The Post Course Era

I just read an excellent and challenging article by Randy Bass in the Educause Review. “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education” was first published in the March/April 2012 issue.

Bass’ central claim is that we’ve entered “the post-course era.” This era has the potential to be extraordinarily disruptive because it says the curriculum is no longer the center of learning. Specifically, Bass argues “we have reached the end of the era of assuming that the formal curriculum — composed of bounded, self-contained courses — is the primary place where the most significant learning takes place.” (24)

Bass’ argument draws upon research into high-impact practices that produce meaningful learning gains, coupled with the emergence of technology to facilitate a “participatory culture” that students routinely engage with outside of school. I believe he makes a convincing case and encourage everyone to read his article. His argument also scares me to death.

I am frightened because I think Bass is right. But I am not frightened because I believe this is the death of higher education or anything so dramatic. Nor am I intellectually or morally convinced the present, course-centered structure of higher education is superior. I am frightened because the paradigm shift of higher education he proposes goes against all my own training, acculturation, and proclivities as a faculty member who is supposed to be a subject matter expert. I understand his argument and believe it has merit, especially in regard to responding to changes with and for students. I am hesitant only because it’s so, well, disruptive. When Bass argues that “most of the formal curriculum now must move from the margin to the center” (32) he’s effectively arguing that most of what I do and enjoy about being a faculty member must move to the margins. That’s a hard pill to swallow. I want to be clear that I think it’s the move he’s prosing is difficult for me, not that he’s wrong. I think it’s hard because he’s asking me to do things that go against most of my training, personality, and work up to this point.

Let me illustrate. My disciplinary background is in philosophy, particularly philosophy of education. I was an undergraduate philosophy major, earned a M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Social Foundations of Education with a focus on philosophy of education. I taught social foundations for seven years and present papers and research on philosophy of education still. All told, I’ve spent 18 or 19 years focusing on an academic discipline. I’ve organized my life around the idea of the “course” as both a marker of time, a professional task, and (perhaps most deeply) as an intellectual endeavor. Engagement with the formal curriculum of philosophy of education has defined almost the entirety of my professional life. In many ways, that’s what it means to be a faculty member — mastery of a given aspect of the formal curriculum to the extent that I demonstrate that mastery to other professionals and attempt to cultivate that mastery in students.

Even deeper than all that, there’s the simple fact of my personality and its role in choosing my profession. I am an introvert. I like to plan. I like to solve problems. I am good at working by myself. (INTJ on the Myers-Briggs, if you’re keeping score). All of that served me well in graduate school, as I spent months with just me, John Dewey, some academic journals, and a computer writing my dissertation. Most career assessments I’ve done list “college instructor” as a good career choice for me. It’s nice how that all worked out. Part of the reason, maybe most of the reason, I chose this life path is the fact that I love the content. Grad school consisted in mastery of the content. Teaching in higher education meant the opportunity to constantly engage with the content in a way that suited the other elements of my personality. I could read, write, and teach.

As anyone who has taught in college for more than a short time knows, it’s not exactly like that. There’s all the other work that goes along with being a faculty member, like service. Furthermore, unless you’re a rock star professor who teaches at a certain type of institution, a lot of your engagement with the content consists in translating content into a level appropriate for an undergraduate student, NOT engaging with the highest levels or cutting edge of that content. I think most faculty learn that and begin to appreciate it, or simply move on.

Yet Bass is arguing that all that must change. Our job as instructors becomes far, far less about course content. It becomes far less about isolated intellectual expertise and far less about working by oneself to master and present content. It becomes far more about collaborating with other professionals in higher education. It becomes far more about collaborating and communicating with our students to help them have significant learning experiences. It becomes more about making the content available, accessible, and meaningful throughout the context of college that presenting the content in the context of a course. I find all of this very challenging and a bit scary. But I also find it exciting. Granted, it has the potential to radically reshape my professional life. But, in so doing, it presents me with the opportunity to rethink who I am and what I do. That, really, is what growth is all about. Most importantly, it allows me to try and meet the needs of students better. That, really, is what I am here for.

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The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Texas Wesleyan University (CETL) promotes a student-centered university by providing resources and professional growth opportunities to faculty on enhancing instructional practice, integrating technology, and promoting essential student skills.

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