Higher Education Strategy Associates

Taking Advantage of Course Duplication

I recently came across an interesting blogpost from a professor in the UK named Thomas Leeper (see here), talking about the way in which professors the world over spend so much time duplicating each others’ work in terms of developing curricula.  Some key excerpts:

” …the creation of new syllabi is something that appears to have been repeated for decades, if not centuries. And yet, it all seems rather laborious in light of the relatively modest variation in the final courses that each of us creates on our own, working in parallel.”

“… In the digital age, it is incredibly transparent that the particular course offerings at every department are nearly the same. The variation comes in the quality of lectures and discussion sections, the set of assignments required of students, and the difficulty of the grading.”

“We expend our efforts designing strikingly similar reading lists and spend much less time on the factors that actually differentiate courses across institutions: lecture quality, learning activities, and feedback provision… we should save our efforts on syllabus construction and spend that time and energy elsewhere in our teaching.”

Well, quite.  But I think you can push this argument a step further.  I’ve heard (don’t quote me because I can’t remember exactly where) that if you group together similar courses across institutions (e.g. Accounting 100, American History survey courses, etc.), then something like 25% of all credits awarded in the United States are accumulated in just 100 “courses”.  I expect numbers would not be entirely dissimilar in other Anglophone countries.  And though this phenomenon probably functions on some kind of power law – the next 100 courses probably wouldn’t make up 10% of all credits – my guess is your top 1000 courses would account for 50-60% or more of all credits.

Now imagine all Canadian universities decided to get together and make a really top-notch set of e-learning complements to each of these 1000 courses.  The kinds of resources that go into a top-notch MOOC  in order to improve the quality of each of these classes (like, for instance, the University of Alberta’s Dino 101).  Not that they would be taught via MOOC – teaching would remain the purview of individual professors – but that each have excellent dedicated on-line resources associated with each of them.  Let’s say they collectively put $500,000 into each of them, over the course of four years.   That would be $500M in total, or $125M per year.  Obviously, those aren’t investments any single institution could contemplate, but if we consider the investment from the perspective of the entire sector (which spends roughly $35 billion per year) this is chump change.   $120 per student.  A trifle.

So, a challenge to university Presidents and Provosts: why not do this?  We’re talking here about a quantum jump in learning resources available for half the credits undergraduate earn each semester.  Why not collectively invest money to improve the quality of the learning environment?  Why not free up professors’ time so they can focus more on lecture quality and feedback provision?  And to provinces and CMEC: why not create incentives for institutions to do precisely this?

A debate should be had.  Let’s have it.

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3 Responses to Taking Advantage of Course Duplication

  1. Adam Chapnick says:

    I’m normally a huge fan, and I guess there’s a debate to be had here, but I don’t think that taking away a professor’s feeling of ownership of his/her course by rationalizing some of the content will make for better teaching. Certainly, having a list of additional resources is helpful, and many instructors already do share resources (syllabus sharing is common in international relations, among Canadian political scientists, and now among Canadian historians, for example) but the process of choosing readings contributes to an instructor’s understanding of his/her course. Being able to explain to students exactly why a particular reading was selected helps establish the instructor’s credibility and forces upon them a degree of personal responsibility when a reading does not meet / ultimately support the course’s learning objectives. In addition, the process of updating a reading list keeps the instructor aware of any new scholarship that might have come across. There would be, I think, a perverse disincentive to keep up with the literature in any particular field if the reading list was always provided for you.

  2. BigResearchUni says:

    Agree with Adam; since most univ. professors are already quite reluctant to use evidence-based teaching strategies, giving us more reasons to disengage and outsource our teaching may not be a great thing. I do like the idea from both efficiency and learning perspectives, though… Sadly, most of us won’t give up our comfy “sage on the stage” passive/transmissive teaching anyhow, so this might be the best we could hope for.

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