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If online education hasn’t already saved your university, it probably won’t

Online education is absolutely necessary. Excellent online education is even more important.

For many students, it’s going to be a welcome alternative, especially when someone figures it out enough to create a holistic, quality, interactive learning experience.

But universities need to realize that it won’t be the saving grace for every institution. Here’s why:

In an online world, where the cost of switching is almost zero, one or two entities always win out. 

Search engines? Google.

Online shopping? Amazon.

Wasting time? Facebook (kind of).

If you’re going to take online courses, why not take them from the best place to get online courses for the cheapest price? There’s no clear winner here yet, which means a lot of schools can take a small piece of the pie. But in a few years, a dominant player will emerge and the terrain will change.

Some schools will be able to carve out a unique niche with a specialized product. Someone may have the best training for sociologists. Someone else might have the best faith-based online curriculum. But for the majority of students looking for a certain degree online, there will be one or two dominant options.

What does this mean for colleges and universities? When it comes to online delivery, I’m thinking there are a few options:

1. Race to be the best (If you don’t already have a dominant program, you’re way behind).

2. Ignore it and focus on your campus experience (Some folks can do this well. It seems risky, but it depends on the context).

3. Form a network of universities with reciprocating agreements and offer a variety of online courses together (Thinking about scale here. How can you use technology to your advantage in a way that doesn’t require being the dominant player?)

4. ? (I’m sure there are innovative options here. Hybrid courses. Online options that partner with companies to train people to work specifically for them. There are lots of possibilities.)

No matter what an institution decides, it’s clear that each university needs to be able to clearly articulate their unique value proposition.

Why do you exist?

No, not to “educate students to become ethical leaders in a global society.” That’s every college and university.

Why do you exist?

That definition should drive the campus experience as well as the online options. We need to be mission-centered in new initiatives, too.

Technology has the potential to disrupt this whole educational experience. In a lot of ways, for students, parents, and anyone paying for the higher ed experience, that’s needed. But it means campuses need to do the hard work of deciding why we do what we do – why what we do means someone would go here rather than there.

(I think this change holds great opportunity for folks in Student Affairs. But that’s for another post.)

Tough love on self-care

oasis1

You can’t care for or lead others unless you care for and lead yourself.

It’s counterintuitive but true. You think you’re being selfless when you push yourself beyond healthy limits (in time, relationships, rest, working out). But you’re setting yourself up for failure and letting everyone who relies on you down.

In fact, sometimes we wear our exhaustion as a badge of honor. Look how hard I’m working! I’m so noble! But the truth is, we’re settling for something less than our best.

You’re letting people down if you don’t take care of yourself. Your role in your job, your family, your group of friends is too important to settle for a half-strength, distracted, and exhausted version of you.

We owe it to the people around us to be rested, healthy, and present. And most of the time, we can do it without letting (many) people down. You have to prioritize and say no to some things. Saying “no” is tough at first, but once you start, it becomes more clear what is “filler” in life and what really matters.

There are lots of ways to look at self care, but it almost always starts with the physical. If our physical bodies are worn down, we’re going to be pretty worthless relationally, emotionally and spiritually.

Here are a few areas to consider:

Eat – Everyone has an opinion on this. I think something like this or this is a solid approach. But whatever your approach is, find a way of eating real food that works for you – something that is nourishing and gives you energy.

Sleep – That extra hour of work at night doesn’t make you more productive. You need 8 hours of sleep. You really do. Maybe you’re lucky and need 7 or so. But be honest about how much you need. You’ll also sleep better if you go to bed and get up around the same time each day. I know that’s tough. I don’t do it well. But it’s true.

Move – Maybe this is walking every day for 30 minutes. Maybe it’s going to the gym three times a week. Maybe it’s extreme kayaking every evening (yeah, that would be cool, right?). I don’t know how it works for you, but movement increases our energy, makes us happier, helps us live longer, and even makes us smarter.

Reflect and Renew – Some people need to be alone and reflect. Others need to get out and connect. But we all need a way to recharge. So whether it’s coffee with a friend, prayer, reading, silence, journaling, or something else entirely. Find whatever works for you to feel mentally and emotionally renewed.

“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” – Samuel Johnson

None of this is new or groundbreaking. The tough part is putting it into action.

We weren’t meant to be “on” all the time. We aren’t best when we’re sitting around doing nothing 24/7 either. Our bodies and lives work best with healthy rhythms of stress and rest. Finding time to take care of the basics can make all the difference.

Focusing on the difficult part of innovation

In creating a new project, the essential step is isolating the difficult part and focusing on that. The easy parts are important and they take work, but they tend to take care of themselves if the core engine is working.

Wikipedia: find people to volunteer to become editors

AirBnB: find people to put great houses up for rent

Typical MOOC: find millions of students willing to take a course (you don’t need infinite teachers, just a few, meaning the students are actually the hard part)

– Seth Godin on the Krypton Community College site

I love Seth’s perspective here. Successful growth and change isn’t about getting every new piece perfect. It’s about putting energy into the most important pieces.

Assessment lessons from The Lean Startup

Assessment is a hot topics in student affairs, but in most places, there may be more talk than action. I think this comes from two problems with the process: Runners Don’t Take Photos and the Dusty Binder Syndrome.

