MIU moves to an “open curriculum” for undergraduate studies

In a move to enhance student learning, streamline the pathway to graduation for its many transfer students, and make MIU even more distinctive among American colleges and universities, MIU has adopted an open curriculum for undergraduate education, effective this fall semester.

MIU joins a small but elite group of schools with open curricula. These include Amherst College, Antioch CollegeBrown UniversityGrinnell CollegeHamilton CollegeHampshire College, and Smith College.

“At MIU we are all about continuous improvement of teaching and learning,” said Chris Jones, past dean of undergraduate studies, professor of education, and part of the ad hoc faculty committee on undergraduate enrollment that advocated for this change. “This represents a significant step forward for our university, one that offers students far more control over their undergraduate education.”

What is an open curriculum?

Schools with an open curriculum do not have a core curriculum, distribution requirements, or general education requirements — that is, substantial course requirements outside the major. Most open curriculum schools preserve the major requirement, but beyond that they give students freedom to choose their coursework, guided by ongoing academic advising.

Why is this a better approach for MIU?

“Above all, receptivity is crucial for learning,” Jones said. “Research and common sense indicate that students are more receptive to knowledge in courses they have chosen for themselves than in courses they’re required to take.”

Another factor is the large percentage of students who transfer to MIU from other schools. “About three quarters of our undergraduate students are transfers,” Jones said. “They may arrive with a year or more of transfer credit, meaning they will not be at MIU for a full four years. We want to ensure they have the simplest possible pathway to graduating, without having to stay longer and incur more debt than necessary.”

Yet another element in the decision is that MIU students are generally older than entering students at other schools. “The average age of our entering freshmen students is thirty-one,” Jones said. “They’ve been out in the working world, and when they come to MIU to finish their degrees, they’re pretty clear about what they want to achieve in their education. We want to make sure they have every opportunity to get what they come for.”

What changed in this transition?

“MIU had a set of general education courses required of all students,” Jones said. “These included courses on physics and consciousness, physiology and consciousness, higher states of consciousness, creative and critical thinking, and math. These courses are all valuable, and our academic advisors will recommend them to students, but students themselves will decide whether they wish to take them.”

An open curriculum eliminates a challenge that typically accompanies core curricula, distribution requirements, and general education requirements.

“Required courses will inevitably have students who don’t want to be there,” Jones said. “This can be a challenge for the instructor and the other students. In an open curriculum, every student in the class is there because they’ve chosen to be there.”

How does this make MIU more attractive to students?

“We have a unique undergraduate student demographic,” said Ron Barnett, MIU’s director of marketing. “They’re older, they’re free spirited, they’re disillusioned with conventional education, and they’re looking for something different, including personal development. That’s why they like our block system and Consciousness-Based education. The open curriculum will appeal to these students.”

Are any courses still required?

“Our academic majors remain in place, with their requirements,” Jones said. “Most open curriculum schools still have majors. Like other schools, we also allow students to design their own major and name it as they wish.”

The introductory course for entering students, “Exploring Consciousness,” remains required. “This course is the gateway into the MIU experience,” Jones said. “This is where students learn the Transcendental Meditation technique and explore the new paradigm of consciousness that MIU is based on. It’s the orientation to MIU’s unique Consciousness-Based approach to education.”

Students are also required to take at least one writing course, or two, depending on their entering skill level.

“It’s typical for open curriculum schools to require a couple of courses like this,” Jones said. “Writing is such a critical skill, even in a digital age, and it’s an important mode of learning in itself.”

And then there’s the venerable Forest Academy program, which takes place during the first two weeks of each semester for on-campus students and twice a year for online students. Students choose from a set of interdisciplinary courses on a range of interesting topics with a focus on the consciousness dimension, and they can participate in a TM Retreat. “Students begin each semester with an inward dive,” Jones said. “Then they return to their studies with greater freshness, clarity, and energy.”

How do you ensure students get the breadth of education and important knowledge that general education requirements, core curricula, and general education requirements aim to provide?

“The key is academic advising,” Jones said. “Open curriculum schools place great emphasis on advising, on guiding students in making the curricular choices that will serve them best. We will do that as well. Students are already highly motivated to get the most from their investment in education, and they are amenable to advising.”

Open curriculum schools also monitor patterns of student enrollment. “One concern is that students might take a lot of ‘easy’ courses or only courses in their comfort zone,” Jones said. “Other schools have found no evidence of this, but we will monitor this closely, as they do.”

What’s the history of the open curriculum in the US?

Most schools using this approach conceived and implemented it in the 1960s and early 1970s. But the principle of “freedom to learn” has a much longer history. Even before the Civil War many top American universities were trying out alternatives to traditional forms of higher education, rejecting existing models in favor of allowing students more choice.

Charles Eliot (1834–1926), the president of Harvard who transformed the school from a regional college into America’s most esteemed research university, “urged that all requirements be abolished, leaving students free to study whatever appealed to them,” according to later Harvard president Derek Bok, in his book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More.

Brown’s President Francis Wayland recommended in 1850 that “the various courses should be so arranged that, in so far as practicable, every student might study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.”

At Cornell University, President Andrew White at Cornell was also championing student choice. “The attempt to give mental discipline by studies which the mind does not desire is as unwise as the attempt to give physical nourishment by food which the body does not desire,” he wrote. “Vigorous, energetic study, prompted by enthusiasm or a high sense of the value of the subject, is the only kind of study not positively hurtful to mental power.”

What has been the experience of schools using the open curriculum approach currently?

It’s been very positive.

Brown University organized a project that brought together representatives from eight institutions where such a curriculum had thrived for more than forty years — Amherst College, Antioch College, Hampshire College, New College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, and Wesleyan University, plus Brown.

They met throughout an academic year to identify the values and learning outcomes associated with this educational model and to begin to assess its strengths and weaknesses. In their report they wrote:

“According to alumni interviews and faculty focus groups undertaken as part of this study, students who are granted such freedom display unusual motivation and engagement with their studies and develop independence, self-confidence, and decision-making skills that serve them well in later life. . . . An emphasis on developing the capacity for problem-solving and on promoting creativity, curiosity, and independent thinking is, according to these reports, characteristic of the culture of learning that an open curriculum makes possible.”

The report shows that the open curriculum cultivates the very qualities increasingly needed in the 21st century. It prepares students “to become life-long learners who are energized by novelty and unafraid of the unfamiliar.” It supports students in becoming “versatile, flexible, responsive to change, and comfortable with ambiguity.”

“Rapid development of new technologies calls for nimbleness, adaptability, and even playfulness — an ability to learn quickly new ways of doing things and an imagination for exploring and exploiting their possible applications, finding them not a threat but an occasion for creativity and an opportunity to expand our capacities for expression and discovery. . . . The qualities of mind and character that an education for such a world should cultivate include versatility, flexibility, resilience, and agility. A curriculum designed to develop fearless, independent thinkers and to nurture adventurous spirits would seem especially attuned to its challenges and opportunities.”