This week I learned from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that I’ll be presenting at their January meeting on the Bologna process of “tuning.” I proposed the session with Adina O’Hara, who works on general education and transfer for the state of Kentucky. Joining us will be a counterpart from the Utah system office.
The idea of “tuning” is to get different institutions and whole states (or in Europe, whole countries) to agree on the student learning outcomes that define a certain credential — a diploma, a certificate, or as they’re working on it in Utah and Kentucky, completion of a GE transfer package.
This approach, developed in Europe over the last dozen years, has all kinds of benefits for higher ed. Cliff Adelman is the American who’s made the strongest, most consistent case.
From the perspective of GE and transfer in California, a focus on outcomes like student learning, instead of inputs like a list of courses, would free up the sending institutions to educate in whatever way works for the local context. Faculty could play to their strengths. Students could participate in educational experiences with more texture, customized to the geography, cultural quirks, and demographics of the region. Literally anything would go, so long as at the end of the experience students could demonstrate communication and quantitative reasoning, knowledge of the world’s human cultures through the lenses of social science, the arts, and the humanities, and scientific literacy.
That’s the dream, anyway.
“Tuning” GE in California would rely on a stronger relationship between the public universities and public community colleges than we have now. Today the best of those inter-system relationships center on work in specific disciplines — for example business faculty, or health sciences faculty, reaching agreement on appropriate lower-division preparation for the major.
Kentucky and Utah are already assembling interdisciplinary groups of faculty to figure out their learning goals for the GE transfer package. I’ll be standing next to Adina in January saying that from California’s perspective, we see the upside but have a long way to go.
Instead, for the last two years in California we’ve been working to put more “high-impact practices” into our GE curriculum. By organizing our efforts with an AAC&U project called “Give Students a Compass” we’ve been able to approach this systematically, and run preliminary data indicating these practices have a disproportionate benefit for the traditionally underserved — students of color, the economically disadvantaged, those whose parents didn’t go to college.
These are related strands of GE reform. Tuning would, in theory, take the cardboard box of the GE package and remove the little dividers inside that separate it into three-unit lectures. Then the box might accommodate more high-impact practices — educational experiences that last longer than a single term, for example, or rack up many units at once over a summer immersion.
But one step at a time. Attending the same January conference where I’ll be talking about tuning will be colleagues from the community colleges who — for very good reasons — want nothing to do with tuning. They like the high-impact practices, and like the implications for student success. But in their system of higher ed a focus on outcomes looks more like harm than good, a euphemism for No College Child Left Behind, and teaching to the test.
So, first comes Compass, and high-impact practices, and a collaborative relationship that permits alternate certification of GE for transfer.
Later, if we’re really lucky and things go well in Utah and Kentucky, tuning.