Folks who like to talk about disrupting conventional higher education – and some who offer active alternatives – often focus on the entry-level courses as particular targets for rethinking. They point out that lots of these courses are taught in large lecture formats, with passive learning at best and, not infrequently, high rates of student alienation and failure. “Commodity course” is a derisive term for these types of offerings, where universities make a lot of money that is then applied to more refined teaching at higher levels (or to other purposes). It is easy to move even a step beyond this, to argue that courses of this sort could be offered at least as effectively in low-cost online formats, or even offered gratis, without detriment to learning outcomes and with vast improvements in affordability. And of course there are a number of for-profit vendors who are moving into this field aggressively.
The subject is important, and clearly we do need to be open to different kinds of options, including alternative demonstrations of competence. The commitment to diverse pathways is increasingly important, and if there are valid new options for delivering entry-level courses we surely should explore them. I also recognize that efforts to dispute the fashionable disruptive arguments risk seeming defensive and old-fashioned, brushes with which I don’t wish to be tarred.
There are some counterarguments that I think need to be considered as well. While “commodity courses” may describe part of many first-year curricula, standard programs also offer many smaller classes, designed to let students interact more fruitfully with faculty and aimed at providing vital experiences in such “non-commodity” areas as effective writing (a topic on which I’ve opined before). Dismissing whole first-year programs with the commodity label is inaccurate and misleading. Many institutions are also gaining fruitful experience in improving educational delivery, for example in many early science and math courses. Technology often facilitates these course redesigns, but additional advising and tutoring are also important parts of the process – hardly a commodity approach. The results are real, in higher student grades and fewer failures and dropouts. There are several reasons, in other words, to be cautious about blanket acceptance of the commodity critique.
In addition to these general points, a bit of personal experience. I’ve taught freshman courses annually for quite a while, and I always appreciate the opportunity to work at this level mainly because there are so many rewarding improvements in student performance – more, I would argue, than at the more advanced stages of a program. In one sense a basic history course may have some commodity features, and certainly if I lectured a lot I would agree that the results could be delivered through videos without necessary loss of quality. But I no longer lecture formally, and like many other teachers I work regularly to increase class participation and involvement. Results vary, but I always see an encouraging number of students catch on to higher levels of analysis and critical thinking. There’s more than commodity experience involved, and I actually worry that too much reference to the commodity category will end up needlessly deterring even more faculty from enjoying the opportunity to teach at this level.
The key points are these: we do need to rethink and experiment. But we also need to recognize that first-year programs are more complex than a commodity label fully captures, and that there is real value involved in many existing offerings. More faculty interest and participation, and not just low-cost alternatives, need to be part of the mix going forward. There is, however, one valid overarching point: we need to be able to justify more clearly what we do with entry-level work, and not just assume that because certain introductory courses have always been offered “this way” they must continue in the same vein. Yet we can also recognize, as I truly believe, that teaching freshman can be fun.