Last call. . . . for Integrated Course Design

Today, by email, I got a "last call" for the products of our Summer Integrated Course Design products.  If you don't know what integrated course design is, or what it would have to do with summer, apparently you might fit in well at Fayetteville State.

"Integrated course design" is the admittedly jargony name for carrying out structured reflection about what the real goals you have for students taking your course are, then designing learning activities and a curriculum that actually have a good chance of realizing that for those of your students who are actually willing to put in the work required by the active learning they claim they enjoy better, educators claim engages them more, and more importantly many employers in the new tough knowledge-based economy are going to expect of them.

Having gone through a semester-long Faculty Development Seminar last year, which was led by our provost, and in which we used Dee Fink's book on integrated course design, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, I have to say that there is something to this.  Having sat through classes and conversations with education majors as an undergrad, taught them as a grad student and a professor, and endured my share of babbling about education theory by "experts" as a professor (i.e. someone who actually teaches about something for a living), I tend to be a skeptic about any supposedly revolutionary new concepts in education.  I tend to be stand-offish about most forms of "assessment," unless its demonstrated to me that there's actually something real being assessed.  I tend to turn a jaundiced eye on claims about new paradigms in education.  Typically, what's supposedly new, innovative, better than what we've been doing turns out to be something that has already been done, and might have been discussed by, oh I don't know, say. . . . Aristotle.

The Faculty Development Seminar got off to a false start with a paper that Education people seem to love, but which in my view is emblematic of a historical myopia that makes it very hard for anyone formed in the humanities to take them seriously:  Barr and Tagg's From Teaching to Learning - A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.  Fink's book followed on the heels of that piece, and that did not dispose the audience of seasoned faculty towards sanguine reading and reception of his arguments, classifications, and suggestions.

One can certainly point out a few flaws in Fink's book and with his Taxonomy of Significant Learning. To someone who teaches Critical Thinking for a living, his location of it in the "Application" dimension and his discussions of CT seem off-base.  I'd much preferred to read about the "affective" dimension instead of wincing at his word-choice for a "Caring" dimension.   But, overall, it is a good book; it outlines a solid approach; and it reminds us of something we too easily forget as educators:  we're a lot more likely to structure a class well if we take the time to think it through top to bottom, applying "backwards design," starting with our goals, then considering skills and outcomes, then considering how to teach to those and what activities to use to assess them.  In short, real planning.

During the second cohort of the Faculty Development Seminar, last Spring, each of us applied Fink's classifications, walked our course through his design exercises, reflected on our courses, debated with other faculty (and in my case, I'll admit, with everyone else there -- all too often the provost, with most of the experts brought in for us, and even with Dee Fink), and more or less successfully redesigned a course.  The method was a success, and it is bearing its fruits in our courses this semester.  The next cohort this semester, all new faculty, will most likely do the same, and likewise benefit by applying Fink's model of integrated course design.

One experiment definitely failed, however, and that was to try to involve the faculty much more generally in this process, setting up course redesign teams with the second cohort as team leaders, and . .  . calling for it to be carried out over the course of the summer.

It might be possible to produce and successfully apply a stripped-down version of course design.  In fact, the version of it the Office of Faculty Development and the provost supplied us with were pretty good, pretty well thought out.  I even reviewed the directions and forms, and then produced an additional schematic step-by-step set of instructions for the faculty I was teamed with.  But, nothing doing!  It was summer, and whatever good intentions faculty might declare at our end of year faculty development conference, they simply are not going to follow through on tasks that they do not have some significant motivation to see through.

And, who can blame them?  FSU is an intense setting.  Faculty elsewhere complain about teaching a 2-2 or a 3-3 load.  FSU faculty, like faculty at many other smaller colleges and universities teach a 4-4 (and we're contractually obligated to keep 8 office hours per week).  If you're here for a year, you'll be on a number of committees (I'm on at least 5, maybe more, and chairing one), and you'll have advisees (since we have no Philosophy program, I'm free from that).  We're constantly exhorted to be doing service to the community, to be entrepreneurial (that means find money and forge partnerships, for which the University will take the credit), to do more with less.  If you want tenure, you've got to publish, and, as the administrators stress the minimal guidelines for tenure are only that, minimal. . .  they can still turn you down even with your 2 peer reviewed articles (they could still turn you down with 3 or 4, for that matter).

It's understandable that, during their summer break (if they're not scrambling to teach summer classes), faculty would not be enthusiastic about taking on yet another project.  They likely would be reluctant even during the semester.  But what really consigned this project to the scrapheap of FSU history, I think, is that a worthwhile but complex and not intuitively obvious project, was being placed suddenly in faculty laps, with insufficient time for the faculty who were now being "challenged" and told that if the cared about student learning they would get on board, to actually understand the project, and to in fact get on board, to "buy in," as we say, so often these days, academics aping marketers.

As I was sending the email informing the compiler of the institutional report on this summer project where the documents comprising my redesign were, I found myself musing about the project, the process, and the product.  In this case, the faculty were being asked to deliver a product, when they had little understanding of the process and little interest in the project.  Next time around -- hopefully not over a summer -- another "P," one required and stressed by course design itself, will be needed:  planning