Friday, December 2, 2011

The Curriculum Conversation

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time visiting with Dr. Charles Isbell, Jr., the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Dr. Isbell described the innovative way the College of Computing had restructured their curriculum in the face of the declining enrollments in computer science that followed the dot com bubble bust just after the turn of the new century.

After our visit, I gave some thought to how the conversation around curriculum can dictate what we consider. In a nutshell, Georgia Tech has been able to change the conversation about curriculum from “what do you want to be” to “what do you want to do?” In doing this, they have created a flexibility within their curriculum that will allow them to respond to the dynamic environment of computing.

Surprisingly, Dr. Isbell related to me that when they began to consider how they would implement this new curriculum approach, they did not need to create many new classes. (I believe he said they only created two new classes.) They found they only needed to “repackage” their existing curriculum in a new way.

Their new approach makes so much more sense than the old way of thinking! They find that they can now identify specific humanities electives that students should take, because they can relate the elective to what the student wants to do after graduation. Students can now explain to recruiters why they are taking the classes they take, because they understand how the classes prepare the student to do what they want to do. (The old answer to why a course was taken: “Because it’s required.”)

Now, colleges of computing are probably much more accustomed to change than colleges of business are, so translating the idea into a college of business would take some work. But I think in the long run, changing the conversation from, for example, being a finance major to managing the financial assets of an organization, or from being an MIS major to applying technology to solve business problems, could produce a better graduate. Many of my colleagues will argue that they do this already, but it really isn’t how the conversation usually progresses. We tend to talk about majors. We tend to talk in the context of our silos.

Even these changes pale, however, when we really start to think “outside the box.” Imagine envisioning the business curriculum in terms of the interfaces between commerce, government, business, and consumer, rather than majors. This perspective could get us out of the major silos completely. I hope to write more on this idea in subsequent posts.