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Posts Tagged ‘administration

This tweet and its reply succinctly captures one conversation on how universities favour administrators over members like teaching faculty. If you follow the tweeter as I do, you know the pain that shaped the words.

If you were fair-minded, you might argue that continuity is important as an administrator or policymaker. They need to be around long enough to see things through, so “adjuctification” does not make sense.

The same principle applies to those who teach and facilitate courses. These faculty members are not street magicians that do quick tricks for a buck. As an adjunct who was once a department head at a university, I see both sides but argue more for the teaching faculty who need time to design, test, and revise their efforts.

If the argument is that time nurtures experience, then the same could be said for educators. Adjuncts, in particular, need time to imbibe or create the culture of an institution.

If the powers-that-be treat educators like hucksters, you will likely get parasites who are adept at taking quick but harmful bites. They will take and not give back.

Thankfully, not all institutions treat their full and part-time teaching staff poorly. I associate myself with one that provides regular professional development, dialogue, and appreciation events. It has a very bureaucratic administration, but it is staffed with enough people who care.

I do not think that administrators should be “adjunctified” because the good ones need to steer long term policies through. The even better ones also know that administration is supposed to support university functions and not dictate it.

Teaching and facilitating learning are core social functions of a university. Administrators need to support that. They can start by treating full-time teaching faculty and adjuncts right.

I sigh not with relief but with disappointment. Why? I see bad history repeating itself.

When schools or universities do not change their efforts to provide better learning experiences in the COVID-19 era, I sigh because I know we can do better. And I mean better experiences with online learning, not just equivalent-to-classroom experiences.

I am talking about redesigned and better facilitated experiences for students that go beyond engagement to empowerment. See the second column of the tweet below for what these might look like.

These better experiences work face-to-face or online, but are particularly important online given this is a prime opportunity for individualisation, more flexible timelines, and independent work.

How do I know that we can do better? We are supposed to have been preparing with sanctioned e-learning days in schools and institutes of higher learning (IHLs). We have had years to prepare by tinkering, making mistakes, and emerging stronger.

Instead it took a worldwide disaster to slam the brakes on most processes. Then when told to go, most schools and IHLs struggled to restart. When they did, they did the equivalent of abandoning their cars, donning spacesuits, and piloting cardboard rockets.

That is my way of saying that most resorted to emergency remote teaching, mislabelled that as online learning, and wished only to return to old ways of doing things.

Why? There are many factors, but this reluctance to change ultimately boils down to a lack of leadership and unimaginative administration. If leaders see no other way, they will propose journeys that take old paths. Administrative bodies gladly reinforce these ruts because fixed pathways are easy.

The problem with that mindset is the practice that results. Educators are not challenged to facilitate learning, and students are not nurtured to learning more independently, reflectively, and contextually.

I sigh because I saw all this when I was within the system and now again when I am outside it. But I do not sigh as long or as deep because I do see almost imperceptible changes. These are like plants that somehow find footholds on buildings.

COVID-19 is creating conditions e-learning. Initially this looks like emergency learning. With good planning and management, this might become everyone, everytime, and everywhere learning.

To get there, I would ask the same questions I used to ask: What are we doing differently? Why is this difference better? How do we know this is better? How do we sustain our efforts?

Now I sigh sadly because I know there will be leaders and administrators who will not choose to ask such questions. I hope to sigh with relief because a few enlightened ones realise they need to gain a foothold in a landscape reshaped by the coronavirus.

Most students do not have insights into how much work goes into designing lessons, preparing materials, and developing evaluations. Just the administrative aspects might surprise them.

Teachers-to-be and future faculty need to be aware what awaits them administratively. For a Masters course that I design and facilitate, the time between initial notification and the implementation of the first class is five months. The ICT modules for inclusive education I just facilitated had a runway of seven months. A set of workshops I conduct at another institute of higher learning prepares documentation one semester ahead. This means I have about three months of preparation time.

Why are the runways months long? Administrative offices can often be bureaucratic. Your parcel might be passed from one person to another to their own tune. Once they receive the parcel, they might sit on it or go on leave. Speaking of leave, administrative staff often work on their own calendars (for example, financial years) and not on the ebb and flow of university schedules.

The exciting part of the teaching and learning journey happens when a course or workshop takes off. But before that happens, there is a lot of taxiing on the ground.

Yesterday I recounted two examples of how administration disables when it should enable instead. Today I outline a recent incident and suggest how administrators can change for the benefit of all.

Recently one of the projects I had started working on stopped because administrative issues. Long story short: Old school rules were applied to new and uncertain efforts, and both my client and I have to start from the beginning.

