Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thinking About Curricular Change: the Categories

By John Jefferson Davis
Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

During the months ahead the faculty will be engaged in discussions of curricular change, both in relation to the process of curriculum review mandated by the trustees, and in relation to the Kern Grant and the development of hybrid and web-based degree programs based at the Charlotte campus. This brief paper examines four basic categories that figure in such discussions, and argues that some philosophical assumptions commonly made about these categories are simplistic, and need to be rethought.
The opinions expressed in this paper are only my own: they do not express the views of the faculty or administration, and are offered only for the purpose of discussion only.
The four categories in question are “diversification”, “division of labor”, “quality”, and “residency”. Some specific proposals and recommendations will be stated for faculty discussion and debate.
1. The first category is that of diversification. Consider analogies from the worlds of ecology, farming, and investment: in agriculture and ecosystems, a “monoculture” or a national economy based on a single crop (e.g., rice or wheat) can be wiped out by the unexpected rapid spread of a disease or infestation; similarly, and ecosystem with less biodiversity is much more vulnerable to sudden environmental changes than an ecosystem with greater diversity. In the world of personal and institutional investing, it is prudent to have a diversified portfolio, given uncertain knowledge of the future and the rapid changes in a technology-driven, globalized economy. The implication that could be drawn here in relation to theological education is that a school with greater diversity of courses, faculty, degree offerings, and delivery systems would be less vulnerable to unexpected economic, demographic, technological, and geopolitical shocks than an institution with less breadth of diversity.
Other factors being equal – and in practice, of course, this may be a complex judgment to make – it would be advantageous for Gordon-Conwell to increase the diversity of its degree programs and delivery systems. This could be related to a principle of “inventory”: other factors being equal, the provider with a broader and richer inventory of its goods and services will be at a competitive advantage relative to a provider with a more limited inventory.
2. The second category is that of the division of labor. A standard economics textbook illustration of this principle is that of the lawyer and the administrative assistant: even though the lawyer may be a faster typist than the administrative assistant, overall productivity will be greater if the lawyer concentrates on that area where she has the greatest comparative advantage, i.e., doing law, and delegates the word processing to the administrative assistant. In the seminary’s current situation, this suggests a new way of framing the “adjunct” discussion: greater use of properly vetted adjuncts will allow full-time, tenure track faculty to spend more time where they should have a comparative advantage: research and publication. These latter activities help to build and maintain the school’s international reputation and “brand”, while adjuncts contribute to quality classroom teaching and support the school’s economic base. Full-time faculty continue, of course, to contribute by way of excellent classroom teaching. (This scenario suggests that Gordon-Conwell should see itself more like “Harvard” than “Phoenix University” – though it is, of course, different from both in its fundamental mission.)
3. The third category is that of quality in theological education. All faculty are agreed that Gordon-Conwell education should be “excellent” and of high “quality”. A distinction between what philosophers of language call “binary” and “graded” categories should be noted at this point. A category such as “pregnant” is binary in that is “all-or-nothing” in character; a woman is either pregnant or not. A term such as “tall” or the category of “tall persons” is graded, in that there is no one-size-fits-all class of “tall” persons.
Our discussions of “quality” in education commonly fail to make this distinction and treat quality as a binary concept. Consider the following question: “Does the Michelin brand represent an excellent quality of tire?” The answer, most people would say, is “Yes, Michelin does represent excellent quality” – but more precisely, we need to ask, “What grade of quality are you talking about – and what are you willing to pay for it? We have tires that are ‘good’, some that are ‘better’, and some that are the ‘best’. How much do you want to pay?” If (many/most) faculty assume that full-time, residential education is the “best” [an assumption that needs substantiation by empirical research] then let those who can afford it pay for the “best”, while also having in inventory an educational product that is “good” (enough) or “better” for those who seek it at their given price point and personal cost-benefit calculus. The assumption in this latter scenario and Michelin tire analogy would be that theological orthodoxy and competent graduate-level instruction is a “binary” characteristic (the GCTS course either has it, or it is not offered at all), whereas quality – if viewed primarily in terms of residential “face time”, is a graded category.
4. The fourth category is that of residency or (personal) “presence”. The argument here is that “residency”, like that of “quality”, is in fact a graded and not a binary category, under the existing conditions of modern and postmodern digital cultures. “Residency” or “modes of one person being ‘present’ to another” is no longer a binary category – either you are (fully) physically/molecularly present, or you are (fully) “absent”. This simple binary distinction of present/absent has been obsolete at least since the invention of writing: there are many modes of mediated personal presence – writing, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, video and now, in something of a “quantum leap” in technology – the internet: email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, videoconferencing, and so forth. The point to made here is that mediated presence is a form of “real” presence – real, but different in various ways from immediate physical or molecular presence. Digital realities are a new form of reality, and digitally mediated form of presence have both detriments and advantages compared to physical modes of presence. Virtual presence should be seen as a (graded) form of “real” presence, with the understanding that the category “real” is not exhausted by the “physical”. From the point of a biblical ontology, we can recognize at least three modes of real presence: molecular/physical; virtual; and spiritual (e.g. “I am with you always, to the very end of the age …”). Today’s learners expect to be “present” to one another in both physical and virtual modes, and our challenge as faculty is to settle on an appropriate mix of these modes, not insisting on one to the exclusion of the other.
Implications and Recommendations:
1. All campuses should seek to increase the diversity and “inventory” of delivery
systems, especially online/hybrid models;
2. Make increased use of properly vetted adjuncts to support the full-time, tenure-
track faculty for research and publication (“division of labor” principle);
3. Increase number of allowable Semlink/online courses for all degree programs to
67% [cf. Asbury programs; ATS current standards];
4. To increase scheduling and curricular flexibility, introduce (course) credits of 1, 2
and (4) credit hours in addition to existing 3 credit-hour courses;
5. Consider “Open-Sourcing” the curriculum, i.e., “giving away” online [iTunes Univ.;
YouTube] Semlink and campus-recorded lectures and courses (non-credit) following the MIT, and the “Google strategy” to draw potential students to the seminary’s website; give Semlink course materials online to alumna/ae to build stronger alumna/ea loyalty. (cf. Lk.6:38, “Give and it will be given to you”; Ecc.11:1, “Cast
Your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”)
A final observation: the changes proposed above would seem to be consistent with the founding visions of A.J. Gordon and Russell Conwell to provide affordable, biblically orthodox theological education to working adults and part-time students who might not otherwise have such access.
January 29, 2010

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