Learning Productivity: Some Key Questions
D. Bruce Johnstone
Higher education in the United States and throughout most of the world is in a serious and probably lasting period of financial hardship. The austerity involves both revenues and expenditures: a diminution of revenues, both public and private, and a prolonged escalation of unit costs, exceeding even the rate of increase of labor costs, suggesting insufficient cost controls and an unwillingness or inability to prioritize.
The problem is exacerbated for public higher education by the view in the United States, and increasingly world-wide, that the entire public sector, including public colleges and universities, has become swollen, cumbersome, and unresponsive to the nee ds and opinions of the general citizenry. Public institutions are caught up in the surging conservatism that would downsize government, privatize formerly public services, reduce taxes, and diminish state concern for such traditional social values as expa nding higher educational opportunities or marshaling the resources of the academy to solve social problems.
In the tuition-dependent private sector, the long-anticipated price resistance appears finally to have arrived. Those institutions with the most prestige and the greatest endowments will continue to be able to meet their enrollment and net tuition reve nue targets, although at alarmingly high costs to parents and high debt burdens to many students, and with some diminution of selectivity in admissions. But at least some of the least-selective, least-endowed institutions are likely to be unable to overco me their most fundamental problem, which continues to be the decline of the traditional, middle- and upper-middle class college-age population. Some will close; others will become marginal providers, sustained by aggressive marketing, governmental aid, an d high levels of student debt.
Higher education's traditional response to a gap between its trajectories of cost and revenue has been to increase tuition and cut costs: eliminating low-enrollment programs, substituting low-cost, part-time faculty for full-time faculty, increasing cl ass sizes and teaching loads, eliminating non-teaching professional staff, cutting secretarial services and other faculty support, cutting and deferring maintenance, and allowing salaries to lag. The next step is to eliminate senior faculty, either by mor e early retirement "buy-outs" or through actual layoffs, followed by closures of programs, schools, and even whole institutions, along with restrictions on enrollments and access
While these cost-side responses to higher education's financial dilemma are being constructed and debated, there needs to be much more attention to the output, or learning, side of the alleged productivity problem. It is at least arguable that the major remaining productivity problem (particularly given the great downsizing and cost cutting that have already occurred in most public and less-selective private colleges) is not excessive costs, but insufficient learning. The cu lprits, then, are such practices as:
Time-to-degree. What are the major factors influencing time-to-degree? What student and institutional characteristics are associated with attrition, persistence, and time-to-degree? Are there "best practice" institutions with specific pol icies and/or procedures responsible for more expeditious time to degree?
Year-round study. What are the economics of year-round study? Why have there been so many failures in attempts to implement year-round calendars? Are the principal barriers to year-round study its high institutional costs, or faculty resi stance to giving up summers, or existing practices and labor contracts? Or does the principal barrier to year round study lie more with the student: the student's demand for summers off, for example, or the need for students to earn money for two or three months of the year in order to minimize student debt? Is the year-round academic calendar, as some would suggest, merely another solution looking for the right problem?
Mastery learning. How can self-paced mastery learning become an integral part of teaching and learning at "ordinary" colleges? Why is it so difficult to establish the learning goals of a course as the independent variable, and then to see how long it takes individual students to master these goals, as opposed to setting the number of weeks for the course as the independent variable and seeing how much the students learn at the conclusion of the arbitrarily-determined time period? What kin d of critical mass of the curriculum (for example, the entire lower division general education core, or all of the courses within a major, or perhaps those courses considered "basic skills" or "remedial") must be included in the self-paced portion for thi s mode of instruction to be cost-effective?
College-level learning in high school. How much college-level learning can take place during the high school years, and what are the alternative policies and procedures for such learning? Is collegiate-level learning best done in the high schools, or in college classrooms, or via some kind of technology-aided distance, or self-paced, learning? What are the financial implications of these measures for the high schools, the colleges, the families, and the taxpayers? What are the quality and academic integrity implications of collegiate credit for high school learning experiences, particularly in today's marketing-oriented competition for students?
Academic drift. What is the association between major field of study, the timing of the selection of that major field, and the ultimate time to the degree? How can students be advised or counseled or otherwise induced to the goal of less academic drift and more expeditious degree completion?