After this happened, I had a chat with one of the administrators involved in the process. Her concerns were no different from the ones I have met before in my current line of work (education consultant) and former work (professor and head of department).

I made a few recommendations and I pick three of the best looking fruit.

  1. Change mindsets of your staff.
  2. Always ask why.
  3. Document meaningfully.

The mindset that needs to go away is the single-minded pursuit of efficiency and productivity, and living only by the letter of the law. It is the mindset of administration that disables by getting in the way. The old mindset needs to be replaced with one that enables by doing what is ethical and logical.

One way to change mindsets is to always ask why an existing policy exists and why someone the administrators are serving is frustrated or wants something done differently. Perhaps the old rules do not apply or the context has changed. Asking why first and taking a stakeholder’s perspective will help reveal the need for change.

Administrative offices are not immune to people that come and go. When people leave, they take their implicit knowledge and good practices with them. One way to prevent this is practising knowledge management, e.g., meaningful documentation.

This means turning what is internal to external forms, e.g., Google Doc records, departmental wikis, video interviews, etc. These references are not just useful for the induction of newbies, they help in the clarification of existing tasks by current staff.

If administrators do these, they might just turn the overused reset or panic button into a power button instead.

Yesterday I reflected on how administration that was meant to support or enable higher processes has taken precedence over teaching and learning. I attributed this to administrators realizing that it is easier to deal with numbers than with complex teaching and messy learning.

How might one inject some reality back into the administrative game?

Here is an idea and it starts with this tweet from @justintarte:

It reminded me of my former administrative assistant who would bring a ridiculous fax bill for me to sign every quarter.

Practically every department had a fax machine whether we wanted one or not. The fax lines resulted in phone bills that arrived every quarter. We hardly used the machine, but had to pay for the line nonetheless. Our usage was so low (a few cents, if any) that it cost less than the Goods and Service Tax (a few dollars) for the line subscription.

It was just easier for the higher-ups to keep a legacy system going. Just in case. Everyone would have a fax machine, like it or not. Such thinking wasted money.

I wondered if there could be a central pool of fax machines instead, say, one for every major division. That would allow those who were still living in the past to have their fax cakes and eat them too. That would also have saved the institution a tidy chunk of change.

The important principle is not one of lowering costs or increasing efficiency. That would be an administrative move. The principle is putting people first in the processes of teaching and learning.

Take the mass purchasing of “interactive” white boards and Blackboard subscriptions for instance. (Thankfully the former is on the wane; sadly the latter is still strong). Decisions to adopt and pay for these things are often made by administrators who are sold these items by slick marketers using the latest jargon.

But both the administrators and marketers are not on-the-ground educators and certainly do not look through the eyes of learners.

An administrative decision to adopt a campus-wide implementation is powerful on paper. It helps the vendors because they make money and tell other potential clients who their customers are. It helps the administrators because they can make statements in papers and publications.

But these do not necessarily deal with real teaching and learning needs.

Often what is required is free or low cost, and more open; the vendors provide lock-in cost and walled gardens. Faced with tight curricula and complex teaching demands, instructors often look to simple tools; instead vendors tend to over-complicate things.

Collectively, administrators and vendors do not bring changes to the system that it sorely needs. Administration-focused measures tend to patch over cracks. They tend not to deal with shaky foundations that are causing the cracks in the first place.

Dealing with difficult teaching and learning issues gets to the root of the matter. This might mean abandoning a costly investment like white or Blackboards and tearing down established barriers. Doing this is not as easy as getting rid of fax machines because the tools look sexy or have already been heavily invested in. Doing this does not take a blind budget as much as informed boldness to create change.

Last week I tweeted this:

It was a response to a photo taken off a roadmap presentation by MOE.

I reiterate, if an effort starts with an administrative view, it continues and ends with that view. Its implementation is numbers and efficiency-oriented. It is not about teaching or learning no matter how many cosmetic words are applied over the administration.

To be fair, the photo was of one slide of many and the presentation was probably more about IT instead of ICT-enabled learning, social media-based learning, pedagogical extension, or learning strategies. If you place administration before teaching and learning, only administrators win.

Administration 1 by kersy83, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  kersy83 

Administration is not easy. It includes processes like strategic planning, budgeting, timelining, creating and ensuring standards of practice, and crunching numbers. Lots of numbers. Numbers in spreadsheets, Gaant charts, graphs, lists, etc. There are so many numbers that the people that make up the numbers disappear.

As difficult at administration is to do, it is a walk in the park comparing to the complexities of teaching and the messiness of learning. As a former university don and appointment holder who had to deal with all three firsthand, I know what I am talking about.

How might one inject some reality back into the administrative game? I tackle this question tomorrow.

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