The Shape of Things To Come?

The traditional baccalaureate put general education and breadth in the lower division:


To this it added specialization in the major, in the upper division.  Majoring in psychology?  Your degree looks like this:


Biology?  Then it’s this:

Here’s what a jounalist looks like:

The problem with this curriculum, like so much of what we do, is that it serves a dwindling share of our students.  Fewer of them start at the beginning and continue straight through to the end, sequencing the learning into a coherent narrative.  Instead they stop and start, move from place to place, or stop and never come back.

That means the curriculum needs to do something few stories manage:  it has to make sense no matter where you stop.  Any part of the postsecondary curriculum needs its own self-contained benefit.

This has become clear to me lately in a couple of ways.

1.  SB 1440.  For the past year faculty from the CSU and the state’s commmunity colleges have been designing transfer curriculum required by new legislation, the STAR Act.  It calls for clear, simple, transferable lower division curriculum for the most popular majors, to include both GE and major preparation.  That’s a lot of GE, 39 units, for a transfer associate degree with only 60 total.  Almost all of the rest is supposed to be major preparation, to provide some depth to the great number of students who say they intend to transfer but never make it.

These two-year degrees are oddly shaped, intended as both the first half of a baccalaureate, and also terminal educational experiences of their own.

2.  My meeting last week with the Irvine Foundation.  We’re looking for money to support the GE reform project called “Give Students a Compass,” and working with a program officer at Irvine to identify common ground between their agenda and ours.

Irvine sees (and promotes) the value of liberal learning in real-world settings.  At the secondary level the foundation calls this “Linked Learning,” connecting vocational training with college prep.  At the postsecondary level — we think — it will look a lot like “high-impact practices,” the learning communities, internships, and community-based research that make GE engaging, and illuminate its relevance.

Except that, so far, “Give Students a Compass” has explored incorporating high-impact practices into GE for transfer.  Irvine, like the recent transfer legislation, wants to protect students who don’t make it over the bridge from community colleges to universities.

They’ll support putting high impact practices into GE, but want it also to amount to something on its own:  an associate degree, a certificate, a credential.  Like Lumina, Irvine is looking to boost the nation’s degree production, and successful transfer undermines that effort by using two institutions to create a single diploma.

I worry.  I worry that as the CSU figures out how to put high-impact practices like learning communities and multi-disciplinarity into the lower division, improving student success as we continue to accommodate mobility, the lower division itself is going away.

Is the answer a little breadth and a little depth in both halves of the baccalaureate?  Probably.

That is, instead of psych degree that looks like this:

Maybe we want one that looks like this:

The model would have a few advantages.  First, for the students at the community colleges, it wouldn’t cram 39 units of GE into the lower division, on the assumption that all the specialization naturally belongs later.

For the students at the university, work in the major could begin sooner.  There’s a deep suspicion, hard to verify, that this would improve student engagement and persistence — and ultimately our graduation rates — since major study usually aligns with students’ interest, and explicitly connects with their goals after graduation.

Finally, the model that splits specialization and GE across both halves of the baccalaureate would encourage multidisciplinarity.  Want to work for environmental advocacy groups?  Mix science with policy across transfer, in a degree that looks like this:

The traditional bachelor’s has a harder time accommodating such structures.   So does the traditional associate’s.

If we’re going to start playing with those — for example, by testing a certain qualifications profile with a certain accreditor, then we may want to leave room for alternatives like this.


5 thoughts on “The Shape of Things To Come?

  1. Yes, yes, yes. The new model, one I’ve not seen presented visually so well before, but one whose characteristics I’ve long endorsed, has many potential benefits. It is an alternative that will need systemic support to get off the ground but has the potential of allowing and fostering curriculum reform at both 2-year and 4-year institutions. It could create room for revitalizing education, especially at community colleges, where so many students are unable to find a meaningful path to a 4-year degree.

  2. I *so* agree. There is no reason to “postpone” the major, and lots of reasons not to. The more model that you illustrate so appropriately aligns much better with the spiral models of iterative learning that make computer games so rewarding for so many people. Engaging the major early (and often) can provide the opportunity to cycle through content and skills in a very different – and more effective – way. An old entry from the “Creating Passionate Users” blog frames this Shape of Things to Come rather nicely: “Learning should use the spiral experience model just as a game does. Each new thing I learn should be a chance to help me ‘get to the next level.’ Iterating through the topics means revisiting the same topic in multiple places (if needed). So each iteration through a topic gives me just what I need and no more to do something creative with what that new skill/knowledge. If I need to learn more before the course or book [or curriculum] is done, then come back to it later… when it’s needed for something new.’ ( Substantially elongating the major down into the first two years can, with careful planning, make this more possible for both 2-year and 4-year students.

    1. Very interesting — thank you. I hadn’t heard of that blog but really like it . . . looks like they stopped posting to it in 2007. The spiral learning thing, and the piece you single out in particular (“each iteration through a topic gives me just what I need and no more to do something creative with that new skill/knowledge”) sounds like an ideal educational setting. I wonder if we could ever create articulations with such finesse?

      1. I bet we can, if we decide that fostering deep, transferable, and sustained learning is our most important goal. We’d need to get our funding and accountability measures in alignment with that goal – and I bet we could do that, too. That is outrageously optimistic, but still…

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