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Posted at 10:17 AM ET, 06/21/2012

U-Va prof: Why governing board gets an ‘F’ for Sullivan ‘project’

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His newest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education,” which will be published in July. This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

The p resident of the University of Virginia was forced to announce her resignation on June 10. The UVa student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, used a Freedom of Information request to obtain emails between the Rector (i.e., chair) and Vice Rector of the the University Board of Visitors. The emails from Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington expressed great concern that a digital revolution was mounting in higher education, and UVa might be left behind. Their perception that the president was not moving aggressively enough into digital learning was apparently important in their decision to oust Teresa Sullivan.

Here I grade Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington on their project.

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.


Hundreds protest the forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan at Rotunda in Charlottesville. (Dean Hoffmeyer/AP)
On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

On the analysis:

You are right that digital media and especially communication via the Internet will change higher education, and, indeed, has already done so. Unfortunately, your thinking, far from being forward-looking, is at least five years out of date.

Thus, your conclusion that President Sullivan was moving in the wrong direction or at the wrong pace is inaccurate.

Students may flock to online learning providers, but if they do UVa is very much a late-comer to this game. You cite Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, and indeed, all are far ahead of UVa in one aspect of distance education.

But more important, they are engaged in what we might call on-line education 1.0; stick a camera in a traditional lecture, and offer multiple-choice questions later.

This doesn’t really fully exploit the power of the Web, does it? How will U-Va be better off chasing leaders in this one area, rather than leveraging areas in which we are already a leader? (More on that in a moment.)

I’m not surprised you drew this conclusion, given the sources you cite. Wall Street Journal editorials and New York Times op-eds are not considered primary sources in this context, Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington. These are non-experts pulling together the opinions of experts as best they can. That’s what you are supposed to do, rather than parrot the opinions of others, however highly regarded they may be.

This casual disregard for good research is especially surprising given the rich resources that surround you.

Did you know that the University of Virginia is a leader in digital scholarship, having established the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities in 1992?

Did you know that the University has offered fellowships in digital scholarships to faculty for the last two decades, spawning countless faculty-initated innovations in digital learning. Have you seen the digital model of ancient Rome, or the transcription project of the Salem Witch trials, for example?

Did you know that the Curry School of education has a strong program of Instructional Technology?

Did you know that the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at UVa has several ongoing projects in distance learning for teachers that are being replicated throughout the country?

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. You had tremendous intellectual capital on this subject ready and available. All you had to do was make a few phone calls, but it didn’t occur to you to ask.

Now, I can just hear your protests: “You can’t judge my views on this matter from a few emails! And they were not based solely on a few New York Times columns!”

In other words, the project submitted does not reflect your best thinking on the subject.

I hear that a lot from students.

But I can only grade you on what you submitted, not based on my best guess as to what you were thinking. And maybe that’s part of the problem. If you had let me know what you were thinking, I might have been able to help make this project better. I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject of learning myself.

You have earned a grade of F for this project.

Ms. Dragas, given your performance in the remainder of the Rector’s job, I’m afraid I don’t see how you’re going to pass. Perhaps you should, as Mr. Kington has already done, drop the course.

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More from The Washington Post:

Is U-Va’s ‘reputation gap’ growing?

The U-VA mess: Sign of the (bad) times

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