Runners Don’t Take Photos is simple. The woman running the race isn’t the one stopping to document the moment. She’s got something else on her mind. Most people who get into student affairs don’t pick the field because they love filling out reports. They’re likely relators or doers who are busy working in their area of expertise. Stopping to zoom out, plan ahead, and measure is a luxury most people don’t think they have.

The Dusty Binder Syndrome is caused by that feeling you get when you spend time on a project you suspect will just gather dust on a shelf. When we fill out forms because of a process rather than a need, it demotivates and fails to create change.

Are we assessing for accreditation or assessing so we can get better at what we do? Hopefully both, but how we set up the process matters.

You can use improvement-focused data in accreditation reports. But data gathered for accreditation won’t always lead to real change. In fact, gathering info on the same things we’ve always done may insure a lack of change.

The Lean Startup shares a process that can fix both challenges. Derek Sivers has an excellent summary of the book, but here are Derek’s quotes from the part of interest:

Too many startup business plans look more like they are planning to launch a rocket ship than drive a car. They prescribe the steps to take and the results to expect in excruciating detail, and as in planning to launch a rocket, they are set up in such a way that even tiny errors in assumptions can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

The customers failed to materialize, the company had committed itself so completely that they could not adapt in time. They had “achieved failure” – successfully, faithfully, and rigorously executing a plan that turned out to have been utterly flawed.

Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path.

The strategy may have to change (called a pivot). However, the overarching vision rarely changes. Entrepreneurs are committed to seeing the startup through to that destination. Every setback is an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go.

Too many higher ed assessment plans make the same mistake. It makes sense. The academic mindset is more likely to tolerate forms, processes, and change that takes time. (After all, a dissertation isn’t written in a day) But that mindset is a core reason we’re struggling to innovate or change. Most assessment processes are too specific and rigid.Image

It’s the rocket ship instead of the car from above. This leads to people who spend their days filling out forms instead of leading, creating value, or connecting with students.

As student affairs begins to value assessment, we need to consider how we assess what we’re doing. We need to build a process that encourages innovation.

The Lean Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn process is a good starting point. Have a vision. Create it. Test it. Adapt. The 20-year plan is gone. The 5-year plan doesn’t work, either.

So know the “what” of your organization: Have big vision and values, and know what your department or organization stands for. But the how has to be flexible. So assessing the “learning outcomes” may need to change from year to year, too.

“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” Seems like an appropriate mindset for an educational institution, right?

Dan Ariely on MOOCs and the future of higher education

Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, author of books like Predictably Irrational, speaker at TED, and professor at Duke, just kicked off a MOOC through Coursera with 144,000 participants. He talks about the experience in an insightful interview. This section on the future of higher education was particularly interesting:

I don’t think that the future of the university is doomed for a few reasons. First, having a scheduled class with obligations, deadlines, exams, real consequences and real rewards is incredibly important for human motivation and getting people to spend the necessary time and effort to really understand the material. The second reason is that the model of many universities, in which students study and live together, is a particularly helpful model for creating the environment that people need to take their education seriously. It is not just about the particular classes, but about being immersed in an academic environment for a substantial period of time.

I also think that some of the teaching in traditional colleges could be transferred to video lectures, but rather than serve as a replacement, they could be used as a supplement to free up the regular classroom to have higher level discussions and debates. This is the “flipped classroom” approach that has been getting so much hype. In essence, it could make the undergraduate college experience more similar to the graduate experience, at least in terms of the quality of the discussion.

And finally, video lectures are incredibly time-consuming to create. The team that worked on the videos for “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality” figured out that we spent about 150 hours on each hour of video that was produced. Of course, we could have spent much less time and effort, but then the quality would have suffered and the learning experience would have taken a toll. This initial effort was worth it to me, but I think that spending so much time revising the lectures, improving them, and creating more classes, is something that very few professors and universities will be willing to do long-term.

Innovation in student affairs – where do you see it?

I’m looking for examples of innovation in higher education – particularly student affairs/student life – and I need your help.

disney
Not this.

Innovation is a tricky word. Maybe it brings to mind images like Disney’s “house of the future,” sending a rocket to Mars, or Steve Jobs introducing a phone that will revolutionize the mobile phone and computer industries.

But I think innovation is more basic – and more important – than those once-every-20-years examples. Innovation is being clear about what you do and why you do it and then finding the best way to do those things regardless of what has been done in the past. It’s looking at a situation in a context, addressing the needs, and creating the best possible solution.

Sharing ideas at conferences is great, but this kind of contextual change doesn’t come from copying the best practices of a college across the nation.

Innovation is needed in student affairs.

I’ll be honest. I have an agenda here. I want to see student affairs as a field go beyond managing the programs we’ve been given. I want us to clearly define why we exist, take that vision, and move forward in a way that works for each context.

There are books upon books about upcoming changes in higher education, and student life is rarely listed as a driving force or voice in these conversations. We need to effectively communicate the importance of the development, learning, and integration that happens through the entire college experience – inside and outside of the classroom. Just like educational practices have to change over time as students, culture, and information changes, the way we do our job must change as well. It may mean large changes, or they may be small. But that growth is healthy and needed.

So the goal is to collect and highlight examples of innovation in student affairs – not so others can imitate, but so we can understand the process, challenges, and lessons learned through innovation and change.

Share your examples here, and pass this along to others!