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The Weekly Blab 6.2

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 2—August 22, 2011


Big First Week!

It was a big first week of classes at SPSU, in more ways than one. The turnout at the reception for new faculty was huge, with the line to get at the food going all the way around the Executive Dining Room and lapping itself. We actually ran out of almost everything at one point, with the food services crew scrambling to prepare more and deliver it on time. It’s hard to estimate the number of people who will come to these events—last year we ordered enough for 200, and only about 100 came. This time, we ordered for 100 and 200 came. Ya can’t win. This was followed by the first faculty meeting, which absolutely packed Q-202. There were nearly 200 people there, which has to be an all-time high for a faculty meeting.

Student numbers look healthy. It looks like we will be up in enrollment by 4% give or take, resulting in the largest enrollment at SPSU of all time. Of course, that’s been true every fall for the past six years. Our goal is to now retain the students and help them move toward graduation. It’s a good idea to remind our new students about the early warning system (new faculty note: we do a report at the end of week three to indicate who is engaged in the class—turning in homework, participating in discussions, doing well on quizzes, that sort of thing—and who isn’t and who is a no-show), and use the fact that we do it proactively to encourage students to become engaged in their studies early.


My Summer Vacation, Part 2

Last week’s BLAB covered the summer up until the Adult Learning Consortium meeting at Jekyll Island (yeah, life’s tough). It was off to North Myrtle Beach, SC for a week of family vacation. My parents had driven in on their annual trek east and north, so we planned on going out to the beach on Saturday, June 18. Naturally, on Thursday there was a huge lightning storm. We had twin trees coming together in a single trunk in the front yard and on Friday after the storm when I went out to see if there was any damage, I noticed that a serious crack had developed where the trees came together. Friday was calm weather, but on Saturday, the crack had doubled in width and depth, and I knew that the trees were going to come down. We quickly called a tree crew, and treated the neighborhood to the extravaganza of watching two huge trees being cut. It took a crew of six from noon to 9 PM to complete the job in the blazing heat. I should have sold tickets. We left for South Carolina a day late. It takes about 4 hours to go to Columbia, but I always forget that there’s still a lot of South Carolina after that—it took another 4 hours to get to North Myrtle Beach—since the interstate doesn’t go all the way to the coast. We had rented a condo one block from the beach at the last minute, and it turned out to be very nice, other than the fact that it was on the third floor in a building with no elevator. I kept wishing I had brought a bungee cord so I could haul the bags up, and was surprised to see that the people staying in the condo next door had done just that. The weather in North Myrtle Beach was really hot—98° or higher each day—but there was a nice sea breeze and walking on the beach in the early morning and near sunset was great. While we were there, the local police were doing a fitness training on the beach, so we got to watch a real version of Baywatch while we were there. The rest of the days were spent eating, resting, playing the guitar, and watching DVD’s of Hazel (my mother’s all-time favorite TV show) and Cliff Richard concerts. Then it was back home for us, and on to Syracuse, NY for my parents.

Naturally, the next week was full of meetings and paperwork that had accumulated while we were away, and then came the 4th of July weekend. We decided to see the fireworks up in Kennesaw, and when we drove up, I was surprised to see that there wasn’t much traffic. It turned out that was because everyone was already there! We finally found a parking space at a restaurant that was renting out its lot, and walked to the center of town where there was supposed to be a concert. The place was so crowded you couldn’t get near the concert, so we just put the lawn chairs down in an open spot and waited for the fireworks. That’s when it started to rain, and the thunder and lightning began. We ran back to the car, and were ready to pull out and go home when the parking attendant said “why not wait and see if it stops—you can see the fireworks from here.” We did just that, and sure enough, two minutes before the fireworks were scheduled to begin, the rain stopped and we had a good view of them from the parking lot.

