The 1-Year Degree – what’s your reaction?

I’m going to pose a question and I’d be interested in your reaction.

“Is there a structure and delivery mechanism that could produce a competent professional graduate from a degree course such as engineering or computer science, which takes place over a maximum of 12 months including all assessment, without sacrificing quality or content?”

What was your reaction? More importantly, what is the reasoning behind your reaction?

For what it’s worth my answer is “Not with our current structures but, apart from that, maybe.” which is why one of my side projects is an attempt to place an entire degree’s worth of work into a 12-month span as a practice exercise for discussing the second and third year curriculum review that we’re holding later on this year.

Our ‘standard’ estimate for any normal degree program is that a student is expected to have a per-semester load of four courses (at 3 units a course, long story) and each of these courses will require 156 hours from start to finish. (This is based on 10 hours per week, including contact and non-contact, and roughly 36 hours for revision towards examination or the completion of other projects.) Based on this estimate, and setting up an upper barrier of 40 hours/week, for all of the good research-based reasons that I’ve discussed previously, there is no way that I can just pick up the existing courses and drop them into a year. A three-year program has six semesters, with four courses per semester, which gives an hour burden of 24*156 = 3,744. At 40 hours per week, we’d need 93.6 weeks (let’s call that 94), or 1.8 years.

But, hang on, we already have courses that are 6-unit and span two semesters – in fact, we have enormous projects for degree programs like Honours that are worth the equivalent of four courses. Interestingly, rather than having an exam every semester, these have a set of summative and formative assignments embedded to allow the provision of feedback and the demonstration of knowledge and skill acquisition – does this remove the need to have 36 hours for exam study for each semester if we build the assignments correctly?

Let’s assume that it does. Now we have a terminal set of examinations at the end of each year, instead of every semester. Now I have 12 courses at 120 hours each and 12 at 156 hours each. Now we’re down to 3,312 – which is only 1.6 years. Dang. Still not there. But it’s ok, I can see all of you who have just asked “Well, why are you so keen on using examinations if you’re happy with summative assignments testing concepts as you go and then building in the expectation of this knowledge in later modules?” Let’s drop the exam requirement even further to a final set of professional level assessment criteria, carried out at the end of the degree to test high-level concepts and advanced skills. Now, of the 24 courses that a student sits, almost all assessment work has moved into continuous assessment mode, rich in feedback, with summative checkpoints and a final set of examinations as part of the four capstone courses at the end. This gives us 3,024 hours – about 1.45 years.

But this is also ignoring that the first week of many of these courses is required revision after some 6-18 weeks of inactivity as the students go away to summer break or home for various holidays. Let’s assume even further that, with the exception of the first four courses that they do, that we build this continuously so that skills and knowledge are reinforced as micro slides, scattered throughout the work, supported with recordings, podcasts, notes, guides and quick revision exercises in the assessment framework. Now I can slice maybe 5 hours off 20 of the courses (the last 20) – cutting me down by another 100 hours and that’s half a month saved, down to 1.4 years.

Of course, I’m ignoring a lot of issues here. I’m ignoring the time it takes someone to digest information but, having raised that, can you tell me exactly how long it takes a student to learn a new concept? This is a trick question as the answer generally depends upon the question “how are you teaching them?” We know that lectures are one of the worst ways to transfer information, with A/V displays, lectures and listening all having a retention rate less than 40%. If you’re not retaining, your chances of learning something are extremely low. At the same time, somewhere between 30-50% of the time that we’re allocating to those courses we already teach are spent in traditional lectures – at time of writing. We can improve retention (of both knowledge and students) when we use group work (50% and higher for knowledge) or get the students to practice (75%) or, even better, instruct someone else (up to 90%). If we can restructure the ’empty’ or ‘low transfer’ times into other activities that foster collaboration or constructive student pedagogy with a role transfer that allows students to instruct each other, then we can potentially greatly improve our usage of time.

If we use this notion and slice, say, 20 hours from each course because we can get rid of that many contact hours that we were wasting and get the same, if not better, results, we’re down to 2,444 hours, about 1.18 years. And I haven’t even started looking at the notion of concept alignment, where similar concepts are taught across two different concepts and could be put in one place, taught once, consistently and then built upon for the rest of the course. Suddenly, with the same concepts and a potentially improved educational design – we’re looking the 1-year degree in the face.

Now, there will be people who will say “Well, how does the student mature in this time? That’s only one year!” to which my response is “Well, how are you training them for maturity? Where are the developing exercises? The formative assessment based on careful scaffolding in societal development and intellectual advancement?” If the appeal of the three-year degree is that people will be 19-20 when they graduate, and this is seen as a good thing, then we solve this problem for the 1-year degree by waiting two years before they start!

Having said all of this, and believing that a high quality 1-year degree is possible, let me conclude by saying that I think that it is a terrible idea! University is more than a sequence of assessments and examinations, it is a culture, a place for intellectual exploration and the formation of bonds with like-minded friends. It is not a cram school to turn out a slightly shell-shocked engineer who has worked solidly, and without respite, for 52 weeks. However, my aim was never actually to run a course in a year, it was to see how I could restructure a course to be able to more easily modularise it, to break me out of the mental tyranny of a three- or four-year mandate and to focus on learning outcomes, educational design and sound pedagogy. The reason that I am working on this is so that I can produce a sound course structure with which students can engage, regardless of whether they are full-time or not, clearly outlining dependency and requirements. Yes, if we break this up into part-time, we need to add revision modules back in – but if we teach it intensively (or on-line) then those aren’t required. This is a way to give students choice and the freedom to come in at any age, with whatever time they have, but without sacrificing the quality of the underlying program. This is a bootstrap program for a developing nation, a quick entry point for people who had to go to work – this is making up for decades of declining enrolments in key areas.

This is going on a war footing against the forces of ignorance.

There are many successful “Open” universities that use similar approaches but I wanted to go through the exercise myself, to allow me the greatest level of intellectual freedom while looking at our curriculum review. Now, I feel that I can focus on Knowledge Areas for my specifics and on the program as a whole, freed of the binding assumption that there is an inevitable three-year grind ahead for any student. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits for me is the thought that, for students who can come to us for three years, I can put much, much more into the course if they have the time – and these things, of interest, regarding beauty, of intellectual pursuits, can replace some of the things that we’ve lost over the years in the last two decades of change in University.

2 Comments on “The 1-Year Degree – what’s your reaction?”

  1. Liz Phillips says:

    Barring technicalities associated with computer science and engineering that I, the linguist, would not be privy to, I would suggest that a one-year degree would have to be narrowed down to specialties versus the more general, more rounded education student receive in a graduate course that takes two or three years to complete. I don’t even know if it is possible to specialize in specific aspects of computer science or engineering so students finish in a year. Mind you, technology and distance learning opportunities are changing not only how we teach, but also how students learn. There are students who could handle the rigors on an accelerated program, and online coursework with a meeting or two a semester with an advisor/mentor/lecturer might be a good fit. I think individuals who are highly intelligent, self-motivated, and talented could handle it. It may be that we end up with a post-undergraduate certification system that gives endorsements in specific areas instead of graduate degrees–unless said students complete a specific number of combination of endorsements. That model would create situations where many could go to school for more than two years to acquire a large range of certifications. That would be the student’s choice, and I’m sure there are people evaluating the profit-margin of such a venture.


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