The Course is Dead. Long Live the Course.

The pushes toward modular instruction and competency-based education are significant, but don't expect traditional forms of teaching to disappear, writes Dan Butin.

September 4, 2014

With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.

And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.

"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”

For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.

“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others,  competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”

This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.

For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.

For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.

But in either case, the traditional course is dead.

I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.

I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.

CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.

Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.

If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.

Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.

In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead. 




Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.


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