Choice-based Curriculum: Striking A Fine Balance

A balance between mandatory and choice-based courses is essential and can only be achieved if discussions begin by examining the very basis of the curriculum document

A lot has been written and discussed about the need for a more flexible and choice based curriculum in higher education. Whereas many agree on the need to have more choices for students, unfortunately there is not much discussion on strategies for achieving the same and also very little literature on measure of its success.

The traditional education system in most universities worked on certain assumptions, such as: for the students to complete a degree in a certain program, they would need to have completed a fixed set of courses as prescribed in the curriculum. Usually, students did not exercise many choices in selecting their courses and if at all the option was available, it was limited to certain specialisation courses in the final year of their degree or in the form of some other 'lighter' courses such as sports, music or fine arts. However, the notion that all students must undergo a fixed palette of courses has now been challenged in many institutions of higher learning in the form of choice-based curriculum. 

Choice-based curriculum and its possibilities need to be understood in greater depth or else it can end up becoming just another jargon that institutes use to further their marketing campaigns and end up doing a huge disservice to students. Perhaps it is a good idea to first understand the purpose and meaning of the term 'curriculum'.

A curriculum is not only a document that informs students about the courses and credits they need to study in order to be eligible for an award of a degree or diploma but, more importantly, it is also a statement of a certain order. The curriculum document quite often lays out the challenges and problems of the world and charts out a whole scenario wherein students are able to address these problems in the future. The curriculum should be ideally as much a vision statement as it is a practical document that lays the courses, credits, contact hours, evaluation etc. Quite often, vision statements are a continuity of the foundational moments of a university and hence each is unique. If we start to look at curriculum from the point of view of larger intentions, learning objectives and outcomes, we can identify the question of choice better while not binding students to the rigid list of courses. 

As much as students need specialised knowledge that can be imparted through certain mandatory courses, one increasingly feels that the present-day challenges of the world cannot be addressed by only specialised knowledge. Professionals will need to develop a broad-based understanding of a variety of topics beyond their own discipline. Rather, than dictating courses that allow students to develop this broad view, it is best to let students decide what they want to study beyond their mandatory curriculum. At my institution, Navrachana University, we have introduced a completely choice-based curriculum where a minimum of 15 per cent of course credits come from courses of students’ choice. They can choose courses anywhere in the university. For example a student studying mechanical engineering can do substantial courses in journalism or even bio-chemistry program. Or a student studying in Business studies can do courses in Chemistry or even Architecture programmes. 

Many students use this opportunity to develop competencies in other allied or totally unrelated domains whereas others use these courses to get a flavour and develop an understanding of other disciplines. Even mandatory courses in one’s discipline become electives for others. 

However, the introduction of choice-based curriculum needs a major rethink as to how we define mandatory courses itself. By definition, mandatory courses are a non-negotiable set of knowledge base that must be imparted to students in order for them to be given a degree in the said discipline. But, a closer analysis of mandatory courses in most curricula reveals that over the years it often becomes a collection of obsolete courses, repetitive content and legacy issues, making it credit-heavy. The sheer bureaucracy of large universities does not always allow a relook at these curricula. However, the National Education Policy of 2020 is a boon that can allow us to question and examine the long list of mandatory courses that students have to undertake.

However one needs to have a measure view of issue of offering choices to students. A student during the course of her time in university must also feel and experience belonging to a particular department or disciplinary fraternity. It is such sense of belonging or bonds between the students and their professors that also allow student to develop a deeper perspective and a viewpoint in their own discipline. Some universities across the world are presently offering so much choice to students in their university that eventually the students are going everywhere without calling any department or place as her home. This is leading to an incomplete or detached feel to the time spent in the university. The university in India traditionally have fostered a very good bond between students and teachers and in the zeal of offering choices we should not miss out on this very Indian culture of forming everlasting bonds between students and teachers.

At the same time, a healthy discussion on what really constitutes mandatory courses is most urgent. This also allows institutions to efficiently define the non-negotiable curriculum for any degree but with the opportunity to make the course content more compact, thus allowing credit space to be freed up for students to choose courses from other disciplines. The choice-based curriculum will fail if we do not examine the complete curriculum, remove redundant content, combine courses and move to a more conceptual teaching rather than focus on only information. 

A fine balance between mandatory & choice-based courses is essential and can only be achieved if discussions begin by examining the very basis of the curriculum document. It cannot be achieved by adding some elective courses over and above what the students are being taught today. It needs a fundamental shift in the way we look at teaching-learning processes.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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