Curricular Optimization

An idea whose time may have come.

March 24, 2014
At a time when higher education faces escalating demands for accountability, affordability, and access, two questions receive increasing attention.
First, are campus faculty, higher education’s most precious resource, used as effectively as possible?
Second, does it make sense to systematically optimize course offerings to reduce duplication, trim instructional costs, and utilize facilities more efficiently, while better meeting student demand?
To even ask such questions raises the specter of expanded class sizes and restrictions on faculty’s ability to teach what and when they wish. But before giving into the fear that curricular optimization is essentially a matter of curbing costs and curtailing faculty autonomy, we might explore some of the gains that might result.
We might ask whether certain foundational courses might be offered in a fully online or emporium format so that more faculty might engage in high impact practices such as freshman seminars or first-year research experiences or supervising capstone experiences.
Or we might explore whether enrollment in the “lesser taught” foreign languages could expand by offering courses in a synchronous online format to students at institutions that don’t offer such classes.
Or we might examine whether instituting a coaching model might promote student success in scaled classes.
Optimization exercises might well lead faculty to ask whether their current curriculum successfully meets students’ learning needs. Many departments, for example, might discover that their offerings are overly invested at the survey and sub-survey level, with few opportunities for even majors to pursue truly advanced studies.
A student-centric view of optimization might also reveal that important new areas within a discipline are poorly covered or that essential skills and proficiencies are inadequately addressed.
New technologies allow institutions to deliver courses in a variety of formats, face-to-face, web-enhanced, and fully online, as well as through an emporium model, a low-residency mode, competency based modules, an accelerated modality, or even a self-paced, self-directed curriculum, similar to what Western Governors University offers.
Optimization has become a watchword in many segments of the contemporary economy. Take the example of health care.
To curb medical spending, expand access to health care, and address a shortage of primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, in many cases, perform exams, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe medications.
For optimization to be successful, it must combine two elements: data and critical self-examination. Data—about student demand and workloads—is insufficient if unaccompanied by a serious commitment to better meeting student needs.
Given constraints on state and federal support for higher education and widespread resistance to tuition increases, higher education actively pursues a variety of ways to support its business model. Answers include increasing research grants and philanthropic donations, exploiting commercialization and technology transfer, and expanding continuing education.
Especially striking is the increasing reliance on contingent faculty.  Curricular optimization offers another possible solution — and one that might, if deployed judiciously, help stabilize tuition costs, raise retention and graduation rates, and accelerate time to degree.
Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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