Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let's Take It Seriously

To my colleagues in higher education: Let's take assessment and accountability seriously AS AN INSTITUTION. There is a tendency to equate assessment with measuring what professors do to/with students. The buzz word is "accountability" and there's this unspoken assumption that the locus of lack of accountability in higher education is the faculty. I think that assumption is wrong.

We should broaden the concept of assessment to the whole institution. Course instructors get feedback on an almost daily basis -- students do or don't show up for class; instructors face 20 to 100 faces projecting boredom or engagement several times per week; students write papers and exams that speak volumes about whether they are learning anything; advisees tell faculty about how good their colleagues are. By contrast, the rest of the institution has little, if any, opportunity for feedback. It's important: one substandard administrative act can affect the entire faculty, so even small things can have a big negative effect on learning outcomes.

In the name of accountability throughout the institution I propose something simple, but concrete: every form or memo should have a "feedback button" on it. Clicking on this button will allow "users" anonymously to offer suggestions or criticism. These should be recorded in a blog format -- that is, they accumulate and are open to view. At the end of each year, the accountable officer would be required in her or his annual report to tally these comments and respond to them, indicating what was learned, what changes have been made or why changes were not made.

The important component of this is that the comments are PUBLIC so that constituents can see what others are saying. Each "user" can see whether her ideas are commonly held or idiosyncratic and the community can know what kind of feedback an office is receiving and judge its responsiveness accordingly.

Why anonymous? This is feedback, not evaluation. This information cannot be used to penalize or injure anyone. The office has opportunity to respond either immediately or in an annual report. Crank comments will be weeded out by sheer numbers and users who will contradict them. In the other direction, it is clear that honest feedback can be compromised by concerns about retribution, formal or informal. Further analysis along these lines would further support the idea that comments should be (at least optionally) anonymous.

We should note that we already do all of this in principle -- many offices around campus have some version of a "suggestion box." What is missing is (1) systematic and consistent implementation so that users get accustomed to the process of providing feedback, and (2) a protocol for using the feedback to enrich the community knowledge pool and to build it into an actual accountability structure.

The last paragraph makes the connection to a sociology of information. Information asymmetries (as when the recipient knows what the aggregate opinion is, but the "public" does not) and the atomization of polities (this is what happens when opinion collection is done in a way that minimizes interactions among the opinion holders -- cf. Walmart not wanting employees to discuss working conditions -- preventing the formation of open, collective knowledge*) are a genuine obstacle to organizational improvement. Many, many private organizations have learned this; it's not entirely surprising that colleges and universities are the last to get on board.

* as opposed, say, to things that might be called "open secrets"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Conference on Information and Networks

A Workshop on Information in Networks (WIN) will be held at the Stern School at NYU in late September. Here's how they describe what they are up to:
The increasing availability of massive networked data is revolutionizing the scientific study of a variety of phenomena in fields as diverse as Computer Science, Economics, Physics and Sociology. Yet, while many important advances have taken place in these different communities, the dialog between researchers across disciplines is only beginning. The purpose of WIN is to bring together leading researchers studying ‘information in networks’ – its distribution, its diffusion, its value, and its influence on social and economic outcomes – in order to lay the foundation for ongoing relationships and to build a lasting multidisciplinary research community.