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Smash the Semester

Learning doesn't have to come in one sized box; semesters/terms/quarters serve organizations not students.

Photo of Dan Ryan
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Four years of two semesters of 4 courses of 15 weeks is the default model for American higher education, but it's a rigid temporal grid that doesn't fit a lot of students. And there's no reason that 15 weeks is the right amount of every subject.  

At Mills I've been talking about "smashing the semester" by creating the infrastructure - new rules, expectations, schedules, and partnerships - that would allow us to offer learning opportunities in unconventionally sized boxes, degrees that could be earned at unconventional paces, and sequences that could be adapted so that students could learn what they need when they need it.

Smashing the semester can mean breaking semester courses up into half or quarter semester modules. It can mean a set of weekend workshops instead of weekly course meetings. It can mean courses that start a few weeks into the term or that finish a few weeks early.  And these are just the start. Once we have broken the stranglehold of the semester course, we can start to develop teaching and learning practices that make it possible for students to put together a curriculum that fits their life. And then college does't have to be only for those who can adapt to a 4 by 2 by 15 by 4 grid.

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Tell us about your work experience:

Former computer/math/physics type turned social scientist. Have written about communities of organizations and inter-organizational collaboration, the sociology of time, and the sociology of information and notification. Of late, interested in innovation education. I teach in sociology, public policy, and the business school at Mills College in Oakland where I also direct the InnnovationLab@Mills. Outside of work I build things out of wood, metal, and bits.

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

So much higher education innovation moves in the direction of using digital technology to scale things up. What about all different types of technology to break education up into pieces that can be creatively reassembled into unusual programs, programs that fit students' lives, and curricula that deliver just-in-time learning?

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Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Dan! Thank you for sharing the great work you are doing at Mills. How does the demographics of your students differ from other institutions? Do you have more students that would find attending traditional courses challenging e.g. single mums and so on? Are there any other things (as well as the 4 by 2 by 15 by 4 grid) that have become the ‘norms’ in higher education that restrict inclusive learning? Is the website for Mills - https://www.mills.edu/ ? Perhaps you might like to add a link to your organization’s website so we can learn more about the way Mills operates? I would love to know your perspective on the Human Library - https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/future-of-highered/research/human-library

Photo of Dan Ryan

Hi Kate,
Yes, that's Mills' website. Our demographics are pretty diverse on just about every dimension.  Bunch of folks though that we are not serving since we are full time only.  Most of our students work, many lots of hours.  Single parents, resuming students (what we call non-traditional age), and folks finishing up 4 year degree after several (sometimes many) years of part-time study at community colleges.

The "smash the semester" idea is not something that's actually happening in a big way at Mills. I've been pitching it and selling it and there's enthusiasm for it, but thus far, not much implementation. Lots of obstacles - coordination issues, installed base issues, conventional thinking bias, resistance to ideas that require retooling, etc. - but we've experimented with half semester courses and intensive weekends, and hyper-short January courses.

I'll do another post about another thing I'm working on called "The popUp Curriculum."

How would you define the "inclusive learning" that you mention in your post? I think my answer to that question would depend on your definition.

Will have another look at human-library.
DJR

Photo of Kate Rushton

Thank you for your quick response! By 'inclusive learning' I am looking at anything that makes higher education more accessible for people who need to work full-time, are single mums etc. (mainly people who are 'time poor')