Monthly Archives: February 2017

Losing Focus on the Mission: What’s Happening at UMUC

Several years ago I joined UMUC because of it’s unique mission – to serve as an open-enrollment, online public university that meets the unique needs of non-traditional, adult learners obtaining their degrees during their nights and weekends all around the world. During the time that I was there, the institution made great forward progress particularly in their use of analytics to reduce costs, reduce drop-outs, and increase new enrollments. The university also launched a new online learning environment, transitioned to using no-cost digital course materials and Open Educational Resources to improve affordability for students, and began to work on creating a new, flexible learning model enabled by advancements in technology and learning science. Not only did I have a great experience working for UMUC, I am also a former student as well. While a student, I became the first person in my family to obtain an advanced degree. I was able to do so in my nights and weekends without having to quit my day job or take on large amounts of debt. My classmates included stay-at-home parents, military service members here and abroad, and people like me trying to earn a credential when and as they could to take the next step in their careers. The passion and dedication of the educators at UMUC was always very apparent, and I’m grateful for this experience as well.

This is why I’m very concerned that in the past 9 months, almost half of the university’s Cabinet has turned over, including one of two Deans (the one who was the primary driver behind the new learning model), the Provost, and over half of those representing the academic side of the university including the VPs of academic affairs and student advising and retention. Instead of filling these slots, several new positions have been added to the Cabinet with flashy new business-oriented job titles such as “Vice President, Strategic Partnerships,” “Vice President of Strategy and Innovation,” and 3 different new positions with “Enrollment Management” in their titles.

April 2016 Changes in Cabinet-level Leadership
February 2017
Marie A. Cini, PhD Provost and Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs Stepping down
Senior Vice President, Strategic Enrollment Management Erika Orris
Jason Reed Vice President and Chief Technology Officer  —
Allan J. Berg Vice President and Director, UMUC Asia James “Jim” Cronin
Kelly Wilmeth Vice President and Director, UMUC Europe Robert “Bob” Loynd
Vice President, Communications and Engagement Heather Date
Alexa Kim Vice President, Customer Service  —
Vice President, Enrollment Management Lisa Henkel
Lisa Branic Vice President, Enterprise Project Management  —
Mary Ann Donaghy Vice President, Marketing  —
James “Jim” Cronin Vice President, Stateside Military Operations Kelly Wilmeth
Vice President, Strategic Partnerships Ed Bach
Lisa Henkel Vice President, Student Advising and Retention  —
Susie Chang Vice President, Student Recruitment  —
Vice President of Strategy and Innovation, Strategic Enrollment Management Joseph Cantoni
Aric Krause, PhD Vice Provost and Dean, The Graduate School Recently vacated,
Kathryn Klose (acting)
Marcia Watson, PhD Vice Provost, Academic Affairs  —
Karen Vignare, PhD Vice Provost, Center for Innovation in Learning & Student Success  —

There has to be a reason for this level of ongoing churn on the university’s leadership team. This same trend is reinforced throughout the organization, which at the time of this writing had 468 open job positions…which also seems unusually high.

As of the time that I left, my impression is that the university was beginning to struggle with finding a balance between its core mission focused on academics and the business aspects of focusing on future innovation. The noted shifts in the Cabinet membership seem to reflect these changes in priority and focus.  As much respect as I have for the university President, he seemed quite enamored with finding ways to use public resources to found private educational technology startup companies – instead of with the core academic mission of the university. The thinking was that the university might use excess income from these startups, or the proceeds from selling them off, to fund scholarships. This is a noble goal, but the business of edtech is extremely risky at best and can result in losing hundreds of millions of dollars for even the largest and most successful educational technology companies.

Perhaps, though, I shouldn’t be so surprised by this shift in focus; innovation and adaptation always seemed to be driving characteristics of the organization’s culture.  After all, the old homegrown Learning Management System (LMS) that I helped to replace was a relic of a pioneering effort to develop online learning software that was at one time licensed to a handful of other universities – one of the first efforts to commercialize an educational technology product developed at and by a university. While that effort was ultimately shuttered, it was still a success. HelioCampus, an analytics company, is another recent educational technology spin-off that capitalizes on the institution’s analytics prowess. It was created by privatizing the team of 15 (p. 26) full-time analytics experts that were previously state government employees and funding it with $10 million in seed money from UMUC’s own fund balance.

