The recent New York Times op-ed about how to make online courses more engaging got me thinking about course redesign generally, especially as it applies in the current COVID-driven environment. Readers may recall my blogs on pruning unneeded courses and rebalancing program portfolios. When done well, these actions can allow the institution to cut costs and boost revenues while minimizing the adverse impacts on student learning and faculty workloads. As noted in the “rebalancing” blog, they fall into the set of four such actions shown at the right. Course redesign is element 3 of this action set.
Short, strong, with the sweet aftertaste of a data-informed insight: that is GrayData: Espresso,our new blog. It will focus on brief, bi-weekly, data-informed posts on trends in student demand and employer needs. Longer-form discussions of trends and insights will continue to be shared on our Gray Reports’ Monthly Webinar.
What college or university doesn’t have money problems these days? We’ve seen such problems before but this time they’re deeper and more acute. In the “good old days,” such as the stagflation of the 1970s and the economic recessions of the 80s, 90s, and 2008, the solutions involved a grab-bag of common-sense actions based on relatively crude information. These include: cutting fixed percentages of cost from administrative and support services, pressing upwards on class sizes and teaching loads, substituting adjunct for regular faculty wherever possible, and hacking away at small classes. In today’s environment, however, the sufficiency of these actions seems doubtful because of the depth of the money problems and because the low-hanging fruit already has been depleted by years of belt-tightening.
Dislodging Events A Potential Curb on Course and Program Proliferation
Steve Probst’s recent blog on curricular efficiency reminded me how serious the course and program proliferation problem has become for America’s colleges and universities. For example, my forthcoming book reports that:
“Many programs persist beyond what should have been their sell-by dates. In one dataset reported by Bob Zemsky, for example, a daunting 48 percent of programs turned out ten or fewer graduates per year and collectively accounted for only 7 percent of all degrees granted . Bob puts the matter succinctly: “We [colleges] give students what they want. Most colleges can’t afford to do so without understanding why they can’t.” This doesn’t mean all low-enrollment programs should go on trial, but campuses do need serious and well-informed conversations on the matter” (p. 6).
How To Gauge Shifts in Student Demand and Employment Caused by the Pandemic
Just as the novel coronavirus has disrupted our lives, it is changing the societal context for higher education. More specifically, the programs students want and whether they want to take them online or on-campus have undergone massive changes, as have job options for interns and graduates. Colleges need data on “what just happened” so they can correctly understand and respond to their new context.
Traditional data on higher education and employment won’t help much in the short term. IPEDS data on 2020 enrollment and completions will not be published until 2021 or 2022. The same is true for BLS data on employment by Standard Occupation Code.
Cutting Academic Costs and Improving Curricular Efficiency
If You Must, Here’s How
COVID-19 will require deep cost cuts at many colleges, or they simply won’t survive. It is unpleasant, even disturbing work. But like all work, it can be done well or badly, quickly or slowly. Bad cuts unnecessarily damage the mission and people. Bad cuts drag on and undermine morale and confidence in leadership. They are usually the result of short-sighted thinking, incomplete or erroneous information and data, bad information, and lack of courage. Good cuts use sound data and robust, fast processes to create a leaner, financially sustainable, mission-centered institution. Here’s how.
What if reducing overhead costs and cutting too-small programs were not the only practical ways to control college costs?
If a department offers five electives to serve 75 students, then the average class size for these electives would be 15 students. If the department adds another elective, all six electives would be likely to have enough students to justify offering these classes under typical policies. However, the department would have just added to teaching load – and costs and potentially staffing – without increasing the actual amount of teaching and learning being done.
Tonight, the finals of the NCAA tournament were supposed to take place - the culmination of three weeks of March Madness. Most likely, the championship game would have featured two powerhouse schools like Duke and Kansas; most of the time, it does. But this tournament has never been defined by the championship game or the big-name schools. This tournament has always been about buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories. Fans love to watch an upset, like the 13th seed upsetting the 4th seed or the 90th seeded school that sneaks into the sweet sixteen or the elite eight. This tournament has always been a chance for a small school to make a name for itself. Think how big a brand Gonzaga is now thanks to being in the tournament for 10 years in a row. Without the chance to be part of the March Madness showcase, these schools will lose more than just a game or a tournament; they will lose the chance to build a brand, which leads to increased enrollment and more revenue. The impact of a No-Madness March will be felt for years.
For better and worse, COVID 19 will be a watershed for online education. Tens of thousands of students and faculty are being force-marched from on-campus to online programs for the remainder of this academic year. This experience will affect their acceptance of online education for years to come.
This could be a boon for online education. Students may discover that online is fun, engaging, and convenient. Or hastily pulled-together online classes could permanently alienate students and harm their college progress, especially if they have limited technology or bandwidth–so it is likely to be harder on poor and rural students.
This week my children, a high school freshman and a senior, were quarantined at our home and instructed that all classes would be delivered in an online format. This would be an adventure for our children and I was excited to witness them learning in a new modality. But would it all go smoothly? Would teachers be able to get everything online? And would my children be able to access what they needed?
The old saying goes, “We love technology when it works.” We have all had those frustrating moments when just at the critical moment you need technology to work, it does not.