Pop-up goes the curriculum

In an exciting curricular development the Chronicle reports that the University of Nebraska is offering what it describes as pop-up courses.  These short offerings have a strong skills emphasis and do appear to popular with students.

Students across the university have been taking one-credit courses taught by professors or local professionals. In as little as 15 hours of class time, they examine emerging technologies and trends, learn a skill, or simply a pursue an interest they may have lacked time for.
By the end of this semester, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications will have run about two dozen pop-up courses, for majors and nonmajors, since last spring. The educational-psychology department is also offering pop-ups, which it calls “mini-courses.”
Many have proved popular. A course on drone journalism drew about 45 students, said Matt Waite, a professor of practice who has long taught professionals about tech in journalism.

Supplementary study

UK universities have similar offers too of course, often extra-curricular and with a strong careers focus. For example there is the Exeter Award offered by the University of Exeter:


and the Nottingham Advantage Award to name just two.

Digestible degrees

Meanwhile, back at the University of Nebraska:

“The idea for pop-ups bubbled up from a lot of different people at about the same time,” said Amy Struthers, the journalism college’s interim dean. “Across higher ed, people are talking about how to better chunk learning, … how to break it down in ways that make it maybe more digestible, and more current, and provide a sense of accomplishment.”
One little stone kills a lot of birds, the thinking at Nebraska goes: Pop-ups connect students from disciplines across the campus; allow them to customize courses around increasingly fractured schedules; and keep the curriculum in step with the outside world, unencumbered by the lengthier course-approval process.
Pop-up courses, many readers may know, are nothing new. Institutions like James Madison University, Pomona College, and Stanford University have offered courses on “design for justice,” “essays as resistance,” and, yes, drones.

So, perhaps not that novel a concept. Students do shorter courses, with a specific focus, are assessed and gain extra credit as well as greater credibility in the workplace.

But then along come the disruptors, the MOOC providers whose avalanche was going to sweep away the traditional institutions by offering lots of exciting new courses which everyone would want to study instead of dull and time-consuming three or four year degrees. But for some reason there was only a light dusting of snow instead of the predicted 15 feet of white stuff which would bury universities.

Disrupting class

So the next big thing turns out to be micro-credentials, nano-degrees, stackable qualifications etc etc etc (but, perhaps surprisingly, these very small awards have yet to catch on) all of which would, again, destroy universities with all of their tedious, fusty, musty and dusty old style qualifications.

There has been much talk of these tiny credentials in recent years – and the employability benefits for those who acquire them. See, for example, this on Udacity’s guaranteed jobs pledge and a more recent piece which looks at others who have made similar commitments.

The ideas haven’t gone away and this story on Inside Higher Ed notes a recent report from a group with a keen interest in securing the future of alternative qualifications:

The use of alternative digital credentials to certify learning will erode the value of the traditional postsecondary transcript, and colleges and universities that fail to embrace them will “experience a slow decline in relevance and market position,” asserts a new report from an international group focused on online and open education.
The report, “The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials,” was produced by a working group established a year ago by the International Council for Open and Distance Education, which represents 186 institutions and groups in more than 60 countries. Its members — which in the United States include institutions like Colorado State University Global Campus, Drexel University Online and the University of Maryland University College — advocate for the use of technology-enabled education to increase access to higher education.
Given that membership, it isn’t surprising that the group’s assessment of the importance and likely impact of alternative credentials is as insistent and urgent as it is. Skepticism about alternative credentials abounds in large pockets of traditional higher education, and many brick-and-mortar institutions will probably be just fine whether or not they embrace newfangled certifications.

But, as noted above, shorter courses with a specific careers-related focus are really nothing new (or indeed newfangled). The additional dimension here is of course the technology angle which somehow – often through some blockchain magic – offers the prospect of qualifications which are more valuable than their traditional counterparts.

Moreover, the idea that it is all about the look rather than the substance is the fundamental issue here. Accredited qualifications are accredited for a reason – they meet certain standards and quality thresholds which are understood and carry weight by virtue of the awarding bodies behind them. Just presenting a new course as interesting, contemporary and giving it an edgy name doesn’t mean it will have currency or value. Or, if it does, that it will necessarily trump a more substantial or traditional qualification in the careers marketplace.

Courses that stand out

Pop-up qualifications or shorter courses are undoubtedly fulfilling a purpose. But they exist within a sound academic quality and standards framework. These credentials have value.

Alternative qualifications, nano-degrees, micro-credentials, stackable awards and the like will fill a need for some. But seeing them as a means of eroding the position of traditional institutions really isn’t terribly productive. Still, that doesn’t stop the authors of the alternative digital credentials report:

“By providing a fully digital, information-rich record of workplace-relevant skills and competencies in the near future, the use of [alternative digital credentials] will seriously challenge the validity of traditional university transcripts making them obsolete and, in the long-term, irrelevant,” the authors write. Colleges that do not embrace them will face the same fate, it suggests.

Without for a minute arguing that there is no complacency in traditional higher education institutions this does not mean that there aren’t plenty of universities embracing the need to support student looking to acquire additional skills through a whole range of different offerings. Obsolescence, as the pop-up courses and additional awards offered by some long-established universities demonstrate, is some way off.

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