- - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The subject of American education has achieved considerable attention recently. My 1970s experimental college design seems to be once again relevant and may contribute to the discussion.

I was appointed dean of the College at Park College, a small private school near Kansas City, Mo., which was starved for money and ideas. In an attempt to bolster our enrollment and our finances, I took a week away from the office to write a proposal for a federal grant. The proposal turned out to be a design for a radically different college than any of us were used to. That was challenge enough, but the real challenges began when our proposal was funded with $1.2 million a year for three years!

We began by convincing a large local company, Hallmark Cards, to donate some space for a branch campus in their new downtown office buildings, thus leading to the name, Park College-Crown Center, which I then took over as head of the new campus. But the real challenge was the curriculum itself.

First, I threw out the Higher Education Owners’ Manual, the book of rules and customs surrounding traditional higher education. In my proposal, I had specified that the new college be aimed at older students, preferably over 25 years old. As dean, I had watched so many students drop out of college that I wanted college to be available for them to come back when they were ready.

There appeared to be two vital considerations which had been overlooked in the traditional college. First was that education is a personal activity and should be student-centered, not structured for the convenience of the institution. The second was the understanding that learning is not divided into pricing units, i.e. credits, and learning experiences cannot measured or evaluated with such tools.

In order to build a new curriculum model, some definitions had to be refined. First, what is a college degree? The answer was that a college degree is a public declaration by a qualified faculty that a recognizable body of knowledge and skills has been attained by an individual. It is therefore essential that the faculty have sufficient experience of the person’s capabilities to enable a considered evaluation. A corollary is that every student must be enrolled for some period of observation in the same institution which is to grant the degree – no quickies.

The next question was, What is meant by “student-centered?” I am a great believer in the value of motivation in the learning process. Thus, my logical question to the student was, “What would you like to know that you don’t know already? Since you have to be enrolled here anyway, why not use the time profitably?“ This question was the first step in the student’s academic plan. The academic plan consisted of three elements: “What is your learning goal?” ”How much do you know now?” and “How can you make up the difference?”

Typically, each student needed some guidance to design the academic plan. So, we assigned each to an academic counselor, or coach. We found that a good beginning was what we called the “Portfolio Plan.” The student was encouraged to construct a portfolio showing every formal learning experience he or she had had to that date. The student was encouraged to include proof of anything that has ever been learned – including college transcripts, military courses, professional training, awards, jobs which demonstrated expertise, publications – everything. Some of the portfolios were enormous; we had to find secure storage while they were being evaluated. I am aware that “credit for experience” has become almost routine; but we were among the first to introduce this methodology.

During the course of this exercise, many students began to discover their academic goals. They were encouraged to consider real life ambitions, and the results were unorthodox, but valid. Examples were: oral history, dance therapy, strategic (business) planning, and many others.

The next step was the design of the curriculum to achieve the academic goal. At this point, a specialist in the general field of the proposed academic goal, whom we called the “Major Professor,” was introduced to the student. This was a member of the college faculty, typically a Ph.D. in the field.

The academic plans that evolved were very interesting. The oral historian was mentored by the director of oral history at the Truman Presidential Library in nearby Independence, Missouri. Dance therapy was co-invented by the student and the chief of psychiatry at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. The strategic planner was tutored by the top executive for research and planning at Hallmark Cards. These are only a few of the community experts who were enlisted to help our students. Interestingly, even though we offered stipends, we never had to pay for their services. They universally found that they too were learning through this assignment.

In order to ensure academic validity, the Major Professor met regularly with the student and occasionally with the outside mentor. The final product of the academic plan had to be written and documented in the manner of a thesis, based on the new expertise which had been gained through this experience. Finally, borrowing from a doctoral program, the student was required to present the thesis to a panel of senior professors, who read the thesis, and then discussed the work in open forum with the candidate. If the thesis and the interview (to ensure authorship) were satisfactory, the student was graduated with an appropriate degree.    

This system was wildly successful. The very first seminar meeting for the program was designed for about 15 students. More than 100 showed up the first night. We decided to charge a flat annual fee for the program – at a rather high figure for the times. We quickly discovered that employers were happy to subsidize their employees, although I had to make a few calls in the beginning to familiarize the personnel directors with the program. After the first year or so, the question never again arose.

There was another dimension to the program as well. Park College had a longstanding Degree Completion Program for U.S. military personnel. In conjunction with nearby Richards-Gebauer Air Force Base, where I had been privileged to serve as an adviser to the Community College of the Air Force, we offered the Portfolio Plan to Air Force personnel as well as civilian students.
Because of scheduling and other constraints, it was necessary to invent an early form of distance learning for these airmen. Computers were not available in those days, but we made extensive use of telephone, mail and after hours conferences to maintain close communication with the Air Force students.

The most dramatic example of this new “distance learning” was the Air Force pilots, who were allowed to use their training flights to come to Richards-Gebauer and, also to the college offices to have conferences with their counselors and professors. They came for all over – Alaska, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Texas and all points of the compass. Never have I seen more enthusiasm for academic work than I saw with these guys – unless it was the excitement that pervaded the entire student body. This reaction was certainly proof that motivation is a primary ingredient of successful learning.

Story Continues →