Posts Tagged Ideas

Who’s Got Time to Read 5 Million Books?

Ever wonder what would happen if you could read 5-million books and then analyze trends that occur across all those books? Well, neither had I, but a group of really smart guys from Harvard or MIT or one of those other New England institutions did just that – with the help of a bunch of silicon and Google’s scanned books. It’s fascinating to hear these guys talk about what they did and how they did it – almost more interesting than the results of their research. Plus, you can have fun searching on your own cultural themes.

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New Year’s Innovation

Happy New Year and welcome back to campus. I hope you had a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Cheryl and I had a great, albeit busy, break visiting our families and friends in California. In addition to the typical holiday activities, we had the opportunity to work on a Rose Parade float (cutting moss and gluing seeds…it’s really a lot less fun than it sounds), stroll with all the interesting characters on Venice Beach, and wander the Santa Monica pier with visitors from Wisconsin and Texas.

With the new year, people often make resolutions for the things they’re going to change. I used to do that. With all good intention, I would identify those things I was going to do better, more, less, or not at all. Usually, within a month, if not a week, those resolutions would all be shot and I’d wind up wallowing in self-pity. So, several years ago I resolved to do away with resolutions. That was one I could actually accomplish and I’m happy to say I’ve been successful in keeping that resolution ever since.

Instead of resolving to do something, I now mark the end of one year and the start of the next as an opportunity to look back on what’s been and to plan for what will be. I encourage you to do the same thing. Consider what’s happened in 2010 and what we have to look forward to in 2011. While I’ve not been with the college for a long time, I’ve been here long enough to see a new mascot unveiled (on our campus too!) and to see citizens voluntarily vote to tax themselves allowing us to add two more campuses. I’ve seen several campuses, including Northridge, go solar. I’ve even experienced both network and power outages on campus. Among all of this, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with and getting to know you.

As I continue to learn how the college works and how we do things, I take the opportunity to also consider how we may be able to do things better. You’ve heard me say it and you’ve read in my messages repeatedly that I encourage you to consider new and better ways to serve our students. I can tell you that these are challenging times, but then every leader says that about every period of time. Yes, we have economic concerns that affect our whole country. Yes, we are pressed for space. Yes, we have more students wanting more classes than we have available. None of this though is new.

What I’d like you to do is consider all of this, call it our work context, and think about how we do things and whether there may be better ways to accomplish our goals. Two recent articles from very different sources have sparked my thoughts on innovation this week.

The first, Access, Innovation and “Colleges for the 21st Century”: Interview with Peter Smith, is an interview with Peter P. Smith from the Higher Education Management Group blog. Dr. Smith is, “the founding President of the Community College of Vermont, former  Lieutenant Governor of Vermont , university Dean at George Washington U, Founding President at Cal State at Monterey Bay, Assistant Director of UNESCO, and now the Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education.” This is a guy who has been around and seen higher education from the administrative and policy levels. One of the things that stood out about Dr. Smith’s comments was the certainty of his belief that change is coming to higher education. He wasn’t going so far as to say what sort of change, but he indicated that it will be happening rapidly and that existing institutions will have to adapt “or yield to still other new institutions and programs….”

The second article was a post from Fast Company, 10 New Year’s Resolutions for Innovative Teams. The short, annotated list of “resolutions” neatly collected several sound practices for innovating change. You can read the descriptions yourself at the referenced link, but here are the ten resolutions:

  1. Do something new for the first time
  2. Think big and do small
  3. De a connection engine
  4. Be relational not transactional
  5. Celebrate and communicate your successes
  6. Speak the language of innovation clearly
  7. Prototype with simplicity and speed
  8. Do research differently
  9. Be a global citizen
  10. Pick a fight

I encourage you to consider ways to help and better serve our students. Have a wonderful new year!

Photo: Library of Congress, 12/29/1907

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Baby Steps to Change

(cc) San Diego Shooter

For several weeks, I’ve been writing about service and about change. Everyone has been encouraged to think about what they are doing and how that affects the service we provide our students. I encourage you to continue thinking about what we’re doing and considering new and different ways to serve our students.

There’s an old saying, often attributed to great minds like Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin, that goes something like this, “You can’t expect a different outcome when you keep doing things the same way.” While that may seem profound, it really is quite limited because it doesn’t take into account the context in which we operate. As our environment changes, even if we do things the same way, the outcomes will often change. What may have worked when we had 6,000 students enrolled on our campus is unlikely to continue to work as well with more than 10,000 students.

