We’re now facing the “Walmartization” of higher education, according to an article by Timothy Pratt in TheAtlantic.com on Dec. 26. States are under pressure to turn out more graduates, in less time, for less money. Some of the cost-saving measures mentioned are reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, putting some courses online and making students take them in that format, and cutting out some unproductive courses in the humanities and elsewhere.

“Walmartization” is being used as a pejorative label for some moves that states and colleges are attempting in order to control costs for students, families and taxpayers. Instead of trying to cut off experimentation and possible improvement by name-calling, let’s examine a couple of proposals.

Getting students through college in a timely way by good advising, streamlined degree programs and thoughtful scheduling, sounds OK to me. In fact, when I went to college back in the dark ages, this was normal practice. You went for four years, you took a full courseload each semester, you worked every summer to pay for college and sometimes during the year, too, you got your degree, you left home and got on with your career, graduate school, marriage or some combination of these. If you dropped out or even transferred, it was abnormal.

Today everything has changed, and I’m not going into all the ways in this column. But one thing is the same, and that is, that colleges had resource issues then too, so they did not offer endless choices of electives or expand degree programs much beyond what a student could manage in four years of a full course schedule each term. Students had a limited set of options but still often had time for exploring their interests, choosing a minor as well as a major field of study and even double-majoring.

Limiting size of majors and choices of electives therefore sounds like a good idea to me — one way that the practices of the “good old days” may actually still make sense. Plus today’s new field of behavioral economics actually teaches us that too many choices make people not able to choose anything!

What about MOOCs? Massive Online Open-enrollment Courses? These are potentially huge lecture courses where famous people or at least people from famous-name colleges teach whoever shows up online through lectures and homework.

MOOCs remind me of a well-known phenomenon in the history of invention, where the first use of a new technology is designed to look and operate as much like the obsolescent technology that it is about to replace.

Railway passenger cars first looked like horse-drawn stagecoaches (and are still called coaches), mobile phones used to look like, well, phones, computer keyboards reproduced the dopey typewriter key layout (but now watch out for thumbs and tablets). MOOCs are another example, reproducing the way we used to transfer knowledge orally from teacher to students, just using the new technology to do it on a bigger scale than was possible before.

Very few students actually finish and pass MOOCs, and the ones who do are often highly disciplined and skilled in learning from other fields. Since most fail, what does this say about suitable learning environments, the role of the teacher and the guidance of novice learners toward success?

Answers to these questions are leading to “flipped” classrooms, mass customized learning, online cooperative learning, “blended” or “hybrid” courses and a whole slew of instructional design and delivery modalities, new roles for teachers and students, that are being invented and tried today.

My prediction is that MOOCs will disappear in their current form very quickly, and that it would be a mistake to invest too much in their usefulness for cost containment, let alone successful teaching and learning. Face-to-face interaction of students and teachers will continue to be a defining feature of education, but it will be embedded in a whole new range of teaching and learning repertoires.

Finally, what about cutting out whole areas of study? This is potentially where the most controversy can arise (trust me, I know these things) and where it can be the most difficult to judge. Coping with disruptive change often makes it imperative to consider this option. Sometimes new ways need to be found to carry out the mission, maintain quality and serve students, and that may mean hard choices.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]

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