17 February 2013

Horses for courses...

Perhaps my previous pontifications on the word “course” were unconvincing, but I think the word “course” can account for a lot of the problems in modern education.

Last year, I took a year of full-time study. My last exam was on a Friday, and the next day I found myself on a busy train home. I ended up sitting at a table with a couple of guys, and it turned out one of them was a retired tutor from a technical college. In Scotland, “college” has two meanings –either part of a higher education university, or more commonly a further education institute focusing on vocational studies.
He was working with trades – very practical, hands-on stuff like welding. He was already working there when the system of “modules” came in. A module, like the word implies, is a self-contained unit of learning, and it's a concept that is all too familiar in all areas of education. Well, this old guy described it as a disaster. The material he was working with, he said, just couldn't be broken down that way; everything was interconnected.
But that wasn't unique to his field. Less than a fortnight before, I was in a meeting with a couple of the staff from the course I'd taken discussing my feedback, and this was precisely my complaint there – modularisation.
I was studying the second year of a four-year degree scheme, and my initial concern was that I would be lacking some of the prerequisite knowledge from the first year modules. In particular, I was concerned that the module on short-form fiction would rely on literary analysis skills and terminology from the first year. But there was none of that. It was a true module – it was self-contained. No prerequisite knowledge. But that meant that (in my opinion) it sorely lacked depth, and at the end of it, I did not feel that I was ready for degree-level literary analysis courses, as would be expected of me if I continued to the third year. So in turn I concluded that the courses on offer could not be up to the standard I would expect of a third year course.
Of course, I do have unforgivingly high standards, in no small part down to the excellent quality of education I received for my first degree (at Edinburgh University).

But still, I felt that my dissatisfaction was caused not because the university I was studying in was not as prestigious as Edinburgh, and not because the teaching staff weren't up to scratch. No, the teaching staff were all well-educated and highly motivated, and had the benefit of an exceptionally good teacher:student ratio.

The biggest problem was simply this word “module”, this idea that skills and knowledge can be compartmentalised and packaged neatly, and this institution had fully implemented a completely modularised syllabus.

Which brings me back to the word “course”, and in particular the three ways the University of Edinburgh used it.
In my first year, I did three “courses”: Computer Science, Maths and Artificial Intelligence.

Each of these was composed of two “half-courses”, which would be the equivalent of a “module”. But the very fact that it was a “half” course made it clear that it was not a stand-alone “unit” of education, it was part of an ongoing learning path that extended through the year.
The third use of “course” was in the term “degree course”. My “degree course” was Computer Science, and everything I was taught in first and second year was a predetermined path that prepared me for the advanced study of third and fourth year. I had a much freer choice of courses in third year, and it would be tempting to call them “modules” here, but even as we made our third year choices we were all thinking about our final year, as each individual course opened up certain possibilities in the fourth year: our third year choice restricted the path – the course – our fourth year would follow.
So while it is true that not every university can be Edinburgh University, it's still useful to look at what Edinburgh does and see if it's worth copying.
Some universities pride themselves on having a wide choice of modules on offer. At Edinburgh, I had no choice whatsoever in first or second year. The university identified what I needed to know to prepare for my chosen degree, and they made sure I learned it well. (OK, there was stuff taught that I never really “needed”, but that's by-the-by.) And because we all learned the same things, when it came to third year, the lecturers all knew how much we knew, and they could build on it.
This took us further and deeper into every subject than we could have otherwise gone.
That's why the word “course” is so important. That's why we've got to know what it means, and what it doesn't mean.  The loss of the word "course" is travelling had in hand with the loss of a controlled progression in learning.
The Connectivist school of thought blames traditional schooling for students' poor ability to deal with content at levels of abstraction, whereas I believe it is the modulisation of the syllabus, a fairly recent development, that has caused this problem.  If each semester we start on a new separate module, one that stands alone and refuses to take as given the learning outcomes of specific prerequisite courses, then we are never, as students, taught to integrate our knowledge, and we are never given the opportunity to apply that knowledge at a higher level of abstraction.
This is not a small problem, specific to certain institutions – it's a growing problem, and it is becoming written into more and more of the documents that define our education systems.  Under the agreements that created the Bologna Process, students should now be free to move between institutions all over Europe, and in my English classes, I have several students who have moved from other French universities and even one who has transferred in from an Eastern European university to complete her studies in France.
The end result is a constant shallowing of our knowledge, and a sad, slow end to a once-great education system...

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