Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Graduate admissions process pondering


This post has been brewing in my head for a couple of years now. Since I am waiting for IRB clearance for my dissertation I thought it would be a good time to jot things down and see what others think.  I usually tend to have people in my network who either teach or work in some sort of instructional designer (or faculty developer) capacity.  I don't (think) I know too many people in the higher education administration aspects of my work to discuss these kinds of things with (so I may just be speaking to no one 😝).

Anyway, one thing that's been gnawing at me for the past number of years is how one enters into graduate programs.  I'll focus more on the master's level for a few reasons.  I manage an MA program, I teach for an MEd program, and from observation, I've seen that masters programs probably don't have as many administrative constraints: for example, [virtual] classroom space, working with a cohort model that's more tightly integrated [as compared to doctoral programs that are more tightly interconnected], and most masters programs allow non-matriculated students to take courses for fun or interest (doctoral programs typically do not). 

In the US, a typical application to a graduate program requires the following:
  • An application (usually electronic these days)
  • An application fee (my institution has it at $60 for domestic students)
  • A statement of purpose (why do you want to apply to the program, how does it meet your goals, etc.)
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation from academic referees (former professors)
  • Your transcript indicating that you completed an undergrad program (sometimes ALL transcripts, even if you decided to take ENGL501 for fun somewhere...).
  • Some sort of standardized test (albeit this is not as common these days)
I've done this song and dance four times since 2004.  The first time I did it (for my MBA), I didn't think much of it.  The second time I did it (for my MS), it was a little easier, albeit annoying because I was applying to the college I was already a student in.  The third and fourth times (MA and MEd degrees) I reused letters of recommendation and I phoned it in. I actually used one application to apply to two programs, and one statement of intent that covered both.  I almost did it a fifth time for another MA degree, but they required GRE scores to prove that I could go graduate work (after having successfully completed 4 masters programs mind you...), which is when I decided to not apply to that program.

As part of my day-to-day work, the admissions process is one of those things I manage, and I'm convinced that the entire apparatus is mostly an arcane and archaic gatekeeping mechanism, built around the constraints of "p-learning" (Dron, 2016) and program scarcity (when MA programs only really accepted a few students each year).   The admissions process doesn't feel like an enabling mechanism.

Take letters of recommendation for example. If you've attended a western institution, and you ask for a letter of recommendation from a former professor, the letters of recommendation that they provide will mostly be good. No one decent will agree to write a recommendation if they are going to negatively evaluate you. Hence, the asking for, and receiving, of a recommendation becomes a ritual of asking former professors to vouch for you, but really knowing ahead of time that, if they agree, what they write will most likely be glowing.  It privileges people who've already built those connections with some professors, and it is a colossal waste of time for the referee. It also privileges western applicants because (it's been my experience) that non-western referees typically write sparse recommendations that typically reference a transcript ("AK was a good student, got A's in my class").  In cases where someone doesn't have academic recommendations (for whatever reason), a common tactic is to take a course or two in the department (as a non-matriculated student) to obtain those letters of recommendation.  If they've taken two courses, and gotten good grades (however you define "good grades"), then the recommendations are pointless (especially since those who write the recommendations are also those who often read them for admissions🤷).

Another thing that I find interesting, is the requirement for a BA (sometimes the requirement is just a BA, even if it's not in the discipline).  A bachelor's degree can be verified by transcript, but I do find it odd that some schools require *every* transcript. So if someone has earned an Associate's Degree in Automotive engineering (school 1), a Bachelor's in Sociology (school 2), and wants to apply to an MA program in school 3 (let's say in a sociology program), that school could ask for a transcript from his AA degree transcript even though it's not relevant, just in case the applicant has anything to hide🙄. If the applicant has demonstrated that they can do academic work by showing a transcript with a completed degree, why request everything? 

Related to this, here is a hypothetical (I haven't seen or heard of this happening in real life, but it theoretically could): students are able to take graduate courses as a non-matriculated student.  As a matter of fact, learners can string together all required courses for a degree as a non-degree student but still not earn the MA because they either lack a BA, or they took all their courses as a non-degree student, so we can't count most of them if they matriculate near the end of their studies.  I am actually not sure where I stand on this.  On the one hand, the MA is positioned as an advanced degree in something (which assumes an introductory degree in it?) but on the other hand if you can do the work, and you demonstrated that you can by actually doing the work, why should you be prevented from earning that degree if you don't have the previous one in the series? 🤔

The graduate admissions protocols (at least for masters programs) seem like unnecessary gatekeeper these days.  Because of all of the documentation required, and the process of review for the materials submitted, admissions has defined calendar deadlines each year, which can shut people out if they happen to miss those deadlines.  Personally, I'd like to see more Open Admissions process to start to take place.  Perhaps some introductory and required courses could be open to anyone interested in taking them (I'll pick a random number, and say that this represents 40% of the curriculum), and then whoever is interested in continuing their studies can submit a brief application, and a reflective essay/statement of purpose and the faculty can make a more informed decision in terms of formal acceptance given their own experiences in class with the applicant. This would cut out the unnecessary transcript evaluation, letters of recommendation, and standardized scores (and all the processing and vetting that goes on with that).