I recently learned from one of UMUC’s IT recruiters that they are again planning to privatize another group of employees and create another educational technology spin-off. This time, they are planning to lay off and outsource the entire university’s IT department to a private company wholly owned as a subsidiary of another company that the university previously created.

“The company will act as holding a company for some of the key services at the university, specifically IT. This will allow the IT organization to be more agile and have a higher impact on students, impact through innovation.”

Recent state budget testimony (p. 24) reveals more about the scope of the effort:

“There is an active discussion underway contemplating the creation of a new education enablement company owned by UMUC Ventures. This company would be formed by spinning off the UMUC Office of Technology, intended to serve UMUC and possibly other institutions”

A recent domain name registration even hints at the name of this new company: AccelerEd. The registrant is the current AVP of Enterprise IT Operations according to this LinkedIn profile.

I am very concerned by this development for three reasons. First, this action further distracts the university from its core academic mission. Second, outsourcing the core IT operations for an online university is an incredibly risky move, especially considering the way in which it is being done. Finally, I am concerned by UMUC’s trend towards privatizing public resources.

As a former employee of the university, I was drawn to its unique mission, and many of my former co-workers were, too. Universities like UMUC that offer alternative pathways to better lives play a critical role in addressing the needs of populations not served effectively by more traditional institutions.  I now worry about the stability of the jobs of my former co-workers, the impending and unexpected changes to their benefits, and the impact on those more experienced employees – particularly their loss of state pensions through no fault of their own. This change will result in material impacts to many lives. These transitions are never easy and are rarely fair.

As an alumnus of the university, I am concerned about the damage to its reputation caused because of this change in focus. Good employees who disagree with this shift in direction will leave (and as evidenced above, many good leaders already are). Placing IT operations into a different company, whether owned by UMUC or not, will introduce yet another silo between organizations and result in an inefficient and sub-par experience. I cannot think of an example where such an effort has worked well. I welcome any counter-examples.

As a taxpayer of Maryland, I think of UMUC as a state treasure. The university has a special academic mission, and I hate seeing it put on the back-burner. I don’t want to see the great work of UMUC privatized. And if the plan is to outsource UMUC’s entire IT department, I also think this should go out to RFP to be bid upon to obtain the best value and be fairly won. It should not be automatically awarded to a company the university just happens to own. In this mindset, I also think it’s very wasteful for the university to spend $2.7 million of state money (p. 105) in December of 2016 to redesign the 1st floor of its administration building specifically for the purpose of “transitioning the Analytics, Planning, and Technology workforce to a workplace/office of the future” (p. 5-6) when the plan to spin this business unit off into a separate company was known at this time. (The last time this exact same building was significantly renovated was 2013.)

As an expert in the field, I admit that I actually like the idea for this new spin-off company. UMUC is full of great software developers, educational technologists, and instructional designers who have worked well together for decades. It would be a venture capitalist’s dream to commandeer such a capable team to found a startup company. However, I wholly disagree with the approach the university is taking to form this company. There is a significant level of risk for an online university to outsource its entire IT function to a separate entity. UMUC already relies heavily on adjunct faculty and outsourced recruiting and student support.  While I have always had concerns about the risk and fairness inherent in these decisions, the IT team runs the technology that powers a fully-online university. There is no UMUC without an online classroom. Any impact to IT’s ability to execute reliably will directly affect students. As a separate entity, there will be even fewer ways for the university to hold this organization accountable, especially considering that the university itself, in a circular way, will be its ultimate owner and financier.

Founding another educational technology company at this time would also be very risky, especially considering that the university’s other existing technology startup has yet to be proven successful. HelioCampus is only expected to reach profitability in 5 years (p. 24) and has only a small handful of customers – almost all of whom appear to be other University System of Maryland institutions (p. 1-2). The university should give HelioCampus more time to prove its success before embarking on another much riskier and more significant effort. Starting too many different efforts too soon could even jeopardize the early success that HelioCampus has had by diluting focus on establishing its momentum.

