One of the themes of my forthcoming book is how a lot of our difficulties are caused by what I call McLuhanesque mistakes, which is translating systems created in response to analog paradigms to a digital one without recognizing the anachronisms as well as opportunities created by that shift. As we go into a far more online educational environment, these anachronisms will proliferate. The analog logic of dividing courses and information into sections might be one area where we are missing opportunities in our new realities.
Sections are a legacy of the physical world. Classrooms support finite numbers of students. Schedules are driven by the logic of putting students in classrooms at specified regularized times every week. These constraints do not apply to online classes. While there is a legacy from these physical constraints in administrative convenience (and there might be funding implications in some systems), sections have mostly devolved into a measurement detail.
Donella Meadows puts measurement at the lowest end of her leverage point model of systemic change. In other words, changing measurements are among the easiest systemic adjustments one can make. Rethinking how we measure units of learning, even on an experimental basis, could result in significant benefits to the overall learning experience of our students.
One of the first things that is will likely come up is the fact that most faculty are paid based on the number of sections that they teach. Rather than exercising crude expedient of adjusting the number of sections that a faculty member teaches, it would be much better to fine-tune those adjustments based on students being taught. The limitations placed upon how I teach have far more to do with the size of my sections, which I have a little control over, than the number of sections I choose to teach. My pedagogical strategies have to adapt based on whether I have 15 students or 32. I get paid the same amount for either number. The students pay the same amount no matter which section they are in but it’s no question that the level of attention I’m able to give each student in the smaller class is much higher than in the larger one.
There is little to no reason to group students in this manner in an online environment. The space-time limitations that created the logic of sections simply don’t exist online. Instead of creating space and time-centered divisions, we need to think about building learner-centered networks. What would student-centered “sections” look like? I have previously argued that online classes could be identified as either totally asynchronous or requiring some level of synchronous interaction. As a starting point, this would be a better way of identifying how the class would work to the student than a random section number, and would furthermore set student expectations accordingly when they signed up for a particular course of instruction.
Personalizing instruction is also facilitated by a section-less system of learning. I try to tailor my instruction around the interests of a given student since that will provide a more meaningful instructional experience for him or her. Having a larger pool of students to choose from (through consolidating all of my sections) makes this far easier when it comes to group formation. Creating different ways to mix-and-match students while maintaining the ability to create working groups of learners would allow us to design more individualized pathways for learning.
This is not just a convenience factor. Creating systems based on student communities rather than sections would allow for a far more nuanced approach to creating learning centered on communities of practice and opens the doors to explorations of interdisciplinary approaches to learning. As DeAngelo points out, retention is greatly enhanced by students developing networks outside the traditional classroom. Sections divide learners arbitrarily. We need to be looking for network opportunities for them instead.
Sections also tend to wall off disciplines from one another. Allowing students to subscribe to a cohort of interdisciplinary instructors working together can reap huge benefits. For instance, I teach my government class as a design studio. Coordinating with English Composition, Design, and perhaps Student Success faculty, we could develop an integrated approach to a student’s (or preferably a learning community of students’) learning experience(s). Interdisciplinary approaches have been shown to lead to better outcomes.
Digitally shifting to create communities of learning
Finally, as I argued in an earlier piece, focusing on smaller and shorter segments of learning, which getting rid of traditional sections would facilitate, makes our systems of learning much more antifragile. Small, focused learning communities are going to be much nimbler in the chaotic teaching/scheduling environments for the near- to medium-term future.
There are no doubt significant systemic hurdles around getting rid of the administrative convenience that sections offer. The current crisis, however, will not be sympathetic to those institutions that hold tightly to outdated shibboleths. Using sections as a tool for dividing up students and faculty largely for administrative convenience should be looked at carefully. There seems to be little logic pertaining to learning and retention that supports their continued existence. If anything, the opposite is true. In a digital world there is little administrative logic to continuing to use them either.
This logic extends beyond our current circumstances, however. As I argued in a previous piece that predates the pandemic, instruction will inevitably move toward a hybrid modality. With an online-focused hybrid schedule, physical environments will need to be scheduled on an ad hoc basis anyway so even when we return to a “new normal” sections can still start to be retired as a metric. Online communities of practice can be used to drive student sorting even in a hybrid model. The exigences of the pandemic are severely testing our institutions of higher learning. We can either collapse under the strain or use this tragedy as an opportunity to make learning better for our students. Developing strategies for phasing out traditional sections would allow us to focus on using quality to overcome adversity.