Course Design – from Raising Barns to Erecting Skyscrapers

The two articles that resonated with me this week were Carol Twigg’s description of online learning models and the description of blended learning class guides at Penn State.  Their message? We can’t design courses the way we used to.

Amaral and Schank report that the PSU project took 1000 person hours split among a five person team to redesign one modality of one class.  The models Twigg discusses require similar inputs of time and expertise.  This is hugely important in my context.

My institution has a very strong tradition of faculty autonomy.  When the exercise of that autonomy is most evident in that one instructor’s lecture notes differ from another’s, its impact is limited. It was fine for an instructor who relied on lecture to be a week ahead of the students, when preparing the course was largely a matter of gathering information.  The arrival of technology has changed that.  Now, a significant amount of time must be devoted, before the class begins, to creating materials, especially if one wants to include the kind of interactive and adaptive activities with rapid feedback that recent research suggests are key to improving learning.

The Cavanaugh chapter points out that we delude ourselves if we think that this applies only to online courses.  Technology, with all its challenges, is rapidly becoming part of every course.

When redesigning a course involves a handful of people and hundreds of hours, there aren’t enough resources to redesign and technologically enrich each instructor’s version of physics 1. Combine these new realities and it’s hard to not conclude that collaboration is inevitable if you want high quality courses that leverage technology.  With that collaboration comes another inevitability — compromise.  No single person on a five or six person development team will end up with exactly the course they imagined at the beginning of the process.

While my institution has pockets of collaboration, there are other pockets where any mention of collaborating with another instructor or sharing resources is seen as a plot by someone to undermine an instructor’s sacred autonomy.  I wish that every instructor could develop a technology rich version of their course, but the very real resource limitations we all face make that model untenable.

If the old model of course design was a barn raising (you and a few friends can put up the basic structure in a day), technology rich courses are more skyscraper-like (teams of of specialists working for months).  Do we have enough metaphorical architects, contractors, electricians and plumbers to build the courses of the future, or will curriculum become mass produced à la manufactured homes?

Change, Choice, and Long Term Thinking (or the Lack Thereof)

In a brief blog post, Brian Mulligan suggests that the coming changes are good in that they will finally bring real competition to the higher ed sector.  The devil, of course, is in the details. The good scenario is that more meaningful competition encourages innovation in how students learn.  A more frightening scenario for higher ed as we now understand it involves competition about what students learn.

The college curriculum is remarkably stable.  Whether you go to Harvard, UNSD-Hoople*, or start off at your local community college, your core curriculum will likely include several English courses, a couple of lab sciences, one class in the fine arts, at least one in math, etc., regardless of your major.  What happens when alternative models (badges or degree alternatives like degreed.com) start competing with the concept and design of the degree as we know it?

The kind of education one pursues is a long-term, life altering choice.  It ought to be, given the time, effort, and money we ask people to invest in it.  However, most decisions aren’t made with the long term in mind.  I can think back to one institution where the ratio of AS concentrators to AA concentrators was something like 10-1.  The difference between the degree plans? — only AA students had to take foreign language classes.

Given the number of times I’ve heard someone say, several years after college, that only just then did they realize the value of ________, will alternatives to the traditional degree make it easier for learners to construct a perceived path of least resistance to employability, skipping out on things that educate them as persons, but don’t appear economically advantageous in the short term?  If that happens, what becomes of higher education’s mission to educate not only the workers of tomorrow, but also the citizens of tomorrow?

  • brownie points to those who can explain this reference in a comment

Mass Drivers in Higher Education – How a Pun Became An Analogy

I was struck as I read the UNESCO document by the references to massification . I see the need to increase capacity and educate more people as the primary driver of higher education change.

For a long time, higher education was the province of the few.  Remembering that liberal arts back to the time of Martianus Capella  meant arts for free people (as in free, not slave) who owned enough property that they did not need a profession. For a very long time, higher education was designed to be accessed by those for whom it had not all that much to do with what kind of livelihood they would have. Of course that has changed considerably over the last century and a half.  Most justifications of higher education one hears these days focus on education as economic engine.  Once that leap is made, several things happen.

The employer who hires graduates becomes as important a consumer of the college or university’s output as the learners who attend.

The focus of curriculum design has a great potential to narrow, as it shifts from what an educated person in a broad sense ought to be able to do to the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities employers want their employees to have.

As the primary force encouraging persons to pursue education becomes economic, efficiency, previously not associated with education providers, becomes a watchword.  The notion so prevalent in modern higher ed that we can measure success in large aggregates (like the percentage of the adult population with a certain level of education) makes it seems like graduates are a commodity of which we must raise the production and lower the marginal cost.

Connected to this is the shift noted in the UNESCO report from education as a public good to education as a private good.  That change makes the cost-benefit analysis even more stark. How much will this degree cost me in tuition and lost income now?  How much more will I earn later because of it? (a tough question to answer, just ask a recent law-school graduate or most PhD’s in the humanities) I’m probably sounding quite a bit like the author of “How the American University was Killed….” I hope things aren’t that dire.

Here’s where the mass driver pun became an analogy. At first it was a catchy turn of phrase for a post title, but as I thought about it, I realized that higher education is becoming more and more a mass driver, trying to accelerate large numbers of learners at lower cost than previous methods.

I have mixed feelings about this. As someone who works at an institution (a US community  college) which exists only because of massification, I recognize that massification has allowed me to do work about which I truly care.  I’ve also seen individual students’ lives transformed by learning.  However, it seems inevitable that we will soon be calculating a “cost per transformation” and making it a key performance indicator.

ICT, the most likely mechanism by which change will come, may lead us in two directions. It may, via automated grading and the replacement of physical learning spaces with virtual ones, crush Baumol’s cost disease in education as thoroughly as the compact disc did for Beethoven string quartets. It may free learners everywhere to direct their own learning and collaborate outside of formal contexts.  It may do both, and either scenario could radically alter the higher ed sector.

I’m not sure how either of these scenarios would play out in my context, but I think the second is less likely.  Many learners who enroll in a community college do so because they aren’t quite ready to be active managers of their own learning.  How to learn is one of the things they come to college to learn.  Going large scale seems a more plausible scenario, although most two year colleges identify their comprehensive support services and individual attention to students as key differentiators.  It’s debatable whether that approach is sustainable given current and future economic pressures