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Return to the One Room Schoolhouse

I have seen a trend with my STEM connected colleagues over the last 6 months wanting to discuss concepts of adaptive or competency based learning, CBL. These discussions evolved for many reasons such as; lack of classroom space, course scheduling problems or issues surrounding non-tenure track faculty. This discussion is right on target when it occurs with younger faculty, however, now older faculty are asking questions and seem to be contemplating how this could work. Generally there is agreement that it is inevitable that education will move in this direction, but then you start talking about the repercussions of what that might look like to the higher education business model and fear returns to the conversation. I guess what is different is that now there seems to be recognition of the value of the learning model and discussions are tending toward how we might implement it.

Personalized Learning

I decided to write this post after a number of discussions yesterday, some stimulated by those who viewed CNN’s airing of the “Ivory Tower” documentary. As we talked about implementing adaptive learning to our STEM courses I was drawn to the vision of the old one room schoolhouse. STEM possibly more then any other academic discipline is based on building blocks or competencies. Math and the sciences dominate this with competency based requirements built into courses as well as with interdependencies between courses. So when I thought of the one room schoolhouse I saw it as similar to the students that we receive. In the one room schoolhouse students have to progress through levels of reading, writing and arithmetic, and they had a built in remediation process. The teacher was there to help at all levels.

How did we get to our current college degree attainment path based on taking a selected number of courses that may or may not actually give you all of the competencies that you or your employer desire? I think we used to have a much more standardized entry path to college. Students from high school, mostly Americans, had very similar competencies due to similar curriculums that could not be supplemented by additional information as is now available via the Internet. The over achievers could go to World Book, but for the most part if a student got accepted to college then they pretty much entered at the same level and the progression through a standard set of courses with a few electives worked fine. That world no longer exists. We have screwed up high school believing that standardized testing validates competencies. Combine that with the financial pressure universities are under to maintain enrollment and you end up with a freshman class that is much more in line with the one room schoolhouse.

Change is coming and it will be heavily influenced by competency based learning and I think STEM may be well positioned to adapt to this. We have been working on this concept in our general ed core curriculums of math and science. At first it was about trying to figure out online or hybrid learning but now we are starting to see how we may need to change the academic business model. The emerging CBL providers such as Western Governors are built upon a personalized learning foundation that allows the student to progress at their own pace. Tuition is based on a period of time not on credit hours, which creates the incentive of “the faster you progress, the more you save”. Maybe there is a hybrid version of this that can work for the traditional residential university.

I’m going to take a stab at what this might look like for STEM degrees. I’m looking at this as realist considering what might be acceptable for our entrenched higher education culture, today’s student and the political and financial forces that will inevitably force the change. The first 2 years of most STEM degrees are fairly similar based on the need to build a foundation of math through calculus, basic concepts for the sciences with English and physics typically being foundational as well. This is true for pre-meds through engineering and it is typically fairly challenging to ensure that we are not wasting our time on the students in the upper level of the degree program. So how about a one room schoolhouse for each STEM discipline complete with a set of competency based learning modules designed with assessments that provide adaptive options to complete each step. We have talented non-tenure track faculty always available and still teaching but not on a fixed lecture circuit. The environment would facilitate collaborative learning along with the necessary lab requirements. The student pays the same tuition, and heck we even keep the semester structure. The advanced students finish early or have more time for extra curricular activities such as undergraduate research or experiential learning options. As the student emerges from this general ed core they enter into the more traditional degree completion with the upper level courses and labs taught by tenure track faculty to complete their STEM program.

I’m going to stop here without digging into the obvious questions and details. But what do you think? I think it might be an improvement.

The Best STEM Graduates in the World

I have been at my new university for about a month trying to assess a constant flow of data about how and why everything is as it is. My overall observation is that it is good, but that has a lot to do with the fact that my world renown science and technology university does not worry about the same challenges facing much of the rest of higher education today. What we deliver is highly valued in our technological world even if we are using a century’s old pedagogical approach.

We do have modern pedagogical teaching and learning success stories here at S&T, but we also have excellent traditional course delivery of science and engineering classes that do not need to be adjusted. So why do we also find ourselves pressured to offer more blended and online courses? Because unfortunately most of us fit into a much larger higher education structure that will be pushed and pulled by many reactions, some of which are “knee jerk” in nature. But that is OK, we must all ultimately be responsible for our own response.

I mention these early observations in my new job as sort of a preview to what I believe will be an amazing journey that I will share will my talented faculty and highly motivated EdTech team as we adapt to the changing world of higher education. Our greatest challenge may be to understand that even though change is not required it is also not bad. If our typical highly motivated STEM students are coming to us from a different culture then maybe changing our pedagogy a bit to compliment their learning preferences could be a way to make our end product even better. The challenge that brought me to S&T was not to save them but to have an opportunity to improve them. On the world stage today I see the real challenge for the United States is not just to produce more STEM graduates but to produce the Best STEM graduates. So maybe I get a chance to help change the world.

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