University of California’s $220 million payroll project reboot

Chris Newfield has an excellent post at Remaking the University about the University of California’s budget situation and how it relates to the recent Moody’s negative outlook on higher education finances. The whole article is worth reading, but one section jumped off the page for me [emphasis added].

The sadder example of ongoing debt is the request for “external financing for the UCPath project.” UC Path was UCOP’s flagship solution to UC inefficiencies that were allegedly wasting taxpayers’ money–in other words, new enterprise software for the systemwide consolidation of payroll and human resources functions. This is boring, important back office stuff, hardly good material for a political campaign to show the state “UC means business,” but that’s what it became. Rather than funding each campus’s decades-old effort to upgrade its systems on its own, UCOP sought centralization, which predictably introduced new levels of cost, complexity, and inefficiency, since centralization is often not actually efficient.

I had heard nothing good about UC Path from people trying to implement it on campuses, and have tried to ignore it, but this week it has resurfaced as a problem at the Regental level. The project timeline has grown from 48 to 72 months, and its costs are said to be $220 million (it had spent $131 million by May 2014) . Worse, the repayment schedule has mushroomed from seven to twenty years. Annual payments are to be something like $25 million. Campuses are to be taxed to pay for 2015-era systems until 2035, which is like taking out a twenty year mortgage to pay for your refrigerator, except that your fridge will be working better in 2035 than next year’s PeopleSoft product. Since the concurrent budget document notes efficiency savings of $30 million per year (top of page 4), UCOP may be spending $220 million to save a net $5 million per year over a couple of decades–and going into debt to do it. In the end, an efficiency measure has turned into a literal liability.

What the hell – a $220 million project to save money? How did this project get in this much trouble?

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It would be deeply unfair of me to mock Blackboard for having a messy but substantive keynote presentation and not give equal time to D2L’s remarkable press release, pithily entitled “D2L Supercharges Its Integrated Learning Platform With Adaptive Learning, Robust Analytics, Game-Based Learning, Windows® 8 Mobile Capabilities, And The Newest Education Content All Delivered In The Cloud.” Here’s the first sentence:

D2L, the EdTech company that created the world’s first truly integrated learning platform (ILP), today announces it is supercharging its ILP by providing groundbreaking new features and partnerships designed to personalize education and eliminate the achievement gap.

I was going to follow that quote with a cutting remark, but really, I’m not sure that I have anything to say that would be equal to the occasion. The sentence speaks for itself.

For a variety of reasons, Phil and I did not attend D2L FUSION this year, so it’s hard to tell from afar whether there is more going on at the company than meets the eye. I’ll do my best to break down what we’re seeing in this post, but it won’t have the same level of confidence that we have in our Blackboard analysis.

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It’s The End of Cal State Online As We Know It . . .

In a letter to campus leaders, Cal State University system office last month announced that Cal State Online will no longer operate as originally conceived. Emphasis added below.

As the CSU continues to expand its online education strategies, Cal State Online will evolve as a critical component. An early Cal State Online goal will continue: to increase the quality and quantity of fully online education offerings to existing and prospective CSU students, resulting in successful completion of courses and graduation.

The re-visioning of Cal State Online was recommended by the Council of Presidents and approved by the chancellor. This will include a shift to a communication, consultation and services’ strategy for fully online campus degree programs, credentials, certificates and courses supported by opt-in shared services. Cal State Online’s shared services will be designed, delivered and managed to:

1. Make it easy for prospective and existing students to discover, decide, enroll and successfully complete their CSU online education opportunities.

2. Make it more cost-effective for CSU campuses to develop, deliver and sustain their high- quality fully online degree, credential and certificate programs and courses.

Background in a nutshell

In early 2010 a sub-set of the Cal State presidents – the Technology Steering Committee (TSC) – came up with a plan to get the system to aggressively push online education across the system. In fall 2011 the group commissioned a consultant’s set of reports to help them pick an operating model, with the reports delivered in February 2012. This study led to the creation of CSU Online, conceived as a separate 501(c)3 non-profit group1 run by the system, with the plan to use a for-profit Online Service Provider (OSP).2 Early on they realized that Colorado State University was already using the CSU Online name, and the initiative was renamed Cal State Online. The idea was to offer fully-online programs offered by individual campuses in a one-stop shop. Based on an RFP process, in August 2012 Cal State Online selected Pearson as their OSP partner.

Some media coverage of initiative:

The March IHE article quoted official Cal State documents to describe the initiative.

“The goal of Cal State Online is to create a standardized, centralized, comprehensive business, marketing and outreach support structure for all aspects of online program delivery for the Cal State University System,” says the draft RFP. In the open letter, the executive director offers assurances that “participation is optional” for each of the system’s nearly two dozen campuses, “all programs participating in Cal State Online are subject to the same approval processes as an on-campus program,” and “online courses will meet or exceed the quality standards of CSU face-to-face courses.”

What has changed?

