Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Applied Hutchins: An Educational Example?

Hi again, campers. It's time again for another deep and provocative post, so you should probably stop reading this one and find Jim's or Eileen's....

That said, I'm going to take a stab at applying Hutchins' four main principles of computational organization to an educational change initiative. Don't get me wrong--navigation is great and all, but I can't hand out hoeys to everyone in an institution and expect them to implicitly use it as a mediating artifact. I am working for a national initiative that is pushing community colleges to close performance gaps between different student populations (specifically minority and low-income) and improve the performance of all students. The first step in this process is taking a hard look at the current outcomes of the college as opposed to what the college believes it is accomplishing.

Principle 1: Computational Structure Driven by Data Availability

After a college collects data on student performance (retention, course completion, graduation), disaggregated by student characteristics, it calls a meeting for all faculty and administration (or at least representation of all departments and disciplines). The assembled group is told the goal of the initiative and then is shown the data as a starting point in deciding how to accomplish this goal. Of course, percieved issues and possible strategies will be based on the available data and will frame the context of future action. There's a lot of data, though, and groups don't know what to do with it. They look at it, stare at a fancy chart, add up numbers, and ask, "what does this all mean?"

Principle 2: The Use of a Normative Description to Organize Computation

To get their heads around the data, the facilitator provides a simple approach to the data. First, look for where the biggest gaps are in performance (math or English? graduation rates or retention from fall to spring semester?). Second, look at which groups of student perform the worst (males? African Americans? Students between the ages of 28-45?). With this simple structure, the facilitator breaks the assembly into smaller groups and has them begin to frame the data. The normative structure provides a tool to connect meaning to the percentages and numbers originally displayed.

Principle 3: The Computational Advantages of Modularizing the Additional Task

Using the approach provided by the facilitator, each group comes up with at least one key area of consideration, all structured in the same format. The points are then presented to the entire group. With a similar structure, patterns emerge in the small group findings. These similarities are then constructed into a larger framework. For example, most colleges find that the lowest student performance occurs in math courses and in fall to spring retention rates. The institution might decide that their main thrust will be to address retention rates in math courses. Applying the previous approach, all of the group input is now framed within this larger goal, and the large group discusses in more detail the largest gaps and those students performing the worst.

Principle 4: The Fit Between Computational and Social Organization

Now that there is a given framework (How do we increase student retention in math courses?), the large group is again broken down into smaller units. These units might represent a specific subsystem, such as all of the math teachers or all of the developmental faculty, or they might be collections of representatives from different departments with a thematic goal (a focus on curriculum, or a group looking at student services). Each unit begins to define their role in achieving the goal, or how they fit into the greater social organization of the initiative.

That was my attempt. Sorry it was so long, but I must say that I did warn you and point you towards other, more conceptually concise posts. Speaking of navigation, did I totally miss the boat, or is my educational hoey okay?


Blogger jmj said...

Seems interesting. Is this your paper topic, or random thoughts?

3:25 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

Hi there Greg,

Thanks for the nice summary and clear means of understanding Hutchins. Would you like to take on this activity for our remaining course texts this semester? ;)

9:09 AM  

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