"No frills" education is all the rage these days. Pennsylvania is considering a no-frills college; Southern New Hampshire University has a no-frills branch campus. Arne Duncan recently suggested that students would flock to no-frills versions of higher ed.
These no-frills schools have the same formula--limited curriculum, no extracurricular activities, bare bones facilities, lower tuition. I understand their appeal, both as a parent facing costly college bills for the forseeable future, and as a historian whose classes would usually fit into a no-frills model.
But the more I think about a no-frills approach to education, the more I think that these pioneers have gotten it wrong on educational grounds. The no-frills models they propose are based in the "instructional paradigm" to use John Tagg's phrase. That is, they value efficient content delivery rather than a focus on student learning. So again, the cost may go down, but the quality may not improve at all.
So what would a no-frills college look like that valued student learning? I'm not entirely sure, but here are some ideas:
- extra-curriculars would be at the center of student experiences, since it is in extra-curriculars where students say they learn the most and develop the most. Students wouldn't be able to choose any one of a hundred clubs, teams, etc. but they would be expected to be involved, deeply, in one extracurricular activity. (This report provides some evidence of the retention power of student services, an important point for a no-frills effort.)
- the curriculum would be small, interdisciplinary, and project-based. Students would be required to demonstrate mastery of content and achievement of campus-wide learning goals to graduate. But they could graduate more rapidly than in a traditional or no-frills school because they could move faster, and because single learning experiences (a service-learning project, for example) would matter in many courses, not just one.
- students would work closely with a single mentor, who would be responsible for helping that student reflect on her learning, solve problems related to schooling, and monitor progress toward graduation.
- students would be required to demonstrate their learning publicly, and to the public.