Now is a time of rapid innovation in higher education. It seems like every day we see new pedagogical techniques and teaching models being introduced to enrich learning.
Of course, individual faculty innovate all the time, taking on new approaches to courses or aspects of the major. At a higher level of aggregation, departments are inventing environmental supports for innovation and experimentation. Our Government department is one example of a unit that has moved on this opportunity, creating a new category, called GOVX courses. These new courses create a context for innovative teaching, experimental course design, and new methods of connecting campus with the wider world.
One example is a course led by Professor Marc Howard, which is a new and ideal followup to an existing course, “Prisons and Punishment.” After being exposed to the theories and research literature in criminal justice and prison policy, the students can enter into an intensive experiential learning activity closely mentored by a senior faculty member. The activity applies the newly-learned theories to formulate a real proposal for prison reform (which might address issues of policing, sentencing policy, prison conditions, etc.) The full vision is to have some class meetings within a local maximum-security prison, collaborating with incarcerated prisoners who are also taking college courses. The students culminate their project work with a presentation in a public event. The course meetings are more like research team project meetings than lectures or discussions of readings.
Combining theory and practice is not new; many traditional courses have attempted to do so within the same class. Often, the “practical” side of learning uses materials that attempt to convey real-world problems, ripe for applying the theories learned in the earlier part of the course. However, the ability to simulate the real world inside a traditional course is sometimes limited. The Howard course structure, as with many community-based learning (CBL) courses, enriches the theoretical learning with a true, real-world experience not a simulated real-world experience.
For their graduate programs, the Government department started piloting innovative course modules, many bearing only one credit. These will also be offered as GOVX courses. Some are aimed at professional development, like a course in writing research grant proposals to support scholarship. Others might be research methods courses focusing on specific statistical techniques. Others teach techniques of close reading and critique required of the scholar in reviewing journal-article submissions.
Such courses combining theory and practice, or focused on skills, will not replace the crucial work that goes in theory-focused courses or seminars focused on critical inquiry. They expand the diversity of approaches that we can offer students. As more and more Georgetown courses share these design features, we’re learning that students love the approaches, devote more time to the course, and report back deep appreciation for the courses as expanding the ways that Georgetown prepares them for life beyond graduation.
Faculty have been shifting their approach to teaching and learning in many departments in the University to take advantage of the opportunity to enrich our students’ experience. These are great examples of faculty leading the effort to innovate in their pedagogy, to the benefit of their students.