Yes, I suppose the initial reaction is to say that there are plenty of choices in a college education. There are dozens of majors and minors, elective courses, and so on. Yet it never seems to work out that way.
Here’s a scenario common to my advisees. A English major certifying to teach HS in NYS. Her program has about 72 credits, nearly all of them are specifically required courses. Add on to that 37 credits or so of General Education and 13 credits of foreign language. That’s 122 credits. I think 124 are what you need to graduate. Now you might say that there are some choices in GE, and technically you’d be correct. However, once you factor in the scheduling element (i.e. courses in our program she must take, limited time selections for foreign language, having to work, etc). Usually there are few if any REAL choices. It’s pretty much take what you can get.
No one is exactly to blame for this situation. The state has strict standards for teacher certification that result in many requirements, etc., etc. At a school our size we can only offere so many sections of courses. Many times we offer only one section of a course. That really can limit other choices.
But all that is only the tip of the iceberg. My real complaint is directed at a more structural level. There is a notion that, despite the fact that students have specific majors, the overall experience of undergraduate education is the same. At Cortland if you get a BA, you end up taking 50+ credits in essentially General Education courses. That’s about half your degree. And I’d say that’s fairly standard of most 4-year programs. Furthermore, for the most part, most courses provide the same general experience: you show up for class 150 minutes a week over 14 weeks; the professor lectures and sometimes there’s class discussion; you take a couple tests and/or write a paper or two–maybe a presentation. Yes there are science labs and other exceptions, but mostly it’s about sitting in seats, taking notes, reading assignments, doing homework, and getting graded in some way.
It’s very difficult to break out of this structure. Students don’t know how to act. Institutions have policy fits. And teachers have to redefine their roles too. In a sense there’s nothing easier than assigning a reading, leading a classroom conversation abou it, and then assigning and grading an assignment based on the reading. I mean performing this teacherly role well takes knowledge and experience, but it is something with which we are all familiar. I taught this way for years, still do in some respect. It is what we all experienced as students. It is what administrators experienced; it is what our students have experienced.
It’s the Model T of education.
In a sense an online course might break with this but in many respects an online course can be designed to mimic salient aspects of the classroom: read and discuss, repeat as needed. Produce a document by which you will be evaluated.
However we know that none of these things, none of them, are necessary for learning. We know this because we learn things everyday in the absence of these structures. As I’m planning these online courses for next semester, I’m trying to think about what I can throw away, what is the unnecessary baggage of outmoded pedagogy, and how learning might happen otherwise. Obviously whatever happens in one class will have no impact on the larger problems I started this post with, but on the other hand I think there is a kind of fractal relationship here, where structural suppositions echo from one institutional level to the next.
At some point there will be a change.