Wednesday, March 11, 2015

25. Important decisions often involve trade-offs.

... continued from the previous post

9. There was another kind of organizational frustration that seemed to be rampant each August when we would have something like 60 classes beginning for the Fall. There would often be a series of misfires. Many if not most of these, I would say, had nothing to do with us. They had to do with a complex and overworked infrastructure, in my opinion.

So with new students, there were several different places at that time where their new log-in information had to be entered into IWU's system. Sometimes an individual student would be entered in one place but not in another. So a student's email would work, but they wouldn't be able to get into their courses. Or they could get into their courses but weren't receiving emails.

Sometimes the wrong "master course" had been copied for some reason. The system at that time involved us going through a long list of upcoming courses to make sure that the right course to come was correctly matched with the correct master course in the system. This process of correlating sometimes ended with things being mismatched in the system and thus with a course that needed to be deleted, re-matched, and recopied.

Then there were those times when it was our fault. Copying a course seemed to me to work a little like a pinball machine. First the machine loaded the ball. Then you fired the ball.

So there was a time where the course had already been initiated into the womb of the system but it had not been birthed. Any work a professor did on their master course during this period would not make it into the course once it appeared on the other side. So all the work they had done in this liminal zone was destined to be a waste, at least for a semester, unless we could get it deleted and recopied.

There was so much going on in IT at that time--with a smaller and smaller staff--that this was a bad situation. If everything copied correctly, no worries. But when a problem did occur, it could take a week or more to fix, sometimes after a course had already started. Professors or students would complain. We would send emails. Then a day or two later we would send another email. Sometimes in desperation we would end up having to make phone calls.

One of our heroes at this time--and he remains my hero even today--was Greg Stanley. There was a day when there were several Greg-type helpers around. These were the "above and beyond" types that I think make an organization great. Insert here all the necessary caveats about sabbath and family time. But if those core values are in place, an institution just will not be phenomenal if at least some key people are not eating, breathing, and sleeping the mission.

Over the years, Greg has fixed SO much for us. I am so grateful that his load has lightened so much this last year or so. (At least I think it has) We end up emailing him far less these days than we used to, and he is usually able to fix things within a day or less.

10. What changed? IWU entered into an agreement with Pearson that integrated our systems and outsourced some of the key work.

It was at the beginning of Year 5, in the summer of 2013. The interim management team at IWU decided to make this switch, under the advisement of the Executive Director of the Center for Learning Innovation at IWU, Lorne Oke. Henry Smith had become Chancellor at the end of 2012, and David Wright became President elect in late Spring. So in the Spring of 2013, the university was run by a management triumvirate of David Wright, Keith Newman, and Duane Kilty.

From a faculty perspective, it has been hard to figure out why the university made this move. The new LMS (Learning Management System), Learning Studio, is not as good as Blackboard. Every online course I teach, I miss features like being able to make comments on documents in the system rather than having to download them. Blackboard would email you when a student made a comment in a particular forum, making it easier to be a professor. The aesthetics arguably aren't as good. It did not have the possibility of embedding video at first.

We were told the advantages were "single sign on" and a move to the future--electronic books instead of paper books. Further, we would have access to the repository of teaching artifacts in Pearson's system. The switch to e-books would pay for the cost of Pearson and save the university what it was paying for Blackboard. We would charge the students the same amount they were already paying for CAPS to mail them paper books, but the electronic books they would now use would be less expensive. That difference would pay for Pearson.

11. Let me treat the good before the puzzling. First, let me center on those words "single sign on." I think most of us glazed over every time we heard those words. But I have a hunch that those words hold the key to why I have been FAR less frustrated in August and January than I used to be. Seriously, I sometimes was almost in despair in a January or August because these little problems would arise that seemed to be out there in some nebulous zone beyond my reach. And Karen and I had no idea why things just were not happening.

I believe that those problems largely went away because of the switch to Pearson. A person entered once into the system is entered everywhere. Email, courses, information are all in one single place. It's not necessarily an attractive interface, but it is easy and fairly straightforward.

Was it worth it for that peace of mind? For the Seminary, probably. I think IWU must have faced the choice of paying a lot of money to hire expensive people to run these things internally OR they could outsource it and forge this sort of arrangement with Pearson. Since IWU was not feeling particularly profitable in 2012, the decision makes sense to me.

12. As for the pie in the sky about e-books, that was, shall we say, a little problematic. In hindsight, it's now pretty amusing to me. The Seminary has always been unique enough that we could sit looser to these larger university goings on, and the e-book thing was one of them. So, for the most part, it was no skin off our noses.

For one, Pearson does not have much in the way of electronic resources in the area of ministry. There just weren't the e-books and learning modules for us to use. Here was another time where CAPS assumed everyone did things their way. Lorne and others were surprised to know that the Seminary didn't mail its books to students. So there went the dream of how to pay for Pearson in the Seminary.

In the end, our students ended up having to pay a $55 fee for every online course they take with a pre-made master course. That now pays for Learning Studio, the LMS. I forget how much more that is than what they were paying before in relation to Blackboard. It's not a lot, several hundred dollars but less than a thousand for the whole degree, if I remember correctly. We negotiated so that onsite courses would not have to pay the fee, following the model that CAS negotiated.

