Too many options

I’m finding a lot interesting to think about in this discussion of the Guided Pathways to Success conference and it’s investigation of the benefit to students of guidance/constraints in their educational paths: “Schwartz emphasized that even though it may seem counterintuitive and even paternalistic, students are actually much more empowered by choosing among fewer and more carefully constructed options.”

My first thoughts are about the curriculum we just instituted, which I have thought of as giving students more flexibility and choice about how they put together sets of courses to complete a major or minor. We try to make clear to students that they do not need to start with completing our list of “core” courses – that the electives are just as central to the major, many of them can also be at the introductory/no-prerequisite level, and may even be more interesting or compelling to them than the core, depending on their interests. Thinking about the core, though, as a delineated path that counteracts the excess of choice when looking at the entire catalog, makes this behavior both make sense, and makes me more comfortable with that choice of how to approach the major somehow. I think I’ve been able to mentally shift how I see our curriculum to being one that gives those students who want to have lots of freedom and choice that option, but does spell out some clear paths for students who prefer that as well.

Thinking more broadly, this also relates to some thoughts I’ve been having about MOOCs and initiatives to try to allow studdents to assemble degrees piecemeal out of courses from many institutions of many different types. The implicit question behind those initiatives is, with free or near-free education available on-line, what is gained by a more traditional school. One answer seems to be exactly this structure and advising, particularly highly personalized advising, which is essentially a collaborative narrowing of choices with the student.

Digressing a bit from the original point, I also worry a bit about what is missing from a student’s overall education when education is constructed in such a piecemeal fashion. For my own program, I think about how we teach ethics. It’s not unusual to tackle this by spreading ethics instruction out amongst several courses, teaching it alongside more technical content, as compared to having a single, designated ethics course – this is the approach we take. Obviously, I think it is a good choice – students see ethics from many perspectives and throughout their time in the program, and they see it integrated with their other activities in the field. If a student is assembling a degree, though, from a set of courses at many different institutions, I have a hard time seeing how content can be spread throughout a curriculum in this way. In theory, if every course labeled every piece of learning content with the number of hours allocated to it in the course, a system could be constructed to ensure that all boxes were checked to a sufficient degree. But this feels unwieldy, and I suspect the more tractable approach would be to fall back on mandating courses covering any required content areas (perhaps permitting for half/quarter courses to make up the slack).

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