Monday, January 31, 2011

The Reflective Practitioner

Every once in a while, years ago, I would get together with a faculty member who taught philosophy at the community college where I worked. I loved to ask him questions and hear him reflect on his dissertation, a recent publication, or a discussion he had recently facilitated in a philosophy class. At times we would explore different sides of the argument about the value of a liberal arts education and its place in the community college – particularly one with a number of career programs. One sunny spring day at a sidewalk cafĂ©, I thought I’d crafted a position that (for the sake of argument and to expand my thinking from his greatly anticipated response) ruled out the need for general education when tuition-paying students deserved to have a degree that simply led to a job or a career. Without missing a beat, the Professor quickly deconstructed my statements and responded, “it’s fine to have that welder graduate from our college and be the very best welder he or she can be – I want that student in my philosophy class so they understand not just what they’re welding, but why they’re welding. I’m in the business of creating the reflective practitioner.”

That notion, of a reflective practitioner, has stayed with me. Offering a comprehensive array of both liberal arts and technical career programs is one of the many things I cherish about Mohawk Valley Community College. Most technical colleges are so narrowly focused that students lose the context of their craft and lack a deeper understanding of their field. A number of community colleges have jettisoned technical degree programs because of the expense and, as a result, have quietly become nothing more than a junior college by default – offering low-cost transfer programs. MVCC, on the other hand, has a wide-range of transfer programs that provide low-cost/high-value options for the first two-years of college, as well as technical programs in nearly every career cluster.

I am so proud of MVCC’s commitment to the range of programs we have; our unique Diversity and Global View graduation requirement; and the introduction of learning communities and interdisciplinary work of late. Our world is rapidly increasing in complexity, so the importance of, and appreciation for, our comprehensive mission and ability to integrate learning experiences for students has never been greater. These things help create a clear path for us to focus our curriculum, further define the environment for student success, and graduate those reflective practitioners who will lead this community, state, and country through the uncertain future that lies ahead.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Performance Funding - it's time.

Last week I attended Chancellor Dr. Nancy Zimpher’s State of the University address. http://www.suny.edu/chancellor/speeches_presentations/SOU2011.cfm. I applaud her effort to create what will hopefully become an annual tradition. It was great to be part of the event. A brass quintet from SUNY Potsdam played as we entered the dimly lit auditorium of the Egg in Albany. During her address, the Chancellor highlighted several accomplishments that occurred throughout the past year across the 64 SUNY campuses. She reviewed the University’s Strategic Plan – branded the Power of SUNY - and amplified the potential for this Plan to leverage a range of SUNY assets to help drive the economic redevelopment of the Empire State.

Dr. Zimpher also referenced the extremely volatile economic and political environment in the state – within which we all must navigate. Governor Cuomo’s inaugural address showed hopeful signs of repositioning SUNY for significant service. However, the financial challenges the Governor needs to address are likely so large that resources will continue to erode for yet another year while the fundamental structural changes to the state budget are finally implemented. The Chancellor made clear a number of priorities including student mobility – which has made groundbreaking progress in the past year – as well as student access and completion, with a special reference to the importance of online learning. She also referenced the possibility of shared services throughout the SUNY system as a means of creating efficiencies and economies of scale. Although it’s hard to say what types of services could be shared, the idea is a good one and will need everyone’s creativity and effort.

Perhaps the most daring part of the address came when the Chancellor proposed developing a performance-based funding model where a portion of campus funding would be determined by a set of measures that allow for comparisons between colleges. While the proposal wouldn’t start until 2012, and seems to only be directed at four-year SUNY schools at this point, I’m very supportive of such a move. As a taxpayer I say, “finally, performance-based funding!” As an educator, I say, “we will rise to the challenge and such an incentive can only make us better!” I had the opportunity to participate in such a shift in funding 15 years ago in Colorado – performance funding is nothing new, but something higher education still hasn’t gotten quite right. The fact that the Chancellor is putting this forth resonates what is often said with regard to performance funding, "better that we propose it and define it than hiding our heads in the sand, leaving it to others to define for us, and hoping everything will be okay."

