AAC&U General Education Conference

Annette Holba, Annemarie Conlon, Sandra Van Gundy, Hilary Swank, and I attended the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) General Education Conference in Phoenix last week. The AAC&U is an organization focused on promoting liberal education. They do some great work, sponsoring lots of conferences and other professional development opportunities for faculty and administrators focused on liberal education. They also create a lot of publications that are based on solid research useful to anyone interested in liberal education. The conference that we attended was outstanding and I would recommend that anyone interested in general education figure out a way to engage with this organization. This blog post is a summary of some of the ideas we encountered at the conference. Every session that I attended was related to the cluster-focused changes that we’re making at PSU.

The full name of the conference was General Education and Assessment: Design Thinking for Student Learning. I’ve written about the role that I think design thinking can play in our development of our new First Year Seminar. Many of the sessions that I attended used the design thinking process as part of the session itself. Others described how design thinking can help our students learn better. Still others focused on using design thinking in the general education revision process. The result is that I now have a much better idea of how the non-linear, design thinking process (empathize, design, ideate, prototype, and test) can be used in a variety of situations.

The empathize step seemed to be particularly emphasized in these sessions as presenter after presenter reiterated the idea that we need to include the people we’re designing for in the design process. In other words, if we are designing a new general education program for our students, we need to include our students’ perspectives in the design process. One presenter told a story about how at his university, students were showing up late to their classes, particularly their Gen Ed classes. The faculty determined that students were disinterested in their classes and designed a series of interventions to try to get students to class on time. None of them worked. When students were finally included in the conversation, the faculty learned that the bus schedules in the city where their largely commuter student population lived didn’t match the class schedule at the university. The university worked with city officials who managed the bus schedules and once there was alignment between the class schedule and the bus schedules, the students showed up to class on time. The faculty had decided that tardiness was a sign of not caring about classes while reality was that tardiness was a sign of the reality of a bus schedule. Any solution not focused on bus schedules was bound to fail. Valuable lesson!

The main thing I learned at this conference is that the academic changes we’re thinking about are already part of the national conversation about general education. Lots of institutions are already implementing the ideas that we’re discussing. What are we currently discussing? “Wicked problems,” helping students tell their own educational story, integrative learning where we help students to understand how the courses they’re taking fit together, interdisciplinarity, “authentic assessment” probably related to the development of a portfolio, design thinking, and, as an overall conversation, the importance of general education to help students develop 21st century skills and “habits of mind.” Each of these topics was addressed in multiple sessions that I attended. As a result, I feel as though I can say with confidence that we are having the right conversations as we move forward with rethinking our general education program.

In this post, I want to focus on the area that was most eye-opening to me. How do we help students to be able to articulate their own educational story? I’ve written in the past about how the ways in which we present information can support (or not) students’ abilities to talk about why they’re taking the courses they’re taking. I focused on our curriculum planning guides and DegreeWorks by asking: if we don’t want students to view their degree requirements as a check list, why do we present those requirements as a check list? My idea is that if we think carefully about how we present information about a student’s educational process, we can help that student to be able to tell their educational story. That idea was supported at this conference.

Helen Chen of Stanford was part of a plenary presentation where she discussed how we might make student learning more visible. In a subsequent presentation, she talked specifically about the student’s transcript. What if, she asked, you could design a representation of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students gain in a general education program? She suggested that we might use the student transcript as a portable, digital representation of student learning. She had lots of ideas about how we might do this. For example, the transcript is typically organized as a semester by semester representation of the courses that a student has taken. What if we organized the transcript around learning outcomes? Could each learning outcome be listed along with a list of courses that the student has taken to meet those outcomes? Such an organization would signal to the student the reason that they’ve taken the courses that they’ve taken. This might then help the student to be able to articulate those reasons as a way of beginning to tell their own educational story.

Chen had some more radical ideas to suggest to us. She suggested that our current representations of transcripts is very text-heavy. What if we tried to represent the learning outcomes visually? Maybe they could be color-coded in a way that creates a “skill-print” for each student. For example, we might decide that yellow represents creative thinking while blue represents technology skills. One student might have a transcript heavily colored yellow because they’ve taken a lot of creative thinking focused courses with just a little blue to represent the few technology focused courses that they’ve taken while another student has an even mix in their skill print between yellow and blue. She referred to a Chronicle of Higher Education article in which the Stanford University registrar, Thomas C. Black, suggested that the transcript should be more than a record of everything a student has forgotten. The transcript could contain “links for study abroad and internships, robotics competitions and volunteer activities. An electronic portfolio could include examples of creative writing or artwork, or an engineering prototype a student developed.” I find these conversations compelling since they are about communication and how to send the messages we actually want to send in those communications.

Chen also advocated for a closer connection between the record we keep of the student learning and the student work itself. She is a strong proponent of ePortfolios. I particularly liked her articulation of the different purposes that we might have for ePortfolios. We might, for example, see the portfolio as a showcase, something to be curated by the student at the end of their educational experience to present a professional identity to their audience of potential employers. We might instead see the portfolio as a learning portfolio that explores the process of the student’s learning, articulating the student’s intellectual development for their advisors, mentors, family members, etc. to see. I really liked her reference to Ashley Kehoe’s blog post which explores the meaning of the e in ePortfolio. We usually think the e stands for electronic. Kehoe suggests the e can stand for experience or evidence or engagement. In other words, the portfolio allows learners to capture, integrate, and reflect on their experiences, to present evidence of their learning, and to deeply engage in the iterative process of their own learning. Chen further suggested that the e might stand for empowerment and equity.

This was a great conference that furthered my thinking (and my excitement) about what we’re doing with clusters in a number of ways. I’ll provide a session by session summary in my next post.

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