The Answer is Yes: A Commentary on Practice (Historial Document)
February 22, 1994
To: ESC Community
From: Jane Altes
Subject: The Answer is Yes: A Commentary on Practice
The lengthy process which has removed from OPRA its academic oversight role and has emphasized center academic responsibilities, has also generated some new discoveries of old issues and has brought to the fore some items for new considerations. Throughout my years at Empire State College, I have become accustomed to meetings where faculty members or administrators react with surprise when a colleague, in a somewhat offhand way, describes a practice common in a part of the institution but unknown (or frowned upon) elsewhere.
While I have talked about most of these matters in one forum or another, the ESC Executive Council has suggested that I string some of these together so that there can be a general institutional understanding of their acceptance in the Office of Academic Affairs.
The key is that this College is an inventive place. We have the freedom and the imagination to devise ways to meet more of the needs of students and to meet those needs more effectively, more promptly, and more understandably. I believe that all of the matters described below meet those expectations and I believe that other new and modified approaches are in the offing.
The document is not very coherent. In some instances I applaud while cautioning. In some instances I indicate areas where actions being taken for one purpose might be applicable to another. In some instances I raise matters which, were experiments to be institutionalized, would substantially change College policy. I am confident that I have forgotten some items about which I am informed but which I have simply not recalled in this context. I am equally confident that there are activities in the College which would fit this general topic and which have not come to my attention. In either case, I would like to hear from you and, if there is sufficient reason to do so, I would be pleased to issue a "second edition."
- Group Studies/Study Groups
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the recognition of our students' need for flexible meeting times, the College was slow to institute student groups interacting on broad academic topics. Today the College recognizes the value of peer interaction and of the structure that such a group can offer to a student just beginning to become an independent learner. Further, the College is establishing variations on that theme. "Group tutorials" describes three or four students working on a common contract topic (with appropriate variations within) and doing some of that work together. Groups cannot fully meet the needs of students whose lives require flexible contact with the College but they can offer an important means to combine structure with the independent learning which is a necessary component of such work at Empire State College.
- Generic Contracts
Even more recently, the College has begun to recognize that a number of students want and need contract work with a common educational objective. A common and up-to-date contract for such learning may well be appropriate. Such contracts can, and often should, leave "openings" for various components chosen to suit specific student needs. Thus generic contracts can allow individualization "in the detail" as well as in the interaction.
- Simplified Degree Programs
Only recently, a question arose about the specificity necessary in a degree program plan and about the level of modification necessary for reapproval. Degree programs can be, and frequently are, approved when contract components are described as "8 credits of humanities or social sciences." Such flexibility can meet the overall expectations for balance and breadth, while allowing more specific attention to educational objectives, particularly in the concentration. Further, such flexibility should encourage earlier development of degree programs and the greater clarity which such development affords students.
- Generic Evaluations
Throughout its history, the College has undertaken generic evaluations of programs and learning experiences. That process continues, but there is a new facet to this old practice. The College has tended to approach "individualized evaluation" as though each instance was unique and being done for the first time. We are now recognizing that, like common student contract learning, there are common student evaluations. The Office of Academic Affairs is encouraging faculty to help develop a small library of such evaluations, including descriptions of competencies and suggested means to demonstrate college level learning. Such documents should provide assistance to students in estimating their own readiness for such evaluations, should assist mentors in talking with students about prior learning, and should assist evaluators in their review.
- Prior Learning Evaluation Reports
Over the last year or so there has been some push to permit external evaluators, particularly those who are experienced faculty members, to recommend credit without extensive narratives addressing either the learning content or the means by which the learning was ascertained. While some explanation of content is necessary in an institution which does not have "course descriptions", a concise evaluation seems appropriate.
- Abbreviated Contract Evaluations
Ever since the report of the Streamlining Committee was issued some years ago, discussions about abbreviating evaluations, or combining learning contracts and evaluations, have taken place. While there has been no agreement on any uniform practice, there have been various approaches to describing the learning content and outcomes in a less elaborate way. A basic explanation of the learning activities and an evaluative statement of outcome may well meet the needs of students and of those who will later review the transcripts.
- Abbreviated Contract Evaluations By Tutors
This subset of the preceding deserves special attention because the College has often expected fully qualified tutors to express contract content and outcomes in Empire State College-specific language. It is important that the clarity noted above be present in any evaluation, but differences in style may well not diminish the value of the evaluation document.
- Grades as Part of Evaluations
The President recently concurred in a Senate resolution calling for students to be informed that they may request a letter grade as part of their narrative contract evaluation if there is an educational or employment need. This action was interpreted by both the Senate and the President as responsive to expressed student needs. This should complement, and perhaps eventually replace, the prior understanding that needed grade "translations" would be undertaken after graduation where possible.
- Use of AI for Non-Matriculated Students
As a means to ease our enrollment shortfall, centers are being encouraged to admit students as non-matriculants if there is a delay in their matriculated admission. Assuming the availability of such monies, AI can be used as tutorial support for such students.
- Early Assessment
A number of institutional values have interacted to defer the assessment of prior learning for our students. Among these have been the belief that prior learning cannot best be considered in a course-like context, that evaluation should not be undertaken until all such evaluation potential has been explored through the degree program planning process, and that prior learning is costly and should be done only when the student is well integrated into the College. The College now has two years of experience with early assessment done for students of other institutions. These students have been pre-advised in their institution of origin and they request evaluations in subjects which have been approved there. Consistent with our policy of transcripting advanced standing only for our own students, we offer a "recommendation" of credit to the other institution which, itself accepts and transcripts it. Unlike the items above, this approach has not yet been attempted for our own students. I would encourage such an experiment.
- Greater Program Structure
Within its broad program registrations, the College has, with justifiable pride, emphasized its ability to develop individualized "curricula" to meet the special needs of many of its students. Throughout its history the College also supported the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies with its more traditional classroom expectations. In recent years the College has established a number of programs which utilize the flexibility of learning modes while defining a more structured educational content. FORUM, the Corporate/College Program, SUNY by Satellite, and the on-line business program now under development all display the ability of ESC to offer education to meet educational needs. Experiments with more structured education need not be confined to special, separately organized, programs.
- Optional Degree Program Planning?
An obvious question which would arise if there were more curricular structure is whether degree program planning is justified in its present form. A student choosing a pre-approved curriculum need not be excluded from prior learning assessments, or from modifying that curriculum through an individualized degree program planning activity if later experience with the College warrants that change. The reality of some existing programs and some students' academic objectives already calls into question the uniform applicability of the degree program planning policy. The matter should, perhaps, be revisited more broadly.