Finally, as a blogger I’m concerned that we may never learn much more about this effort in order to hold our public institutions accountable for how taxpayer money is spent. UMUC has lobbied for and received specific, special exemptions from the state’s Public Information Act (p. 48-49):

“(a) A custodian may deny inspection of any part of a public record that: (1) relates to the University of Maryland University College’s competitive position with respect to other providers of education services…(ii) a proposal generated, received, or negotiated by the University of Maryland University College, other than with its students, for the provision of education services; or (iii) any research, analysis, or plans compiled by or for the University of Maryland University College relating to its operations or proposed operations”

As stated in the university’s recently updated strategic plan (p. 14), the mission of University of Maryland University College is improving the lives of adult learners. The direction that the university is heading is deeply concerning and squarely focuses the institution on the business of educational technology rather than its academic mission. I strongly encourage the university’s new leadership team to refocus on its core mission. The best way to move forward is to re-align the university’s IT department with its academic leadership, not separate them even more. UMUC has a long legacy of innovation driven by partnerships across academic and technology units, and strengthening these relationships will do more to sustain the future success of the university than severing these deep and historically-successful ties.

This is a guest post authored by George Kroner


One Course to Rule Them All: A Return to the Course Management System

Several times each year, professors all around the world undertake a ritual that dates to the invention of the semester. They update their course materials. Sometimes they do this on their own or with someone else teaching the same class at the same institution. Sometimes they download the latest slides available from a textbook publisher and tediously upload them into the Learning Management System one-by-one. Sometimes life gets busy, and they skip any updates for a semester. Maybe they find someone teaching the exact same course at another school and share the load with that person. This would make sense, since it seems insanely wasteful for everyone to reinvent the wheel and update their own copy of Calculus 101 to be ever-so-slightly different than everyone else’s. In fact I’d argue that most, single, logical courses are more or less the same regardless of the institution. In other words, the materials and lessons for Calculus 101 as taught at one institution are not really so different than those used by Calculus 101 as taught at another. Analysis of a million syllabi seems to confirm this hunch.

Most content for a single logical course overlaps significantly with the content for that same course when taught at a different university

Today, for the most part, these classes exist as separate islands in different LMSs. Updating one does not update another, and any updates are largely done manually. Rarely do professors who teach in different LMSs collaborate – there is simply too much effort required to reconcile the glitches. Even with open standards to support “LMS agnostic” content that is transportable across LMSs, it’s incredibly time consuming even for a single instructor who teaches in different LMSs to ensure that they behave in the same ways across these systems. Ask any adjunct who teaches the same course at multiple schools with multiple LMSs. The types of test questions supported in each LMS might be different. Or the link from a given content item to another content item in the same course might break and need to be manually re-established. Or the weighting that you want to give to assignments in the gradebook might not work the same.

Calculus 101 as delivered at different schools in different LMSs

The textbook publishers, back in the day, created a way to make this process a little easier – provided that you were teaching with their textbook and only their textbook. They created content packages specific to each major LMS that could be imported with a click of a button. This addressed many of the compatibility and fidelity challenges. A modern-day variant of this concept links out to that publisher’s content (hosted on that publisher’s web site) instead of importing PowerPoint and other files directly into the school’s LMS. The primary limitation here is that the content still comes only from that single publisher.

Publisher content packages can be imported into many different types of LMSs

The MOOC providers offer the most recent variant of a potential solution to this problem. They teach a single course on their single platform and allow anyone to enroll. Instructors can co-teach a class, and content updates are immediate and available to every participant. MOOC platforms also have the capability of aggregating immense amounts of learning analytics data that – hopefully, …theoretically… – could be used to foster better course design and support adaptive and personalized learning experiences. But this model does not fit the way that institutions enroll students into course sections and does not address such details as privacy controls over student data, which an institution can control for its own LMS. Students, should they want to take the course, have to register in a disjointed way on a different system and attend each course, potentially, in a different MOOC platform – Udacity, Coursera, edX, etc.

MOOC – one course, with that course’s content, taught repeatedly on the same platform.