Your thoughts?

Friday, June 19, 2020

HyFlex is not what we need (for Fall 2020)

HyFlex (Hybrid Flexible) is a way of designing courses for (what I call) ultimate flexibility.  It takes both ends of the teaching spectrum, fully face-to-face, and fully online-asynchronous and it bridges the gap.  Back in the day, I learned about this model of course design by taking an OLC workshop with Brian himself, but you can learn more about the model in his free ebook.  I liked the model at the time (and I still do), because it gave more options to learners in the ways they wanted to participate in the course. They could come to class, they could participate online synchronously, and they could just be asynchronous, or a mix of any one of those depending on the week.

Quite a few people on twitter, including @karenraycosta, were pondering whether they don't like HyFlex (in general), or the implementations of HyFlex that we are seeing. Heck, It seems like HyFlex has become the white label flex model for universities because some of them are creating their own brands of flex!🙄. I wonder what marketing geniuses came up with that.  Anyway, colleagues and I have been trying to flex our learning for the last few years as a trial, with mixed results.  The main issue that comes out a lot is a critical mass of students, with a secondary issue of staffing.  In "pure" modality (full F2F or full-asynch) you need to have a critical mass of learners to be able to engage in constructivist learning.  If lectures are your thing and you expect people to sit down, shut up, and listen, then it works just fine.  However, for the rest of us who want to build learner connections and interactivity in the classroom we need a minimum amount of students, and we need to have a sense of how many there will be so we can plan activities.  An activity for 20 people won't necessarily scale down to 2 people.  The same thing is true in asynch, if most people are F2F, writing in the forums might feel like speaking to an empty room.

Things become more complicated if you want to create a sync session online and merge that with a F2F meeting.  The instructor becomes not only an instructor but a producer.  They need to manage the tech, ensure that everyone on-site has devices that they can beam the online folks in (zoom, adobe connect, etc.) to work in groups, for team presentations you gotta work wizardry to ensure that all people are well represented and the tech works. I've seen this type of producing happen in distance education classrooms of old where people connected 2 physical classrooms via P2P connections, and each site had a producer to manage the cameras that connected the students from one classroom to another, and the remote classroom had a tutor. In total there were 4 people to make this happen for a class of 40. HyFlex (the way it's implemented) expects one person to do this: the instructor.

While I think HyFlex is an interesting model to pursue, I think it's something to pursue for large class enrollments (think classes of 80 or more students), or multi-section team-taught courses (ENGL 101 for example that might have multiple sections taught by many people).  HyFlex isn't good for a "regular" class size class (regular defined as 12-20), because you need to design and plan for possibilities that might never occur.  This makes course creation more costly, and course maintenance an issue, which falls upon one person: the instructor.  Considering that the majority of courses are taught by adjuncts these days - who aren't paid well - this also becomes an issue of academic labor.  Think about it (and use my university as an example): 

  • One course is compensated as 10 hours of work per week (at around $5000, or $33/hour)
    • Assume 2 hours per week prep time (really bare minimum here, assuming all course design is complete and the instructor doesn't have to worry about that). That leaves 8 hours
    • 3 hours of that is "face time" each week.  That leaves 5 hours
    • 2 hours per week are office hours. That leaves 3 hours.
    • Assume 3 hours per week that you are spending engaging in things like forums, mentoring, reading learner journals, and responding back to them (an equal amount of time spent as on-campus). You are left with no paid hours to devote.
  • So what's left out?
    • What if you need to do more than 2 hours/week of student conferencing? Do you take a pay-cut? or do you say "first come first serve, sorry!" (not very student-friendly!)
    • Who grades and gives feedback for papers and exams?  Are they all automated?  That's not really good pedagogy
    • When does professional development take place to be able to use all the tech required for HyFlex?  Is this paid or not?
  • Parking on my campus costs $15 per day, so $225 per semester if you are only teaching one-day per week. If you are unlucky and teach 3 days per week (MWF) or five days per week (MTuWThF), then your parking costs are $675 and $1125 respectively.
    • This makes your compensation per course:
      • $4475 ($31/hour) - one-day teaching schedule
      • $4325 ($28/hour) - three-day teaching schedule
      • $3875 ($25/hour) - five-day teaching schedule
    • While these costs are incurred for people teaching on-campus anyway, when they are off-campus they are not working, however, with HyFlex they still have their online obligations.
  • There is a commuting cost associated with going to/from home. Those hours are not compensated or accounted for.

I think HyFlex can work, but not for everything.  Furthermore, for fall 2020 it puts the lives of faculty in danger because faculty would have to come in to teach on-campus.  The "flex" option seems to only be available to learners.  When Brian Beatty originally proposed the HyFlex model (from what I remember of my OLC workshop), the flex was a two-way street.  The faculty member could also say "well, this week we're online because of obligations I have" - but the flex proposed by colleges and universities doesn't seem to include this two-way flex.

Anyway- that's what I have to say about HyFlex.   How about you?