Saturday, June 21, 2014

Research and Teaching Consortia: A Good Idea?

In an earlier post, I offered some preliminary thoughts on Unizin, a new consortium of public universities that aims to share digital assets and analytics across a common infrastructure.  As Bruce Maas, the Vice-Provost for Information Technology and CIO at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says in a blog post to the University of Wisconsin campus community, "Our new reality is that we must pool our talents, public and private, to create scalable opportunities to move our primary teaching, learning and research missions forward."  He likens Unizin--and the Wisconsin System's possible partnership with Unizin--to a recently announced research consortium that includes Wisconsin--the National Computing Collaboration.  Especially in computing, there is a long history of collaboration between the private sector and universities as well as between universities.  It makes sense that universities would collaborate and share costs to build the kind of infrastructure that their researchers would need.  For instance, it would be absurd for every university to build and maintain a particle accelerator.

But it is important, I think, to note that research consortia are nothing like teaching consortia.  In the case of research consortia, at issue is providing the equipment, the raw materials, for teams of researchers to carry out their research.  Multiple research groups across universities might also collaborate on solving particular problems, with each research group taking on a clearly defined task.  This is common in the natural sciences, for instance.  These arrangements emerge organically, at the level of the scientists themselves rather than the university leadership. 

Teaching consortia, on the other hand, tend to exist as a way for institutions to be able to offer their students a wider menu of courses.  They allow partner institutions to tap into the expertises of faculty at other institutions.  Teaching consortia also have a long history in higher education.  As a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Penn State, for example, I was awarded a CIC Summer Fellowship for Less Frequently Taught Languages to travel to the University of Chicago and take an Intensive Greek course that was not offered at Penn State.  The CIC--a consortium of Big 10 schools plus The University of Chicago--pooled their resources in the area of language teaching, so that students at these institutions had access to courses on an impressive range of rare languages.  This made a lot of sense. It would have been hugely expensive for each institution to hire faculty in each of these languages; but, as a group of institutions, they covered an impressive range.

Similarly, the Associated Colleges of the South have been offering multi-campus courses for more than a decade.  On each campus, there might be only 2-3 students registered for an upper division Latin course; but when the same course is offered to students on all partner campuses, there might be a total of 20 students.  There is a local coordinator on each campus, but the course instructor generally comes from a single campus.  This model has many benefits, not least of which is that students are exposed to new ways of thinking about the course material.  This model makes a lot of sense for smaller disciplines on small liberal arts college campuses.  It's a reasonable way of sharing resources to the advantage of all the partner institutions.  The consortium does not exist to enable a college to avoid hiring in certain areas; but rather, to improve the quality of, especially, upper division courses for majors in fields like classics.

On the face of it, consortia make a lot of sense.  This is especially true when money is tight.  Consortia that involve sharing expensive equipment; or pooling resources (in the case of ACS, students) to improve research and teaching can be beneficial and successful.  But the common features of these consortia are: a. they arose organically, in response to institutional needs identified by faculty; and b. they did not attempt to reconfigure an existing structure.

My abiding concern about Unizin--and why a comparison of Unizin to research consortia is misleading--is that it is an attempt to impose a new model of resource-sharing from on high; and it will almost certainly lead institutions to reconfigure their current staffing.  In part, this is because there's an elision between course content and teaching.  If course content (i.e. the digital assets that Unizin would be warehousing for its partners) is treated as akin to a Supercomputer network, then all is fine.  If it is recognized that all these digital assets, including fully scoped out online courses, are tools and cannot be elided with the act of instruction, then Unizin makes a lot of sense.  My fear, though, is that it will be too easy to start conflating all these digital assets (and the analytics) as a replacement for the kind of highly-skilled instruction that currently happens on campuses.  That is to say, it will be too easy for a money-strapped institution to say, "hey, we can buy this online course from our partner and hire a non-expert to run it locally."  Until there is wider recognition of the content expertise that skilled instruction requires, this scenario seems inevitable.

In addition, it will be far too tempting for these same cash-strapped institutions to use the "crisis" narrative--and, in particular, the "Death of the Humanities" narrative--to justify ongoing down-sizing of humanities faculty.  This is another important point.  Earlier consortia did not aim to downsize faculty, but rather, to take advantage of niche specialties offered at single institutions.  It is reasonable to argue that not every university needs to offer Swahili courses; and to solve the access problem by providing interested students fellowships to travel to universities where they can study less common topics.  It is far less reasonable to decide, from on high, to dis-invest in certain fields simply because a consortium will provide introductory level courses in that field.  Perhaps this is the inevitable future of public higher education, the backside of the expansion of many humanities departments in the 1960s and 1970s.  If that is the case, everyone needs to be clear that this is what we are doing.  It isn't an issue of student interest or enrollments; it's an issue of university administrators making decisions about their institutional priorities--and then finding alternative ways to meet student interest in fields that are being downsized into oblivion.

At the moment, it is not entirely clear what is driving the formation of Unizin.  As more people involved in the high-level conversations begin to make cases for partnership to their campuses, more information emerges.  A significant motivation is the belief that, at public institutions, the current financial model is unsustainable.  Less clear is what parts of that model Unizin is addressing.  Some of the talk is about having more leverage with vendors.  This could be a good thing, especially if it means that institutions will be in a better position to dictate the types of tools that the ed tech sector creates. 

Taking the comparison to research consortia, it also seems that a significant part of Unizin is a tacit recognition that public universities need to stop trying to do everything, to cover every field of research at all levels.  For the partnership fee to make sense, institutions will need to make hard decisions about letting certain areas of their curriculum fall away.  To be clear: this is already happening as retiring and departing faculty are not replaced.  Would it be better if institutions began to talk openly about their priorities and, in specific terms, about how they were going to leverage a partnership with other Unizin institutions?  A lot about Unizin remains unclear, but even in these early days, it does not look much like a traditional research or teaching consortium.  

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