Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New Entities and Old Hats

Catching up on news since the return from Iceland (on a few good HE blogs, Bardiac and University Diaries), I was struck by the very bizarre debate emerging from the University of Toledo, Ohio. Lloyd Jacobs, the President, gave his second annual university address in April which he titled 'Re-engineering the Undergraduate Experience, or Mass-Customization in Higher Education'.

There are several key ideas within this address which might just raise alarm bells amongst some of us. How about this sentence: "Extreme student centeredness founded on the principles of mass customization is the single best strategy for higher education and for the persistence of an educated and participative populace in America. "

What is 'extreme student centredness', I hear you ask? It is a version of 'mass customization'; a supposed response to individual diversity, in contrast to 'mass production' (an out-dated notion, of course). He elaborates on how this might work:

"Degree completion requirements for every student with an associate’s degree will be custom-made; each student will understand the shortest, most frugal path from where he or she is to their desired goal. Computer-assisted instruction and peer instruction will become widespread and automated as evidence continues to accumulate that many students learn best where those tools are utilized. " In other words, get them through quickly using lots of on-line materials.

And here is part of his plan, which has subsequently inspired a vote of no confidence in Lloyd Jacobs from his staff:

"1. A new focus on modules, algorithms and the customer interface will begin immediately.

2. We will hire a CIO with education as a prominent part of her or his portfolio. We will consider housing the Computer Assisted and Distance Learning function in a component 501(c)3 organization to give greater flexibility.

3. We will create a new entity within the University to organizationally house many of the functions essential to extreme student centeredness. This new entity may perhaps be called The Center for Individualized Learning, but for today, at least, I will refer to it as NewEntity."

I don't even know what most of this means. People I have discussed it with have pointed out that mass customization is a business fad that has now gone out of fashion. Even Dell Computers, who Lloyd cites as an inspiration for his vision, have abondoned it as an idea. Would you want to work in a university like this?


Iain said...
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Iain said...
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Iain said...

Hi. Well 'mass customisation' has been a very popular approach, particularly in the manufacturing sector (as no doubt books by a certain J. Browne might even mention?), although as Gilmore and Pine have pointed out (summary in Harvard Business review: many organisations have found that their initial enthusiasm has not been met by the reality of increased costs and complexity as well as issues relating to the supply chain. Some of the early adopting companies are indeed no longer with us, but others have continued and are big enough to have absorbed the complexity, others still are rethinking (particularly internet based organisations) the strategy.

All very interesting, but of course whether it is appropriate to use this, even in an analogous form, for higher education courses is questionable. If you see courses as merely collections of different coloured lego bricks stacked together, then the idea would probably appeal. In reality however we're talking about something a lot more complex , but let's see how Toledo gets on. I suspect they'll find that education is a lot more than delivery of content over a computer screen and that students might well not be as enticed bythe prospect of sitting in that historic tower staring at monitors all day.

Kelly said...

Thank you Iain, for your more even-tempered and informed response. It was the complete inappropriateness, as I see it, of that kind of business language as applied to higher education which really made my head spin. Where would there be space for developing students' capacities to be critical thinkers in that kind of model, for instance?