Brigid O’Donnell and I went to AAC&U‘s General Education Conference in February. The name of the conference was Creating a 21st Century General Education Program: Responding to Seismic Shifts. My overall feeling is that, in many ways, PSU’s Gen Ed program continues to be cutting edge. We grappled with many of the current issues facing institutions today when we implemented our Gen Ed program 15 years ago. In addition, our implementation of cluster pedagogy demonstrates a renewed focus on some of the important issues for the 21st century. There are, however, some areas that deserve our increased attention.
The conference had five themes: 1. Proficiency, 2. Agency and self-direction, 3. Integrative learning and problem-based inquiry, 4. Equity, and 5. Intentionality, transparency, and assessment. Each session of the conference was labeled with one of these themes to indicate its primary focus. Brigid and I attended different sessions during each time period. I won’t summarize each session but instead, I will comment on my larger observations gleaned from the sessions.
Many of the sessions were related to the idea that the role of instructors is changing, or at least, should be changing. Here are a few examples of the kinds of changes that are necessary. Our role is no longer “keeper of knowledge.” Instead we need to help students make meaning out of the vast amount of knowledge at their fingertips and to help students connect their higher education experiences to things they value (their personal and professional lives outside of the University). There was an emphasis in many sessions on the difference between “facilitating learning” and “teaching” with a clear preference for “facilitating learning” as the way to help students make meaning. That shift to put student learning rather than faculty teaching at the center of the classroom challenges many ideas about what education looks like.
One of the ways that the conversation about “facilitating learning” vs. “teaching” played out in several sessions was in changing the focus of a Gen Ed program (and maybe even majors) from content to helping students learn how to learn. When we “teach,” we often focus on the transmission of content knowledge while when we “facilitate learning,” we help student learn how to learn which is in a lot of ways more valuable for the 21st century since the amount of content knowledge in any particular discipline has exploded. This shift of focus represents an area of major change for many faculty. This shift is also the focus of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community, funded by our Davis Educational Foundation grant, that I’m working with Robin DeRosa to initiate.
Another example of faculty needing to work with students in different ways involves how we prepare students for graduation. We have traditionally focused on helping students to write resumes and cover letters but that is not the way people get jobs today. We should be helping students to build their professional learning networks. Students need “career lattices” rather than “career ladders.” Building these personal networks helps to build social capital which students can then tap into when they are looking for jobs after graduation. This is especially important for first generation students and underrepresented groups. We can bring our alumni networks into the conversation to help build social capital for our students but we should also be using technology to engage students with larger professional networks in their areas of interest. Many faculty don’t use a lot of technology in their own development of professional networks and so again, this may be a major change.
Another major focus of the conference was the importance of aligning programs, courses, and assignments with learning outcomes. Several sessions discussed the use of backward design to create programs, courses, and assignments with intention. Several sessions also discussed assessment mechanisms for determining how well programs, courses, and assignments actually support the articulated learning outcomes.
There were several sessions about the ways in which University structures inhibit 21st century General Education. Lack of spaces to support the collaborative, engaged, truly student-centered pedagogical practices is one of those inhibitors. Others include the artificial separation of General Education from the major, issues related to transferability of these experiences to and from the University, traditional methods of evaluating student work, individual classes, and entire programs, and ensuring equity and inclusion of all student populations. Plymouth State seems to be ahead of the conversation in several of these areas. For example, we have been transferring courses to and from the University for 15 years in ways that accommodate the non-traditional categories in our Gen Ed program. We have also created a set of “Connections” courses whose purpose is to make a connection between the major and Gen Ed. We have begun to create open labs that might be spaces to support the 21st century pedagogy described throughout the conference. But we still have work to do in these areas. In addition, we haven’t had much conversation at all about evaluation of student work created using these pedagogical practices. We haven’t had much conversation about who is included and excluded when we engage in these practices.
I came away from the conference feeling that Plymouth State University is ahead of the curve in our conversations about student agency and self-direction as well as integrative learning and problem-based inquiry. We are also beginning to address the issue of assessment of General Education. Our practice in these areas is perhaps a bit lacking, however. In addition, I think we don’t talk enough about the other conference themes of proficiency, equity, intentionality, and transparency.