Prompted by insights from Christoph Knoes, I finally got around to reading an Education Sector report on NCAT (June 2010). Although I find Education Sector’s work useful (and often fearless), the prospect of reading another review of NCAT (National Center for Academic Transformation) was not particularly exciting. The NCAT is one of the more thoroughly discussed initiatives in the space. Do we really need another report?
Yes, in fact.
Analyst Ben Miller’s report provides an excellent description of the initiative’s evolution. Especially effective, Miller uses the NCAT’s evolution as a jumping off point for presenting a series of well-considered recommendations for moving the initiative forward. The report should be of value to those that are unfamiliar with NCAT as well as those that have been following its progress since 1999.
Working with institutions across the US, NCAT helps schools redesign high enrollment courses in order to achieve two objectives: improve student success (grades and retention) and lower institutional costs. (For an excellent summary of the basic tactics used to manage costs, see this Lloyd Armstrong post.) Ed tech is at the core of the redesign. Certain aspects of the courses are managed online in order to reduce dependence on (relatively expensive) faculty labour, and to enable the increasingly diverse student population to learn according to their unique needs. At the time of the report’s publication, more than one-hundred courses have been redesigned in one of the six course design models.
By most measures, NCAT is a great success. Per student costs decrease by as much as 50 to 60 percent. And in the majority of cases, learning and retention also improve. But the project’s success is not why the report needed to be written. The report was needed to determine why the project has not spread faster within and across universities. Why, Miller asks, do colleges need to be pushed to participate in one of the few proven innovations – despite the current fiscal and regulatory climate.
“Despite the tremendous fiscal strains that colleges and universities are now experiencing due to declining state support, falling endowments, and shrinking family income, colleges and universities still have to be paid to implement reforms that will save them money. They still have to be cajoled into fixing introductory courses where large numbers of students routinely fail . . .”
The remainder of the ES report offers a wide-range of recommendations, including:
• Provide strong and consistent leadership to the initiative, including senior-level (i.e. top-down)
• Have faculty and administration work collaboratively
• Change faculty and departmental incentives
• Ensure faculty work across disciplines
Each recommendation is sound and will likely increase the likelihood that future NCAT (or NCAT – like) initiatives gain more ground.
In a sense, though, the recommendations presuppose that there is sufficient political will and authority to make the make necessary changes. Without it, the recommendations are unlikely to be realized. As Miller writes, the problems are structural:
“Reluctance to change is hardwired into many of the structural features that define today’s colleges and universities, and it will be very difficult to achieve large scale reforms of any sort without dealing with them directly. The root of the dilemma lies with the decentralized and inherently conservative nature of the modern higher education institution.”
Consequently, many of the recommendations can be understood as both symptoms of the larger, structural obstacles that NCAT faces when dealing with traditional institutions, and partial solutions. For example, the lack of attention paid to the instructional quality of courses is a by-product of how the organization rewards performance, which is itself, a result of how the institution is evaluated by regulatory and funding bodies, as well as by prospective students, their parents, and the media.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the obstacles to change that NCAT and others face are well-known to academic leaders. The chief academic officers at our colleges and universities are fully aware, for example, that the highly decentralized authority in higher ed limits his/her ability to bring about meaningful organizational change. They may or may not have any desire to change the model, but they certainly are aware of it. The obstacle, then, is not lack of knowledge, but the ability to make many of the desired changes. And to make these changes, requires a level of political will and authority is that rare among academic leaders in traditional colleges and universities.
This dilemma may be the great lesson NCAT providers us: substantive change in higher education requires more than a proven working model, more than academic evidence. It requires a fundamental redesign of the institutional model.