Yesterday I suggested that we need to move to a competency-based approach to general education while providing the various introductory courses on our campuses for free to our students. What would that look like in reality?
If we start thinking about the university (or college) as an aggregator and re-distributor of knowledge and skills (as well as a place where new knowledge is created), then I think we’ll be on the right path. Right now, though, we view each campus as a place where unique teaching and learning take place. But really, it’s not all that unique.
Consider the introductory Western Civilization course as one example. A simple search of online syllabi using our Syllabus Finder tool returns 23,800 syllabi. Assuming errors in the search and a large amount of duplication, let’s say that the actual number of unique syllabi is around 5,000. Having taught Western Civ at four different universities over the past 12 years, and having spent countless hours in a national study of the course for the College Board, I can say with confidence that it just isn’t taught that differently from one campus to the next.
Already, instructors around the country and around the world are making video lectures, podcasts, specific assignments, and other aspects of their Western Civ courses available online for free. And, on most of our campuses, we let students test out of Western Civ if they’ve taken an AP or an IB course in European history. So why not just expand on what we are already doing and let any student test out, regardless of whether or not they took one of these high school courses? As I have discussed previously in this space, the legal profession already does this in a number of states.
Of course, in such a model we would still need to provide some basic services to our students to help them navigate their way through preparing for these exams. But these services don’t have to be free (see tomorrow’s post on the economics of it all).
If this were the case, what would a typical student’s initial experience at our institution be like? Here’s one possible vision.
Student X enrolls at our institution. After a week of getting oriented to campus, he or she sits down with an academic adviser and charts a path through the 40 credits needed to move on beyond the general education curriculum. This adviser would show him/her how to access the many learning resources the university has aggregated over time for each course–resources vetted by faculty members for their quality and organized, perhaps, on a wiki page for each exam that the student needs to pass.
Then the student and his or her adviser will establish a schedule of regular meetings, say once every two weeks or so, for that first semester. They would also establish a schedule for preparing for and then taking the various exams. Given recent research on student persistence in higher education that identifies time management as the number one issue confronted by new college students, this sort of regular check up will be pretty necessary for most students.
Instead of classrooms (in short supply on lots of campuses these days), our fictional university would reallocate space as “learning commons” where students could work individually or collaboratively in preparation for specific exams. Students preparing for an exam could establish Facebook groups or use other social networking tools to find peers they need. The physical spaces would include robust wireless, dedicatd work stations, librarians, and some academic specialists. Faculty members from the various departments might take turns holding “learning hours” rather than office hours in the learning commons spaces.
I think you can see that if we abandon the course as the delivery system for the general education curriculum, then we are free to find lots of interesting ways for teaching and learning to occur.
But it will take some serious letting go of a model we’ve been wedded to for more than 100 years now.
And it will take some creative approaches to the financial side of things, because just because we provide the credits for free, that doesn’t mean it is free for us to do so. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll consider some ways that institutions of higher education could make this work financially as well.