What is an Open Curriculum?
Over the past few years I have visited schools such as Amherst College (MA) and Wesleyan University (CT) that offer an Open Curriculum.
An Open Curriculum is one where there are:
- Very few (maybe one or two) or no specific individual course requirements. You choose your courses (with some limits) and they all count towards your degree. This makes it easier for a student in good academic standing to graduate on time.
- No distribution requirements. Most colleges require one, two, sometimes three semesters of Math, Science, Foreign Language and Social Studies much like high schools require these subjects to earn a diploma.
- No requirements to have a major. Students who want to self-design an academic program do not need to commit to a major offered by the college. An Open Curriculum makes it very easy to design your own major.
Most of the schools that are known to offer an Open Curriculum are, like Wesleyan, quite selective.
These schools include Amherst College (MA), Brown University (RI) and Smith College (MA). Those who attend Wake Forest University (NC) can apply to tackle an Open Curriculum instead of the university’s distribution requirements. NYU’s Gallatin Division offers this option, though it is a very small (around 1,200 students) unit within a very large (over 21,000 students) university. Hamilton College, Vassar College and the University of Rochester, all in New York State, also offer some variations on the Open Curriculum. Perhaps the least selective school where the Open Curriculum rules is Hampshire College (MA). But Hampshire’s office works really hard at reviewing applications.
What are the issues to an Open Curriculum?
- It still requires academic direction. Colleges that offer an Open Curriculum also make major investments in academic advising. Their leadership and faculty do not want their students to graduate with a “degree in nothing.”
- Pre-requisites still drive course selection. Faculty who teach beyond the introductory courses at colleges that offer an Open Curriculum still have the say over who may be “in” and who may be “out” in their courses.
- A “shorter ride” through college is rare, and quite possibly non-existent. Students who enter college having taken college-level courses in high school could receive advanced placement or transfer credit for these courses, depending on the college’s policies and practices. Advanced placement means that a student can skip the introductory course and move into a more advanced one.
- It requires more explanation when seeking employment in a more traditional corporate setting. Such employers are more used to recruiting for interns or entry-level professionals with specific courses and/or degrees. A student’s decision to design their own degree program can make for a very interesting, and sometimes effective conversation with an interviewer. But that student has to work harder to convince a human resources professional who spends only seconds reading student resumes to grant the interview. The more that larger employers automate their search processes, the more difficult it becomes for an “interesting person” to become noticed.
It takes a very motivated student to succeed at a school that operates an Open Curriculum.
While the lack of structure makes it supposedly easier to earn a degree and empowers a student to manage their education, greater empowerment also comes with a greater amount of responsibility.
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