Monday, September 15, 2014

Rethinking Gen Ed/Undergrad Ed: A Tale of Two Meetings

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During the past two weeks, I've had the opportunity to take part in two different but overlapping conversations about the future of undergraduate education.  The first came on the UT Austin campus, when I attended a full-day symposium--Campus Conversation--dedicated to the complicated but important question of how a research university like mine can do a better job of integrating research and discovery into the undergraduate curriculum.  In some ways, I think the charge of the symposium was too narrowly conceived.  It struck me as an important question, but also something of a defensive response to legislative threats to the value of research that doesn't make money.  My students can benefit from my activities as an active and engaged scholar without themselves "doing research".  If we define research in broad terms, as something more like question-driven learning, then I'm fully on board.  If we mean that all freshmen should be treated like miniature versions of ourselves, I'm a bit less enthused.  In the same way that graduate programs have run into trouble by assuming that the end goal of graduate training was solely to produce imitations of ourselves, it makes no sense to treat all undergraduate as future researchers.  It DOES make sense to leverage the power of curiosity and digital tools to structure our courses around questions to be answered, problems to be solved.  I will say more about this Campus Conversation in a separate post (and I've written a quick overview of it, with links, here).

The consensus of the faculty was that we need to find ways to re-imagine our undergraduate courses and curricula to engage our students in meaningful, authentic learning experiences.  How we do that, given the current state of budgetary austerity under which we are operating, is a different and more challenging question.  The problem with meaningful and authentic learning experiences is that they tend to require a lot of resources, especially human resources.  Indeed, it is the human interaction--the interaction of teacher and student (or, in other terms, novice and expert)--that stands at the center of the learning experience and drives it.  It is exactly why, even as we experiment with taking certain kinds of learning out of the classroom (i.e. basic content acquisition), the interactive piece of learning--online or f2f--becomes all the more necessary.  In "The Power of the Personal", Daniel Chambliss observes: "Time and again, finding the right person, at the right moment, seemed to have an outsize impact on a student’s success—in return for relatively little effort on the part of the college."  In other words, the secret sauce of student success seems to have student-faculty interaction as a main ingredient.  Automation has a place to play in the 21st education at resource-starved institutions, I would contend; but faculty, especially tenure-track faculty (not because they are superior to non-TT faculty but because it says something about the institution's commitment to them and their subsequent willingness to give back to the campus community), are the sine qua non of meaningful learning experiences and student success, both narrowly and broadly conceived.

Today and tomorrow, I am in Washington DC as a member of a Digital Tools sub-committee for an AAC&U project on re-imagining general education for the 21st century.  The project, called GEMS, is in the planning stage of submitting a proposal to the Gates Foundation.  In this meeting as well as the two earlier ones, we have spent a lot of time talking broadly about general education and its role in the undergraduate curriculum, especially at a time when many students "swirl" around, collecting credits from a variety of institutions until they have enough of the right kind of credits to graduate.  I'm not that old, yet I come from a generation that arrived at college with perhaps a handful of AP credits. I passed some graduation requirements by taking exams--essentially, a form of competency-based education that has always existed.  But I remained a residential student for 4 years, taking full credit loads.  I grew up not far from a community college and even had to take a course there in order to graduate from high school; but few people in my graduating high school class took community college courses with the intention of transferring them and counting them towards their college graduation requirements.  My generation went to college and entered into an essentially closed ecosystem.  That ecosystem is no longer closed.  My UT Austin students take courses at community colleges, at other UT System campuses, and online to "get done with" their GE requirements.  As an institution, we have little control over their lower-division curriculum at this point, even as we lament the ways that this change has not served our undergraduates all that well.  Frequently we encounter upper division students who have weak writing skills, little sense of how to construct an argument from evidence, and a general lack of basic content knowledge.  Oftentimes, they have to retake introductory pre-reqs in their majors in order to be prepared for upper division courses.  This prolongs their time to degree and costs the institution as well as the student.

Given this widespread change in how students go to college, it is clear that general education is in need of reform; and that we need to have more cooperation between institutions, more agreement on what we think are the learning goals and outcomes--the Degree Qualification Profile--of a successful student.  I hesitate to use the word "standardization"; but, in fact, that's partly what we need.  But we also need to use this as an opportunity to get general education right--at least for this generation of students.  My sub-committee, the Digital, has spent a lot of time trying to identify our task.  What, exactly, is it that we expect the digital learning environment to support and facilitate.  Today, continuing a conversation that began in June, we reached the conclusion that, in the end, what we were talking about was how the digital would support and, ideally, enhance, authentic learning. 

I was struck by this focus on authentic learning today, in part because I realized that we all see essentially the same thing: we need to find ways to make student learning more authentic, more discovery-oriented.  Our group would argue that the digital is essential to this curricular transformation, not because it replaces the human element of learning but because it enhances it.  It highlights exactly what it is that we faculty bring to the classroom.  It makes sacred that time when we share space with our students.  It means that we can "offload" most content acquisition to other spaces and spend the time in class engaging in higher order thinking and analysis.  It means that we can be there for the hard stuff, helping to prepare our students for an adult life and working world that will require them to be nimble and adaptable, to constantly learn new and complicated skills.  If they are going to be prepared for this workplace, we need to think hard about how and what and where they are learning.  We need to understand that the notion of students being graduates of individual institutions means something very different today than it did even a decade ago.  Things won't change much for the Harvards and Reeds of the higher education world; but for the rest of us, they have already changed and we are already trying to catch up to the new reality.  Tomorrow's task: articulate in clear terms the role of the digital in this catch-up game, as it pertains to general education courses.


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