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Moving Past the Standard Degree Pathway: The Status Quo Needs Improving

The EvoLLLution | Moving Past the Standard Degree Pathway: The Status Quo Needs Improving
The standard degree pathway creates numerous opportunities for repetition of material and is more suited to faculty and facility management than maximizing student learning outcomes.

A college education benefits both the individual degree recipient and society as a whole. The college educated are healthier (so less cost for society in health care), less likely to commit crimes, vote more often, participate in more cultural events and are more civic minded.  College degree recipients earn about twice as much over a lifetime than high school graduates, a benefit that accrues even to academically marginal students (Zimmerman, 2014).

These benefits have been documented for the traditional college experience and not yet for the totally online degree. A controlled comparison is difficult as the market for a totally online degree is working adults, not the traditional college-age student. These markets will probably continue to differentiate as online and non-traditional providers can satisfy the demand by corporations for certain skills, rather than the benefits of a full college education.

Traditional universities do, of course, use online instruction and also use the power of technology to customize and integrate the college experience. This includes personalized paths to the degree and sophisticated assistance in choosing a major (see Phillips, 2013), use of cell phone technology to assemble groups, active learning with content online in flipped classrooms, and similar uses of technology to enhance, not replace the face-to-face interaction of teacher and learner.

The curriculum for the undergraduate degree has changed over the years to fulfill the needs of society (see Cohen & Kisker for history). Currently, the curriculum is divided into requirements for the major. Specifically, the curriculum is divided into courses required for the major, courses that fulfill the general education core, and courses that fulfill no requirements (free electives). Universities also have highly specialized faculty who are educated to teach their specialty. The faculty are divided into departments with little collaboration across units on undergraduate education. General education in almost all universities and colleges is a set of requirements with lists of courses in buckets (humanities, social science, science, math, writing, and global or others in addition). The number of courses fulfilling general education can run into the thousands in large universities. There is often little connection between courses in general education and courses in the major, or courses that are elective, which means there is a lack of coherence in the curriculum and also a failure often to achieve the learning objectives intended by the general education core. Finally, there are large numbers of students with varied backgrounds in higher education who are not prepared to deal with the great variety of choice and lack of coherence.

One solution to all these issues is to re-examine the method in which we schedule topics in the curriculum for students.

In the current method for scheduling courses content, content is divided into courses, and courses are taught in semesters, all of a fixed length, most commonly 15 weeks for three credits, with a degree totaling 120 credits. However, knowledge does not come bundled in three-credit and 15-week semester packages. This convention was developed to keep track of faculty time and seat time, not for the benefit of student learning. In addition, courses are offered by faculty in different departments, and there is no coordination of topic coverage from course to course. Because faculty do not coordinate across their courses in topics covered there is much duplication across courses. Introductory biology for example overlaps 20 to 30 percent with introductory psychology. But not all students in introductory psychology have had introductory biology so the course material is duplicated. Also connections between the same topics covered in different courses from different perspectives taught by different departments are not typically made, so courses do not cohere.

This method of content production and delivery is not ideal for student learning. Learning is impaired by the lack of connection across courses and by the lack of a logical order of topics across courses. Student motivation is weakened by boredom from repetition and lack of connections of topics to factors that elicit interest and produce deep understanding, integration and application of ideas.

Course requirements for the major are usually well thought out and designed around learning outcomes. But in many degrees there is too much choice in general education and too much choice in free electives. Also, there is often no coherence between these parts of the curriculum and the courses in the major. This results in poor student success and poor learning outcomes for the degree as a whole.

This is the first installment of a two-part series on transforming the degree pathway. In the second installment, Phillips outlines how the modular degree concept could provide a solution to the standard degree pathway’s central issues.

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Cohen, A.m., & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, 2nd Ed. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, E. D. (2013). Improving advising using technology and data analytics. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 45, 1, 48-55.

Phillips, Capaldi E. D., & Poliakoff, M. B. (2014).The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2014)

Zimmerman, S. D. (2014). The returns to college admission for academically marginal students. Journal of Labor Economics, Vol 32, No. 4 (October 2014). 711-754.

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