Exactly what skills and knowledge should a Kansas University graduate have?
Whatever that list includes, it’s reasonable to assume it has changed at least somewhat over the last 25 or 50 years. In an effort to meet those changing needs, KU is completing a multi-year process of developing a universitywide curriculum that it hopes will meet “the needs of and challenges faced by 21st century students.”
This is the first time KU has attempted to establish a core curriculum that will apply to all undergraduate students, regardless of the school in which they are enrolled. Such a curriculum needs to be flexible but still address basic educational goals. What KU officials have come up with is a plan that probably will spur considerable confusion when it is implemented next fall but will offer students far more choices in fulfilling basic graduation requirements. It also will call on departments across the university to take a hard look at how they’ve been doing things and perhaps make some changes that better fit the new core goals.
The educational goals set up under what’s being called the KU Core Curriculum seem solid. They promote skills like critical thinking, communication, social responsibility and creativity. They want students to learn something about culture, diversity and ethics as well as develop a “breadth of knowledge” across educational disciplines.
The big difference is that students will have many more options for fulfilling their core requirements. Instead of being required to take Western Civilization, they can take another course that KU officials claim achieves the same goal. Rather than have about 900 undergraduates enrolled in a single required introductory communications course students will have more choices to fulfill those requirements.
The university already has approved nearly 500 courses as part of the core curriculum. Each of the courses is identified according to which curriculum goals it meets. The content of the courses may not change much, but they now must justify how they fit into the core curriculum.
For individual students, this means lot of choices. How they make those choices could have a profound effect on many university departments. Required courses provide a dependable source of jobs for graduate students, who depend on them to fund their education. They also give departments a guaranteed opportunity to introduce their subject to underclassmen and possibly recruit new majors. With the new curriculum, departments can be more creative in their course offerings, but they likely also will find themselves in an active competition to attract undergraduates and preserve their graduate programs. That could be good for some departments and not so good for others. These changes are heralded by many university officials, but there are others who suggest the changes are motivated to “dumb down” KU’s academic requirements and reduce student dropout numbers.
The new core curriculum also may pose some challenges for students who choose to fulfill some of their undergraduate requirements at less-expensive community colleges. KU will have to communicate well with those schools to make sure students can transfer their credits into the new core.
Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little referred to the curriculum change as “a profound experience in the life of a university,” which is “why people don’t do it too often.” Well-thought-out and challenging change can be painful but necessary if KU hopes to maintain its progress and academic standing. Here’s hoping the new core curriculum will prove to be a change for the better.