Penn State University is a public non-profit university. The unit I work in is located in University Park, PA, but includes cooperation with several commonwealth campuses and conducts its business online through the World Campus. The World Campus offers more than 60 degrees and certificates in either a fully online or blended (online and face-to-face) format. World Campus distant students are offered the “same high-quality, academically challenging courses” they would attend on campus and “the flexibility to study wherever you are (World Campus Web site, 2008).”
Teaching colleagues moving into a new position
In my previous assignment, I reported on a teaching situation at Penn State that involved my role in guiding colleagues in their transition to a new role. I had been working in this new role for 2-3 years already myself when decisions made at the organizational level forced the changes in my colleagues’ jobs. Here I will examine one part of the situation I described: the situations leading up to these decisions.
In my analysis I will look the decision made to transition staff into new roles with new job responsibilities, and the institutional, organizational, and personal factors at work in this decision.
Penn State University’s decision to move from print-based correspondence courses to entirely online delivery as a distance education mechanism reflected an overall trend in higher education to make learning more convenient by offering classes online (Sloan-C, 2006). Penn State had a long tradition of offering many of its courses and programs through mail correspondence, so it already saw itself as being institutionally aligned with both distance education and higher education. Pure mail correspondence as a mode of delivery in distance education was slowly fading from the landscape as online access gained prevalence. This was due to a combination of factors including convenience for the learner and increasing ubiquity of inexpensive internet access, at least in developed countries. Additionally, Penn State was pressured to respond to higher education institutional standards of faculty-student and student-student interaction – standards easily met in face-to-face classrooms, but which had previously been difficult to achieve with mail-based correspondence methods. Learning simply could not take place at the pace of the traditional classroom due to lag times in materials and assignments being mailed back and forth. Though many learners did find this more leisurely pace convenient in its own right, still it did not meet the standards of interaction demanded in many higher education curricula.
According to Scott (2001), living institutions such as higher education are comprised of both property and process. In the old model, Penn State with its distance education arm was comprised of brick-and-mortar, paper, and postal delivery (the property of education). The new model included the internet as part of the institutional property. Higher education process demanded more interaction among learners and faculty than ever before. Online education reflected a shift in both the property and process of higher education.
Organizations often function in a bureaucratic, hierarchical fashion in order to streamline processes and maximize efficiency. This way of thinking about organizations is also known as the rational-legal form of domination or the rational systems model (Friedberg, 2001; Scott, 2003). Penn State’s World Campus exemplified this model as it sought to streamline its processes and workflows in order to meet growing demand for its distance education programs, and academic departmental demands for new online program delivery. One streamlining mechanism that was identified involved moving the administrative aspects of enrollment, registration and course delivery into the same computer systems as the rest of the university. Since these systems were designed around the residence education model, they were only capable of handling a semester-based scheduling of classes well. There were other compelling organizational reasons to move to the semester-based format. Faculty were accustomed to the semester-based model, planning research activities around it and using it as a basis for tenure. A majority of our learners (though not all) preferred the interaction made possible in the online environment and the extrinsic motivation that the semester-based, cohort model enforced.
Bureaucratic efficiency was also the driving force behind the decision to realign staff. Staff in their existing roles with their existing skills no longer served the organization well in its drive towards efficiency. A transition plan and training program was thus put in place. Staff would not “move up” in the organizational hierarchy but would rather remain in subordinate, supporting roles with new titles and new skills. The organization’s goal of transitioning existing correspondence and residential programs to an online format would be best met with specific staff transitions, including the positions described.
It is useful to also examine the organizational factors at work in this situation through the lens of the neo-institutional school of thought. According to Friedberg (2001), in the neo-institutional school of organizational thought, “organizations are neither the simple tools of their masters nor machines to maximize efficiency. They are also institutions, i.e., social worlds with their specific identity and culture, which, once created, take on a life of their own” and can “never be reduced to mere considerations of efficiency.” Scott (2003) defines this distinctly social structure as the “natural system” definition of an organization, the “normative pillar” where human factors are at play. In this case there existed a culture in which long-lasting friendships, loyalties and reporting structures defined the day-to-day work experience for many of the employees. My colleagues were not being asked to give up their old work relationships and indeed reported to the same individual as before in this scenario.
Finally, it must be noted that an organizational/institutional factor at work in this situation is the difficulty involved in letting go of employees in a higher educational institution. Except in cases of egregious behavior or very poor job performance, employees are generally not fired. So, this particular motivating factor (the threat of job loss) was diminished in this situation.
The personal factors at work in this situation that I will examine include issues of identity and roles.
The learners in this situation were staff members moving into a new position. My own role in the teaching situation began as a practitioner working already in the new position. In my part in planning for leading the transition of my coworkers, I had to take an objective look at the nature of the day-to-day work I did. I had little say in the mandate coming down from management that my coworkers would be doing similar work to mine. My colleagues also had little say, and in addition to having varying levels of competence in or propensities for learning the new technologies, had differing levels of motivation for learning them. Factors in this motivational gap may have included management never adequately explaining the purpose for their new roles or not offering an alternative that might have made greater use of the skills they already possessed, or they could have come from identification with the same role-relationships with each other and with their supervisors. With nothing to challenge the identities coming from these role-relationships, staff may have been more inclined to proceed as usual rather than learn something new.
Another challenge to identity and role-relationship, and ultimately to learner motivation, came from my own newfound role as teacher-colleague, rather than just colleague. How could my colleagues be convinced to view themselves as learners, investing in me the authority of teacher, where before we were all just colleagues, perhaps engaging in informal teaching and learning, but always on equal footing? According to Luhrmann (2001), in examining role-relationships, we are to examine the importance of “who they are, who we are in relation to them, and how we are to act in that relationship.” In this case, it was not a simple task to establish the role-relationships necessary for effective teaching. Still, Luhrmann views this “complexity of identifications as a condition of modernity.” And a modernized organization, within a modernized institution, must bear this complexity of identifications, as must the individuals that comprise them.
I have examined here the institutional, organizational and personal factors at work in initiating the teaching situation in which I was involved. I described overall institutional shifts that led to the decision Penn State made to increase its online offerings and eliminate its long-standing tradition of correspondence courses. I described organizational factors particular to our working environment – bureaucratic efficiencies achieved through information systems integration and staffing shifts, social and cultural factors, and job security’s ties to motivation. Finally I described the relationships of roles and identities to motivation and cultural change, important factors we were faced with in this impending change in our jobs. I stressed bureaucratic efficiency, motivation, and cultural issues in this paper because these would be the main factors in determining the ultimate outcome of the teaching situation, which left staff in lower level positions than they had initially been led to believe they’d be moving into. But that analysis is best reserved for a lengthier discussion.
Friedberg, E. (2001). Sociology of Organizations. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 10968-10973). Exeter: Elsevier.
Luhrmann, T. M. (2001). Identity in Anthropology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 7154-7159). Exeter: Elsevier.
Scott, R. (2003). An Introduction to Organizations. In Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems (5th ed., pp. 1-30). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Scott, W. R. (2001). Constructing an Analytic Framework I. In Institutions and Organizations (pp. 47-70). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Sloan-C. (2006). Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006. Sloan-C: A Consortium of Institutions and Organizations Committed to Quality Online Education. Retrieved October 30, 2008, from http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/survey/survey06.asp.