In an effort to nudge a bit at one of our persistent problems, I instituted a small change last week. I asked our counselors and advisors to make a change in their schedules for the next couple weeks of peak. During this busy time, I asked that we schedule a counselor and an advisor to remain on duty for one-hour past the normal closing time. This would allow for any late-arriving students to still be checked-in and seen, preventing these students from being turned away.

This is an experiment and we’ll see what kind of results we have at the end of this peak period. I’m curious about not only the effect on service to late arriving students, but what happens to student service earlier in the day? How does this affect our team members? This is the point of trying something different, to see if we can make a positive effect on our service delivery using the existing resources of our team.

I have some other ideas that I’d like for us to try in the next couple weeks. One of these is a different spin on the “Welcome Back” cards we’ve used when a student has to take an assessment test. In this case, I’d like for us to use these new cards to offer students arriving late in the day when we have long lines the opportunity to come back the next day (or day after that) and jump to the front of the line.

Another idea has to do with establishing a list of services that we offer to our students as part of the advising and counseling activity. Some of these are not time critical and yet can take a great deal of time (e.g., career counseling or goal planning). Other things can be time critical and require very little time (e.g., removal of a hold or identification of a proper developmental course based on assessment results). By identifying the various types of services that may be needed by a student, we can help set student expectations for what may and may not be covered in an advising or counseling session.

For instance, we may limit the length of sessions at the end of the day to 10-15 minutes and providing just enough service to address the most time critical needs of the student, deferring other, less-critical needs to another appointment, preferably after peak weeks. This idea is not yet fully formed, but I’ve asked our counselors and our Advising Supervisor to think about these various levels of service and help to identify which are time critical and which are not.

As we begin making changes to our processes, I ask that you consider these changes with an open mind. Yes, we’re going to be doing things differently and that can feel uncomfortable. However, if you remember why we’re here – to provide great service to our students – it can help us to think about these small changes as a means for continuously improving how we provide that service. I seek your feedback and your honest opinions of how things work, both as we have been doing things and as we might change to try new methods. Unless we try, how will we know?

We’re entering the busiest time of November with our newest students seeking assistance in identifying their classes and needing help in registering for the spring semester. We know we’re going to be busy, so pace yourself. I appreciate the hard work and extra effort each of you provide to make sure that our students get the best service possible. You make me proud to be a part of the Northridge family!

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Data: Catalyst for Discussion

(cc) Tom Woodward (

(cc) Tom Woodward

This week, I want to borrow a line from Friday’s Student Success Initiative Data Retreat where our Associate Vice President for Effectiveness and Accountability told us to use quantitative data not as an end but as a means for starting discussions. This parallels my message from last week where I wrote about data driven decisions and how, important as the quantitative data is, we also need to remember the human stories behind the data.

Specifically, I would like to encourage all of you to take a look at data related to our students, student performance, our college, and other relevant aspects of what we do. Think about what the data means and use it to start discussions with your colleagues. Data should generate questions and it is the discussion of these questions that can help us to better understand and serve our students.

For example, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Accountability publishes data providing demographic profiles of our students based upon a snapshot-in-time record of all students on census day (12th class day). Reviewing this data and comparing Northridge campus numbers to those of the entire college yields some interesting questions. I will discuss several below, but encourage you to take a look for yourself and see what stands out for you. Be advised: I will raise lots of questions in the following paragraphs, but I don’t have any answers. The fun comes in thinking about the reasons that lie behind the questions.

Number of Students

The first thing I always look at when reviewing this type of data is the total number of students. What’s interesting here, is the difference between our campus and the college as a whole. Here at Northridge, we remained relatively stable with 10,219 students – only a 1.2% growth from fall 2009. ACC’s student population however grew by 9.6% to 44,100, almost 4,000 students more than the previous fall. Why did Northridge grow at such a slower rate than the college overall? Could it be that we are already near maximum capacity on our campus? Perhaps it has to do with the opening of the Round Rock campus and students choosing to attend class there rather than here?

Part-time vs. Full-time

Conventional wisdom has it that most community college students attend classes part-time. Looking at the data for fall 2010, we see that bears out as true for ACC in general and Northridge in particular. However, differences between the college and our campus exist that generate some interesting questions. Full-time attendance for the college was 26.1% of students. At Northridge tough, 33.4% of our students attend full-time. Why is that? What about Northridge students (or the programs offered at Northridge) would account for a more than seven-percent difference in students attending full-time?


Across the country, a greater number of women than men enroll in colleges and universities. The same holds true for ACC: 55.5% female and 45.5% male. What’s interesting is that this does not hold true at Northridge. We have a statistically even split between male and female enrollment – 50/50. Why? Does our geographic location lend itself towards a greater percentage of men attending classes at our campus than other campuses? Could it be that the programs offered at our campus appeal more to men than women?


