Curriculum, Experimentation, and the Dreaded Question


This year's Curriculum institute employed an experimental approach that was well-received; the emphasis on collaboration allowed participants ample opportunity to share their experiences and provided the facilitators with a forum that enabled them to rapidly change directions and respond to the needs of the participants. Alas, however, my experience was not without its downside. I was faced with the dreaded question-as your incoming ASCCC Curriculum Chair, a new executive Committee member, and suddenly an honorary member of the current ASCCC Curriculum Committee (and a facilitator at the Curriculum institute) -someone dared to ask me a question that I was not prepared to answer-revealing to everyone in earshot that I am a fraud who knows nothing. Isn't that the fear you face with every new class? I still remember how terrified I was of students when I first began teaching-and they can always smell fear. But, being a well-trained teacher, I responded with something to the effect of "great question, let's cover that in more detail tomorrow". And, so, tomorrow is here.

I was asked about experimental courses, a beast that my college does not allow to lurk in its halls. As a consequence of the conversation that transpired in San Diego and some reading, it became very clear to me that a discussion of experimental courses is warranted. What experimental courses are and are not is a topic that needs addressing.

Experimental courses are not a means of circumventing your established curriculum processes when someone does not do their paperwork in a timely manner. They are not a means of getting a course into the schedule of classes without having to meet board agenda deadlines. New curriculum chairs-if you have not done so yet, be sure to warn your faculty about all the externally imposed deadlines that you have to deal with-and urge them to get busy. If your campus is anything like mine, your agendas start the year looking like a 10-page essay and end it looking like the phone book of a large city. Do whatever it takes to avoid the spring glut. so, if experimental courses are not merely a means of avoiding those pesky deadlines, what are they?

Experimental courses are one of the categories of courses that may be created as stand-alone without having to be submitted to the System Office.

The following excerpt is from the Program and Course Approval Handbook-note that such courses must go through your normal curriculum process and meet all the requirements that any other course must.

Experimental courses, special topics courses, and special study courses. These courses may be offered without individual Chancellor's Office approval, provided that a course outline of record for the category is on file locally, all regular local curriculum approval processes are followed, and the categories are used for the purposes intended. In general, an experimental course is one for which full information on some approval criterion, such as feasibility or need, cannot be determined until the course is actually offered on a trial basis. An experimental course should generally be submitted for approval as a regular course, or discontinued, within one year.

Experimental courses are a means of "testing" a course that is a stand-alone course without seeking approval from the System Office. Note that you need to decide what to do with the course-cease or submit-within one year. The purpose of introducing a course as an experimental course is to see if that course should be added to your curriculum.

The ASCCC's publication Good Practices in Course Approval Processes provides further clarification as to what an experimental course is and why one would be introduced.

  • Appropriateness to mission may be in doubt for a course intended to be transferable that has not yet been articulated. It may be that the curriculum committee would recommend approval contingent on that articulation and a review of any changes that might be needed to secure that status.
  • Need may be questionable if student demand seems marginal. The only way to ascertain that response may be to offer the course on a trial basis.
  • Assessment of quality for an experimental approach, such as collaborative instruction or service learning, may await actual evaluation during the course itself.
  • Feasibility may be uncertain if cost and enrollment factors are unknown.
  • Compliance with laws and regulations always should be ascertained and not be a basis for experimentation unless waivers of those laws or regulations have been obtained (for example, as allowed for CalWORKs if faculty senate concurrence is obtained).

As with any course that falls into a special category, local curriculum processes and procedures should serve to ensure that experimental courses are used appropriately, noting the one-year deadline for seeking approval of the course if it is to be continued.

As with all curriculum, local colleges are responsible for ensuring that experimental courses meet the intended purpose of such courses and should be developed with the mission of the community colleges, applicable regulations, quality, feasibility, and need all in mind.