On Sunday, July 10, it was off to Brasstown Valley for the Regents Advisory Committee on Academic Affairs meeting (held jointly with Student Affairs). The ride up was pleasant, and the mountains and the resort are both beautiful—they reminded Jill and Mark of New England. The meetings provided a chance to meet the new chancellor and the interim senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. With so many people at the BoR being new, the agenda for the meeting was a bit less detailed than normal. Both the chancellor and the senior vice chancellor gave brief talks on Sunday evening, talking about some general directions for the university system, and how they hoped that things would improve regarding funding. Monday brought a long session involving splitting into groups to answer questions like “What’s good about the BoR staff?” and “What needs to be improved?” I then found out that as sector representative for the comprehensive universities, I was automatically this year’s RACAA chairman-elect, which means that I’m chairman for 2012-2013. Home on Tuesday, but not before doing a little driving around the area to see the local mountains.

July 12 and 13 brought a student orientation (another retelling of academic expectations and the rocks story), July 15 was my birthday (56 years old—I can’t believe it!), and July 19 was the Senior Staff retreat. In the afternoon, we reviewed where we were relative to the Strategic Plan, and talked a bit about Risk Assessment. The morning was taken up by looking at the results of a DiSC evaluation that we had all done. DiSC is one of several types of ways of looking at your leadership style, dividing it up into four quadrants: “D” standing for Dominant, “i” standing for Influence, “S” for Steadiness, and “C” for Conscientiousness. It turns out that I’m an “i” (as were two others), though the analysis showed that I had strong influences in the other three quadrants as well. People in the “i” quadrant are supposed to be outgoing, enthusiastic, optimistic, high-spirited, and lively; and are supposed to favor enthusiasm, action, and collaboration. I’ll leave it to you all to decide how accurate that is. It also gives advice on how to work with people who are in different quadrants, which I’ll take a look at. The report was eerily accurate about things that motivate me and things that I like, but pretty inaccurate (at least in my opinion) on things that bother me and things I don’t like. All in all, it was better than similar analyses that I’ve encountered in the past. Another Journey Orientation on the 20th and 21st, and an ALC meeting on the 20th closed out the week.

Yet another orientation came on the 25th and 26th, and I was off to Portland, OR on the 26th for the national AASCU meeting for provosts and VPAA’s. The flight was packed—every seat taken, and I was in a middle seat, so that wasn’t too great, but everything was otherwise fine. When I landed in Portland, it was about 80° and almost no humidity, and the temperature stayed there throughout. I got the rental car and drove to my hotel for the first night in Beaverton (the hotel where the conference was held was booked solid for that night), which entailed driving from one highway to another, since no road apparently goes directly there from the airport. Portland is a beautiful city set on the Willamette River, but its road network was apparently built before the city experienced some big growth spurts, making driving a pain. On Thursday, I transferred to the Marriott, where the conference was, and a beautiful hotel it was, with my room having a nice view of the river. The conference was fine, and Jeff Ray (Dean of Engineering Technology and Management) and I gave a talk called “Reinventing the Polytechnic” about what we’ve been doing curriculum-wise at SPSU that was well received. That night, it was back to the airport to take the red-eye back to Atlanta. And can you believe it—an absolutely full plane with me in the middle seat again. I arrived at 6:30 AM, got my car, and drove up to SPSU in time for the summer commencement ceremonies at 10AM on July 30th (I’d left my cap and gown in the car).

August 3 brought the Deans Council retreat, where we spent most of the time talking about the “New Normal”, and how we might best respond to it. Part II of the Senior Staff Retreat was on August 8th, finishing up what we hadn’t enough time for in Part I. Then it was time to meet the new part-time faculty on August 10th, the new full-time faculty on August 11th, and to wonder where the heck the summer had gone.