For our purposes here, I’m only going to focus on the top four race/ethnicity categories, ones that contain at least five-percent of the student population : White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian students. At first, I was curious about some rather significant changes between the fall 2009 and fall 2010 percentages (the overall numbers did not shift much though). For example, the White population of the college dropped from 57.3% in fall 2009 to 52.7% in fall 2010 while the overall number of students in this category changed by only 0.8% year-to-year. This begs the question: why such a big drop on the overall? Reviewing the data further you find that the “Unknown” category increased by over 300% from fall-to-fall. Since fall 2010 was the first time we gathered race/ethnicity data that allowed for multiple responses, could the shift noted above be related to confusion by students filling out their applications?

More interesting I think is comparing the ACC numbers to our numbers at Northridge. Based on the percentages of all students, we have slightly fewer White and Hispanic students and more Black and Asian students. Why? Again, is this based on our geography or our curriculum? Does this difference indicate we need to consider different programming or support services for our students?


Here again, conventional wisdom tends towards community college students being more non-traditional than those attending four-year institutions. Perhaps so if you think that traditional students are generally between the ages of 18 and 22 and the student profile data seems to support this. What’s interesting about ACC data is the significant increase in the number of younger students, those 18-years or younger. This population has increased college-wide, though when you look at the numbers of these students at Northridge, we see a reduction from fall 2009 to fall 2010. Why? Do we have fewer Early College Start students attending classes on campus? Are there more classes being offered on high school campuses thus accounting for the overall college increase?

Another interesting group are those students 25-years and older which comprise almost 44% of all Northridge students. Further, each of the discrete age categories with the exception of those 36-50 years old showed an increase in fall 2010 over the number enrolled during fall 2009. Why are more older students attending classes at Northridge? Does this increase in older students have anything to do with the state of the local economy? Do our current programs and processes for providing student services meet the needs of this growing, older student population?

So Now What?

Quantitative data alone does not provide you answers but rather serves as a catalyst for questions. I encourage you to think about these questions, to review other data sources and generate your own questions. Discuss these things with your peers and your supervisor. By teasing apart the data, we can better focus on the needs of our students. Data can generate questions that help us to dispel myths or misunderstandings. Data can also help us to identify the extent of impact for programs targeting specific student populations. Have fun with the numbers and let your mind wander across the various possibilities. Doing so forms one of the foundations for creative problem solving and identification of innovative ideas.

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Educational Distractions

Twenty-five years ago, I found it tough enough to pay attention in my undergraduate classes that I felt had nothing to do with my desire to become a computer manual writer. At the time, my distractions were television, my Sony Walkman personal cassette player, books, bicycles, the beach, and vector-based computer games. No cell phones, no email, no web surfing, no streaming Internet video. Perhaps the biggest distraction of all was that the campus student center served beer and pizza for lunch.

Advancing technology and the increased stimuli that constantly bombard us now makes me wonder how our students, or anyone, can expect to pay attention to a single person talking away at the front of an uncomfortable room.  Michael Wesch, a Cultural Anthropologist at Kansas State University, takes at look at how 19th century teaching methods can’t compete with the inputs available to our 21st century students. Take a look his vision of this tension…

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Sir Ken RSA

What happens when you mashup my favorite educational contrarian with RSA Animate? You be the judge…

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Cultures of Innovation

A week ago, I discussed broken things and briefly commented on Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. I’m just about done reading the book and am struck by the value of their ideas, specifically the importance of stories over analytical data as a means of making ideas sticky. I must admit that I’ve long been a fan of presenting the logical argument, laced with supporting statistics, graphs, and charts in order to make my case. This book has me rethinking my approach to presenting new ideas. While I don’t think I’ll be able to ditch the data (so to speak) given the academic universe in which I orbit, including more stories and personalizing the ideas certainly appeals to me.

I had another of those Eureka moments this morning when the confluence of different ideas come together and clarity ensues. Fittingly, it was while watching a video on the confluence of different ideas. TED recently posted a new talk by Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From, which just happens to be the title of his forthcoming book. While the talk starts a bit slow, my interest really engaged when he described the car-part infant incubator designed for easy maintenance in developing countries. However, the real gem of the talk comes at the end (around the 12:15 point in the timeline) where Johnson tells a story of ideas building upon ideas and the development of something new which profoundly affected how people would interact with each other and their environment many years in the future.

Anyone interested in nurturing a culture of innovation would do well with reading the Heaths’ book and spending a quarter-hour watching the above video. For fans of the RSA Animations, check out the short video where Johnson outlines the themes for his new book.

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