By Lawrence J. Fedewa (July 9, 2018)
This is the story of my 1970s experimental college. The design and experience seem to be once again relevant and may contribute to to the current debate. In a word, I developed a college based on an individual curriculum for each student.
Even though I was the second youngest member of the faculty, I was appointed Dean of the College at a small private school near Kansas City, Missouri., which was starved for money, students and ideas. In an attempt to bolster our enrollment and our finances, I took a week away from the office to write a proposal for a federal grant.
The proposal turned out to be a design for a college radically different than any of us were used to. That was challenge enough, but the real challenges began when our proposal was funded with $1.2 million a year for three years!
We began by convincing a large local company, Hallmark Cards, to donate some space for a branch campus in their new downtown office buildings, which I then took over as President of the new campus. I started out alone in a big room with a fancy title, and a big budget. I had to find furniture, equipment, some staff, and some walls, But first came the real challenge namely, the curriculum itself.
First, I threw out the “Higher Education Owners’ Manual”, i.e. the rules and customs surrounding traditional higher education. In my proposal, I had specified that the new college be aimed at older students, preferably over 25 years of age. As Dean, I had watched so many students drop out of college that I wanted college to be available for them to come back to when they were ready.
There appeared to be two vital considerations which had been overlooked in the traditional college:
1. Learning is a personal activity and should be student-centered, not structured for the convenience of the institution.
2. Learning is not divided into pricing units, i.e. credits, and learning experiences cannot be properly measured or evaluated with such tools.
What is a college degree?
In order to build a new curriculum model, some definitions had to be refined. First, what is a college degree? The answer was that a college degree is a public declaration by a qualified faculty that a recognizable body of knowledge and skills has been attained by an individual. It is therefore essential that the faculty have sufficient experience of the person’s capabilities to enable a considered evaluation. A corollary is that every student must be enrolled for some period of observation in the same institution which is to grant the degree – no quickies.
What is meant by “student-centered?”
The next question was, What is meant by “student-centered?” I am a great believer in the value of motivation in the learning process. Thus, my logical question to the student was, “What would you like to know that you don’t know already? Since you have to be enrolled here anyway, why not use the time profitably?” This question was the first step toward the student’s academic plan, that is his or her personal curriculum. The academic plan consisted of three elements:
1. “What is your learning goal?”
2. “How much do you know now?” and
3. “How can you make up the difference?”
The Portfolio Plan
Typically, each student needed some guidance in designing the academic plan. So, we assigned each to an academic counselor, or coach. We found that a good beginning was what we called the “Portfolio Plan.” The student was encouraged to construct a portfolio showing every formal learning experience he or she had had to that date. The student was required to include proof of anything that has ever been learned – including college transcripts, military courses, professional training, awards, jobs which demonstrated expertise, publications – everything. Some of the portfolios were enormous; we had to find extra storage while they were being evaluated. I am aware that “credit for experience” has become almost routine; but we were among the first to introduce this methodology. Our approach differed fundamentally from later programs in that we did not attempt to convert experience into college credits. The value of the experience was simply to validate the student’s answer to the question, “How much do you know now?” All inclusions had to be accepted by the Academic Counselor, and later by the Major Professor. In case of a dispute, the Academic Counsellor would act as the student advocate.
During the course of this exercise, many students began to discover their academic goals. They were encouraged to consider real life ambitions, and the results were unorthodox, but valid. Examples were: oral history, dance therapy, strategic (business) planning, and many others.
The next step was the design of the curriculum to achieve the academic goal. At this point, a specialist in the general field of the proposed academic goal, whom we called the “Major Professor,” was introduced to the student. This was a member of the College faculty, typically a Ph.D. in the field. However, volunteers from the community were frequently necessary because of the unusual nature of the student’s chosen field of study. The Academic Advisor then took on additional duties as coordinator of the interactions between the student, the major professor and the expert mentor. Our experience was that these experts were all willing and excited to participate. As President of the new college, I personally recruited and briefed these distinguished individuals. I was never refused. Interestingly, even though we offered stipends, we never had to pay for their services. They universally found that they too were learning through this assignment.
The academic plans that evolved were very interesting. The oral historian was mentored by the Director of Oral History at the Truman Presidential Library in nearby Independence, Missouri. Dance therapy was co-invented by the student and the Chief of Psychiatry at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. The strategic planner was tutored by the top executive for research and planning at Hallmark Cards. These are only a few of the community experts who were enlisted to help our students.
The Thesis and Graduation
In order to ensure academic validity, the Major Professor met regularly with the student and occasionally with the outside mentor. The final product of the academic plan had to be written and documented in the manner of a thesis, based on the new expertise which had been gained through this experience. Finally, borrowing from a doctoral program, the student was required to present the thesis to a panel of senior professors, who read the thesis, and then discussed the work in open forum with the candidate. If the thesis and the interview (to ensure authorship) were satisfactory, the student was graduated with an appropriate degree. All of the graduates walked into new jobs or promotions based on their academic work.
This system was wildly successful. The very first seminar meeting for the program was designed for about 15 students. More than 100 showed up the first night. We decided to charge a flat annual fee for the program – at a rather high figure for the times. We quickly discovered that employers were happy to subsidize their employees, although I had to make a few calls in the beginning to familiarize the personnel directors with the program. After the first year or so, the question never again arose.
Air Force Pilots
There was another dimension to the program as well. The home campus had a longstanding Degree Completion Program for U.S. military personnel. In conjunction with nearby Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, where I had been privileged to serve as an adviser to the Community College of the Air Force, we offered the Portfolio Plan to Air Force personnel as well as civilian students.
Because of scheduling and other constraints, it was necessary to invent an early form of distance learning for these airmen. Computers were not available in those days, but we made extensive use of telephone, mail and after-hours conferences to maintain close communication with the Air Force students.
The most dramatic example of this new “distance learning” was the Air Force pilots, who were allowed to use their training flights to come to Richards-Gebaur and also to the college offices to have conferences with their counselors and professors. They came for all over – Alaska, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Texas and all points of the compass. Never have I seen more enthusiasm for academic work than I saw with these guys – unless it was the excitement that pervaded the entire student body. This reaction was certainly proof that motivation is a primary ingredient of successful learning.
After the program had graduated its first students, I arranged for the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the regional accreditation authority, to visit and evaluate the program. This was a two-step process. First, I paid three highly respected North Central evaluators to conduct their own investigation and to author a report. There were a couple of suggestions for minor adjustments, which we instituted immediately.
Then I invited the North Central to send an official team for an accreditation evaluation. Upon their arrival, we provided them with the report of the distinguished professors. In the end, our experiment passed accreditation with flying colors – much to the surprise even of a couple of the examiners.
After three years, circumstances drew me away from the new college. The program was relocated to the main campus and, I was told, eventually assimilated into the traditional curriculum.
But it was a heady experience for us all while it lasted!
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