The End of the “Course”?

Harvard rethinks how it counts classwork, amid evolving definitions of courses and teaching.

On April Fools’ Day in 2009, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) announced the end of printed versions of its iconic Courses of Instruction catalog, along with the undergraduate and graduate student handbooks, the Q Guide, and the faculty-instruction handbook (see “Printed Catalogs: R.I.P.”). The volumes had been supplanted by readily updatable online versions—and pushed over the edge by budget constraints and an environmental ethos. Now, the faculty is on the verge of converting from course units to the credit system that is in nearly universal use in higher education.

The Four-Credit Course

As formally outlined by dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris at the FAS meeting this past April Fools’ Day, “Four credits shall become the standard measure for all semester-long courses (half courses)” and undergraduates will therefore need 128 credits to graduate: the equivalent of 32 half-courses today. An administrative rationale impelled the move, according to Harris: FAS’s new student-information system, coming online in the fall of 2015, is credit-based, requiring Harvard to adapt. The new system also conforms to higher-education accreditation norms, and aligns FAS with practices in other Harvard schools.

The language Harris put forth for discussion reassuringly specified that “The credit system shall maintain the FAS’s application of a single standard to all semester-long courses. That is, courses in the sciences, arts and humanities, engineering and applied sciences, social sciences, and medical sciences shall all earn four credits per semester course.”

But careful reading of that language, and the faculty members’ discussion, reveals something else: “semester-long” courses will earn four credits, but nothing requires that specific course-design in the future. Harris told faculty colleagues that Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students already take shorter biomedical “modules,” and quarter- and nano-courses on specific topics, for which the semester structure no longer obtains. “Module” is an especially significant term: HarvardX online courses are already being sliced up into shorter, learning-unit modules (covering a single concept, problem set, or element of a larger course), rather than retaining the twice-weekly lecture format for 12 weeks.

In the discussion this April 1, Harris said that nothing would change for professors who wished to retain the semester- or year-long course format—and no change was envisioned in faculty teaching responsibilities or student academic obligations. But the notion of dividing a semester course into shorter segments, with adjustments in the associated credit, is clearly percolating. The extended January break in the academic calendar (currently filled with noncredit offerings for College and GSAS students) could be a tempting target. The engineering and applied sciences faculty, for one, could be early adopters: the S.B. degree requires a minimum of 20 half-courses to meet national standards; there are already lots of time-consuming laboratory experiences (as students have pointed out); and the wish-list for the new facility to be built in Allston includes “project and instructional laboratory spaces” adjacent to classrooms to accommodate experiential learning. (Whether humanities professors would look kindly upon separate credit hours for labs associated with current courses, of course, remains to be seen.)

A Crimson editorial endorsing the change noted that

the change to a credit system would not just be neutral; it would be strongly positive. This new system will, in the future, open a new realm of opportunity for Harvard’s curricula and students. As Harris says in his proposal, the credit system has the potential for “courses that span non-traditional segments of time.” Indeed, students would have the opportunity to round out their education by taking shorter, less time-consuming classes to supplement their schedules. An engineering student burdened with 16.0 credits of math and science courses could opt to enroll in a six-week survey course on ethical literature, worth 2.0 credits.

So far, these are just straws in the wind, but it is interesting that a conversation about rethinking the definition of a course is under way, at least informally, in several separate venues on campus. (A Crimson news article quoted a couple of engineering professors expressing enthusiasm for the curricular flexibility that might be associated with a credit-hours system and new ways of arranging courses.)

A more comprehensive exploration of the same subjects has begun down the river, at MIT. The preliminary report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, delivered to that institution’s president last November 21, speaks openly about “unbundling of education” and achieving “greater modularity in the MIT undergraduate curriculum, from a top-down approach that decomposes existing courses into modules to a bottom-up approach that re-engineers a curriculum by identifying the core concepts and associated modules that underlie them or build upon them,” with the aim of “providing greater flexibility for students to customize their degree programs.” No such working group has been formed at Harvard, nor have faculty members organized their own such forum, but experiments from HarvardX classes to flipped classrooms (see “Reinventing the Classroom,” by Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis) could nonetheless pull FAS in that direction.

Simultaneous Enrollment—and the Absent Student

Pushing back against another force eroding the classroom, Harris separately raised a proposal regarding student simultaneous enrollment in classes that meet at the same time. He noted that in the spring term of 2008, 54 requests had been received to take overlapping classes, and 44 were approved; this spring, 200 requests were received, and all were approved. The increasing use of video-recorded lectures, of course, makes it easier for students to indulge in this practice—and suggests a gradual acceptance of “residential” classroom education in which a student need never appear for the class itself. (One faculty speaker mentioned the wider problem: teaching that does not attract students, resulting in a secular decline in classroom attendance.)

A formal proposal for how to deal with the problem awaits further work; at a minimum, Harvard faces the issue of whether to seem generally supportive of simultaneous enrollment, and therefore appearing to accept education without the benefits of live human interaction that a residential college promises. This becomes an increasing challenge with the proliferation of wholly online courses and other alternative forms of delivering content.

The Credit-Hour Vote

The faculty is expected to debate and vote on the credit-hour proposal at its last regular meeting of the academic year, on May 6. 

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