autonomy, Imagineering, and the student experience

Here in the big state public universities, transfer and articulation have traditionally trumped coherence. A few experiments around the CSU are trying to remedy that – Associate Degrees for Transfer, or GE pathways on interdisciplinary themes – and restore some connective tissue to what otherwise looks like a random heap of disconnected (but portable!) courses.

Those are promising developments, but to be honest a lot more than our courses need alignment.   In fact, the student who comes to State of the Art U will also encounter residential life, career services, a health center, a food court, a business office, a center for community engagement, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

And that full spectrum of experiences is what prepares our students for life after graduation. This realization is new. A couple of generations ago, most of the explicit educational value resided in courses, and the rest was clearly auxiliary. But in a world of free and ubiquitous content knowledge and heightened demands for teamwork and interpersonal connections, the significance is more evenly distributed. Our grads are likelier than their parents to apply what they learned from student government, or the group presentation in ethnic studies, or from organizing the arts walk fundraiser.

When education is course-centric and your students sedentary, you can imply coherence with catalog copy. Students look up their majors, see a list of courses in ascending order of complexity, and get at least the impression that there’s a purpose here.

That setup wasn’t great but it was good enough, and impressively cheap to maintain. Among its virtues: whole academic departments could consist of people who weren’t on speaking terms.

But now we find ourselves at a disadvantage, when the learning seeps beyond the traditional curriculum and the students move around. In this world creating purpose and coherence demands more than a list of courses: educators (faculty and otherwise) need to talk, routinely and civilly, about how these different experiences will affect students, how they combine to cause learning, and how we know.

Two facets of our current context make that hard:

Presumption of autonomy. People my age and older (a dwindling population, but really when was it not?) experienced college as a succession of soloists. Some of my friends came into the academy precisely for that independence. If we change our expectations now, then some will feel shorted.

Absence of coordinating time. When I was a chair I wrote class schedules, assigning faculty and adjuncts to what they taught and when. The object was to maximize facilities use and options for students. This made it hard for me to serve my other role as chair, calling meetings. There wasn’t a time when everyone was available, and I had only myself to blame.

On that second facet: many departments and some entire universities schedule deliberate fallow periods during the week, to avoid the problem I’d created for myself. But few would say those time slots are put to good use: department meetings are often just rundowns of administrivia like reporting deadlines and the new code for the copy machine.

48c64d948c7ba80d019c00c741a74738I had such meetings in mind a few weeks ago, when my wife and I had dinner with a friend from graduate school. He now has one of the coolest jobs ever, producing the rides at Disneyland. No kidding. And by “ride” I don’t mean the strollers: he does the massive, headline-making, highly narrative attractions people have in mind when they decide to go. To Disneyland.

Much of what he told us was in confidence, but this much I can share. It’s all about the meetings. He said that in developing the sequence of discoveries and interactions the guest will encounter during a given ride, international teams meet at least weekly, for years. Connections are made in person and virtually, sometimes early in the morning or late at night to accommodate all the time zones.

Depending on the phase of the project, as many as 140 separate disciplines may be involved. Yes, 140, and yes, he used the word “disciplines” – to cover costumers, designers, audio techs, mechanical engineers, dancers, animators, sculptors, electricians, art directors, meeting in different combinations of maybe a dozen at a time. If these people aren’t working together from the start, you can run into nasty surprises late in the game: plumbing and carpentry don’t line up, or the rider sees a seam.

Like university faculty, these are people with very different persuasions and backgrounds, who need to translate their own vernacular for the sake of their colleagues. The meetings only work – only make sense at all – because attendees share the goal of optimizing the rider experience.

avatar16I will concede that earning a degree in nursing is materially different from riding Star Tours. But listening to my friend the Imagineer made me feel how very much ground higher ed still needs to cover. The last decade or two have seen eye-popping insights into how and why people learn: putting those discoveries to work in any concerted way – optimizing the student experience – would take seismic changes in how we operate. So instead we’re in a world where the math and the econ don’t quite fit together, and student sees the seams.

One challenge is how hard it is for us to schedule such meetings. But really even if we could, I’m not sure we’d know what to do with them.



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