The cost of Gen Ed and the long tail of course enrollment

I admit that the skeptical part of me wants to the think of general education as an atavism, as something that is more of a mechanism for managing registration than anything else. But let’s say for a moment that we really thought general education was valuable or could be valuable.

Well, first off, the value would be relative to the cost. This is the point I was making in a post a few days back. Given the rising price of higher ed, at some point we begin to question whether or not general education is worth it. I mean at some point you’d ask whether or not the degree itself is worth it, but I’m assuming the price point for Gen Ed. is lower.

I’m not going to venture into the many limitations of general education today. Instead I want to consider a way to keep its costs low and maintain or increase its value. In Gen. Ed. one faces a curious kind of either/or situation. The basic premise of Gen Ed is that all students need a baseline education. You’ve got nearly 400,000 undergrads in the SUNY system all taking the same SUNY wide general education requirements.

For example, we have a "Humanities" requirement. One would assume there is something particular that students need to learn here that we require all our students to take a Humanities GE course. Hypothetically, 80,000 students could be taking the same Humanities course every year across SUNY. But that’s not what happens. Humanities GE courses range from Art History to Theater to Philosophy to Literary Studies to Rhetoric and so on. I sincerely doubt these courses have much in common. They certainly do not have enough common that taking one course in the GE category would preclude a student from getting elective credit for taking another course in the category later. So whatever common material they share must be quite minimal.

So a general education is not really "general" at all. It’s more like a taste or a slice of a bigger picture. I doubt that you could find much commonality between two SUNY students GE experiences. You would likely find the same degree of commonality between their purely elective courses.

But my point here is not to criticize GE, but instead to argue this potential "bug" is really a feature. What it means is that that we can identify a long tail of general education in which we can serve niche markets of students interests and make GE more relevant, if we assume that the point of GE is not to provide yet another layer of generic education. What’s the difference between generic and general? Well, today I’m saying the difference is that generic education is offered without a sense of purpose or audience whereas a more niche-driven, general education can teach students how different disciplinary perspectives might be brought to bear productively upon issues that concern them.

The obvious example of this is Writing in the Disciplines, at least as it might be ideally conceived.  I actually prefer the idea of "writing in disciplinary professions," the difference being that you are learning about the genres in professions typically tied to a discipline rather than the highly specialized discourses of researchers in that discipline (which the vast majority of undergrads will never be).

But I digress. The long tail of general education would thus not focus on trying to cram all the students into a few GE sections. In some instances this might be made possible through online courses. For example, with nearly 400,000 SUNY students meeting the same GE requirements across the state, one could offer a GE of interest to only one in a thousand students and still have plenty of students interested in the course.

In short it’s possible to be both general and customized. In doing so, you might make GE more relevant to rest of a student’s education, which is what we are already trying to do with learning communities and so on. The question is really just about maximizing that. If we are going to continue to require GE and continue to raise the cost of GE, we’re going to have to raise its value somehow.

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