Effectiveness of learning, including more and/or better time on task. How can students be trained to focus and concentrate better so that an hour's worth of study yields more learning? How can we then show students that they must study mu ch more than "an hour," and help students resist some of the many distractions of part-time or full-time work, family, recreation and athletics, television, and aimless socializing? What do we know of the relationship between hours spent in a paying job, and effective learning? In more practical terms, what is the trade-off, real and perceived, between:
The connection between learning productivity and institutional productivity. How do advances in learning productivity, however achieved, translate into actual savings to institutional or system budgets, or at least in enhanced capacity to provide additional, or more effective, access for minimal additional public dollars? How would we know whether advances in learning productivity were being realized in more efficient use of the taxpayer dollar? How might the answers differ between an ins titution or system under pressures of clearly expanding need and demand, such as the California State University System, where the goal is to lower the marginal per-student or per-degree cost, but still in an environment of considerable expansion, and an institution or system such as the State University of New York, where there is much less likelihood of overall expansion and where the object of the state government, at least into the near future, may simply be to reduce the over all state expenditures on public higher education without badly compromising quality? In short, how can advances in learning productivity address the budget dilemmas of state governments, state systems, individual institutions, and students and their fami lies?
This newsletter welcomes comments on these key questions, particularly of a length and generality that can be published in subsequent issues.
Learning Productivity Initiatives
1. More year-round study and other innovations with the academic calendar
2. More college-level learning in high school
3. More effective advising (more focused learning)
4. More attention to the habits and skills of learning: more academic effort
5. More self-paced learning
6. More provision for early entry into graduate and advanced professional study
One of the most promising areas for higher education in terms of cost savings and curricular enrichment is the enhancement of collegiate-level learning options for high school juniors and seniors.
Often, the latter years of a high school career are somewhat wasted by those who have already completed graduation requirements. Additionally, the curriculum may frequently be redundant when compared to the freshman year of college. Students presented with the challenge of college coursework during the secondary years can begin accumulating credits and as a result, one or more of the following advantages may apply:
Some states have chosen to expand these opportunities for the portion of the student body exhibiting the most academic talent. While others have embraced the concept of promotion of collegiate level learning on a wider scale by offering choices to purs ue college coursework for all students rather than only the very brightest. The major directions for state initiatives which encourage increased collegiate level learning in the secondary sector are:
1) Advanced Placement: The College Board's national examination program has been adopted and expanded as a means to earn college credit for high school students in many states.
2) Credit Validation: Courses are taught within the high school but according to the terms of the validating college or university. Faculty are trained by, and credit is awarded from, the sponsoring post secondary institution.
3) Concurrent/Dual Enrollment: Students register for college or university courses on local campuses while still in high school.
The following excerpts briefly describe such initiatives now occurring in several states. In most cases, students earn high school and college credit simultaneously.
Minnesota instituted a Postsecondary Options Program, in 1985 which permits all Minnesota high school upperclassmen to enroll in public or private institutions located throughout the state at taxpayer expense. Over 7500, or 7.5% of the st ate's juniors and seniors, participated in 1991-92. Courses are also offered in the credit validation style within the Minnesota high schools through the College in the Schools program. Similar Postsecondary Options programs are offered in Iowa and Georgia.
Utah has operated a Concurrent Enrollment Program since the late 1980's which has expanded considerably, serving approximately 7,500 students in 1993-94. Local school districts are charged with creating annual contracts with postsecondary institutions to determine: courses offered, location of instruction, student eligibility, tuition fees, teacher and curriculum. Offerings are limited to English, mathematics, fine arts, humanities, science, social science, and vocational/ technical progr ams. Credit earned through the program is transferable between all public higher education institutions in Utah.
Washington created a Running Start program in 1992 which entitles public high school students to register for college courses on either a full- or part-time basis in 32 community and technical colleges during 11th and 12th grade. Eligibil ity is determined via a standardized test for most colleges. Tuition costs are covered by a redirection of a predetermined, uniform portion of the home districts state funding to the colleges. The initial pilot program was expanded to include several publ ic four-year universities for geographic areas lacking a community college. The program served over 5,000 students in the 1993-94 academic year, representing 4% of the state's high school juniors and seniors.
The Virginia Plan for Dual Enrollment, formalized in 1988, functions to allow high school students to begin college study in academic, fine arts or vocational courses through the state system's community colleges. Courses are offered at the high school, with the colleges assuming faculty credentialing, as well as on the college campuses. The State Council on Higher Education has advocated maximizing all avenues of college-level learning opportunities for its high school population and has recomm ended strategies to encourage acceptance of this credit by colleges and universities.
Many states have been quite active in their promotion and financial support of the Advanced Placement (AP) Program. South Carolina standardized credit policies with public postsecondary institutions, required all public schools to offer AP and p ays the exam fees for eleventh and twelfth graders. Florida provides an extra 1.24 FTEs for every public school student AP grade of 3 or higher which allows many school districts to pay exam fees. California, West Virginia, and Wisconsin mandate state college and university acceptance of AP examination scores of 3 or better. Additional state initiatives include the payment of fees for economically disadvantaged students and the funding of professional development or other support for AP.
