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Beyond the News

Pop-up higher ed courses respond to events in real time

University Business, February 2018
  • TIMELY TOPIC—Students analyzed one another’s digital profiles in a pop-up class titled “Thriving in a Digital World” at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Campus IT members Erik Lightbod and Chris Lei (at podium) taught the free class, which offered students a single credit in fall 2017.
  • TIMELY TOPIC—Students analyzed one another’s digital profiles in a pop-up class titled “Thriving in a Digital World” at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Campus IT member Chris Lei and Erik Lightbody (in blue shirt) taught the free class, which offered students a single credit in fall 2017.

Colleges don’t generally plan academic programs to respond to breaking news. But in the last few years, a handful of higher ed institutions have offered multisession “pop-up courses” that faculty can design quickly for students who want to earn credit for studying events in real time.

“Given the rate at which things are changing in the country right now, we can’t always reflect those changes efficiently enough in our curriculum,” says Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.

“Like many schools, we were dealing with issues of diversity and inclusion on campus, and we needed some way to pull people together to let them talk about their concerns and emotions.”

In spring 2017, about 100 students at St. Michael’s took pop-up courses titled “Black Lives Matter” and “White Privilege.” In fall 2017, students analyzed one another’s online profiles in a course called “Living in a Digital World” offered by the college’s IT department.

The courses are free, and students can apply for a single credit by submitting completed assignments for review.

Course launch logistics

A key to timeliness is not subjecting the courses to a lengthy committee review when faculty or students propose them. The pop-ups require only the approval of Talentino and the dean of the college.

“Keep it simple,” she says. “Whenever there’s a decision to be made, make a decision in favor of greater access for more people.”

The courses, which have run for several weeks in the evenings or on successive weekends, have also sparked new collaborations on campus. The Black Lives Matter and white privilege pop-ups were each taught by a team comprising faculty and a staff member from the college’s Center for Multicultural Affairs.

Talentino says she was inspired to launch the courses by a school just a few hours south in the same state.

Pop-ups have become entrenched in the curriculum at Bennington College since they were first offered in 2015. At the time, faculty and students wanted to study the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in a more formal way than a town hall discussion or community meeting.

Bennington’s pop-ups have covered media bias, the Charlie Hebdo attack, the 2016 presidential election, gender in the workplace, regional water pollution and gravitational waves.

Faculty members had sought more flexibility and immediacy even though the college refreshes about half the courses in its curriculum each year, says Isabel Roche, provost and dean of the college.

“We felt that when it came to unfolding events, whether international, national or local, they were invariably—at our school and probably at most schools—relegated to non-academic space,” Roche says.

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