Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why does higher education suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder?

For seven years I served as a program officer for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). 

In 1978, my first year, I thought it must be a year of miracles: FIPSE had received about 1800 preliminary proposals that year. There were so many issues I hadn't thought about, so many strategies that were new to me!  My more experienced colleagues were not quite as impressed. As the years went by I realized why I had been more dazzled than they were:
  • In each year's crop of proposals, similar problems, and similar solutions, kept reappearing. Issue A swell in importance for a few years, then subside for a few years, and, after a few more years, surge again.  Most of that second cohort of proposals were written by people who had just noticed the issue and, like me, were unaware of the previous history of work. 
  • Over the decades, many issues showed little cumulative progress.  Nationally we weren't solving problems, just poking at them from time to time, exulting when the problem yielded a bit, and ignoring the fact that, once the push stopped, the problem would spring back to its former shape. 
I got interested in the technology proposals because they were something of an exception. Microcomputers could do some things that main frame computers couldn't. Email added new power. So did the Internet and the Web. Whether technology was used for collaboration in learning, understanding of science concepts, or school-college collaboration, each year's crop of technology proposals included some new strategies that were emerging because the technologies had become more powerful.

What I'm asking today, however, is not about technology. It's about why our attention to issues in higher education is so short-term. Why do we seem to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder?   I'll suggest a few possibilities, but I'd really like to hear your thoughts.
First, it's hard to maintain attention on a single issue for more than a few years when you can't see the ultimate results of your labors. And it's difficult for any educator, especially a teacher who sees his or her work in terms of one course or another, to see the long term impact of that course.  Cohorts of students move through a program, graduate, and disappear from view.  And, even when you see how seniors have grown from sophomores, it's hard to know whether your single course had any impact on their later lives. For individuals who come back and talk, yes. But for the whole cohort of students, it's very hard to see the impact of one's own teaching. And without that point of reference, it's harder to keep focusing on a single direction for improvement, year after year.

Second, an improvement is made, it's difficult to capture the benefits and reinvest them.   Suppose your course's outcomes doubled (by any measure of that term) over the next five years.  Would that increase your department's income so that it could give you a few thousand dollars to make further improvement? Rarely. So the profit motive doesn't provide motivation to continually improve teaching.

Third, the natural distractions of higher education are reinforced by the fact that many faculty capture energy from the Hawthorne Effect.  As my Evergreen colleague Rob Knapp once remarked, many of us get a charge from doing something new.  But novel stays new for long. So, to keep getting a charge from novelty, we need to turn our attention from one new thing to the next, one new technology to another, each time getting a charge.

The cost of all this distraction: many of us may not stick with any one strategy long enough to make a lasting, sustainable difference in practice.

What do you think? Does higher education make cumulative progress in its methods and outcomes over the decades? If not, is Attention Deficit Disorder part of the problem? And, if so, what are the roots of our ADD?

We're talking about topics like these right now in an online workshop on "Improving Higher Learning by Taking the Long View: A Strategic Planning Workshop."  One session is over  but you could listen to the recording before joining us for the second session on Tuesday.  Join us!

1 comment:

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