Tuesday, October 18, 2005



We’ve started a small alternate-delivery degree program this year, and so far, it’s going pretty well. The students enrolled seem to like it, and the numbers, while small, are viable. We picked the first few courses to offer based on what seemed to make sense for an entering group, and we mostly got it right (though transfer credits meant that some students who wanted to start in September already had credit for the first few courses we ran).

Now, the students who started in September are asking, reasonably, for the actual course schedule for the next few years – partly so they can plan, and partly, I think, so they can force us to commit to running everything they need, when they need it.

Conceptually, I agree with them. But anytime you try to figure out which courses everyone will need when, you start imaging students in cohorts. And they aren’t.

For scheduling purposes, it’s lovely to imagine that first semester students need these five courses, second semester students need these next five, and so on. When you’re talking about the weekday classes, the numbers are large enough generally that this illusion can go uncorrected. But when you have a fairly small group to start with, thin-slicing will kill you; if we only have 25 students when they’re all together, splitting them into three or four groups would make the program a money pit.

The catch is that students stubbornly refuse to behave the way we think they will. We can lay out a lovely, logical progression of courses, and students will bring in random transfer credits, fail a course here and there, ‘stop out’ for a semester, put off math until the bitter end, etc. They just won’t move in unison.

There’s no real reason they should, of course, but it makes scheduling a course rollout a lot harder, and effectively raises the bar for the minimum size population we need to make a program viable.

At my previous school, I went through this fire drill several times, and never found an elegant answer for it. Surveys don’t work, since students often don’t remember which courses they’ve already taken (incredible, but true), or, by a weird dyslexia, will badly miscategorize them (psychology and physics often get transposed, which I still find bizarre). Predictions are ballpark, at best, and usually pretty inaccurate when the sample size is small and the program new.

Any ideas out there? I’m getting pressure to lay out the next round of courses, so this isn’t just a theoretical exercise.

Can't you get them to show an "expression of interest"? Ask them something along the lines of "of these possible courses, which are you most interested in attending next year"?

This then not only buys you time, but also you probably get a realistic idea of what courses not to schedule (because of lack of interest) and should give you a reasonably accurate idea of what to schedule.

Of course you have to underline to them that it is provisional, but they can probably understand that as they are a small cohort you can't offer a wide range of courses that they can all have their choice on, but you can at least offer what they are more interested in taking. I think that as students they'd be happy to be given that kind of a choice, it gives them (effectively) a wide range of choice without you having to commit to all those courses...
What is an "alternate-delivery" degree? Night school? Weekend program? Distance-learning over the web? Some combination thereof?
Pay them to take online surveys, with their pay based on how many of their previous courses they correctly remembered? Ya gotta incentivize.
It's a weekend program. I like the idea of incentivizing, but verifying that they got their past courses right would prevent anonymity, which most of them would want.
Why would they want anonymity in filling out a survey?

And didn't they need to turn in transcripts of previous work and formally "declare" those previous courses that they wish to have credited toward their degree, at the outset of their program, i.e., when they originally matriculated?

It would seem to me that the biggest incentive for accurately answering the survey would be to maximize the probability that the future offerings would meet their needs, but I guess I'm being naive here.

I suspect the biggest unpredictables have to do with the kinds of life events that might interfere with their studies and force some students to take time off (e.g., student health, ailing family members, divorce/custody issues, birth or adoption of children, changing job schedules, etc.) And those things would seem to me to hard for many students to predict much ahead of time.

Are the weekend classes restricted to students matriculated in the alternative-delivery program? Or can weekday students enroll in some of the weekend courses in order to fill out needed credits that may be missing (presumably on a lower-priority, space-available basis, after the alternative-delivery students have had a chance to register first.)

Perhaps that would ease the numbers problem a bit until the alternative-delivery program reaches some sort of steady-state critical mass size?
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