Curriculum Development: Department-less Interdisciplinary Program Provides Flexibility for Returning Adult Students

The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies (BAiLS) program, an interdisciplinary program at Northern Arizona University designed to meet the needs of returning adult students, is less structured than programs with similar goals at other institutions. This looser structure encourages collaboration among disciplines and provides for greater flexibility, says Larry Gould, associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

The BAiLS program is not housed within a single academic department. Students who enroll in the program take courses from a variety of departments on campus, at other locations throughout the state, or online. “We don’t have special classes for these students. They take the same courses as everybody else. They may just take a different mix of those courses,” Gould says.

Gould chairs a council that includes representatives from the main departments that contribute to the program as well as representatives from the distance learning office, the faculty senate, and the liberal studies council. The council meets twice a month to discuss curriculum changes, funding, and delivery of courses. “It’s easy to create a program. It’s more difficult to deliver it,” Gould says.

The curriculum of the program is similar to those at other institutions, but the program’s structure is very different, Gould says. “I’m doing three [external] interdisciplinary program reviews this year, and so far I haven’t found one that operates as well as ours. I found that all of them have a more defined structure, but that structure gets in the way. [The structure] doesn’t allow for certain types of communication. Rather than creating a totally independent department and isolating that department by hiring people just to be in that department, we draw upon faculty and administrators from across the whole university.”

Because the BAiLS program incorporates courses from different departments, advance planning is essential to ensure that students in the interdisciplinary program can enroll in the courses they need. Gould plans two years in advance to make accommodations for projected student enrollment. Generally the program fills existing course sections, but occasionally student demand will require new sections. If new instructors are needed to teach these courses, the Office of Distributed Learning provides the funding, but each instructor becomes a member of the department in which his or her discipline is housed.

When faculty from other departments work in an interdisciplinary program, the hidden cost of diverting faculty from their primary responsibilities within their own departments may become problematic. To minimize this hidden cost, the BAiLS program does not create its own courses. “We will work with faculty to develop courses when we need them, but the courses remain within the individual departments and retain their course prefix. That way we’re not stealing faculty from those units to teach courses specific to us. If they’re going to work with us to create a course, we ask them to also talk about how the course can benefit their own programs,” Gould says.

Currently, student advising occurs within the individual departments. For example, a student within the BAiLS program whose emphasis is in biology would have an adviser from the biology department. However, all the distance learners are advised in a central office. “We’re moving toward taking all the advising away from the departments and doing it all in one place because it’s our degree,” Gould says.

The program’s biggest strength is the ability to respond to students’ needs. To get a clear understanding of these needs, the programs conduct focus groups with current students, those about to graduate, and recent graduates of the programs. Questions include

  • Why did you choose the program?
  • What value do you see in the program?
  • How do you think this program will help (or has helped) your career?

The focus groups also ask about individual identity. “By and large, these students have an identity problem. ‘I’m not quite sure who I am. Am I a biology major, or am I an interdisciplinary studies major?’ That’s something we continue to work on. The good part of it, though, is that because of the flexibility of the program, students are able to fashion a set of courses with adviser approval that are more likely to meet their needs,” Gould says.

“I don’t want to sound like someone who says, ‘The students will tell us what they want, and eventually, like a kid, will eat everything that’s good for him.’ We know what we want in the program, but there are places where we can make changes without corrupting what we believe is a good set of learning outcomes,” Gould says.

The flexibility of the program enables students to combine diverse interests. For example, one student was able to combine his interests in criminal justice and environmental studies. As a criminal justice major, he would have been able to take perhaps up to nine hours in environmental studies. With the interdisciplinary program, he was able to take the basic criminal justice requirements and 24 hours of environmental studies courses.

Most of the students in the interdisciplinary program are adult learners. There are higher percentages of minorities, single mothers, and women than in the rest of the university. “These people have a fairly good idea of what’s going to help them succeed. [In focus groups] we may ask them, ‘Why do you want something like intercultural education?’ They’ll say, ‘Because that’s what I do. I talk to people from very different cultures, and I need to know how to better interact with them,’” Gould says.

Based on a recent program review, the structure of the program will be changed from one that offers only bachelor of arts degrees to one that also offers bachelor of science degrees. Under the current BA-only program, “adult learners suffer through four semesters of a modern language. They’re in their 40s and 50s; they’re not going to pick up a modern language. They’re past that. But they can pick up statistics and research methods [a requirement for a BS],” Gould says.

In addition to serving adult students, the program also serves as a way of retaining students who, for whatever reason, need to leave campus before graduating. “We can usually keep these students by changing them from on-campus to distance students, and because the program is flexible enough, we can usually get them all the courses they need,” Gould says.

“For anybody contemplating doing something like this, I would urge them to try to address the needs of more than a single group of students. Then you bring in the color, the flavor, the diversity that allows younger students to learn from older students, and the older students will feel more assimilated into the student body. If you have a class that has nothing but 40-year-olds, those students are not assimilated into the university culture. If you have a student body that has nothing but 21-year-olds in it, they don’t have the opportunity to learn from their peers who are a bit older,” Gould says.

Contact Larry Gould at