Parsing knowledge: Courses, competencies, or whatever? (Part 2)

By | April 6, 2015
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(Part 1 of this discussion is found here.)

Having chaired a curriculum committee at one university and been a member of the same committee at a couple of others, I’ve seen curricula defined in many different ways.. Some schools require that courses be taken in a particular sequence; others allow courses to be taken more or less at random. The former approach is much easier for both students and instructors, particularly in a large course setting, since there can be a gradual progression of learning and students don’t have to be confronted with new material for which they have no background. For the first several years of its existence, my former online university (MFOU) explicitly declined to have any formal system of prerequisites. I never precisely understood why; presumably it had something to do with preserving flexibility in students’ programs. There were certainly numerous instances where students entered courses for which they had no background, and the consequences were very seldom good. If you’re going to organize your material into courses, then it’s a really good idea to have an underlying curriculum model.

We frequently found it helpful in later times to develop “curriculum maps” in flowchart form, describing which courses led to which and the sequence in which they ought to be taken. Here’s an example of such a map:

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They were useful both to the program in planning course development and to the students in terms of seeing how one body of knowledge fed into others. They’re hardly a panacea, but they do provide some structure.

The problem in most universities is that curricula are often more honored in the breach than in the observance. The problem is the underlying structure developed by parsing learning into arbitrary course units. There is a kind of unspoken rule in most of academia that the course fundamentally belongs to the instructor. Problems can arise when instructors proceed to develop their courses, particularly higher-level ones, without regard to the content and sequencing of other courses in the curriculum. Senior faculty often feel entitled to arrange their courses according to their own whims. Curricula can also be compromised by faculty who take over a course previously developed and taught by another instructor, and then proceed to likewise change it out of recognition. As an example, a course in organizational theory that I originally developed was later handed off to two other instructors, who between them managed to make it unrecognizable. I was then assigned to take it over and return it to a form coherent with previous and subsequent courses. At another point, I was asked to re-write a sequence of three statistics/methods courses that had been likewise modified to incoherence over a period of a couple of years – and then a year later, I was asked to do it all over again.

This pattern of course ownership by faculty has become increasingly challenged in these days of rampant adjuncting of teaching at all levels. In the adjunct model, courses are often handed to a faculty member intact, and not only is input by the instructor not necessary; it’s often actively frowned upon. This approach does have the advantage of providing a degree of standardization, but it really doesn’t meet the needs of most people who want to teach. One of the reasons why we go into teaching is that we want to put our own spin on things; when we can’t do so, it quickly moves from irksome to intolerable.

It is possible to provide curricular structure without becoming overbearing. When I became the first chair of the new university-wide curriculum committee at MFOU, we set as one of our priorities the development of clear course sequences and linked curricular material. Each of our colleges also created a curriculum committee to provide more specific content integration within their separate programs. Despite their bad reputation, committees are really the only way in which integrated curricula that really facilitate gradual student learning can be created and maintained. Faculty can come to understand that their courses aren’t their own individual property, but ought to be linked both in content and format. Needless to say, this perspective is far from universally shared among faculty, especially the more ivy-covered ones.

I started out by suggesting that the course was not the only way by which learning could be effectively parsed. The alternative, of course, is “organization by competency”. I’ve written before about competency-based education, but in the next part of this series I will explicitly address the question of how a competency focus may well differ from and even effectively supplant a course focus. Stay tuned; it may be interesting.