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Create Modular Courses Without Asking Permission

In higher education, the boss usually won't take a risk; but sometimes you can do out of the box things completely within existing rules.

Photo of Dan Ryan
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Innovation in higher education is most commonly quashed by process. Any idea needs to be considered by a committee, sent to an under-dean, approved by an over-dean. When we have an idea we frequently - mistakenly - focus on all the things we will need to change in order to implement our idea. In most organizations that's heavy lifting.

 What if, instead, we train people to look for innovation opportunities that have the property of being totally already within their authority?  Things that the rules will in fact allow them to try without asking permission and without fear of rebuke?

This Mills Innovation Minute gives a sense of one of these. We realized that we could experiment with half-semester, 2 credit modular sociology courses without needing approval from anyone (almost - more on that in a second). We already had the capacity to offer courses at different credit levels. We already had the capacity to fill in the start and stop date on courses with the registrar.  With just a phone call we can get two classes scheduled in the same time slot.  And being in same department we could arrange among ourselves to share the teaching responsibilities for a course.

And so we created Mills' first 7 week half semester module courses last spring. My colleague taught a condensed version of Sociology of the Family for the first half of the semester and I taught GIS (geographic information systems - computer mapping) for the second half.  A large number of students took both because it was convenient - this actually helped us get enrollment in the GIS class.

The only thing we had to get a bit of permission for was so that students could add/drop the the second module later in the semester.  That turned out to be helpful to the institution because it got to experiment with a rule change without a very big commitment.


We both learned a lot about condensing a course. It's not as easy as removing half the material. We also noticed a plus: it might well be that the "bang" of a course lies more in the start and the stop - the opening up of a new topic at the start and the pulling together of a topic at the end.  How much substantive material you pack in between might not matter as much as we would like to think. The two modules basically doubled those start stop benefits.

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Tell us about your work experience:

Mills College, Oakland, CA

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Be an innovation guerrilla. Look for things you can experiment with within the bounds of authority and responsibility that you already have.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Dan!

Thank you for another great post! What was the feedback from the students?

Photo of Dan Ryan

Positive, but some frustration with short duration which folks were not used to (we'd have to do more experiments to find out how much of this was "I want more" vs. "I'm used to relaxing around 6 weeks and suddenly I had a final exam!" vs. "this means more final exams overall" vs. "impact is pace faster and that's too fast," etc.

In the shared course, we didn't manage the subsections of the instruction cleanly enough and that generated ambiguity. One thing we learned was that the modularization of the shared course probably needs to have sharper, more well defined edges. Another was to be careful about allowing the grading and evaluation scheme for the modularized course getting too baroque. Student experience depends on these aspects being simple.