It’s Early Yet…

The new English Premier League season has begun, and beloved Chelsea has a record of 1 win and 1 tie so far, putting them in 3rd place. They’ve played mediocre teams so far, looking pretty mediocre themselves, this after a really good pre-season where they were undefeated. It’s early in the season of course, but the main problem seems to be an embarrassment of riches—too many top strikers: Anelka, Drogba, Torres, and Malouda, which means that some start the game and others get substituted in, which leads to ill-will for all of them (though they all deny it).

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, who began the season with their worst start ever, climbed into first place in the AL East and held it for most of the summer. They’re now playing .500 level ball, and have fallen slightly behind the hated Yankees. As every true Red Sox fan knows, the annual September Swoon is just around the corner, but hope springs eternal.


The New Normal

I promised to make some comments about a paper by William H. Graves entitled “Waste Not the Learning Productivity Crisis: Transforming Educational Opportunity into Educational Assurance” last week, and hope that some of you had a chance to read it. I’d be interested in hearing your comments about it, if you care to share them. First, a recap of the article.

Graves begins by asking why the impact and efficiency of education have not increased with its investments in information and communication technology (ICT), noting that similar investments in other business sectors have led to restructuring and productivity improvements. He states that ICT has improved “the individual productivity of learners, instructors, researchers, and administrators, but education remains the “slowest form of learning” and an inefficient means to scale learning to meet modern needs” and goes on to say: “Intellectual capital has never been in greater demand, and its “supply-chain” (the lifelong-learning pipeline) has never been leakier.” He goes on to criticize the Higher Education Act of 2008 as being “1,100 sections of visionless, seemingly random congressional mandates and regulations.

Graves also notes that there is “a “brains race” for competitive national positioning in the global economy and long-term national social and economic security”, especially in STEM areas. He argues that “institutions emerging from the brains race with “winning” reputations will be able to account for measurably improved, “benchmarkable,” affordable educational outcomes. They will have “won” by redesigning learning opportunities and processes for (1) improved credentialing rates, (2) increased capacity for and greater convenience of access, (3) reduced per-credential expenditures, and (4) improved public accountability.” These four points are the same ones that I mentioned in last week’s “New Normal” item. His argument concludes by saying of these four points: “Such accomplishments are counter-intuitive within the culture of education and its current “business model” based on credit hours and FTEs.” He asks a series of questions, among which are the following:

  •    Is your institution focused on overall cost containment or on increasing institutional productivity with its byproduct of reduced unit costs—per- credential costs, for example?
  • Have you thought strategically about and discussed the future of tertiary education from outside in—about tertiary education’s socioeconomic compact with the public, its effectiveness in meeting public expectations and mission obligations to the public, its “business” or service model(s) and how they affect both public and private affordability, and how these “big themes” translate into the context of your institution/system?

The argument section is followed by a “Profiles in Productivity” section, that cites a number of universities and systems, including the Tennessee Board of Regents which has been favorably cited by our own Georgia Board of Regents as being a good model. In Tennessee, the BoR has changed the funding model to emphasize the number of graduates rather than the number of enrollees, to allocate resources to productivity initiatives, and to do so on a system-wide planning and programming basis. Among the major initiatives in Tennessee are (1) a new Regents Online Degree Program (which now has some 10,000 students, and is somewhat similar to eCore); (2) moving all remedial instruction into the two-year sector, and using ICT to increase student engagement, give prompt feedback, use faculty for high-touch individualized instruction, and modularize instruction; and (3) instituting a set of online Technology Foundations that focus on continuing education and workforce readiness.

Now for my own views. I think that Graves outlines the situation quite accurately, and the four points he outlines:

            (1) improved credentialing rates,

            (2) increased capacity for and greater convenience of access,

            (3) reduced per-credential expenditures, and

            (4) improved public accountability.

are exactly the major challenges we need to face, at universities in general and at SPSU in particular. The question is, can one address all four of these challenges simultaneously, or does success with one preclude another?