This change is significant and recent, meaning that Cal State likely does not have full plans on what will happen in the future. For now:

  • Cal State Online will no longer be a separate operating entity, and the remnant, or “re-visioned” services will be run by the existing Academic Technology Services department within the Chancellor’s Office.

The re-visioning Cal State Online team will be led by Gerry Hanley (Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Technology Services) with Sheila Thomas (State University Dean, Extended and Continuing Education).

  • Pearson is no longer the OSP, and in fact, they had already changed their role many months ago3 to remove the on-site team and become more of a platform provider for the LearningStudio (aka eCollege) LMS and supporting services.
  • Cal State is no longer attempting to provide a centralized, comprehensive support structure “for all aspects of online program delivery” but instead will centrally provide select services through the individual campuses.
  • It is clear that Cal State is positioning this decision to show as much continuity as possible. They will continue to provide some of the services started under Cal State Online and will continue to support the programs that have already been offered through the group.

Some services will continue and CSU may keep the name, but it’s the end of Cal State Online as we know it.

I am working on a longer post to explain what happened, including (hopefully) some interviews for supporting information . . . stay tuned.

Update: Changed description of Pearson change and added footnote.

  1. I have not independently verified that the organization truly was set up as a 501(c)3. []
  2. Pearson had a team in place at Cal State providing LMS, implementation and integration services, enrollment management & marketing, course design support, analytics and reporting, learning object repository, help desk and technical support, training and faculty support. []
  3. I believe this occurred Feb 2014 but am not sure. []
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Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed

This week was both D2L’s FUSION conference and Blackboard’s BbWorld. The conventional wisdom going around is that there was no big news out of either conference. In Blackboard’s case, that’s just not true. In fact, there was an astonishing amount of very significant news. It’s just that Blackboard didn’t do a very good job of explaining it to people. And that, by itself, is also news.

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NPR and Missed (Course) Signals

Anya Kamenetz has a piece up on NPR about learning analytics, highlighting Purdue’s Course Signals as its centerpiece. She does a good job of introducing the topic to a general audience and raising some relevant ethical questions. But she missed one of the biggest ethical questions surrounding Purdue’s product—namely, that some of its research claims are likely false. In particular, she repeats the following claim:

Course Signals…has been shown to increase the number of students earning A’s and B’s and lower the number of D’s and F’s, and it significantly raises the chances that students will stick with college for an additional year, from 83% to 97%. [Emphasis added.]

Based on the work of Mike Caulfield and Al Essa summarized in the link above, it looks like that latter claim is probably the result of selection bias rather than a real finding. So who is at fault for this questionable claim being repeated without challenge in a popular venue many months after it has been convincingly challenged?

For starters, Purdue is. They never responded to the criticism, despite confirmation that they are aware of it—for one thing, they got contacted by us and by Inside Higher Ed—and despite the fact that they apparently continue to make money off the sales of the product through a licensing deal with Ellucian. And the uncorrected paper is still available on their web site. This is unconscionable.

Anya clearly bears some responsibility too. Although it’s easy to assume from the way the article is written that the dubious claim was repeated to her in an interview by Purdue research Matt Pistilli, she confirmed for me via email that she took the claim from the previously published research paper and did not discuss it with Pistilli. Given that this is her central example of the potential of learning analytics, she should have interrogated this a little more, particularly since she had Matt on the phone. Mike Caulfield also commented to me that any claim of such a dramatic increase in year-to-year retention should automatically be subject to additional scrutiny.

I have to put some blame on the higher ed press as well. Inside Higher Ed covered the story (and, through them, the Times Higher Education). In fact, Carl Straumsheim actually advanced the story a bit by putting the question to researcher Matt Pistilli (who gave a non-answer). The Chronicle of Higher Education did not cover it, despite having run a puff piece on Purdue’s claims the same day that Mike Caulfield wrote his original piece challenging the results. It is very clear to Phil and me that we are read by the Chronicle staff, in part because they periodically publish stories that have been obviously influenced by our earlier coverage. Sometimes without attribution. I don’t care that much about the credit, but if they thought Purdue’s claims were newsworthy enough to cover in the first place then they should have done their own reporting on the fact that those claims have been called into question. If they had been more aggressive in their coverage then the mainstream press reporters who find Course Signals will be more likely to find the other side(s) of the story as well. Outside of IHE, I’m having trouble finding any coverage, never mind any original reporting, in the higher ed or ed tech press.

I have a lot of respect for news reporters in general, and I think that most people grossly underestimate how hard the job is. I think highly of Anya as a professional. I like the reporters I interact with most at the Chronicle as well. Nor will I pretend that we are perfect here at e-Literate. We miss important angles and get details wrong our fair share. For example, I doubt that I would have caught the flaw in Purdue’s research if Mike hadn’t brought it to my attention. But collectively, we have to do a better job of providing critical coverage of topics like learning analytics, particularly at a time when so much money is being spent and our entire educational system is starting to be remade on the premise that this stuff will work. And there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for a research university to not take responsibility for their published research on a topic that is so critical to the future of universities.

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