Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking. ~Antonio Machado
Courses in the Environment and Sustainability (E&S) program in the UBC Department of Geography have significantly fewer prerequisite courses than many other major programs. As a result, the E&S program is characterized by a less vertically integrated program structure. Such a structure complicates understanding of how and when program level outcomes are being or will be achieved. We call this type of programming ‘non-linear’ as there are very few formalized pathways for students to take through the program; there are plenty of required courses, but no recommended order to take them in.
This non-linear structure of course pathways characterizes many programs that focus on studying complex human-environment problems. For example, environmental studies, environmental education, and sustainability studies programs often have non-linear programming. To compare the types of course structures that exist in different departments, we used a course network analysis tool developed at UBC to generate diagrams for quick visual analysis of connectivity. The difference between non-linear and structured programs is immediately noticeable using this tool. For example, the differences between Chemistry (structured) and History (non-linear) are remarkable. In English, you see some early course laddering resulting in a hybrid diagram. The non-linearity is prevalent in UBC humanities (e.g. English, History, Philosophy) departments, while many UBC science and social science departments seem to have a structured approach to course prerequisites and course laddering. Geography is unique in that it includes courses and synthesizes knowledge from both the Arts (GEOG) and Sciences (GEOB). As a result, the Geography course pathways show some similarity to both non-linear and hierarchical department course laddering structures. GEOB courses tend to follow the physical science model of more course laddering and hierarchy, while GEOG courses lean more towards non-linear choices (the exception being when Geography courses require some physical science prerequisites, resulting in some hierarchies in the Geography diagram).
Clearly, the non-linear pathways in the E&S program (mostly GEOG and GEOB courses) complicate identifying when and how program outcomes can be achieved and planning course laddering wherein basic learning prefaces more complex learning and subject matter. While third year or fourth year standing may be required for courses that do not have prerequisites, what skills and experiences has that third or fourth year student been exposed to and equipped with to prepare them to tackle more complex learning and achieve their own learning goals? This initial work on identifying the type of structures that exist in Geography stimulated several questions:
- In what order are students taking courses?
- Are there a few dominant pathways that they are following?
- What are the primary motivations for following these pathways?
- If it is based on course availability, are there bottlenecks that the department can help alleviate?
- Are there electives that all students that graduate are taking, and should these be considered core courses?
- Which electives are consistently taken by non-program majors?
These questions extend beyond what pathways exist for students to take, and focus more on what are the most commonly chosen pathways and why are students following them?
To examine these questions, we compiled student enrollment data (2009-2013) on students that graduated from the E&S program. This data allowed us to compare temporal enrollment patterns among required courses.
This gave us insight into which courses were commonly taken by students in the program. Although it gave us a feel for how enrollment varied year to year in certain courses and identified electives that had high enrollments for program majors (e.g. GEOG 350), it didn’t help us address the questions of what the most frequent student pathways were and why the students are choosing them.
To tackle those issues, we have reached out to the good folks at UBC Arts Instructional Support and Information Technology (Arts ISIT) to look into ways of visualizing student enrollment data. This is an ongoing process, but we are now working with exciting software packages (Eventflow, Gephi, NodeXL) that will allow us to aggregate the many pathways students take into easily visualized groups. Eventflow was designed to help medical practitioners track patient treatments as they move through the system, but we are adapting it to track courses and milestones students reach as they move through our program. We can also select a course and see what the common courses students take before and after that course, eventually leading to graduation. The below image shows an Eventflow analysis of the percentage of students who take first year GEOG or GEOB courses prior to taking GEOG 310, a mandatory course in the E&S program.
It appears that one of the best ways to get a grip on student pathways on a large scale and in non-linear program contexts is to tap into the growing field of Learning Analytics. That is learning analytics as the institutional and departmental level – tracking enrollment and demographic data (not focusing on learning management systems, which are another large part of learning analytics). Such work is delivering some promising early results for us, results that will allow us to better inform faculty about their students’ backgrounds, develop program-wide curriculum outcomes and build a more focused program for undergraduate students. As this project continues through the 2015/2016 academic year, we will share the results of this work on this site.
Feel free to leave a comment below or contact us via email if you are facing similar challenges or want to share information on this process as we work our way through the next steps.