A new series for this year: launching the Foundational Course Initiative

This post is the first in what will probably be a long series dedicated to something new I’m working on: the University of Michigan’s Foundational Course Initiative, or FCI.

For me the launch of this initiative is a big thing. Partly, it’s the culmination of several years of work, a confluence of work done on our REBUILD and Digital Innovation Greenhouse projects. But it’s also the start of something new – something likely to consume a lot of my time and energy for many years.

The FCI is kind of a big deal for the University of Michigan too. They’re committing the effort of many dozens of people and millions of dollars to it over the next decade. Our Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) will be at the heart of this work, building an exciting new team dedicating to supporting foundational courses. If it goes right, our work together will make the undergraduate experience here at Michigan noticeably better and more equitable, help tens of thousands of students find and achieve their dreams, and create a new standard for public higher education at scale.

For you, this whole FCI thing is probably a bit of a mystery. What is a ‘foundational course’, and what makes it foundational? What is this initiative we’re launching? Why are we doing it, and why now? Who is ‘we’ anyway? What will this FCI mean for students, faculty, staff here at Michigan? What will it mean for higher ed beyond Ann Arbor; for the public?

The purpose of this post, and a whole series which will follow, is to explore these questions. I’m writing these posts to provide a personal window into the FCI as it emerges, evolves, and (we hope) succeeds. But they’re also for me; to invite comment from anyone who reads these, and so help me figure out what I think about all of this. So here we go:

The University of Michigan is a 200 year old public research university. Our mission statement may be a little stilted in expression but the sentiment is right on target:

“to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future”

We’re here to create and protect knowledge, while educating leaders and citizens for the future. Widely accessible public education plays an essential role in democratic society. Private colleges and universities, wonderful though they may be, have never been large or available enough to offer opportunity to all – that’s why the big publics are so important for the nation and the future.

Public universities like Michigan educate at scale; admitting and graduating many thousands of students every year. This is essential to our public mission. Indeed, our selectivity – our inability to teach all of the students who would like to study with us – is something I view as a failure for a place like Michigan. But we do what we can. To educate our nearly 29,000 undergraduates, we offer many thousands of courses. Most are small, connecting an expert faculty member with a few tens of students in a familiar, relatively intimate learning environment. But a few of these classes are very different.

Every year, many (sometimes most) of our students need to learn the foundations of academic disciplines like physics, philosophy, psychology, writing, engineering, public health, statistics, or linguistics. Teaching these foundational courses to thousands of students a year is one of our most important opportunities. It’s also a serious practical challenge. More than a hundred UM courses enroll at least 200 student per term. The largest, introductory statistics, enrolls 2,200 students every term.

How do you teach statistics to everyone in a small town, all at once?

Teaching courses like this – educating at scale – is one of the great challenges for public higher education. During the 20th century, we mostly solved it in an industrial way: building giant lecture halls, putting all students through a perfectly parallel, assembly-line paced, standardized set of lectures, assignments, and exams. When these courses were well-designed, they worked pretty well, at least for the median student. But they pretty much always bored a large fraction of students, while leaving just as many behind. In this 20th century approach, we optimized a single system and pressed all of our students through it, without responding to their diversity of backgrounds, interests, and goals.

This industrial system did work. Public higher education used this approach to educate well over 50 million students during the 20th century just in the US. This is something we’re all rightly proud of. That said, there is little doubt that large foundational courses are often a student’s least favorite part of college; more of a rite of passage to be survived than a welcoming, inspirational experience.

We think the time has come to change this.

That’s the reason the University of Michigan is launching a major new Foundational Course Initiative – the FCI – this fall. Our goal is simple. We want University of Michigan foundational courses to be nationally recognized as a model for delivering essential entry points to core disciplines at scale. We want these courses to be an important part of the international reputation of our institution. Students should come here wanting to learn statistics with the help of thousands of peers, to discover psychology with a huge and diverse cohort of future humanists, engineers, public health professionals, and teachers, to begin their own careers learning with and helping to teach students headed off in directions spread across the landscape of society.

In the posts that follow, I’m going to lay out my thoughts about what this initiative is, how we might think about it, and where I dream that it might go. I know there’s a world of wisdom out in the world about these topics, so I hope if you have ideas or thoughts you’ll take the time to share them with me.

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