Mark Jones, Clarification of the “Course Variants” Motion (31 March 2013)

The Curriculum Committee (CC) in the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) has circulated a memo to Undergraduate Chairs about “course variants” (see appendix, below).  The memo refers to a motion I brought before the Faculty Board (FB) in December:

Resolved that all courses and course-variants (e.g., courses modified from their original or on-campus formats so that they may be listed or advertised as online, as distance, as blended, or as taught in shortened duration for Queen’s-Blyth or other off-campus venues) for which the Faculty of Arts and Science grants academic credits must be (or have been) examined and recommended by the Curriculum Committee and approved by Faculty Board.

The CC memo introduces two errors about this motion that I wish to correct:

First, it claims that FB passed this motion in December.  FB did not pass it, but referred it to the CC (FB Minutes, December 2012, p. 8).  I take that to mean that the CC is to consider whether to recommend the motion to FB, whether to advise FB to reject it, or whether to bring in a revised motion.

Second, the CC memo queries the term “course variants” and suggests that the term might conceivably include cases where “an instructor chang[es] the content” of a course. But as I explained to Faculty Board in December:

By “variants” I do not mean instructors’ iterations of a course, which we are free to determine and to change from time to time without anyone’s approval. Variants are, in contrast, created by administrative stipulations in the course-description or advertisement, and are binding on all instructors. For instance, when a Queen’s course is offered by Queen’s-Blyth (QBW), it must typically be advertised as having a 3-week format. That stipulation constitutes a course variant, for it binds every instructor every time the variant course is taught. Likewise, instructors are free to use or not use online components in a lecture course; but when the course is specifically advertised as having an online format, that stipulation binds all instructors every time, and thus constitutes a variant.

It follows that these motions do not infringe in any way upon academic freedom, as was claimed when I presented a similar motion in Senate in October. Academic freedom in teaching consists in our freedom to iterate a given course as we see fit, so long as we fulfill the stipulations of the published course description. If Motion 1 passes, instructors will remain just as free to iterate both courses and variants as they were before. What Motion 1 might infringe upon, however, is the administrative licence to create course variants to fulfill financial or other administrative (i.e. non-academic) purposes. (Earlier in this meeting, Dean MacLean referred to both online and QBW courses as intended to boost Arts and Science revenues.) This may explain why the opposition to the similar motion in Senate last October came almost entirely from Administrators.

At present, course variants are not subject to Faculty Board approval. Because variants are nominally identical to courses that have already been recommended by Curriculum Committee and approved by Faculty Board, it is simply assumed as a matter of practice that they do not require academic approval. But variants can differ considerably from their namesakes in content, form, venue, and instructors. QBW courses, though nominally identical to Queen’s on-campus courses, are taught in very different circumstances, far from Queen’s, often by non-Queen’s instructors. The mere fact that a lecture course and its variant bear the same name and number is no guarantee that they are academic equivalents, that they cover the same or equivalent content, or that they merit the same academic credit.

The problem of unapproved variants is raised by emerging practices, such as the rise of online learning and the QBW program. We are at the beginning of a curve in which more and more variants will be proposed; in fact, both the Province and the Administration have lately been urging faculty to convert more on-campus courses to online formats. Since they are namesakes of existing courses, such variants have hitherto escaped academic approval through a loophole. But as the variants expand in number and become the norm, this loophole is going to get much larger. Motion 1 intends merely to ensure that all content for which we grant FAS credits has been properly accredited by FAS.  (FB Minutes, December 2012, pp. 5-6)

Appendix:  Arts and Science Curriculum Committee Memo to Undergraduate Chairs 

Undergraduate and Department Chairs:

As you may be aware, the following motion was passed at Faculty Board on December 7, 2012

“Resolved that all courses and course-variants (e.g., courses modified from their original or on-campus formats so that they may be listed or advertised as online, as distance, as blended, or as taught in shortened duration for Queen’s-Blyth or other off-campus venues) for which the Faculty of Arts and Science grants academic credits must be (or have been) examined and recommended by the Curriculum Committee and approved by Faculty Board.”

You will also know that all Departmental proposals for addition, revision and deletion of courses currently require consideration and approval by Curriculum Committee and Faculty Board.  To that extent the motion simply reiterates something the Curriculum Committee is already doing. One factor in prompting the above motion, however, was undoubtedly the fact that Departments have different thresholds at which they consider courses to have become ‘variants,’ and different procedures for dealing with such variants when identified. An instructor changing the content or method of delivery of one or two classes within a 12 or 24 week course would almost certainly not trigger review in most departments. But changing the content of the majority of the classes, putting half of them online, or teaching an existing course in a briefer time frame at a different venue, might (or evidently might not) do so.

As a an important preliminary to its discussion of how to proceed with the task with which it has been charged by this motion, and in order to make sure all interested parties get a chance to express their views, the Curriculum Committee agreed at its meeting on February 14, 2013 to seek information and input from Undergraduate Chairs and Department Heads/Chairs, based on full consultation within their Departments, on the following questions:

1) What does your Department currently consider sufficient modification or variance to merit review of a course within the Department?

2) What is current procedure in your Department for review and approval of course variants taught, at whatever venue, in formats modified from their original or on campus format?

3) Do you think current Departmental procedure should be changed? If so how? Should procedures be harmonized across Departments?

4) Should all course variants reviewed and approved at the Departmental level be referred to Curriculum Committee and Faculty Board for subsequent examination and potential approval? If not, in what particular circumstances should that higher review be required?

The Curriculum Committee will begin reviewing Departmental input in April. Please submit your response to Richard Greenfield (Chair, Arts and Science Curriculum Committee) using the email address asc.curriculum@queensu.ca no later than March 29. Please keep your responses brief and to the point!

Yours sincerely,

Richard Greenfield

Chair, Arts and Science Curriculum Committee

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This entry was posted in Course Variants, FAS Faculty Board, Motions, Queen's-Blyth Worldwide (QBW), Virtualization / Online learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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