13. I'm amazed that the infrastructure pulled off the transition as quickly and successfully as it did. People like Sue Melton should get some kind of a medal, along with many others. Lorne Oke, Kurt Thompson worked incredibly hard.

(It was a risky move, from a leadership perspective. It was rushed through, with virtually no faculty input. Even administrative leaders had little or no say in the decision. It is one of those top down decisions that is a coup if you pull it off and it works, but heads usually roll if it does not come off well.)

I am amazed that some of those driving the change actually thought that a one-size-fits-all shift could work. For example, there was this idea that there could only be one master course for any course, whether online or onsite. So the onsite students would now get the same online course that online students get! I am flabbergasted that ANYONE could think this was optimal. How could this pattern generate anything by confusion?

So let's say you are taking a course onsite. You go online to see your course instructions for the week. It tells you have to post something by Tuesday, then discuss something or submit something by Thursday. But, of course, you are onsite. NONE of that actually applies to you.


14. At the time, the Seminary occasionally had more than one version of a course depending on the context. The bottom line illustration is our Spanish program. You cannot use the same master course for a Spanish version of a course and an English version of a course.

Many Seminary faculty had also developed master courses for onsite versions of their classes. This seems bloody obvious to me, that a quality program would give course materials that are about that course, not another in some other domain.

In any case, Sue Melton initially had to create distinct courses in the catalog with an ES suffix so that we could have a different master course for the Spanish. So now in the catalog there is PROC-600 in English and there is PROC-600ES in Spanish. Why? Because Pearson initially resisted us having more than one master course for each course.

For the time being, our faculty now have to recreate onsite versions of their courses every time, because the system does not yet accommodate multiple versions of the same course. I hear that that situation is going to change. I believe this change will significantly improve IWU's serve.

There has been one silver lining in all this. We are now able to take a revised live course and have it made into the next master course. Before, our Blackboard infrastructure emphatically would not do something like this because all the student posts and gradebook items would then have to be removed one by one. But in Pearson, you can copy just the course content.

Hurray! Important decisions often involve trade offs. This is one amazingly beneficial change. It is much easier to fix a course while you are teaching it than to go through the system to have it changed by someone else all at once.

15. Back to the e-books. There were two amazingly significant problems with them. The one problem is the Tom Hanks problem in the movie Big. He is a boy in a man's body, and he designs this amazing toy. But since he is a boy, he has no clue about how much it costs and what a boy might be able to afford. He has designed this amazing thing that, as it turns out, no one will be able to buy in the real world.

And so it is. Even the simplest look at IWU's adult student base will tell you that they're not predominantly techies. The idea that, just because e-books are supposedly the thing of the future, it would be a good idea for IWU to switch all at once completely to them, proved to be outrageously naive. The volume of student complaint was so great that IWU had to go back to sending the books. Right now, students are getting and paying for both e-books and paper books.

It's no skin off my nose. My royalty check for some of those books was quite impressive in January. I bear no one any ill will, but these are the kinds of major misfires that end people in most places.

16. The other misstep was that these e-books had a shelf life. The students would only have them for about six months, then they would disappear. Darlene Bressler often reminds me with fondness of the moment I sighed with despondent disbelief after a University Academic Leadership Council meeting, "This is a disaster!"

Again, let's invoke some common sense here. It doesn't matter if everyone should be okay with not keeping their books forever. Of course I would dispute that, but let's say they're right. Let's say this is the future. Let's say everything's free online. Most people do not keep or use their books anyway. Book hoarders are freaks. Let's assume that this is correct for the sake of argument. Let's say 90% of the students do not care about keeping their books.

Are you going to gain any students from having the book material in their courses go away? Of course not. OK, how about losing students? Are you going to lose any students or frustrate any students with the fact that the book materials in their courses, for which they pay, go away? The answer is history.

It doesn't matter what you think should be the case if in the real world, it just isn't the case.

17. Enough griping. It has not cost the Seminary much and the net benefit of the switch, as I said, has probably been positive for the Seminary. There are benefits to being embedded in a larger institution.

Previously on Seminary take-aways:

1. There are key moments of opportunity.
2. You need the right people.
3. Good leaders collaborate and navigate.

Year 1: Launch Year
4. Innovation requires some trial and error. (1)
5. Innovation requires some trial and error. (2)
6. Innovation requires some trial and error. (3)
7. New leaders bring new strengths. (1)

Year 2: Growing Pains
8. Administration never ends.
9. New leaders bring new strengths. (2)
10. New leaders bring new strengths. (3)

Year 3: The Year of Maturity
11. Complexity works against sustainability.
12. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (1)
13. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (2)
14. Our guinea pigs survived.

Year 4: The Year of the Faculty
15. Faculty share governance with administration. (1)
16. Faculty share governance with administration. (2)
17. Faculty share governance with administration. (3)
18. Faculty share governance with administration. (4)
19. Growth means addition. (1)
20. Growth means addition. (2)
21. Growth means addition. (3)

Year 5: The Year of Accreditation
22. Don't underestimate the power of a symbol.
23. A good reputation is much to be desired.
24. Sustainability needs reliable infrastructure.

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