Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Build Your Own Course

What if students could build their own courses out of modules?

Middlesex Community College (MA, not to be confused with the ones in CT or NJ) has broken its student success course into one-credit shards, from which students pick three.  They’re then bundled into a single course on the transcript.

My counterpart at MCC, Phil Sisson, presented this at the League along with the Dean of Social Sciences, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Online and Weekend Programs, Matthew Olson.  (I think I got the title mostly right. In my defense, it’s really long…) I was immediately jealous, because it would be much, much harder to do something like that here. But it’s a great idea.

As I understand it, the core of the idea is that every student has to take the relatively generic one-credit “intro to college” class, which covers much of what you’d expect.  But for the remaining two credits, they can choose from among a large and growing list. The most enticing, from my perspective, was the one-weekend interdisciplinary mini-conferences.  Over a Friday and Saturday, the college brings multiple speakers -- including from off campus -- and provides students a deep, sharp dive into a particular experience. Afterwards, the students write reflection pieces on it, which serve both for grading and as artifacts for outcomes assessment.  

The single-weekend topics could be geographic regions, social movements, historical epochs, or nearly anything.  The mini-courses have to hit certain gen ed student learning outcomes, but other than that, they’re open to faculty passions.  

Which is the other appeal.  In the move to reduce degrees to 60 credits and provide guided pathways, it has become harder for faculty to develop and teach courses in areas of personal interest.  That can be demoralizing for faculty over time, and it deprives students of the experience of following someone into a more specialized or idiosyncratic area of interest.  But with the student success course as the umbrella, they can pursue intense and personal areas of scholarly interest with students.

Even better, the ‘conference’ format lends itself to collaboration.  A given class might be organized by a sociologist, but could have guests come in from English, political science, history, and economics to give different angles on the topic.  As a student learning experience, that could be remarkable, even if brief.

Sisson noted that “the registrar hates it,” which makes sense; I could imagine a format like that could make administering financial aid tricky, too.  ERP systems have been known to choke on such things. In a state like New Jersey where student success courses aren’t yet recognized in the gen ed transfer framework, something like this would be even harder.  But as an aspiration, it struck me as exciting. Interdisciplinary classes shouldn’t be the exclusive province of four-year schools; community college students (and faculty) can benefit from them, too. Student success classes, often pilloried as banal, could actually be the banners under which all sorts of exciting stuff gets taught.  Put that in the gen ed framework, and it will even transfer.

Thank you, Middlesex, for doing the hard work to fit the square peg of idiosyncratic classes into the round hole of transfer.  It’ll be a while before we can do that here, but it’s a worthy goal.