Higher ed. boxed in?

Two recent articles about higher education are about academic innovation more broadly, but raise a specific issue about information systems in higher education. In the first, Matt Reed, Vice President for Learning at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, wrote about how Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts broke its 3-credit student success course into one-credit parts, from which students pick three.  “They’re then bundled into a single course on the transcript.” Reed points out that his counterpart at MCC, Phil Sisson, noted a barrier to this idea:

Sisson noted that “the registrar hates it,” which makes sense; I could imagine a format like that could make administering financial aid tricky, too.  ERP systems have been known to choke on such things. In a state like New Jersey where student success courses aren’t yet recognized in the gen ed transfer framework, something like this would be even harder.

The other article by Lindsay Ellis in the Chronicle of Higher Education is an in-depth look at a failed effort at major higher education reform in the University of Texas system, called Project 2021. It’s hardly the most important part of the article, but this part jumped out at me.

Early in Project 2021, Pennebaker approached the registrar with a question. What would it take, he wondered, to offer fractional-credit classes? 

Such classes could make some students’ experiences more efficient. Say a student needed to take an introductory statistics course as a prerequisite for an upper-level class. Instead of delaying the advanced course by a semester, why not distill the statistics skills needed for that advanced class into a three-week, half-credit course? 
The type of initiative would change the very definition of a class — a perfect fit for Project 2021.

Pennebaker quickly learned that such a change, though seemingly minute, would have far-reaching consequences. Updating student information systems cost other major research universities tens of millions of dollars each, and modernizing Texas’ aging system to handle the new classes would require a steep investment despite the various upgrades Austin had made over the years. 

There are two common issues here. One is the hegemony of the credit hour. The other is the role of the information system(s) in higher education. I won’t be writing about the former here; it is the latter that interests me at the moment.

I don’t know that anyone who hasn’t worked in higher ed. administration can appreciate how constraining our information systems can be. They are not the main barriers to institutional change or “academic innovation,” but they don’t help and often constrain even the most incremental of changes. Breaking a 3-credit course into three one-credit courses is not complicated. But, start framing one-credit courses as “one-weekend interdisciplinary mini-conferences” and information systems start to choke. How does that get coded in the system? How does it get communicated within the system(s) to students in a way that they can make meaning of? What dates are listed for the course? Locations?

Pennebaker at UT wanted something even more radical: three-week, half-credit courses. Half-credit? It’s not a terrible idea on its face, but I feel like our student information system would laugh at someone trying to make that happen.

When I was the Director of ALT Lab and Online@VCU, I had numerous meetings with well-meaning professionals who manage our information systems. These meetings were about how we could wrestle our student information systems so that we could simply get better, more accurate, data about how many students were enrolled in online programs. The “easiest” way to do this was to add new program codes. So, for example, students enrolled in the distance education version of the Masters in Social Work degree would have a distinct program code from students in the face-to-face program. But, we were told that we could not do that because there were already too many program codes and because there were downstream consequences in the information systems (including a separate application/admissions information system) of adding program codes. So, we came up with a kluge that was time-intensive, requiring an enormous amount of emailing program directors every semester and hand-editing codes at the student level for hundreds of students.

A few years ago, I wrote about how our student course registration systems were uninspiring and lacked important functionality.

If you’ve worked in higher education long enough, you have probably encountered a situation where you or your program or your department tried to do something a bit out of the ordinary but were stymied because it was an information system problem. “That’s not possible within Banner” or some such response has probably come across your radar screen.

I don’t think better information systems are a major path to academic innovation or improved student success, but information systems should never be roadblocks to improvement. In my experience, they too often are.

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