Crowdsourcing New Academic Programs
Students who are in the final stages of their degree programs have a perspective on the academic experience that is very different from the perspectives of those who create those programs. Students can offer valuable insights and even potentially help identify opportunities for the development of new academic programs.
To tap into the student perspective, Greg Dewey, provost at the University of La Verne, and two colleagues have invited seniors to participate in a crowdsourcing activity that asks them to create what they consider ideal curricula based on existing courses.
Students are asked to submit their ideas independently and compete for cash prizes for the best proposals. Other than meeting the required number of credits in order to graduate, there are no restrictions on which courses students can include or exclude. They do not need to include prerequisite or general education courses.
Computer science professor Seta Boghikian-Whitby created a platform that allows easy access to the course catalog and includes a template for them to enter courses. Since its second year, entrants have posted their proposed curricula to Facebook to enable students to respond.
The university’s academic deans serve as judges of the competition and rate these proposed curricula on creativity and usefulness. Participants are told to be prepared to answer the following questions:
- What would your proposed degree enable the student to do after graduating?
- How would your proposal be better than the existing degree programs?
- Reflect on and justify why you made those decisions, and describe how each year of the degree contributes to a successful program.
The goal of this crowdsourcing is to answer three questions:
- Is there something that we should be offering that we’re not?
- If students had a choice, would they select general education courses?
- Is the curriculum challenging enough, or would students prefer a more difficult curriculum?
Thus far only about 10 students per year have submitted proposed curricula, and none have been selected as programs that the university would offer, but “it’s been a fascinating experiment with some interesting results,” Dewey says. “In a sense it’s an assessment tool for getting student feedback on the curricula.”
Proposed curricula tend to be interdisciplinary, cohesive, and often narrowly tailored to very specific careers. Given the university’s Southern California location, entries often include a Spanish requirement.
One proposed program in sport management combined courses in sports science, business, and “some interesting crossover courses in education,” Dewey says. “It was a cohesive curriculum, but I would say it was geared toward a narrow job market, probably too much of a niche market to run as a major degree program.”
The entries validate the university’s general education requirements. “You always hear scuttlebutt from students: ‘Why are they making us take a general education distribution of courses? I’m interested in my major. I don’t really want all this general education.’ That actually was not confirmed by the curricula generated by these students,” Dewey says. Most of the curricula would satisfy the university’s general education requirements.
Due to variability of the course numbering system across disciplines, it is difficult to assess whether students would prefer more academically challenging curricula. “But I would say the type of curricula they design tend to be a combination of a core set of courses that are very focused and then some very creative noncore things that are hanging off that,” Dewey says.
This crowdsourcing idea is still in its early stages, and Dewey sees potential for better understanding students’ needs and interests. Thus far, however, the number of participants is too low to see major trends. Dewey would like 30 to 40 students to participate annually. “That would give our statistics much more significance and a broader set of ideas, but it is a significant amount of work for the students to actually go through the catalog and thoughtfully fill out all four years of a program,” he says.
Broader participation might provide insight on the experiences of subpopulations within the student body—nontraditional students, for example. The university has a sizable nontraditional student population, and Dewey would like to see their curricular ideas and be able to compare them to those proposed by traditional students. “It would be interesting to see whether those two populations would come up with different types of curricula. My guess is they would.”
The big challenge for the future is to get more students to participate, which is the goal of framing it as a competition. “I think that’s an OK approach, but it probably isn’t sufficient. You need to get student leaders involved and just make it seem like a really fun and interesting thing to do. This would generate some momentum or buzz on campus, and maybe over time it would become a tradition and participation would increase,” Dewey says.
“As with any social network thing, there is a tipping point, and you have to get beyond that point to where people buy into the idea that this is fun and a worthwhile thing to do and where students are anxious to do their own and to see what their friends’ [curricula] look like,” Dewey says.