Laura Gibbs

Catching Up with the Empirical Educator Project

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Nov 12, 2018

I devoted my morning coffee today to reading an EXCELLENT article by Michael Feldstein over at e-Literate:
Toward a Methodology of Change in Higher Ed


And I would also urge people to read the lead-in piece for this one, especially the part about what it means to be a "socially empirical" educator -- I've always considered myself to be a "connected educator," and with the Empirical project Michael and Phil Hill and their co-conspirators are really pushing those of us who have a social network as educators to think about how we can take that to a new level.
Climbing the Ladder of Empirical Education


So in this new "methodology of change" piece, Michael is pushing at the importance of the role of colleges and universities and the EDUCATORS who work there to take the lead in shifting higher education into a strongly student-centric and student-success-oriented mode of operations, which is a very fundamental shift in the way higher education operates.


Michael provides a great overview of how early attempts to make this shift have come from educational vendors, like textbook companies and ed-tech companies, who have been talking about student success and promoting student success strategies for a while now, but without effective ways to collaborate with educators. Michael provides some examples from D2L and Blackboard, although he doesn't mention Instructure-Canvas -- and I would really want to single out Canvas Community here as being a really creative and useful attempt by Instructure to create a space where that kind of collaboration can happen, along with the great boost we get from K-12 members of the Community who are already working in environments that are far more student-centric than higher ed ever will be. People who know me know that I've been a harsh critic of the LMS world for many years, but Instructure has proven to me that they are serious about conversations with and among educators, and the resources they devote here to the Community is proof positive of that. So even though I am an extreme LMS-minimalist, I value the opportunity to learn and share here at the Community, especially the opportunity to learn and share with K-12 educators and also higher ed people beyond the U.S.


So, after reviewing that business context, Michael then moves on to discuss how and where he sees change coming, albeit slowly, to higher ed -- and for people who are not familiar with the e-Literate Empirical Educator project, it's very much worth reading about, and it gives you an idea about the vantage point from which Michael is able to watch some of these developments happening close up.


One observation I want to add from my own school is something that is not covered in Michael's overview. I teach at an R1 research university, and what I see happening at my school is the emergence of a class of para-educators I guess you could call them, student service professionals who are engaged in student-success initiatives even if there is not much movement among the tenured/tenure-track faculty. I'm guessing my school is not unusual in that regard. Our new president has recently made his #1 goal for us to "double our research" in the next 5 years. I don't know what that means (nobody really does), but it's clear that, whatever "doubling our research" means, there will be even more pressure on faculty to spend more time on research and chasing research funding, which almost inevitably means that they will pay a huge price, personally and/or professionally, for spending any additional time on their teaching.


Meanwhile, however, my school has also devoted some serious effort and resources over the past few years by developing some good student success programs. For example, there has been a strong focus on 1st and 2nd year students, with a push for better 1st-year retention rates, based on the assumption that this is going to be the best way to boost our 4-year and 6-year graduation rates. And it's working: our 1st-year retention rates, which we never even used to talk about, are now going up!


So I am excited about the examples Michael has shared here (and other things I've learned from reading about the Empirical Educator project) and I am proud of the student success initiatives at my school, but it is actually still very much the case that at my school the faculty themselves "have been given no reason to change" -- and the resources being devoted to student success efforts are not going into faculty development, but instead into other student success professionals.


And you know, maybe that is a good thing at an R1 school, right? If we have faculty who come out of intensely competitive research-oriented graduate programs who are hired on the expectation that they will be doing ground-breaking research and winning huge research grants, those are not necessarily going to be the most likely candidates for being "empirical educators." Some of them will be, yes, but there are also faculty members who really are going to be researchers first and educators second (even a distant second). And, even among those who see themselves as dedicated educators, they are not necessarily going to pitch their efforts towards students who are struggling. In fact, their educational philosophy may even run counter to that effort, seeing it as pandering, catering, coddling, etc. (I've heard it all). 


But there's the thing: I wish that in addition to hiring all these student success professionals my school would more seriously consider 100% teaching faculty -- and that's where you run into real resistance. If it's a matter of academic hires, the academic departments strongly want those to be tenure-track lines, and tenure is all about research. It's not very realistic to expect that will change. In fact, I was told last summer that I should start looking for another job because my non-traditional / non-tenured instructor position is in jeopardy due to budget cuts and layoffs -- although I did survive the first round of layoffs which happened last week, and I will just keep hoping that my own student success efforts will count for something when they get around to layoffs in my college.


Anyway, that's all I have time for right now, but I do want to come back to Michael's piece here and say something about the teaching of WRITING in particular, since I think it is a really good case in point that is highly resistant to tech solutions. Writing is NOT a content-area, but instead a set of complex and highly subjective skills that are notoriously difficult to teach. But for now I just wanted to say kudos to Michael for this great take on the student success movement in higher ed. If you have any time at all this week to read something, read this essay and see how it resonates with what you see happening on your higher ed campus! Here's the link again:

Toward a Methodology of Change in Higher Ed



Empirical educators:

we're learning about learning together.


two cats paying with mouse on string