Learning Productivity Network Goes On-Line
Looking for some on-line resources that relate to research and policy on learning productivity in higher education? Have an inquiry regarding a specific issue? The Learning Productivity Network is providing on-line resources for discussion a nd inquiry.
For general information on the Learning Productivity Network, visit our WWW site at http://wings.buffalo.edu/gse/lpn. The Learning Productivity home page contains several forms of information, including on-line editions of The Learning Productivity News, information on research and meetings concerned with the notion of learning productivity, and links to related sites.
An electronic mailing list devoted to learning productivity discussions, lpn-list, is also available. This discussion group uses LISTSERV software. To subscribe to the list, send an electronic message to LIS TSERV@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU. Do not fill in the subject line. The subscription message is:
Subscribe lpn-list yourfirstname yourlastname
Shortly after you send this message, you will receive confirmation that it has been received, and you will be asked to confirm your subscription. Once you have confirmed, you will receive information on commands, discussion group and practices.
In addition, you can e-mail us at the Learning Productivity Network. Our address is email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you.
Learning productivity features heavily in the Center's report and recommendations, as in the following section:
Strategy Six: Accelerate Student Learning Before and During College.
The California Higher Education Policy Center
160 West Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA 95113
Two faculty members from the University at Buffalo, D. Bruce Johnstone, University Professor of Higher and Comparative Education, and William C. Barba, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, have coordinated the activities of the group. Senate and un ion leaders from both systems have met several times since fall 1995. Funding for the project has been provided by TIAA-CREF.
At the Long Beach meeting, faculty participated in several workshops on such topics as
differentiation of faculty workloads and changing career patterns;
Copies of "Higher Education: The Voice of Faculty" may be obtained
from the Learning Productivity Network, State University of New York at
Buffalo, 484 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260-1000. or by firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Year-Round Learning or Other Alternatives to the Traditional Academic Calendar
One half of the respondents would implement, most (36% of the faculty and 27% of other) because it makes educational sense regardless of any productivity payoff. Thirty-nine per cent (32% of faculty and 44% of other) expected long-run productivity payo ff, but thought that alternatives to the traditional calendar should be implemented only "slowly and carefully."
2. Self-Paced, Asynchronous, Technology-Aided Learning
Thirty-eight per cent (20% of faculty, but 49% of other) would implement for "educational sense" regardless of productivity payoff, and
15% would implement now for the productivity gains, while 41% (including 56% of the faculty) see productivity gains coming "slowly and/or with difficulty," and would implement only "slowly and carefully."
3. Enhanced College-Level Learning in High School (AP, dual enrollment, or validation by university of high school courses as "college-level)
Forty-four per cent would implement for its "educational sense," regardless of productivity impact, and 15% (and only two of the 25 faculty) would implement for productivity gains. Twenty-one per cent would implement only "slowly and carefully," while an equal percentage would not implement yet, fearing adverse impacts on either learning or equity.
4. Measures to increase the course load of the average student (encouraging and/or facilitating at least 15 credit loads per semester or the equivalent.)
Only 15 per cent would implement quickly (and none of the faculty would implement for productivity gains), and 13% might implement "slowly and carefully," but nearly 75% of all respondents and 74% of the faculty would not implement, mainly for fear of an adverse impact on learning.
5. Measures to Minimize "Excessive" Accumulation of Credits for the Baccalaureate Degree (including better advising for earlier entry into a "good fit" major, discouraging aimless drift, and for public colleges, raising tuition for credits over some upper limit)
Nearly half would implement, including 32% for "educational sense;" 16% would implement only slowly and/or with difficulty; almost 20% would not implement, most of them (including 16% of the faculty) fearing an adverse impact on learning.
6. Measures to Enhance Study Effort and Concentration (study skills courses and so-called intrusive advising )
Fifty-two per cent would implement regardless of impact on productivity; another 23% would implement for the purpose of a productivity payoff; but 24% would hesitate and/or move cautiously.
7. Earlier Beginning of Graduate and Advanced Professional Study
Almost 20% of the respondents would implement for the "educational sense," regardless of the impact on productivity; another 14% would implement for the productivity gains; and more than 20% would not implement. However, 38% of all respondents, includi ng 44% of the faculty, believed that productivity gains would come about "slowly and/or with difficulty," and would implement only "slowly and carefully."
The Learning Productivity News
is published quarterly by
The Learning Productivity Network
Department of Educational Organization, Adminstration, and Policy
Graduate School of Education
484 Baldy Hall
State University of New York at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
D. Bruce Johnstone, Director
Patricia A. Maloney, Editor
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