One Course to Rule Them All

Particularly as adaptive learning becomes more mainstream and the desire to pursue competency-based learning grows – the implication being that every piece of course content will need to be tagged with metadata and every click captured and analyzed – I believe that the level of effort required to build, configure, and maintain just one single online course may make developing that course a prohibitively expensive exercise, certainly for an individual instructor and maybe even so for a single institution. Our existing, individual, piece-meal methods of semesterly course content maintenance may quickly become unsustainable. Even the level of effort required to completely reinvent a single online course to be adaptive, capture the right analytics, and be aligned to learning standards is a significant undertaking. Our existing ways of hosting courses in disjointed ways across different LMSs – particularly as we try to aggregate and align standards and analytics data among them – are showing their limitations. In addition, particularly for the STEM fields, it is increasingly difficult to keep materials up-to-date given the pace of change. This is going to force instructors and institutions (and maybe even publishers, associations, alumni, subject matter experts, private companies, and others) to work together in new ways.

I believe that we will soon live in a world where universities and publishers and individuals collaborate to build a single “perfect course” for each logical course in each subject area – complete with every piece of possible and optional content, every remedial material, large pools of test questions, assignments, and homework activities. These courses will come pre-configured with all standards alignment and analytics capabilities baked-in and adaptive paths available for different learner profiles. Instructors will still be able to choose, tweak, and rearrange their course content – they just won’t have to start from scratch and will always have the latest, relevant materials available. Everyone will share in the heavy-lifting of building and updating each course. Perhaps different models of funding, coordinating, and distributing responsibilities for course development will emerge. These courses could then even be delivered through the same familiar LMSs of today – or from some other central platform.

While this seems ominously centralized, I’m not too worried about courses becoming too homogeneous. Assessment tends to be where courses differ the most. The experience of each instructor and the interaction of students are what tend to take each class in unique and different directions. There will be benefits to this new model and certainly some risks and trade-offs.

As for the actual content, I’m a big fan of separating course content from the system in which it is delivered. Many in the profession have reservations about the LMS (Learning Management System) acronym. These systems don’t really manage learning as they exist today (if one even agrees that learning can be managed). This concept would more accurately be called a Course Management System (CMS) – which is what most LMSs of today used to be called before Content Management Systems won out in this acronym war. 

Over the years, a couple of LMS product features/concepts attempted to address this specific need. Blackboard’s xpLor attempted to provide a single, central repository where instructors could build and share courses and propagate updates easily. The problem with this product is that it provided a great empty shell – but someone had to build all the content, and licensing of proprietary content still proved to be a challenge. Moodle also created a feature called the Moodle Network which tried to syndicate and sync course materials across Moodle installations, but it was too buggy and was eventually removed as a feature. The problem of keeping distributed content in sync is actually a hard problem to solve when you begin to define what “in sync” means to different sets of users. For example some may always want the most recent copy of a piece of content, others the most recent copy reviewed and approved for use in their course, and still others a stable version as of a certain date.

There are also pockets where progress is currently being made in this area. Course Exchanges, which are becoming more frequently discussed, solve one piece of the problem. Usually this concept involves students and instructors from multiple institutions co-teaching and co-learning in the same LMS with the course credit flowing back to the student’s institution. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative seems to provide a model closest to what I’m suggesting. Some of their courses even integrate with existing LMSs. The largest advantage of CMU OLI’s approach is that it isn’t just a technological solution. The development of each course is wrapped with solid instructional design guidance, and revisions to future course versions are informed by data and feedback from previous editions of the course.  I’ve seen schools collaborate on course development and contribute course revision assistance to the OLI courses as a means to sustain them. I’ve also seen schools pay what they would ordinarily pay a content publisher or producer to contribute to the initiative. This concept deserves further – and significant – investment.

Creating course content is not going to get any easier. To reap the benefits of advancements in adaptive technology (and even OERs), schools are going to need to find ways to share in the effort and expense of creating and maintaining course content. I am doubtful that the publishers alone will be able to offer and sustain complete, pre-packaged course solutions, each on their own. Even Pearson with its abundant market presence never got beyond a handful of it’s “My Lab” style courseware offerings and is struggling financially.  I also doubt that learning platform providers creating “empty” adaptive products will succeed much in the long term. Instead I think these “perfect courses” are going to resemble something like the MOOCs of today.  This trend will likely start with common introductory or high-enrollment classes where the largest returns on investment can be made to the most impact. Over time I see instructors who teach niche classes connecting with each other from across institutions and finding a place in this model as well. But the model we have today is incredibly wasteful and limits the progress that educational institutions can make in the long run.

This is a guest post authored by George Kroner