Magazine article Liberal Education

Give Students a Compass: Can General Education Rise to the Challenge?

Magazine article Liberal Education

Give Students a Compass: Can General Education Rise to the Challenge?

Article excerpt

AAC&U members are strongly committed to general education, and the association is a recognized resource for institutions that are taking a fresh look at general education and its assessment. Now, through our newest national project-Give Students a Compass: College Learning, General Education, and Student Success-AAC&U members are poised to lead a next generation of work on the design and practice of general education.

Funded by Carnegie Corporation, State Farm, and the participating partners, the Compass project is part of AAC&U's ongoing initiative Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP). Through Compass, campus faculty and other academic leaders in three state systems-Wisconsin, Oregon, and California State University-will work to map expected student learning outcomes, deploy "high-impact" educational practices that help students achieve the intended outcomes, and adopt educationally meaningful assessment strategies for general education. As a point of departure, all three systems will use the LEAP "essential learning outcomes" (see Making general education "work" for underserved students will be a strong and sustained focus of the Compass project.

As AAC&U has said consistently through its Greater Expectations initiative (2000-2006) and now through LEAP: if higher education is to foster intentional and integrative learning in students, then we ourselves need to become more intentional in clarifying our shared purposes and designing curricular pathways that support them. The Compass project will test our collective capacity to respond to this challenge.

We need to be honest about the full scope of the problems that beset general education today. General education is the academic "commons" of higher education, yet all the practical resources-faculty, teaching time, rewards, scholarly work-have long since been assigned to departments. This depletion of the commons has, in turn, left general education fragmented and incoherent.

To make general education "work," we need to create new practices that will reliably provide it with a strong, ongoing educational vision and continuously nurture strong intellectual, collaborative, cross-disciplinary leadership committed to the importance of that vision. And we need to provide general education programs with practical resources such as dedicated budgets, a predictable fraction of faculty time allocations, ongoing guidance for new faculty (including adjuncts!), and an accounting system keyed to learning rather than to departments' compilation of student credit hours alone.

Even as we face these chronic problems, there really are strong reasons for hope. The ultimate question for general education today is: what's the purpose? For a very long time, the main purpose has seemed to be the provision of content coverage through required survey courses in various "distribution" categories. Distribution was the latest thing in 1911, and it should embarrass us all that it remains so dominant a design a full century later. But even as the distribution strategy continues to predominate, many campuses have developed general education purposes and programs that are much more vibrantly attuned to the contemporary world. The Compass project will draw directly from these veins of educational creativity. …

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