Both this paper and the recent AASCU meeting highlight the same basic model in what they believe is the necessary curriculum change. The example given is most commonly in introductory mathematics courses (College Algebra). While the details vary slightly from place to place, the basic idea is that the three lecture per week format is replaced by a one lecture per week meant to cover course logistics and answer questions (taught in intimate groups of several hundred), with the actual course content delivered in online modules in a “learning center” containing some 100 computers, with a faculty member and learning assistants floating around answering questions. The claim is that the results are quite good—more than 80% of the students are able to successfully meet the outcomes of the course, and earn grades of “C” or better, an improvement from previous methods.

There is no question that the above method delivers instruction for far less than the traditional lecture model. If the outcomes of the new format are truly as rigorous as before, and if the success rate indeed has improved, it seems that the impossible has been achieved. It’s been my experience, unfortunately, that things that seem Too Good To Be True often are, and the successes melt away under closer scrutiny (the Atlanta public school cheating incidents being only one recent example).

Still, there are some things here that are worth considering. There are plenty of studies that indicate that delivering content by lecture is pretty inefficient—only some 25-40% of students pick up the content of the lecture. Having the content available online, where the student can look at confusing things multiple times, seems like a no-brainer, as does having randomized online quizzes that students can take as many times as necessary to master the core material. [We used a similar hurdle quiz approach back when I was TA’ing General Chemistry back in grad school at the University of South Carolina and it worked pretty well—the big pain was keeping track of the various versions of the quiz the student had taken, something that a computer does painlessly for a faculty member.]

Whether this online content delivery should be used to supplement, partially replace, or totally replace face-to-face content delivery is a matter for debate and careful testing.

On the lab side, there is no question that some experiments can be replaced by an online simulation equivalent. If the lab largely consisted of pushing some buttons, watching an instrument do its thing, and analyzing the results; that experiment is ripe for replacement by online simulation. If half the labs in a course fell into this category, a single lab slot could serve two sections (one meeting on odd weeks, the other on even weeks), and the size of the lab could double, using the same space. This could help solve some of the crunch we at SPSU currently face in the evenings, where the number of lab slots is severely limited. Again, the outcomes would have to be monitored to see that outcomes are still being met at the same levels as before.

We’ll be talking about this sort of thing over the course of the year, and looking for your input and comments. Some of this will be controversial—we’re all used to doing things the way we’ve been doing them because we’ve had good results doing them that way. Nonetheless, we have some challenges in front of us, and we’ll need to meet them squarely.


Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Winner

The winner of the Frank Sinatra trivia contest was that ol’ crooner himself, Lance Crimm (EE), with a fabulous 4/5 correct. Lance wins a Chris Botti concert DVD. Here are the correct answers:

1. In what musical movie did Frank Sinatra star alongside Marlon Brando? Guys and Dolls

2. In what city was Frank Sinatra born? Hoboken, NJ

3. For whose big band did Frank Sinatra originally sing (before he became a solo act)? Harry James Orchestra. He went from there to Tommy Dorsey.

4. For what movie did Frank Sinatra win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor? From Here to Eternity

5. Most people have forgotten that Frank Sinatra used his fame as a strong force in favor of racial integration in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He even appeared in a short film and sang a song hit that called for equality and tolerance. What was the film/song’s title? The film won a special Oscar and a special Golden Globe. The House I Live In.

This Week’s Contest

This week, our trivia contest focuses on one of the nicest actresses to every draw breath, Annette Funicello. First with the most correct wins a Sheryl Crow concert DVD. No looking up the answers now!

  1. What was the first major television show to feature Annette? (So easy!)
  2. What brand of peanut butter was Annette the spokesperson for?
  3. What did Annette reportedly promise Walt Disney when she started to appear in beach movies (a promise that she did not ultimately keep)?
  4. What song does Annette sing in the movie “Back to the Beach” with Fishbone?       She originally sang it 23 years earlier on the album “Annette at Bikini Beach”.
  5. On what two TV shows in the late 1950’s did Annette have a recurring role?