Sunday, June 15, 2014

Public Universities and Introductory Courses

A few weeks ago, the undergraduate student adviser in my department alerted us to the fact that she was now receiving inquiries from students who wanted to use credits from online Latin courses at Midland College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's extension school to meet the language requirement.  Since the department had recently decided to reduce the requirement to three semesters from four, it was now an even more pressing issue.  If we decided that these online courses were equivalents to our campus courses, the students could check of their language requirement without ever taking a Latin class at UT Austin. 

There is nothing especially new about this problem.  We've long had to deal with determining equivalencies for AP and IB scores as well as courses taken at community colleges or even other universities.  On the whole, however, this has not been a major issue for Classics because our discipline tends not to be taught too broadly; and, in order to meet the four semester requirement, students had to take at least one semester of Latin on campus--which meant that they had to be sufficiently prepared to earn at least a D.  The combination of a shortened language requirement, the growing availability of online Latin, and a state requirement that UT Austin accept transfer credit from other Texas institutions is a game-changer. Unless the department decides to quibble about equivalences--which likely would only mean that students would turn to another language rather than take Latin on campus, we will see students meeting the UT Austin language requirement without ever setting foot in a language course on the 40 Acres (or, even, an online course developed or taught by a UT Austin instructor).  The new thing is the scale at which this will (potentially) happen and the consequences it will have for departments and universities.

My College (Liberal Arts) has seen a giant spike in the number of credits students are transferring in from community colleges and online classes to meet graduate requirements.  It has made a significant dent in our enrollments and, I suspect, has something to do with the decision to reduce the number of tenure-track lines in my college by about 20% over the next few years (through attrition, we are told).  There's no reason to think that this trend is going to slow down, either.  The majority of the credit hours we teach are in "service courses"--that is, courses that meet distribution requirements for non-majors.  In the old version of the "Public University as Closed System", this basically worked for liberal arts.  We taught lots of large, lower-division service courses in order to justify teaching smaller upper division courses for our majors.  Likewise, in a discipline like classics, we taught larger first and second year Latin (and, to a much lesser extent, Greek) courses in order to justify the smaller seminars for our majors.  Everything basically held together and, in its heyday, my department had more than 20 tenure-track faculty lines.  Sure, students came in with AP and IB credits; once in a while, they transferred in credits from another college or university.  But, for a discipline like classics, community colleges were never a true competitor.  Other disciplines, like English, History, and Government, have had a lot longer to adjust to the threat posed by community colleges--but they also have a larger base of students to start with (made larger by state-legislated requirements that can *only* be met by courses offered in those departments).

With the rise of for-credit online courses and the expansion of course offerings at community colleges, as well as the fact that more and more students are taking advantage of this alternative to meet their non-major requirements, it seems like the time has come for cash-strapped (and, increasingly, faculty-strapped) public institutions to re-think its role in introductory/general education.  In a good and just world, where education was viewed as a public good and appropriately funded, general education should be undertaken by colleges and universities.  But, in the world we currently have, it makes less and less sense for universities to attempt to offer a wide range of large-enrollment service courses in addition to everything else (freshmen seminars, upper division seminars and larger courses, graduate courses).  At the moment, departments are struggling to staff their lower division service courses without cannibalizing their upper division and graduate curricula.  Some departments, like Government and Psychology, have experimented with the SMOC (Synchronous Massive Online Course) as a way to solve the lower-division staffing issue.  This makes some sense as a staffing solution for very large departments, but not much sense for a department like mine. 

Up to this point, departments have cut sections and reduced the frequency with which various courses are offered.  For instance, when I started at UT Austin in 2002, we regularly offered multiple sections of our Intro Greece, Rome and Mythology courses.  Now we offer one each semester.  We may soon be offering one each year--and even that will stretch resources.  This brings me to an admittedly controversial question: has the time come for large public institutions like UT Austin to get out of the business of large enrollment, introductory-level courses for non-majors?   To some extent, students are making this decision for us, by taking their business elsewhere--and they can do this because state law requires us to accept all transfer credit.  Would it make more sense for UT Austin to, in some sense, curate a list of high-quality courses that meet whatever distribution requirements we set out; and then devote our own limited resources to small seminars for freshmen and sophomores; more courses for our majors; more time for preparing graduate students for an ever more competitive job market. It's not that I think this is a great solution, but rather, that the time has come to make a thoughtful decision about how to proceed with limited resources.

Though I am sure some faculty would be happy to outsource this sort of teaching, most of us actually enjoy teaching these service courses.  We would be sorry to see them go, especially in disciplines that are not represented in the high school curriculum.  But I can't help but feel like we are rapidly approaching a tipping point, where we find ourselves fighting for a "market share" for which we can't compete.  Does it make more sense to re-imagine what students do on campus during their first two years?  Eliminate large "lecture" courses and steer them to online or community college courses (which, in any case, they have no problem finding); and re-allocate resources to teaching more small, intensive, personal seminars (which we already do as part of our First Year Experience) and to providing support/structure for the online courses?  I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure that things will need to change.  Otherwise, it seems, we will continue to see reductions in tenure-track lines in liberal arts and other colleges whose enrollments depend on service courses.  Without some significant change of policy regarding transfer credit, there is no reason to think that students are going to stop looking outside of the university to fulfill their distribution requirements--and every reason to think that more and more of them will be doing this.

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