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Can Curriculum Be A High-Impact Experience?

A Q&A with W. Gardner Campbell

Higher education recognizes a range of "high-impact" experiences proven to enhance student learning — internships, community engagement, study abroad, and many more — but as Virginia Commonwealth University's Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success and Dean of VCU's University College Gardner Campbell points out, the curriculum has been sorely missing from that list. CT asked Campbell why, and how educators might use digital technologies that support connected, networked approaches as they sharpen their focus on curriculum and student learning.

Mary Grush: What's the focus of discussions about curriculum today?

Gardner Campbell: Most of the talk around curriculum these days centers on lessening ambiguity, structuring choices, and making "competency" the unit of learning on which the curriculum is based.

Grush: What's wrong with the emphasis on those things?

Campbell: In many respects, nothing at all. No one will argue that hard-to-understand curricula are to the students' benefit. All too often, in fact, curriculum is confusing because it is the result of some fairly complicated horse-trading among professors, departments, and academic units, with general education being the messiest and most complicated of all, since it has to involve all those units. Similarly, no one will argue that leaving students to make key choices entirely on their own, with minimal and sometimes conflicting guidance from faculty or advisers, is a good thing. And who would say that competency isn't an important learning outcome?

Unfortunately, the trouble comes when the focus shifts away from deeper student learning and toward the so-called "completion agenda", in which the goals of student retention and graduation — good things in themselves of course — begin to drive every aspect of the student experience. The result may be curricula that become little more than ultra-linear "guided pathways" structured around the idea of predictable, easily measured institutional outcomes.

When "competency" gets added to the mix, the balance may shift away from dispositional and intellectual goals (curiosity, experimentation wonder, inquiry, integrative thinking — all important for life-long learning) in favor of largely quantitative measures that enforce one-size-fits-all assessments of learning. Every exam begins to look like a driver's test. Credentials become "stackable" instead of networkable, and the goal of making new, insightful connections among one's courses of study devolves into a "dashboard" crossed with the higher education equivalent of study hall. More students may earn their degrees, and they may earn them faster, but pressures to scale learning and competencies along linear paths almost inevitably result in an overvaluing of linear, easily measured kinds of "learning".

And in the worst case, student credit hour "productivity" alone drives funding, with the predictable result that curriculum drifts away from student learning and toward tuition-generating required courses.

Grush: What role do digital technologies play in these practices?

Campbell: Computers and online learning (especially the "content delivery within an LMS" paradigm) make it easier than ever to track student activity, monitor progress to degree, and suggest or provide interventions when the data indicate they are warranted. And as before, these goals are not bad in themselves, and may actually be helpful. The trouble comes when computer networks, with their powerful scaling affordances for easily measured, superficial "learning activities", become irresistible for administrators (and even faculty) who are trying to meet political demands, internal and externally, for "accountability" and "productivity". And just as Donald T. Campbell predicted back in 1976, single measures used in any kind of social planning will inevitably be corrupted as the object of the planning becomes merely to measure well along that single metric [].

But digital technologies can be immensely helpful, if they are used imaginatively, and if open, networked, connected learning strategies are adopted. Dr. Laura Gogia, a research fellow in VCU's Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory [ALT Lab —], has done several detailed studies of courses structured as "connected learning" experiences at VCU. She studies "competency" not merely as content recollection, though that is important, but also in terms of the frequency and complexity of students' hyperlinking within and across courses as they blog, tweet, and create digital "makes" representing their learning.

I believe those kinds of analyses can also be extraordinarily helpful in curricular planning from both the student and the institutional point of view. For students, the process of "connecting" their courses will build a natural disposition toward seeking those connections and finding the opportunities for those connections among both general education and majors courses. Students will also be able to see their fellow students' connections on the open Web, and patterns of interest and connection there will help them discover and follow the trails their fellow students have blazed — or be inspired to strike out on their own with new combinations of connections. For the institution, open, networked, connected aspects of courses can help point to new patterns of student interest, including those that support the best outcomes for student learning, as well as those that indicate a mismatch between the way faculty structure knowledge along current disciplinary boundaries and the way students construct their knowledge across and sometimes in spite of those boundaries.

Grush: What's stopping higher education from more widely adopting the open, networked, connected approaches to curriculum and student learning?

Campbell: Sometimes it's fears about privacy, or about FERPA. Certainly these are important concerns — but they can be addressed in creative, effective ways in almost every instance. Sometimes it's fear of loss of control. Students may make connections that surprise or even disturb us. It's hard to admit that we may have something to learn from these surprises. As Seth Godin recently noted, it's very hard "to expend the emotional labor to push through feeling dumb as you dig deep on your way to getting smart"[]. Regrettably, the more expert one becomes, the more difficult it is to commit to that emotional labor.

Most of all, in my view, automation along the lines of business models has come to define the computational experience for most faculty and students in higher education. Signing up for courses resembles online banking. Learning management systems resemble hard drive directories.

Grush: How might higher education adjust its focus on curriculum and its vision for student learning?

Campbell: Why not look to the Web for examples of more participatory, interesting, and discovery-based computing environments? Learning management systems could look more like a cross between Slack, WordPress, and Github. Signing up for courses could look more like a cross between a Netflix-like repository of course trailers and recommendations, and a choose-your-own adventure game. Within these experiences, student awareness of the structures of the contemporary university could be raised and deepened, and student agency could be empowered as a result.

The idea of high-impact experiences has had a profound effect on higher education since George Kuh and his co-authors published their AAC&U white paper in 2008 []. Study abroad, the first-year experience, capstone courses, internships, living-learning communities, community engagement, and more — all of these were identified as practices that made a big difference in student learning, moving it from a passive consumer model to an exciting, pervasive experience of active learning throughout the student's progress toward the degree. Unfortunately, curriculum wasn't on that list of high-impact practices, with the implication that the structure of course-based learning in university education was not a truly high-impact practice. I firmly believe it can be, and that it should be. 

For the most part, computers have helped to standardize and deaden the experience of curriculum — but it doesn't have to be that way. The more computers can be used to map complexity and foster complex, relational experiences of learning, the more they can be a part of the solution to the need to scale up intimate, truly personal experiences of learning. Then curriculum can truly become a high-impact experience for our learners.

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