Sunday, November 8, 2009

On student views of course requirements - in the major and elsewhere

There were some animated posts this week. Many in the class reacted strongly to the prompt. I want to do a bit of analysis of the issues and try to tie that both to the posts themselves and to what will be upcoming in the class.

Let me begin by introducing some metaphors that may be unfamiliar at first, but that should be readily apparent when properly considered. The first is the issue of lock-in and its causes. There is a very famous paper by the economic historian Paul David, Clio and the Economics of QWERTY. This paper is quite readable by non-economists and I strongly encourage reading it. It details the history of the typewriter keyboard, originally designed to slow the typist down so the keys wouldn't jam. The original design was optimal given the state of the technology then. But as the technology improved it was no longer optimal. However, it persisted. The explanation is interdependencies. So many people already knew the QWERTY keyboard. They didn't want to switch. There were training programs in place for teaching people how to touch type with QWERTY. The training programs didn't want to switch. Efforts at introducing other keyboards failed. Those other keyboards, if learned fully, would have allowed for faster typing. Nevertheless, they didn't prevail.

Lock in to socially undesirable approaches is a fact of life. The issue is how widespread it is. A different example is the academic calendar. The summer term, which is asymmetric with the fall and spring terms, resulted because when our economy was more agrarian students needed to participate in the planting and the harvest. That need no longer exists, but the calendar persists. Most education experts would argue a symmetric calendar would be better, to fully leverage the summer time for learning. But we don't do that.

Several, if not most, of you argued that the requirements are determined by experts who have the educational well being of the students at heart. Some of you raised minor issues with that. (I'd call them warts rather than fatal flaws.) Kim's post was the first to talk about redundancy in instruction. That idea was echoed in other posts, such as this one. One reason for the current pattern is that the formal approach to verification of whether a student knows x is to ask if the students has taken a course on x. An alternative approach (I'd call this proficiency-ing out) would be to take a test on x and if the test is passed then the student would be said to know x. In Dave B's post, there was some discussion of testing as an "end of pipe" thing, where he gave specific mention to the Professional Engineering Exam. One could envision testing of quite a different sort, on specific skills, where students who demonstrated proficiency could just go on but students who did not would have to remedy that deficiency. That we don't do this in a big way I would say is a consequence of lock in. (The providers of the pre-requisite course may be none too keen on certifying proficiency in this other way. So that inertia would have to be overcome.)

There may be a different sort of lock in with the curricula itself. Some courses may be selected more as a rite of passage than because of their usefulness as a complement to the other courses students take. Fred posted on this. He must not have viewed it as a serious problem, because he came down for not changing the requirements. But he did acknowledge the possibility. Reflecting on this possibility from the point of view of teaching intermediate microeconomics, there is an interesting question of how much of the course should be devoted to the insights of David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall, giants in the discipline but who lived long ago, versus spending more time on recent developments. There is a parallel question of how technical one should get on the exposition of the content. If a course is taught with a lot of technique and detail on very old stuff, one could argue that's a consequence of lock in. ("That's the way I learned it in graduate school way back when, so that's the way you are going to learn it today.")

Now I want to switch to a related idea - what you might call intellectual lock in. Senge calls this "mental models" and discusses those as an impediment to learning. The idea is that if a person has a certain framework for seeing the world, then that framework blocks the person from seeing those things that might be inconsistent with the framework. For the person to see what is happening, the person must first let go of the mental model. We should talk about this specific issue on Wednesday when we begin to talk about Senge.

I believe I saw several examples of mental models in place. One was that students need course requirements imposed on them because in the absence of course requirements students will opt for softy alternatives. Angelica posted on this. She wrote:
Unfortunately, many students view college just as a set of requirements that must be taken to obtain a career. There must be a motivation that must be in students to reach out and find other forms of learning and challenge. The students must see the big picture when it comes to their personal development. If students do not see this big picture, then they can start short changing themselves
Senge would argue to consider this issue from a "systems perspective." Do we in fact encourage students to ignore the big picture by imposing the requirements? Is there a self-fulfilling prophecy created by the approach that is taken? We should discuss those questions in class.

Let me return to lock in but do so in a different area. The broad question is whether "professional education" should be at the baccalaureate level or if it should be as graduate education. Since nobody in class is pre-law, let's use it as an example. In the U.S. law school is for graduate students only. Tuition is high and the curriculum, pretty much, is exclusively law courses. (Some students get joint degrees and there may be individual courses in other curricula, MBA for example, that are relevant but they are minor exceptions.) On the other hand, in the U.K. law school is an undergraduate degree. Why is it one thing here and a different thing there? Without knowing the details I'd say that history matters in explaining that.

We have a mixed system where in some professions the education is at a graduate level (law and medicine come to mind) and in other professions it is at the undergraduate level (engineering and business are represented in our own class). One thing should be clear enough. If professional education happens at the undergraduate level, it competes with liberal education for the student's attention. So it seems reasonable to ask, based on the goals of such degree programs, whether self- containing undergraduate programs are ideal or if there should be some graduate education as a significant component, in which case the undergraduate piece could have more liberal education. It is also possible to envision multiple alternatives with this. Further, as I argued in commenting on Dave L's post, there is an issue of the timing of such graduate education. Should it happen immediately after the bachelor's is earned or with several years of work experience interspersed between the rounds of formal education. A significant issue with professional education is how to keep pros in the field current with recent developments. I would expect to see alternative approaches to address this question as the "right answer" is not obvious.

Finally, let me make one more observation that is not about lock in, but about your own reading of the prompt. Nobody argued that "roundedness" might actually emerge from taking courses in the major. I thought this was a little surprising since we talked about this a little in class, particularly on what learning to learn means. (And on this point, there may be lock in of a different sort in instruction, since folks my age were formally educated in a pre-Internet era where information was scarce and education was conceived of as information transfer, which is almost certainly inappropriate for our current situation where information is abundant. The teaching model, however, may not yet have adjusted to that change.) I would have liked to hear from some of you about whether you believe learning to learn skills have been part of your coursework in your major. I certainly hope that is happening, though I've got little sense of the degree to which it occurs.

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