I have long argued that the best path to long-term sustainability for many colleges and universities is to serve as many students within their geographic reach as possible, as well as they can, for 20 to 40 years rather than for two to four years. And that in order to do this, they need to transform from organizations with philosophical commitments to student success into ones that are operationally excellent at enabling student success. In other words, we need more student-ready colleges.
The reasons for this need are becoming increasingly clear and uncontroversial. On one hand, both real and hypothetical alternative revenue sources are not materializing. States are not dramatically increasing funding for public universities and in some cases continue to do the opposite. Demographics are reducing the number of "traditional" students who would almost automatically apply to their local schools. Grant funding is down. And distance learning reach to non-local students is proving to be limited. On the other hand, today's workers are in constant need of more education as their jobs continually change. We expect that trend to accelerate. All of this argues that the way forward for many colleges and universities is (a) to increase the enrollment and success rates of students who haven't traditionally applied to or completed college, and (b) maintain close, continual, long-term relationships with graduates by offering them "small bite" opportunities at education that fit with what they need to stay current and get ahead in their career paths.
Academic institutions were not designed for this (to the extent that they were designed at all). And I think that we have been singularly bad at talking about change management. There's a lot of finger-wagging and angst but not a lot of clarity about how to get the front-line folks from here to there. For all our talk about the future of work for the whole world, we seem to have a blind spot for the future of work in academia. We're not thinking about it, never mind planning for it.
One way to think about both the Empirical Educator Project and the broader new mission of e-Literate is as just that: helping to clarify the future of work for academia. To that end, I am calling out two e-Literate events happening this week that are thematically related to this idea.
Developing a growth mindset
Carol Dweck's idea of a growth mindset is a deceptively simple one. In contrast to a fixed mindset, where we believe that we are who we are, fundamentally limited by the talents and abilities we are born with, the growth mindset is the disposition that talents can be developed and that we can become more than who we are now. As Dweck often writes, it is easy to oversimplify the idea in practice. But this summary is at least a good place to start.
If academic institutions are going to be resilient in the face of the massive changes they face in their environment, then academic workers will need to cultivate a growth mindset. On an individual level, they will have to define their professional identities not just on what they have already been trained to do but what they could learn to do on the path forward from where they already are. And on a cultural level, they will need to engage in positive conversations about how they could grow together to meet the future. Strategic planning in the context of shared governance and an environment of rapid change is all about cultivating a growth mindset. It only works when the participants are willing to let go of their customary roles and explore new ways that they can constructively participate in defining both the future of the institution and their roles in it.
I'm proud to announce that Susan Baldridge will be writing (at least) a couple of guest posts on this topic. I met Susan at Middlebury College where, as Provost, she created a new role of Associate Provost for Digital Learning as one important element for fostering new thinking among the faculty about how Middlebury could continue to thrive as recognizably Middlebury in the 21st Century.
Since leaving that role and starting her own consulting business, she has co-authored a forthcoming book with Bob Zemsky and Susan Shaman called The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures Across a Crowded Market. Because the authors developed a quantitative method for identifying sustainability risk levels for colleges, the academic press wants to write stories about the output of that method. They want to write about which schools are most in danger of going bankrupt. But focusing on the output misses the point of the book. Rather, the authors' goal is to provide academics with new analytic tools which, when coupled with a growth mindset in a functional shared governance process, will enable institutional communities to steer clear of rocky shoals and chart a course toward safer waters.
I have offered Susan space here on e-Literate to frame the conversation she would like to encourage us to have. She has so far said that she will write two posts, the first of which will go live later this week. If we are lucky, she won't stop there.
The second "happening" I want to talk about is not new but rather a reminder: On Thursday, February 20th at 2 PM, I'll be hosting the e-Literate Standard of Proof webinar, Competency-based Credentials for Educational Professionals: LX Pathways from iDesign. I had the pleasure of attending the IMS's summit on digital credentials last week, which put this webinar in a new perspective for me. What are digital credentials, anyway? What's the point? What are badges, how do they tie into guided pathways, and how do those, in turn, connect with a growth mindset or the future of work?
One of my realizations of the week is that these things are all tied together. A badge is just a way of signifying that something that you did has some value to somebody. A digital badge is designed to do this in a way that hopefully makes it possible for people (and machines) to see some evidence that connects the thing you did to the value being assigned. And it's a small step, which is the point. If you are trying to move somebody from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, you want them to have the experience of feeling that something they did counts. And you want them to have that feeling often because it is addictive. Achievement is addictive. We get a little rush of dopamine. My Apple Watch told me today that I am on a "streak" for my standing and moving goals. It also gave me a badge for my "longest move streak." We sometimes call that strategy of frequent reward through recognition "gamification." When the person internalizes their ability to earn those little rewards, that represents movement toward a growth mindset.
At some point under the right circumstances, those rewards can add up to something. The participant can "level up." In modern academic parlance, this is called a "guided pathway." It both cultivates a growth mindset and channels that impulse toward the participant's real-world goals rather than just satisfying the immediate need for a sense of accomplishment. And micro-credentials, like turns in a game that can be saved and returned to later, are durable. Part-time learners who are squeezing their further education in around the rest of their lives typically need to "save the game" and come back to it often. They need an easy way to save their place and pick up where they left off, but also to choose a different path forward from there depending on how they have changed since the last time they were engaged in the coursework. Maybe they thought they wanted to be an instructional designer but since learned that they have an affinity for—and maybe a job opportunity as—a learning architect. The badges they earned that are relevant toward both paths should help them evaluate and accelerate their progress on their revised path.
One of the aspects that I like about iDesign's LX Pathways competency-based program is that it has all of these features. Learners work toward one of several certificates of 21st-Century academic work skills, like instructional technologist or learning architect. They do it one competency at a time. Competencies that apply to multiple credentials give learners the flexibility to make different choices at a fairly granular level. This is a model that we need to think about providing for academic workers if we want to support the future of academic work. This, in turn, is something we need to think about if we want our academic institutions to continue serving society well in the next millennium.
More to come
These are not the first two e-Literate/EEP efforts in the "future of work for academic workers" theme, but they are the first two that I have explicitly labeled as such. I will be developing this theme going forward.