Friday, November 14, 2014

What is Academic Program Prioritization (APP)? [Updated]

[Updated: November 23, 2014, with a revised version of the original text.]

Do you juggle?  If not, one way to get started is to pick up a "Learn to Juggle" kit, like the one pictured, which I found at a local bookstore.  And, if you follow the instructions—and are willing to put in a little time and practice—then you might just find that you develop the hand-eye coordination that is needed to keep the three colorful juggling bags in flight, moving them backwards and forwards, smoothly, from one hand to the other.

This might seem like an odd way to start a post on Academic Program Prioritization. But the fact is, with all the work that is being done at PSU, there's a very good chance that each and every one of us already has some well-developed juggling skills. I'm sure, for example, that all of us are constantly trying to keep any number of "balls" in motion at the same time so that we can support our students, teach our classes, conduct our research, and engage with the communities that we serve.

But it's hard to keep doing this all the time, and once in a while, we know that it makes sense to step back, take stock of what we're doing, and consider if perhaps some of the things we're focussed on are more important than others; or if some of those things might not actually be so important, relevant, or useful any more; or if there might be new strategies or approaches that we could use to simplify our current tasks or to let us explore exciting new opportunities.

In essence, Academic Program Prioritization (APP) is a very similar exercise, except that it focuses not on the work that each of us does individually, but instead takes a university-wide perspective on what we do together to offer a diverse range of academic programs.  In concrete, but still high-level terms, APP uses a scoring process, driven by academic priorities, to review the portfolio of all academic programs at PSU and assign them to one of a small number of categories, with supporting rationale and recommendations:

One of the first steps in the APP process is to develop a set of criteria that reflect the academic priorities of the PSU faculty. This requires a careful review of the university's mission, but most importantly, repeated conversations and interactions with faculty to ensure that the resulting list of criteria properly reflects their priorities.  (Of course, we can also look at the criteria that have been used in APP processes elsewhere as a way to prompt discussions and perhaps draw attention to criteria that we might otherwise have forgotten to include.)  At the time of writing, our working list of criteria has six items, which, in no particular order, are as follows: Relation to mission, Demand, Quality, Productivity, Financial performance, and Trajectory. This list, however, is still open to review and update as APP continues, and faculty input that might inform or motivate such changes is very welcome. For example, there has been significant conversation within APPC meetings about whether Research should be added to the list of criteria, or whether it is already appropriately covered by the other criteria. (The name APPC refers to the committee, appointed by the Faculty Senate, that is charged with overseeing the APP process; the names of the committee members can be found elsewhere on this site through a link under "General Information".)

These terms that we have used to describe the criteria, however, are still fairly abstract, and could perhaps be interpreted in different ways by different people. In an attempt to avoid or at least reduce ambiguity, the APPC is also expected to develop lists of metrics (providing quantitative data about each program) and questions (providing qualitative data about each program).  In addition to clarifying the intended meaning of the various criteria, these lists also identify the specific data items that will need to be collected during APP.

One of the hopes is that it will be possible to calculate many of the APP metrics directly from institutional data, reducing the burden on program administrators who might otherwise have been called on to do. This is one of the reasons, for example, why the APPC has been blessed with active participation from OIRP.  At the same time, it is widely recognized that numbers alone often fail to capture or express important details or nuances. And this, in turn, was a strong motivator for the need to include questions as qualitative inputs to the process.

For those who are interested, the current proposal, listing potential metrics and questions for use in the AY 2014-15 APP process, is available elsewhere on this site. Once again, these details are still open to review and revision in response to comments and recommendations from faculty, as well as all other members of the PSU community.

Although we have focussed above on categories and scoring, for example, one of the most important motivations for APP is the potential that it provides for using the data that is collected to build and share a better understanding about the academic programs that we provide. In this respect, APP is primarily about taking stock, and developing a university-wide understanding of who we are, what we do, and how we work together to satisfy our mission, and to provide our students with a relevant, high-quality education:

Information resulting from APP can play a key role in shaping decisions about how the university can and should move forward. In other words, APP is also about guiding strategic investments in programs that best support institutional goals:

With, or without the results of APP, the PSU administration, in partnership with the faculty through our Faculty Senate, will still need to make decisions about the evolution of the academic programs that we offer. (Even deciding not to make any decisions or changes will still, in effect, amount to making decision with consequences that are likely to have significant long-term impact.)  From this perspective, one of the goals of an effective APP process is to incorporate significant input from faculty, support well-informed decision making and planning in a way that gives the faculty a strong voice in shaping the future of our university.  In other words, without APP, we run the risks of decision making in a vacuum; as well as the potential for stagnation and the inability to respond and reallocate resources as necessary in a changing environment:

The outline for the APP process that we are pursuing this year at PSU were provided to the current APPC in the previous committee's final report, and is summarized in the following diagram:

The middle section here shows a sequence of three phases.  The first is a parameter-setting phase that aims to establish the basic parameters for the rest of the process (such as the criteria, metrics, questions, and categories that will be used, and the list of academic programs to be considered).  The second phase deals with data gathering and scoring, and is expected to involve a broader range through the use of a thirty person Program Scoring Team (PST). The third phase focuses on generating the recommendations that will be presented as the primary result of APP at the end of the academic year. In approximate terms, each of these phases is expected to take approximately one term, particularly given the work that was done by the Senate, the prior APP committee, and the current APPC during Summer 2014 ahead of the 2014-15 academic year. The diagram above also shows two additional, but essential components of the APP process.  At the top of the diagram, for example, we see a communication component that runs throughout the whole process that aims to give all members of the PSU community an opportunity to track and provide input to the current status of APP; this website, for example, is a contribution to the communication component, but it is also supplemented by other means, including numerous in-person meetings and conversations. Finally, at the bottom of the diagram, we see an assessment component, whose purpose is to document information, observations, and insights about the current APP process so that these details can be used to guide and improve the treatment of APP in future iterations of the process. (Our expectation and intention is that APP will become a key planning tool that PSU will refine and repeat at regular intervals.) Again, the material on this website is also expected to contribution in at least small ways to assessment work.

We hope that this lengthy post (apologies for that!) will have provided you with a good overview of what APP is intended to achieve, and how it is organized. You will find further details about different  aspects of APP elsewhere on this website. But please do not hesitate to get in touch if you have questions about aspects that do not seem to have been addressed: the APPC will be happy to receive your suggestions, and to address your questions. And who knows: perhaps your input will also help to suggest topics for future updates to the site that can then be shared with everyone who reads this site as a benefit to all members of our community!