What’s wrong with curricular uniformity


Update: Welcome, InsideHigherEd.com readers! Please feel free to browse, and I’d suggest this Top 12 Posts page for starters.

My criticism of Ivy Tech’s handling of an adjunct who distributed alternate course materials to supplement his statistics class textbook needs a little clarification. I’m being critical here not so much of Ivy Tech itself as I am the model that sets Ivy Tech’s priorities.

I can accept that Ivy Tech, as an institution keenly interested in maintaining absolute consistency of course content across all sections, was simply acting within the dictates of its business model. Despite what its name might indicate, Ivy Tech Community College is not a single campus but a sprawling network of community colleges with 25 brick-and-mortar campuses throughout Indiana as well as a growing online education division. When you look at Prof. Norasteh’s statistics course, it is one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of sections of this course that are all running at the same time. Four-year colleges and universities have to be able to see this course listed on a student’s transcript and have some reasonable assurance of trust that that course with that grade indicates a uniform extent of mastery of the subject — regardless of where or from whom the student took it.

The same thing can be said for any franchise-based business, or any business that operates virtually as a collection of franchises. When you go to a McDonald’s, you expect to get the same experience and the same product, no matter whether it’s the McDonald’s up the street or one in another country. Uniformity of product is what makes McDonald’s and other franchise businesses work. Are you craving a Big Mac? Go to a McDonald’s — any McDonald’s. Are you wanting to take a statistics class that will transfer into a four-year university? Take it at Ivy Tech and don’t worry about which Ivy Tech or which instructor you are selecting. The same thing can be said for the for-profits like University of Phoenix, which have similarly highly-distributed populations and whose business model stands or falls on curricular uniformity.

So when I criticize Ivy Tech, it’s not so much Ivy Tech as it is the model that Ivy Tech uses which sets uniformity of experience as a higher priority than the quality of classroom learning. When you’ve got a system that actually ends up punishing professors who, on their own initiative and on their own dime, create course materials which help students learn the material better — because this creates a differential between that professor’s course and another professor’s — then I think you’ve got a broken system. What that system really does is reward the professors who do only what is required of them, no more — who stick with the incomprehensible textbook when they know good and well that their students aren’t learning from it. The incentive to do something to help students learn is rewarded by losing one’s job if not everybody else is doing something similar. Talk about your lowest common denominator.

Better to have a smaller, more concentrated educational environment where the uniformity-across-course-sections issue is minimized or nonexistent, and focus on making the classroom experiences as enriching as possible, where both professors and students are doing everything they can to learn, and everybody gets rewarded for doing so.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “What’s wrong with curricular uniformity

  1. Instructors hired simply to execute a business plan can now be named “fry-cook professors” thanks to your McDonald’s allusion. I can see the value in decreasing the variability of content within the course from the perspective of bringing up the low end. With uniformity-across-course-sections minimized you increase said variability and open the door to profs and students who are doing everything they can to decrease the effectiveness of the course.

    On another note, the “Possibly related posts” section has pulled in a blog title with inappropriate language.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up on the Related Posts issue. Those things are hit-and-miss in terms of appropriateness, topical or otherwise. I’ll try to get rid of that one.

    Also, to be clear, I don’t intend any disrespect for teachers at Ivy Tech. I know a few mathematics profs at Ivy Tech, and they are all highly professional and competent in the classroom. It sounds like the fired stats professor was the same. So the McDonald’s analogy again is about the system, not the actors within the system.

  3. philosopherP

    The problem I have with Ivy Tech’s model is that the prof was fired for giving extraordinary “customer service”, not for failing to finish the syllabus. To continue the McDonalds analogy — the prof was fired for making sure your burger was exactly what you wanted, and you got it on time.

    What bothers me is that I’d be willing to bet my tenure that there are multiple sections of this course every semester that don’t meet the minimum requirements — and you can be darned sure those profs aren’t fired. So, w hile going above and beyond the outline is punished, failing to finish it isn’t…. because no students are willing to be tattle tales…

  4. It sounds like the model and the institution are inextricably bound.

  5. Hypatia

    It would be easier to resolve issues of this nature through departments. Adjuncts could be assigned faculty ‘mentors’. All supplements and exams could be turned in to the ‘mentor’ for perusal before they are given to students. Adjuncts could check with their ‘mentors’ on a regular basis and report any student issues that might arise. I would suggest they do this by email, then it is in writing. This would provide consistency of course objectives and would offer protection for the adjunct.

    Some students will go to ‘the top’ with their complaints. But if a dean knows a department has a policy, I’m certain he or she would be delighted to pass on any problems to the department chair.

  6. @Hypatia: In my mind, that is precisely how it should work. The problem in my experience is that few faculty want the responsibility of tending to a junior colleague, and department chairs want the dean to do all the personnel work.