Liberal Education

Caveat Emptor

Technology has unleashed a learning revolution, and the animated dialogue at AAC&U's 2001 Annual Meeting made it clear that many campuses are tapping technology's potential to deepen and enrich what students can learn. The Annual Meeting enthusiasm was contagious as faculty and academic leaders examined wonderful new programs that are putting students online to probe big questions, analyze world class data, and learn how to learn from resources both near and far.

However, even as campuses embrace these new educational opportunities, market forces are already harnessing technology to accelerate one of the least defensible inventions of the twentieth century academy: the Cafeteria Curriculum.

In 1985, AAC&U leaders sent a strong warning to the academic community. "The curriculum has....[become] a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants of learning....It is as if no one cared, so long as the store stays open" (Integrity in the College Curriculum, 2-3).

In 2001 that dire assessment must be. Today, society is awash in plans to create world-wide cyber-catalogs unapologetically geared to consumer preferences and funded by entrepreneurs who want to trade transferable course credits for bankable profits. In some versions of this educational futures agenda, as Sheila Slaughter alerts us in these pages, faculty are receding altogether, their "intellectual property" purchased and packaged for "delivery" to envisioned throngs of "anywhere/anytime" recipients.

Simultaneously, course producers are putting enormous pressure both on accreditation and on state systems to make sure that cyber-catalog courses intended for mass distribution will indeed be bankable, i.e., convey credit acceptable for degrees at established colleges and universities.

Ironies abound here. Off in another sector of the educational community, leaders are investing billions of dollars to make our schools more purposeful, more accountable, and more productive of powerful learning. What's driving this High Standards agenda? There's a mountain of evidence that the great majority of students who go from schools to college have a long way to go before any observer would judge them either knowledgeable or proficient.

Juxtapose these two visions for change, the Cyber-Cafeteria Curriculum vs. the High Standards Curriculum, and you would have to assume that we were talking about two different student populations, one already operating at such a high level that they can be effectively self-directed; the other still in need of significant guidance and structure. But the truth, of course, is that the students most likely to sign up for cyber-cafeteria programs are also the students most in need of knowledgeable faculty guidance, structure, and feedback.

Yet, too many decision makers, on campus as well as off, acquiese in the polite fiction that once we get course materials online, for delivery anywhere anytime, university-level learning will surely follow. It will not.

As it happens, the current debacle in dot.com start-ups may provide the blessing of a respite for some sober second thoughts. Clearly the driving force in cybermarket course production has been the exciting vision of profits for all. But now the market has called a time-out for remedial review of some basic lessons about the role of "comparative value" in sustaining consumer demand.

And in this season of "chastened reflection," academic leaders also need to spend some time helping our publics engage issues of comparative educational value. Treating courses as "information delivery" is exactly the wrong message to send this generation of learners about what to seek in an education of lasting worth.

AAC&U's Greater Expectations initiative is moving forward with recommendations about educational goals and practices that can provide all students, online and not, with powerful learning for the twenty-first century. In advance of that report, however, I offer my own observations on principles for any high-standards educational program, online or not.

  1. It takes a faculty: To help students achieve at high levels, faculty need to function as a mentoring community, using their knowledge to fashion a purposeful curriculum, with clear goals, strong connections between the goals and actual departmental practices, and a discernible progression from novice to intermediate to genuinely accomplished student work. Absent this kind of intentional community, too many students simply flounder. This premise is even more important for distance learning than for on-campus learning where the environment itself helps convey expectations and standards.
  2. Meeting matters: Good teaching is audience-specific. Effective courses meet students "where they are" and help them move toward where they need to go. They engage the person, not just the subject matter. Effective teachers take soundings from their students, and adjust both content and process to respond to these signals. This is the fundamental reason why students both prefer and do better in smaller classes. We've known for a long time that mass-participation courses just don't work as well, whether as on-site lectures, or pre-packaged courses.
  3. Knowledge cannot be deposited from one mind to another: the student's own activity and accomplishments are the crucial variables. What a student reads or hears is much less important to learning than what a student actually does. The heart of the educational project is the work the student does to generate, frame, and assess knowledge. Assignments, investigations, papers, projects, presentations: these are the elements of learning that lasts. Here too, faculty knowledge of their students is essential, both to shape the initial assignments and to give feedback that helps students move to a higher level.
  4. Technology should raise the level and sophistication of students' hands-on accomplishment. The real opportunity offered by new technologies is the expansion of opportunity for inquiry-based learning: forms of study that involve students in significant questions, world-wide data sources, collaborative partnerships, and new ways to examine the interplay between assumptions and results.

We've only begun to tap the surface of technology's potential to involve students more extensively and more productively in powerful forms of inquiry-based learning. But this, surely, is where technology's transformative potential resides. To make the most of that potential, educators -- especially those in a position to influence standards for accreditation -- need to insist that virtual programs deploy strategies to involve students in intellectually demanding and progressively more advanced accomplishments.

The Cafeteria Curriculum is and always was weak pedagogy. We don't need new ways to proliferate it.

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