Like criteria for institutional accreditation and assessment requirements, performance funding amplifies what we should be doing anyway – defining success; measuring performance; and linking it to resources. As a publicly funded institution, we should not leave performance to chance and simply ask people to “trust us.” We say that fundamental changes are needed to change this country, state, and region in most every way. Too often, when we hear a new idea like performance funding, it’s easy to dismiss it out-of-hand rather than giving it a chance and changing our way of thinking and changing our reality for the better.

If you have any questions on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Community of Learners

What a joy it was to join everyone at the January Institute last week. The opening plenary session with Joye Hardiman and Greg Hinckley was inspiring. Focused on the latest research and practice in learning communities, we experienced two incredible teachers (she from Evergreen State and he from Seattle Central Community College) talking about incredible teaching in an energetic and engaging manner.

The Learning Community is an instructional strategy that has been around for more than thirty years and has recently emerged as an active academic initiative at MVCC that I'd like to see made into a priority. Research has demonstrated increased student learning and success rates among students who participate in Learning Communities compared to those who do not. Perhaps the biggest take away from their presentation, for me, was that the Learning Community (LC) definition has evolved from “model-based” to “assignment-based."

When I worked with Learning Communities in Denver and Omaha, there were eight different models emphasized nationally. The definition has evolved, with research over the years, to emphasize the conditions necessary for deep learning to occur through the power of community. As our speakers said, “at the heart of all learning communities is an intentionally designed integrated assignment.” The other interesting shift that’s occurred is that LCs have moved from being primarily identified by faculty interest (e.g. two faculty get together and identify some curriculum they have in common, etc.) to include curricular trouble spots (e.g. students struggling with the developmental math, etc.) – powerful stuff.

The change in conditions necessary for deep learning is powerful information as well. By this point in the presentation, my mind was racing and I couldn’t write fast enough to capture the multiple applications flooding my head (Ah, the joy of learning)! As I wrote, I thought about how these conditions not only apply to the student experience, but also to our work with each other, as members of the MVCC family. Read these four primary conditions with that in mind – applying to students and applying to the entirety of MVCC.
Active, collaborative strategies – people working together rather than working in isolation.
Fluid teacher-student roles – everyone learning from each other.
Integrated services and programs – everyone working in the same direction, toward the same goals; with the other vs. against.
High expectations and high levels of encouragement and support – that’s what makes community colleges special! We should not be that school where it is said, "Look to your left and right. One or two of you will certainly fail." If anyone at MVCC is thinking or, worse, is practicing that "philosophy", they have it wrong. Adapting the Learning Community approach to our work, MVCC should say, "Look to your left and your right…we’re all in this together and it's our commitment to you that everyone will get all the support we can muster to give each of you every opportunity to succeed!"

Even the LC's five secondary conditions can help us carry out our mission better:
Intentional strategies – assignments are coordinated in an intentional manner. I don’t know if our speakers said it or I heard something that sparked it, but I wrote down the phrase, “a framework for brainwork” – I like that.
Naming – understanding how and why things are named, and the notion that knowledge is not neutral.
Accountability – contracts and covenants created to clarify expectations among/between parties (students & faculty; students & students; students & staff; faculty & staff; faculty & faculty; staff & staff, etc.).
Testimonies – appreciative inquiry used to emphasize the power of autobiographical sketch and reflection on “lessons learned and wisdom earned” from the peaks and valleys of life.
Reframing – the importance of process and learning to interact with and expand knowledge.
Creating and sharing – channeling our collective creativity to solve problems, rather than maintaining a status quo (it works in the classroom and committees alike!)

Learning in Community creates a collective energy and understanding that surpasses individual growth. Imagine these basic principles expanding to improve student learning while, at the same time, improving our organizational ability to meet our mission of "promoting student success and community involvement through a commitment to excellence and a spirit of service" – the power of learning together as the magnetic core that binds us.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Progress by the Years

I started my career in institutional research trying to turn raw data into useful information to inform thinking and decision making. Whenever I come across interesting ways of displaying data - in ways that make you say "wow" - I can't resist the opportunity to share. The notion of progress and innovation increasing life expectancy and personal income around the world comes with optimism and renewed energy that the New Year brings. The following link was shared with me from a previous post with an interesting animation. It's titled 200 years, 200 countries, in four minutes. It's a professor who animates his data to show the change in life expectancy and personal income around the world over the past two centuries. If you have 4 minutes, take a look - once again the power of technology to help us understand our world a little more than we did yesterday.

If you have any comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.