How the Course Catalog Killed Education

Dr. Christine Geith, Michigan State University, has been pioneering new approaches in higher education for more than 20 years using educational technology, online learning and entrepreneurial practices. Dr. Geith has experience in research, teaching, small business, internet start-ups, online and adult education, peer learning and open educational resources. She is an advisor to several educational software start-ups, has served on for-profit boards, and has held leadership roles on higher education association boards.

How the course catalog killed education

Commoditization of the course catalog is underway. Ten-thousand dollar degrees, three credits for under a hundred dollars – the roots of this sweeping change started over a hundred years ago when the Carnegie Foundation created the credit hour to compare faculty workload across institutions.

For decades, our society’s demand for degree qualifications in mass has devolved to a laser focus on the course. The course is the building block of learning outcomes. The course credit is a transferable unit across institutions. And guess what? Everyone’s course catalog looks the same! From Stanford  to Saylor.org the catalogs look the same.

The institution’s brand is the only thing on the course catalog that represents the full bundle of outcomes it achieves for society and for individuals. It’s the only thing on the catalog describing the difference between a $3,000 course, a $30 course, or a free MOOC.

Where do I sign up in the course catalog for unique living experiences and for contributing to leading-edge research? Where do I sign up in the catalog for transformational relationships with world experts? Where do I sign up for life-long relationships and the value they bring? Where do I sign up in the course catalog to work on real problems like ending global hunger?

Photo of Christine Geith

Christine Geith, Assistant Provost & Executive Director MSUglobal, Michigan State University

These unique experiences may not give me academic credits, but they are critical to my personal success and the ultimate value of my degree. They are essential to achieving programmatic and institutional learning outcomes.  They are also difficult to commoditize because they depend on a scarce resource – deep, trusted relationships. And, these experiences are expensive to offer!

Five ways to protect your brand

What can an institution do in the face of commodity courses?  Here are five possible ways to protect your brand:

  1. Get rid of the course catalog. Given the education “market” and funding mechanisms, this would not be wise, but partially commoditizing your own course catalog through OpenCourseWare or MOOCs could be a strategy to emphasize intangibles by focusing your value on your credentials and your solutions to grand challenges.
  2. Put unique experiences into the course catalog.  This may be one way of making them tangible: turn them into courses and measure their outcomes with learning analytics.
  3. Create something with peer brands that makes the intangibles visible. An example is the University Research Corridor in Michigan where the three research universities join forces to demonstrate their state economic impact
  4. Try and protect the definition of “university” to exclude certain types of institutions and protect the market of others. Ken Udas, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer at the University of Southern Queensland, has written about this on his blog.
  5. Create more value. Develop tangible add-on products and services that are not sold through a course catalog. Better yet, make the course catalog the add-on.

Three questions to uncover more tangible value

What can you do to create more value, especially if you’re an institution like a land-grant or a research university where a big portion of your value is not listed in the catalog? You can look deeply at yourself and ask these three questions.

  1. Who do you have that is in scarce supply?  These assets might be experts, networks of experts, and the people that flow through your specialized facilities. Michigan State is leveraging the talents of its Spartan community to solve world challenges through its Spartans Will campaign.
  2. What value might there be in the data that you have, or could have? What flows of activities create data that could be of value? EdX is an emerging example of leveraging big data and learning analytics to create evidence-based learning experiences connected with high-quality institutional brands.
  3. How can you identify, measure, and make visible the unique outcomes you create for your students, for your region, for the world? A good example is the Michigan State Outreach and Engagement Measurement Instrument.

The dialog created by these three questions could lead to leveraging who you are as an institution – beyond courses and credits; beyond what the media tells us our value is to the “postsecondary market.”  Use the results along with one or more of the five strategies to not only protect, but to strengthen, your brand. Don’t slip down the slope, oblivious to your full purposes and values; looking at your peers.

For how long will we continue to let our most visible outcomes be courses and credits? I invite you to share your thoughts by making a reply to this post.

Christine Geith, Ph.D
Assistant Provost & Executive Director MSUglobal
Michigan State University
Email: geith@msu.edu  | msuglobal.com |@christinegeith on twitter

9 Comments

  1. Nan
    Posted February 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink | Reply

    As I start taking my daughter on college visits, I will be looking for the colleges that differentiate themselves with living and learning experiences based on an academic foundation. I will be listening for the colleges we visit to highlight their ability help students foster trusting relationships with faculty, to be exposed to research opportunities and to welcome my daughter’s contribution to be a good citizen of academic freedom….you don’t find that in course catalogs. You don’t find that in Student Affairs, unless there exists a strong correlation with faculty initiatives…so, food for thought, higher Ed, as you look at your branding efforts. I’m looking forward to seeing what you offer beyond those catalog pages.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink | Reply

      Well said Nan! And, perhaps the campus visit isn’t the only way for colleges to demonstrate these important features.

  2. Posted February 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Nice essay Chris! I would add that colleges that do offer these sorts of experiences should price by the term rather than by the course or credit. Term based pricing is a signal that the “experience” is not interchangeable. However, the problem is that some colleges and some parts of some colleges aren’t offering much more than the course. It’s these parts that subsidize other parts. It’s these parts that will be under intense price pressure. Hence, the sturm and drang around disruption.

    • kenudas
      Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Burck – hey there. I think that your point about some colleges not offering much more than courses (their catalog) is particularly true of distance/online programs. Certinatly not all, but many. It is my feeling that developing some commitment to inter/trans- disciplinary curriculum coupled with service learning (for example) would force a little thinking. -Cheers

      • Posted February 7, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Ken – thanks for chiming in. Your recent blog posts at http://www.kenudas.com/ on the value of the university were some of the inspiration for this guest post. Thanks!

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink | Reply

      Great comment about pricing Burck. I often use Straighterline’s pricing as an example. I see you now have $99 per month and business bundle pricing – brilliant. http://www.straighterline.com/how-it-works/how-much-does-it-cost

      Thanks!

  3. Posted February 6, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    Kudos to Chris for raising these issues! Higher ed institutions need to get better at articulating all the benefits they offer that are never apparent from a course catalog.
    As I learned from my son’s recent college search, elite institutions are good at doing this during campus visits — touting research opportunities for undergrads or extensive study abroad programs, for example. But every school offers unique opportunities and outcomes, and they should get better at making these benefits transparent and taking more credit for helping produce them.

    I touch upon these issues in my recent Seven Futures book, so I’m biased; but IMO Chris is raising several important questions here that will help us explore these issues in detail, and she proposes some promising strategies for dealing with them. Her post also reminds me of David Shupe’s work related to finding better alternatives to using the credit hour as “currency.”

    Again, thanks for this posting.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink | Reply

      John, you raise an interesting question for me – if intangibles are most visible when you are on campus – what is the equivalent for learners seeking online experiences? Do you have to go to campus to benefit from those valuable intangibles?

      Also, it looks like you were right on target with your “Free Market Rules” scenario in your book. For those that want to read more, see the book summary on eMentor here http://www.e-mentor.edu.pl/artykul/index/numer/47/id/977

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink | Reply

      John – thanks for commenting. Your “Free Market Rules” scenario in your book appears to be coming true! http://www.e-mentor.edu.pl/artykul/index/numer/47/id/977

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  1. By How the Course Catalog Killed Education on February 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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