exactly how much time and effort it wants to spend on that innovation process.)
You log in to your “educational management dashboard” that shows you what courses you’ve taken, where you can rank which ones you really enjoyed and have been able to develop a level of proficiency or a level of mastery. Every time you complete a course, the system examines your performance and provides you with a roadmap for 1) what “degrees” you could hop out of the system and claim NOW, and 2) what paths of varying lengths are available to you to complete other degrees. Some degrees might require 30 credits. Some might require 150 credits. You get to pick how much time and effort you want to invest.
Maybe you have no clue what you want to do with your life. Excellent – this system is just for you! You can start taking classes that you think you’ll enjoy, find out whether you do or not, and then your educational management dashboard will help you analyze what you liked and what you’re good at – and get you through the system with an appropriate degree.
You can also forget about worrying about grades, because there’s no penalty for failure other than you get more information about what you’re not good at, or what you might not like. Once you “pass” a class, the instructor is basically saying “yeah, I think they figured out how to do this stuff and I’m confident that they could move forward into something else that requires this as a foundation”. Because the degree program itself is emergent, your “failure” just steers you into another direction that fits you better.
But no, NO!!! you say. I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to be a dentist. My family expects me to be a dentist, and if I don’t pass these classes and become a dentist, I am done with!! OK, if you want it that badly, then do what you need to do to develop a minimum proficiency and move forward. Or, use the additional information as ammo to show everyone else “look – my dashboard advised me that this is not where I need to go – and since I care about stimulating innovation and enhancing our country’s competitiveness, then I’ll pursue my recommended calling according to the dashboard…” or something like that.
This kind of system would also encourage education just for the sake of education. Say you “start college” but then find out it’s not for you. There’s no stigma in “dropping out” because you have your portfolio of past performances that you might still be able to use to convince an employer that you’re capable of certain skills that they need! Want to complete general education courses? Great, you can get a general education degree in addition to your specialization degree – but you get to make the choice whether you want to be “well rounded” or not.
Student loan debt also becomes less of a problem this way – because you get to choose just how much you invest and over what time horizon. You can stop at any time, and still get to carry your work with you. Want the social, cultural and networking benefits of a traditional university? Then go that route, and do what’s being done today.
I think the underlying concept of this emergent university degree is that YOU get to decide how much you want to learn, and you are not penalized for changing your mind at any time – for pursuing what your developing skills and interests direct you towards, rather than what is prescribed at the beginning of a very long multi-year process.
A kind of educational system like this would train us to be perpetually open to opportunities and possibilities – and celebrate failure or lack-of-interest in a subject as gaining a very important piece of new knowledge, that will bring us to the opportunities we are most aligned with more quickly.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could create an innovation culture in your organization by just bringing people in who have already been enculturated into that way of thinking and being? I think it’s possible. (I propose one potential design in the follow-up to this post,Part II.)
Pretty much every week I read articles about how the higher education system in the U.S. is broken. (That is, how it needs to be overhauled and reformed, how the educational system is not enhancing our competitiveness as a nation, or how it’s too expensive compared to the value it provides graduates, especially in a down economy.) This week, I readWildavsky & Litan’s Huffington Post articlethat outlines how bureaucratic processes and accreditation are getting in the way of implementing innovative educational business models.
Innovation is the result of iterative learning processes as well as environments that encourage experimentation, critical inquiry, critical debate, and accept failures as a necessary part of the process…
…innovation requires a mindset that rejects the fear of failure and replaces that fear of failure with the joy of exploration and experimental learning.
So the solution is EASY: we need to 1) model iterative learning processes in education, and 2) enculturate our students to accept – and appreciate! – failures and false starts as a totally necessary part of the process. Only here’s the problem: the message we’re reinforcing as parents, as educators, and as citizens is that failure is bad. Work hard, study hard, press forward, get A’s! Don’t use your education to learn more about what turns you on and what you want to contribute to the world. Just make us proud of you, and bust your butt so you can get a high paying job. Whether you like it or not.
This is not productive and not enjoyable for many, many students. It promotes fear and drains out a lot of natural love for learning new things.
What’s the book about? I wanted to call this book COLLEGE SUCKS: AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. But college doesn’t suck! It’s an exciting place full of opportunities and excitement and invigoration. I know, I know, sometimes that’s hard to see and hard to feel because of all the deadlines, tough assignments, obtuse quizzes, impossible exams, and professors who act like heartless drill sergeants. In this book, I want to introduce you to some unique approaches for managing your work and bringing joy to your academic life as a college student. To do this, I have to divulge some secrets about what some professors (including me) really think about their classes and about you. Are you ready?
If you’re a freshman, sophomore or junior in college who’s desperate to do better in school, have more free time, and feel better about college life, this book will help you accomplish just that. This is not your ordinary “how to do better in college” book. It’s a secret guidebook that will help you unlock your true potential by having more fun!
The eBook is delivered by e-junkie which I’ve found to be a great platform for delivering digital products so far – it ties into PayPal.
Help Spread the Word!
If you’re a professor and you’d like to use this in your class, I can arrange for bulk discounts.
If you’re a student (or professor) who’d like to spread this message across your campus and share in the proceeds, please join the 50% affiliate program. I plan on approving up to 5 resellers per campus.
You can also email me for an discount code you can use and/or give your students to buy the book for $12 instead of $25 until January 31, or a $5 off digital coupon that’s valid anytime.