Saturday, March 11, 2017

Complexity and Justice

At a typical American university, we create insanely complex rules, and then waste enormous resources explaining them to students. Just consider, for example Sac State’s Gen Ed requirements. First, it is 48 credits plus the language requirement. The national norm is closer to 40, or about 1/3 of a BA degree. Plus there are layers of overlapping rules, which should be applied simultaneously. Those are rules of residency (so many should be taken at CSU), the rules about upper and lower division, and the rules of distribution (areas of A, B, C, D, and E). On top of it, there are graduation requirements, such as American History, American Institutions, Intensive writing, English composition, Race and ethnicity, and foreign language. In other words, every course choice should be checked against the five or six sets of rules. Those decisions have to be made by 18-22 year olds, a lot of whom just transferred from community colleges, and have a whole set of issues with equivalent courses, some of which are articulated, while others are not. Only few faculty on campus actually comprehend the rules and even fewer can explain them to students. So we have to have several professional advisers, and train older students to help. It takes years to actually master the working knowledge of curriculum. And with this level of logical complexity errors are absolutely inevitable. The complexity of rules requires the maintenance of three separate technological platforms: the course planner, the registration system, and then the data analysis system. The latter is needed, because we have no idea how many sections of which course will be needed in the next year. I am not just picking at the gen Ed; the same can be said about majors, teacher credentials, and everything else.

Now, if you have a mom and dad with a college degree, you can call them up, and ask to interpret the catalog for you. If you are a first generation in college, and your parents speak another language at home, you may not know what is the upper division and the lower division. So, the complexity affects different people differently. We always proclaim the values of diversity and inclusion, and yet our own indifference to student experiences is partly responsible for drop-outs and forces students to stay longer than they would like, to incur extra debt.

All of this is done with the best intentions, to make sure we educate the kids well. OK, let me take this back – the system evolved because of trivial turf wars, where every department is concerned about its status, its enrollments, and its workloads. The wars are fought with the rhetoric of best intentions, usually, so the combatants re confused where is the real motive, and where is the high-minded rhetoric. A significant part of the problem comes from various mindless bureaucratic decisions done outside campus, too – in various accrediting, and state government bodies. It really does not matter who we are to blame. The bottom line is that chasing complexity with various technologies is an arms race we cannot win. It is not a solvable problem. Yes, we should provide students with good advising and technological tools. But the problem is not solvable without some movement in at least partial simplification of curriculum.

The radical solution is well known: it is cohorting. It works in many cases, for working adults, for professional degrees, for non-traditional students. Some students are willing to give up choice in exchange for stability and the guaranteed timeline. In fact, this is how most of Russian and Chinese students go through college. I would not support the radical solution across the board; there is enormous value in the ability to choose one’s learning path, and in the flexibility of the non-cohorted environment. The rigidity of a cohort system also has exclusionary qualities; it does not accommodate for all life circumstances. Instead, we must simplify the admission and graduation requirements, and other processes by the order of magnitude to actually walk the walk of justice. There is no evidence whatsoever that more complex rules add anything to the quality of education. For example, Brown has abandoned the general education requirement altogether, which did not have a demonstrable negative effect on its graduates. There is no evidence that, say a 72 credit major is more fruitful than a more typical 40-credit major. Only a few of prerequisites actually have pedagogical sense; most are there to force students into a more manageable path.

The main funding of the entire fiel of behavioral economics is this: if you want to encourage people to do something, make it easy. So if we want more diverse population in our student body, if we want to more teachers of color, we have to make it easy, less intimidating; not less rigorous or less demanding; just easier in the process. Let’s move the rigor out of our processes into our classrooms.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:53 PM

    There are many students transferring from community colleges, earning University credits at their local high schools, etc. Less rigid University requirements provide seamless pathways for students. University faculty must forgo the idea that their courses must be taken in order to ensure quality.