Less is Not Always More

March
2004
Greg Gilbert, Chair

"Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition." Jacques Barzun

There is a general and intuitive dislike for compressed courses among many instructors- the more compressed, the more in the wrong. Compress my course, and you eliminate content that is important to my students. Compress my course, and you rob students of important time for reflection and incubation. Compress my course, and you demean the ideal, in the words of A. Bartlett Giamatti, that "teaching is an instinctual art, mindful of potential, craving of realization, a pausing, seamless process." But the world is in a rush, we are told, and besides, our colleges need the revenue.

At the Academic Senate's 2002 Spring Plenary, two resolutions were passed that state succinctly the apprehension expressed within the field concerning abbreviated time frames.

9.05R 2002 Spring Resolution Opposing Abbreviated Time Frames For Speech Communication Classes

Urge community colleges to refrain from offering speech communication classes of three or more semester units in time segments of fewer than six weeks, except with the consent of the local speech communication faculty and academic senate.

9.06R 2002 Spring Quality of Instruction

Urge community colleges to refrain from offering any courses of three or more semester units in any alternative delivery time frames other than full-term except with the consent of the tenured discipline faculty and the curriculum committee.

Throughout California, community colleges are offering an increasing array of courses in abbreviated time frames, and the question must be asked, to what end? Are there significant tradeoffs of content, rigor, and service to students between traditional and compressed course offerings? While there exists no single answer that encompasses all such courses, there are core questions and principles that pertain to their design and delivery. There exists also a concern as to how well research on abbreviated time frames addresses legitimate concerns expressed by educators.

A review of hundreds of ERIC files and a range of studies obtained through a query on the RP Group's listserv suggests that abbreviated courses result in student satisfaction, low attrition, and good grades. However, a closer examination reveals that a preponderance of the research does not adequately control for differences in subject areas, student preparation, or rigor (content and standards). In addition, while many studies refer to "abbreviated" 16-week courses in their research, our concern here is with courses that are substantially abbreviated, six-to-eight weeks, or less. Overall, when examining the research, one sees very little in the way of study objectives, methodology, research design, and pre- or post-test methodology. Completion rates and grade distributions are mentioned in some instances, but terms are not always defined well. The overriding issue, then, is until adequate research has been obtained, various questions and principles should be preparatory to the implementation of abbreviated time frames.

Certainly, examples of best practices exist within the milieu of abbreviated courses, but if local senates are to make informed decisions, they must have the necessary research available to them, generated locally and from within the field. To be useful, research on abbreviated time frames and traditional formats must be held to the same standards of excellence. A review of several years of attrition rates, grade distributions, and course syllabi content can assist local faculty as they determine the practicability of offering a course in an abbreviated form. To the extent that programs and departments can agree upon common course objectives and assessments and are prepared to collect data over time, the greater the opportunity they will have of designing and tracking well conceived classes.

The Community College system in California provides education on demand to a diverse population. When a course is offered in an abbreviated time frame, it is reasonable to consider who this decision privileges and who it excludes. The further we get from a "standardized" Stepford student, the greater the need to apply specific local research to decisions concerning course design and delivery; a homogeneous population of highly motivated and privileged students will not respond in the same manner as a diverse lower division population such as we serve. Open access translates to less selectivity, which confers upon local senates a demand that they be highly selective in considering the application of abbreviated time frames.

Local faculty, senates, curriculum committees, and administration should weigh these four questions regarding the use of abbreviated time frames:

1. Will the course content and/or assessments, as designated on the course approval form, likely be reduced by an alternative delivery format?

2. Is student attrition likely to be significantly higher than for the same course taught in a traditional format?

3. For students who complete a course, is performance, as measured by passing grades, likely to be lower than in a traditional format?

4. If the answer to question (1), (2), or (3) is yes, what specific prerequisite and/or course modifications and faculty standards of learning and assessment will we implement and track in an effort to maintain course rigor, avoid increases in course and institutional attrition rates and/or declines in student grade distributions? Finally, how might these changes affect articulation agreements?

While issues of "revenue" and "expediency" may be used by some as the impetus for offering compressed courses, neither of these terms supersede the requirement for quality and accountability that is central to current standards of accreditation within our profession. on access and affordability (compressed and online courses, and seminars for credit), and in the end, this traditional approaches that may offer better components of rigor and instruction. Considered in the extreme, an MBA could be obtained in about three weeks given an adequate supply of catheters and caffeine, but you would not want a graduate of that program to keep your books.

In the final analysis, the core principles of consistent, high quality and accessible education remain, as they always have, a matter of primary importance for our local senates-the subject matter authorities. The design and implementation of abbreviated time frames must do much more than accede to a demand for expedience and revenue; such courses must rise to the level of our traditional offerings. The "instinctual art" of teaching does still matter, if mostly in retrospect, to those whose educations were not compressed or set at a distance by hastily conceived course designs.

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