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What's wrong with curricular uniformity

July 23, 2008, 10:34 am

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.

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