What do you want to do when you graduate from college?
That question, more than any other, drives our students’ choices about academic majors. They want jobs and even if they don’t know, exactly, which job (or career) they want, they know they want a job when they graduate. Sure, they also want to be educated, but mostly they want jobs. And who can blame them? Jobs are good things to have.
The problem is that their education has so little to do with either their goal of finding a job or of becoming educated. This is because students are forced into curricula that have little connection to what employers expect of them and everything to do with what we in the professoriate have decided is good for them. Second, the courses that populate those curricula–many of which have changed little in their basic outline since they were invented decades or centuries ago–force students to grapple with an entire 10-14 or so weeks worth of content just so they can get at the pieces of that knowledge that they really want or need.
As I pointed out yesterday, digital technology is poised to subvert this knowledge delivery model.
Just as iTunes and TiVo have subverted the delivery of music and television, imagine what it will be like when students can select those bits of the educational content we offer that are relevant to their personal educational and career goals. In such a world, they could continue to enroll in courses, but they could also acquire only bits and pieces of courses–those bits and pieces that they need or want as opposed to the ones we force them to have.
What would this look like?
As Princeton University’s Stan Katz wrote in his article “The Cheated Undergraduate” (Newsday, May 4, 2003):
We would do better to challenge undergraduates to ask their most urgent questions about themselves, the world and the human condition – and to organize their curriculum around these questions. Students should be encouraged to think deeply and systematically about beauty, poverty, goodness, gender, war, disaster, progress – or whatever in their life experience commands the greatest intellectual and emotional urgency. They need to be able to build their own knowledge base, whether through existing courses, independent study or guided experiential learning. Students need not be limited to pre-packaged courses in various disciplines and loosely configured “majors.” They need to be able to negotiate with faculty ways to gain the knowledge they need to solve the problems that absorb them. They need something more akin to “focus areas” than “major” fields.
In other words, we stop making the decisions for the students and let them start making the decisions for themselves.
Can’t work, you say?
Alas for those who say “can’t”, it already is working. For more than five years now, Elizabeth Barkley, a musicologist at Foothill College in California, has been teaching her introductory music survey just this way, allowing students to mix and match elements from a menu of content to create their own version of her course. To be sure, her course is still bounded by the three credit system, but that is because it is only one course, not an entire curriculum. But the proof is in the pudding–enrollment in her course has soared from 45 the last year it was taught as a traditional survey of music history to over 780 students. It seems to me the students like this delivery system.
In a comment on yesterday’s posting on this subject, Jeremy Boggs asked what sort of technological resources would be required to pull of such a radical redesign of the college curriculum. The answer, as is so often the case with questions like this one is “It depends.” If you examine Elizabeth Barkley’s course, you’ll see that it is a mixture of traditional classroom activities, student attendance at performances, and some technological delivery of material…all at a cost that a community college could afford.
Further, as the technology costs drop and faculty members’ facility with the technology increases, I’m certain that we’ll see more and better learning modules developed by individual professors, obviating the need for the outsourcing of such materials to corporations.
How long will this take? My guess is that it will be ten years or so before this sort of approach to the delivery of course content becomes common. But it’s happening already and as we know, technological change in any industry has a way of speeding up once it gets a foothold…