TITLE: A Seven-Year Itch AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 03, 2006 6:27 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Academic departments at universities can sometimes be quite agile, introducing new courses and new approaches into curricula in response to feedback from students and the world. But, like large corporations and almost any organization that reaches a certain size, the modern university also tends to calcify certain processes to the point that they become almost useless. Academic program review is an example. Every seven years, my university conducts an academic program review of each academic department, on a rolling schedule. My department was last reviewed in 1999, so we were on the schedule for Fall 2006. As a part of the review, the department conducts a self-study of each of its programs, reviewing curriculum, student outcomes, faculty, facilities and resources, budget and finance, and program strengths and weaknesses. Then a set of external auditors come to campus to conduct an independent review, informed by the self-study reports. Finally, the dean uses the results of the internal and external reviews to help the department plan for improvement and maintenance. Periodically examining one's practice, gathering feedback from independent reviewers, and then feeding what you learn back into process improvement seems like a good idea, a natural way for an organization to monitor itself. So why don't faculty take to it enthusiastically? Instead, they dread it. Any agile software developer knows one part of the answer. Waiting seven years to gather feedback and adjust course is simply a bad idea. Imagine how far off track a department can go in seven years! Of course, it's not really that bad. To some extent, faculty, department head, and dean are all in a continual process of monitoring the state of the department and making changes. In the seven years since our last review, we have hired three faculty, changed department heads twice, launched two new majors, and moved into a new building. All of these changes resulted from collective discussion or managerial choice. Part of the problem is documentation process that accompanies the review. Since returning from OOPSLA, I have spent much of my time encouraging faculty to find time to finish their work on the review and finding time myself to assemble and complete the reports for our undergraduate and graduate programs. None of us has a lot of unencumbered time to devote to such a big task, and the result is process thrashing and delays. This is my first time leading a review (last time around I wrote a big part of the M.S. program self-study but had another department head to do the encouraging, assembling, and completing), and I think I've learned something about how to make this work better in the future. Most of my ideas are inspired by agile methods. To be fair to the university and its policy, we are already charged with doing some of this by the university itself, in the form of a Student Outcomes Assessment plan. This plan should be monitoring student outcomes throughout their time on campus and then into their alumni years. Unfortunately our department -- and many others, I suspect -- have never taken these plans seriously. Some faculty view this process as an unnecessary bureaucratic burden, and others think that we are all too busy to do it right. I think that this means we need to develop a better plan, one in which data collection is manageable under supervision of instructors and staff and immediately useful in evaluating our progress. (Because many of us didn't take student outcomes assessment seriously when we wrote the plan, we wrote a plan that was unrealistic and aimed more at satisfying the committee charged with approving the plan than at satisfying our needs!) There are practical reasons for doing some elements of program review every seven years. For example, getting on-campus feedback from good external reviewers is difficult. They are busy people, in demand, and bringing them to campus is costly. But an advisory board can provide a lighter-weight feedback more frequently. Of course, who knows who will be our department head in 2013, so my learning may or may not have an effect on how we do our next academic program review. But I will proceed with some of these ideas now in an effort to help us improve as a group. Our self-study reports were due today at 5 PM, and we haven't submitted them yet. You know what I'll be doing this weekend. -----