Thursday, July 28, 2005

On Calendars

Before getting to today’s post, let me comment on yesterday’s post on recording voice and transcribing it in MS Word at the same time. I got a few emails that didn’t realize I was showing the verbatim output from Word without further revision from me. And so people were less than impressed, while I think this is quite amazing. I will play with the approach on a regular basis for the next month or so and then report back about whether I’ve found a way to get a satisfactory final output. I do want to make the point here that on our campus transcription for multimedia seems essential if we are to say the content is accessible. That is a driver for this for this experiment.

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One of my favorite papers to teach is Paul David’s AER paper on QWERTY. Steven Jay Gould has reproduced that paper in his book Bully for Brontosaurus and as it turns out there is quite a bit of similarity with the dynamics of increasing returns studied in economics and the dynamics of evolutionary biology – at the outset there are many viable paths and it is impossible to predict which path will win. Then chance events make one path more viable and the head start creates a cumulative effect that results in lock in so the path becomes a de facto standard. The wonderful thing about the QWERTY example is that the keyboard was initially designed to make people type slower but the lock-in is so strong that attempts at using “more efficient” key layouts have not worked.

This is good background to consider the situation of Academic Calendars on our various campuses. Many others have noted the asymmetry with respected to summer sessions have a legacy back to the nineteenth century (or earlier) where students needed to go back to the family farm for planting and harvest. That need has disappeared. But the asymmetry continues. At my campus our fall and spring semester are each fifteen weeks of classes and then one week for final exams. We offer two different summer sessions, one for four weeks (very intensive instruction) and one for eight weeks (moderately intensive instruction). Of course some campuses are on the quarter system instead of the semester system. And even here we have some courses that are only half semester.

While I have seen discussion of the inefficiencies of summer scheduling, I have not seen discussion about Academic Calendar and the issues of primary concern in this blog – student engagement, institutional commitment, and the cost of instruction. Instead of taking five courses in parallel per semester, envision that those courses are taken sequentially in intensive mode in 3 week blocks. Ask how that would effect student engagement. (I think it would promote it.) Ask what that would do for scheduling classes into classrooms. (I think it would be much easier to schedule because there would be fewer offerings in any one block and they’d be offered in larger chunks of time.) Ask whether the faculty would prefer to teach in a couple of these blocks in intensive mode and then have the rest of the time when they are not teaching at all. (My guess is that they would overwhelmingly prefer the block approach.)

Does changing to the sequential approach make sense? I think so. Are we likely to see it? Well, places like University of Phoenix do the sequential model (although I believe 3 weeks is too intensive, even for them). But what about non-profit higher ed? Will it ever make such a reform? Perhaps it will. I wonder who will take the lead on this.

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