Monday, October 3, 2011

Revisiting General Education

 The general education curriculum, as it evolved through most of the 20th century, is a product of higher education’s adaptation to the Industrial Revolution.   The question today is whether that curriculum will meet the needs of individuals and society a generation into the Information Revolution.  Does the changing societal context demand that we re-perceive General Education for what various writers have dubbed the Information Society, the Knowledge Society, the Skills Society, or Conversation Society?
The Industrial Revolution required a higher level of education for professionals who would create industrial innovations.  At the same time, America was becoming urbanized and, due to waves of new immigrants, much more diverse.  Recognizing that higher education increasingly was serving a spectrum of students much broader demographically and vocationally than were served by the classical curriculum, innovators like Dewey, Meiklejohn, and Hutchins determined that General Education was not just about liberating the individual, but about preparing individual students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds to function effectively in society as professionals and citizens. 
            By the 1950s, the idea of General Education as a purposeful and comprehensive curriculum intimately involved in the needs of a democratic society were firmly rooted.  The Truman Commission on Higher Education listed eleven principles or goals for General Education that summed up the function of General Education at mid-century:
·      An ethical code of behavior
·      Informed and responsible citizen solving problems
·      Global interdependence
·      Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
·      Understanding others and expressing one’s self
·      Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
·      The ability to create a satisfying family life
·      The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
·      Developing critical and constructive thinking habits

Still, by the 1980s—when the first impact of the Information Revolution on daily life was beginning to be felt—several national reports decried the disarray in the undergraduate curriculum.  One, sponsored by the National Institutes on Education argued that excessive vocationalism had weakened the ability of a baccalaureate degree to “foster the shared values and knowledge that bind us together as a society” (Malcolm Scully, "U.S. Colleges Not Realizing Their Full Potential," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24,1984). 
A quarter of a century later, the concerns are just as real, but we have a better sense of how the revolution in information and communications technology is affecting the problem.   We are now a generation into the Information Revolution.  And, just as educators a generation into the Information Revolution grappled with the rise of the “utilitarian university,” we are struggling to understand just what it takes to prepare individuals to thrive as citizens and professionals in a globalized knowledge society.
Drivers of Pedagogical Change
            Several societal factors are driving the need for changes in our approach to General Education.  Prime among these is how the Information Revolution has changed the way we think about knowledge and information.  Today, information is ubiquitously available on the web.   In this environment, education is less about the transfer of already organized knowledge than about how to find and evaluate information and turn it into useable knowledge that can be used to solve problems and provide meaningful insights.  Active inquiry, as a result, becomes both a means and an end of General Education--a core skill of the new curriculum.
The rapidity of change in a global economy is also changing how we work.  Increasingly, work tends to get done by teams—often virtual—teams with members at multiple locations.   This work environment puts greater emphasis on collaboration rather than individual competition.  Similarly, rapid changes in knowledge require an environment of continual, bottom-up innovation.   Collaboration and innovation are both professional and civic skills that need to be taught.   Even on the most informal level—as evidenced by Facebook and Twitter today—students need to develop a social ethos to guide how they interact with social networks so that they can develop and sustain professional, civic, and personal relationships through both face-to-face and virtual networks.
An underlying feature of the Information Society is that technology has removed geography as a delimiting factor in how we live and work in communities.   Members of an Information Society live and work in “distributed communities” (we may need a better term to describe this phenomenon) that accomplish much of their work through technology.  This includes virtual working teams, professional associations, and a wide variety of social networks.   The boundaries of these communities tend to blur, as people include both social and professional contacts in the same network.  Inter-cultural understanding takes on a new immediacy: every culture is potentially present in our virtual communities.  General Education, with its emphasis on educating the student for success within the context of his/her society, can help individuals define how to conduct themselves in these new communities.
            Knowledge creation, collaboration, innovation, and community building are workplace and civic skills that should be incorporated into General Education for the Information Society.   The challenge of General Education in this new environment is:
·      To create lifelong learners who can create knowledge
·      To instill problem-solving and innovation as both workplace and civic skills
·      To develop the skills of collaboration across cultures and across geography
·      To help students understand the nature of the communities in which they live and work so that they can become effective members of these communities.
This suggests that the next generation of General Education should not just be a new collection of courses, but courses guided by a common pedagogy designed to engage the students in the above goals, regardless of the discipline being studies.  This new General Education pedagogy should be resource-centered, inquiry-based, and problem-oriented and, perhaps, one that is better integrated with the professional studies part of the undergraduate curriculum.   It should also encourage students to use online technology to  collaborate to find information, evaluate it and turn it into useful knowledge, and apply that knowledge to solve problems.  These are key elements in preparing students for life in an Information Society.
One new pedagogy that is gaining attention in the online learning community is the Community of Inquiry  ( pedagogy.  This approach maintains that the educational experience is the intersection of three factors:  social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.  Social Presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009).  Teaching Presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).  Cognitive Presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece ( ), Kathleen Parker noted a new study, “Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa that reports that “Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills are either ‘exceeding small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students” and that “Thirty-six percent of students experience no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) over four years of higher education.”  Part of the problem, she notes, is the erosion of the core curriculum.   I would argue that the problem is not simply that the core subjects are no longer being taught, but that, when they are taught, they are taught out of context—as simply introductions to the disciplines—rather than as skills one needs to be successful as an individual and as a citizen.
The quality of American undergraduate education has been lamented for a generation now.   The key to improving it is not simply to focus more on the major areas of study, but to examine the total experience and to develop a unique General Education curriculum that prepares students to be socially responsible professionals and citizens.   A new approach to pedagogy is part of the solution.  A new approach to the economics of undergraduate education that will allow for a more integrated general education curriculum to be organized of the traditional disciplines may also be needed.   It is well-past time for the re-envisioning of General Education to be treated as an institution-wide issue.
 NOTE:  This is an expansion of an item that I originally posted in 2010.