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A Course is not a Class is not a Section
November 23, 2010 - 7:31pm

Are classes the same thing as courses and sections?

Simple questions about student data can quickly disintegrate into details too nuanced for most faculty to stomach. I restrain myself from asking too many questions in response: should data be categorized by term, or by year? Should non-degree students and auditors be included? Universities are swimming in data, even if they are siloed in ways that seem to make little sense.

Carefully chosen language can impose a kind of order upon the curriculum; courses persist over the years, classes are a course offered in a specific term, for a specific amount of credit. If more than one class is offered, there are multiple sections; classes have instructors, and classrooms, and meeting times, and exams. (I am sure there are institutions where this terminology is different, and I am very curious about how global institutions use similar words to refer to very different concepts).

There is a huge disconnect between the powerful art of teaching and learning, and what is stored in databases to power web pages and create bulletins, to facilitate students registering for upcoming semesters, to find a classroom for each section, or to receive a grade and credit for academic work. I see only the representation of students mastering new subjects and learning to communicate, think critically, and create new scholarly work. But data constraints should not inhibit innovation in higher education.

Christine Geith recently asked, via Twitter, does a course constrain innovation? My answer: likely yes, but that doesn’t mean that it should. Consistency can often lead to resistance to change.

For creative administrators and faculty searching for new solutions to problems facing their institutions, why should classes not begin or end outside the traditional start or end of the term? Why should a course title be only 100 characters?

Because what is stored in the database will be what is reported. As keepers of the academic record, it is Registrar staff who will search the basement or digital archives to find a record of the class 10, 20, or even 50 years from now. Perhaps longtime staff or faculty members will remember something outside the norm, a class that was co-taught in an unusual way, an international travel experience. But for the most part, subjects and course numbers, sometimes faculty names, appear day after day on student transcripts, and the complex experience of education becomes represented by bytes on a piece of paper.

New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

Heather Alderfer is an Associate Registrar at the Yale Law School and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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