2011 has been a year to try the University of Wisconsin’s soul. I won’t recount all the particulars of the blows, attacks and harassment UW has faced this year, but as we approach the depth of winter, it’s easy to believe that even hope and virtue won’t survive this time.
But yet, and perhaps this is just the euphoria before freezing to death, there is a sense of excitement and possibility in the air. It hasn’t reached all corners of campus yet, but the message is clear: For changes to the internal operations of campus, anything and everything is on the table. No idea is too outrageous, and everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts.
The best example of this new charge is the “Educational Innovation” initiative to explore ways to increase the effectiveness and efficiencies of our educational mission. As an opening move, there has been a series of sessions in which participants get two minutes to pitch their ideas. I crashed one and used my time to call for freedom from the tyranny of the traditional calendar, with three specific examples.
The first is a short-term idea, implementable by next fall. We can reduce some course bottlenecks that are due to facility conflicts by scheduling more classes outside of prime hours. We pay for university buildings 24/7, so let’s use them. For example, we can’t offer enough sections of organic chemistry because there isn’t enough lab space. We are in the early stages of designing an addition to the Chemistry Building, but it won’t be done until at least 2015. True, we already have evening labs, but there are more than enough undergrad (and grad student TA) night owls that would be comfortable with labs that ran until 2 a.m. A decade ago, we phased out weekend labs in favor of the evening labs, but the crisis is such that we should bring them back.
A more medium-term idea, implementable in a few years, is to use the entire year with three 15-week semesters, each offering the normal complement of courses. These are not “quarters.” Eight semesters will still get you a degree, but you can do it in two-and-a-half years instead of four. (The question of 120 credits versus four years immersed in college as the core of the experience is a separate discussion.) We could fit them in if we reduced winter break and the time on either side of the summer session. Academic planning tells me much of the reason winter break is so long is historic: When grades were all processed by hand, it took a month to get everything settled between semesters.
Many of UW’s costs are amortized over the entire year, and students pay rent for the entire year, so it’s an efficiency win for everyone, especially with the considerable increase in tuition revenue per year that could be realized. Students or faculty who want a traditional model of two semesters on campus and the summer away from campus to be in the field, internships or just on summer vacation can still be accommodated. The overall effect, however, is to serve more students in a year.
The most complex change would be to stagger classes to smooth out the workload over the course of the year. This idea comes from an economics blog, authored by an anonymous grad student, who lamented their experience in trying to cram in a number of math courses in one semester to prepare for grad school and hitting the stress of all of the finals at the same time. (Perhaps you can relate.)
With staggered, overlapping courses, you’re preparing for the final in one course while you’re in the low-stress beginnings of another and the average workload of a few more. This is more in line with the real world, where a good manager will do what they can to avoid multiple projects all coming due simultaneously. The primary benefit is reduced stress and hopefully more effective learning, but we could also use the “savings” to push the average number of credits per year up, as students are better able to handle the workload. It also makes courses of different length more natural, which may enable more curricular innovation.
The two-minute version of anything discussed so far doesn’t begin to cover the breadth and challenges involved, though the idea of recklessly moving ahead and implementing them is part of what makes the Educational Innovation sessions exciting. They’re meant as starting points in the conversation, and that conversation will continue next semester.
Regardless of your rank on campus, if you’ve got an idea, please share it. It doesn’t matter where it falls on the well thought out or practical scale. Whether you want to see courses cross-listed with Madison Area Technical College or all lectures delivered in Esperanto, get it out there. Write a letter to The Badger Herald, come to future forums, tweet a Facebook note @UWMadison or email your idea to Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Aaron Brower at [email protected] Revolution is in the air, and we need all of campus to come forth to meet it.
Erik Paulson ([email protected]) is a dissertator in the computer sciences department.