I've been thinking a lot about course design lately. One reason for this is very practical: I'm developing a course right now called God and the Good Life with Meghan Sullivan (you can check out the website here: http://godandgoodlife.org/), and course development requires you to think hard about course objectives. Some of the others reasons, though, are more abstract. I'm always really taken with this op-eds and think pieces about the value of a liberal education. I always nod my head while I'm reading books like William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep , I always think to myself: "That's right, the liberal arts aren't and shouldn't be purely instrumental!" But I think that this attitude often leads us directly into what we could call the Ineffability Fallacy. According to IF practices which are pursued for their own sake don't have quantifiable goals; you can't measure intrinsic goodness. I am, of course, sympathetic to the spirit of IF. Often -- especially within the domain of education -- measurable goals are introduced in order to (or eventually lead to) reduce the practice into something you can put a dollar sign on. "GRE scores correlate with higher income. Philosophy majors get higher GRE scores, ergo..."
But, lately I've been growing increasingly skeptical of the way that people employ IF in order to justify bad pedagogy. Significant learning outcomes need not reduce to (or eventuate in) financial deliverables. We need not think that striving to better understand -- in concrete and measurable ways -- what helps students learn must ultimately be justified and evaluated in economic terms.
That's what I've been learning a lot from business lately. Yes, business. Even as someone who favors democratic socialism, is pre-disposed to think markets will tend toward vice and evil rather than virtue and the good, and has professed hatred for the hand-wavy seemingly nonsensical nature of business-speak (probably because I just haven't been focusing enough on my profit-margins and need to directly target bigger and more diverse markets without decreasing productivity...I could do this all day) -- even still -- I've been getting really into business theory and practice. A professor of mine suggested I take a look at Peter Drucker's writings a couple weeks back, and I've been pretty hooked.
Drucker talks about breaking business objectives down into 6 key areas -- each of which has a pedagogical counter part, I think. Those objective areas are:
- Social Responsibility
- Profit Requirements
I'll briefly reflect on just a couple of these areas to show you how I think educators -- especially at the college level -- could benefit from thinking about their courses (and course development) in terms of business models.
Okay, to illustrate just how surprising the insights from business can be, I'll start with one of the most counter-intuitive objective areas. Marketing. How could marketing possibly apply within the educational context? Like it or not, universities have become marketplaces. Students are consumers. They pay an exorbitant amount of money for accreditation. Pursuing the truth for its own sake is something that, within this context, is actually prudentially irrational.
So we have to innovate. We have to show students why taking our courses might be valuable for them -- why it might help them accomplish their general life-goals, financial goals, or perhaps enrich their lives in ways they'd never previously considered. All of this requires more than just sitting down and writing up a course description with words like "universal questions, deep thinkers, practical value" -- it means getting in there and learning about your audience. Figuring out who might take your course, and developing resources that are aimed at that group.
We've been trying to do this with our God and the Good Life Course. Here's a trailer we came up to help illustrate what students can expect from the course: