Home / Working Without a Net: Moving from System-Driven to Student-Driven Models

Working Without a Net: Moving from System-Driven to Student-Driven Models

There is a certain comfort in the familiar rhythms of academia: the ramp-up in August, the start and stately progression of the 16-week semester, and the bang of finals. This is the system that was bequeathed to us by the harvest cycles of the 19th century. But we have long since forgotten that. There is also a familiarity and comfort to the model of the professor bringing his or her knowledge into the room and working through it step-by-step. In this paradigm it was up to the student to keep up with the professor’s thought processes or fail the course. As Professor Kingsfield says in The Paper Chase, “I am here to massage your brain.” This system has eaten up and spit out students for over a century and is still the modality in the vast majority of colleges and universities in the world.

The ShapingEDU Live discussion on September 12, 2019 brought a number of systems to the table that challenge these kinds of rhythms: semesters that start monthly such as at FullSail University; programs that move at the pace of the student such as at Conestoga College; competency-based, just-in-time learning and assessment such as those implemented online by Western Governors University. These approaches all challenge the traditional rhythm of the academic and programmatic calendar in the interests of tailoring the educational system to the student instead of forcing the student to conform to it.

Challenging systemic norms brings with it a range of issues, from transferability to faculty acceptance. The latter is another issue that both Lisa Koster from Conestoga and Emily Wray from FullSail brought to the fore with their comments. Wray pointed out how their system forced faculty to re-evaluate their teaching methodologies in unexpected ways. She pointed to the importance of supporting faculty through peer mentorship to adjust to completely new teaching modalities.

At one point in the discussion Wray pointed out, “How ironic is it that we’re asking the students to get out of their comfort zones, but in many cases, faculty aren’t leading the way and modeling that?” Wray’s comments highlight a critical element that provides some action items for future work. Any college is a complex set of interlocking mechanisms, and it is important to recognize the implications if those norms are disturbed. 

Additionally, institutions of higher education are themselves part of complex, interlocking systems of relationships. Changing modalities from the norm cannot ignore the impacts that those actions may have both within and outside the systems that the college structure resides in. As Koster pointed out this can be a jarring experience for everyone. Scot Wyles, who is also a former student at Conestoga, recognized that the Ontario government is proscriptive in their program design requirements. This can often be contrary to the needs of the student for customization, he pointed out.

This is a particular challenge for institutions that operate within public systems, but it would  also impact those institutions operating within accrediting regimes with similar requirements. In the United States, with our decentralized accreditation regimes, what works in one part of the country is not guaranteed to fly elsewhere.

The participants did an excellent job discussing an incredibly complex and diverse subject that is, on the face of it, blindingly simple: make education about the student, not the system. We have built up systems over a century-and-a-half that do not prioritize this goal. Therein lie our biggest challenges.

The student is not used to operating outside of the traditional system of credit hours, grades, and standardized assessment. Faculty are not used to teaching without a net in a nontraditional environment and may resist that. Larger systems of accreditation and legitimacy are fundamentally designed to maintain the existing system and may create challenges for institutions interacting with other institutions, from employers to transfers. Most people in those systems understand that change needs to happen, but these systems persist nevertheless because they are at the root of our academic legitimacy. ShapingEDU can be a forum for conversation on the wide range of issues that these approaches inevitably raise.

Action Items: 

  1. Create a series of ongoing reports on the experience of disruptive organizations in education to systematically analyze what’s working and what should be discarded from these experiments.

  2. Provide support for faculty developing bottom-up pedagogical modalities so that they are better equipped to operate in evolving institutional landscapes.

  3. Create a clearinghouse of information on the possibilities and constraints around accreditation and transferability in accreditation or government agencies tasked with overseeing these kinds of efforts.