By Krysten Godfrey Maddocks
Lisa Carr, a first-year College of Online and Continuing Education student with more than 30 years of experience in the health care supply chain industry, didn’t expect her first General Education course to spark an interest in history. A business studies major pursuing a concentration in computer information technology, Carr initially was not sure that a class unrelated to her major would change the way she thought about world events.
“In the history classes during the 1970s, it was about memorization. It wasn’t about your perspective and looking at issues in different ways. (HIS 100 History Perspectives) made me realize that it’s important to pay attention to the world around you as an adult learner,” she said. “I rarely have time to watch TV or read the paper – but I do need to pay attention to what’s going on. Current events become history.”
First-year COCE students this fall can look forward to a General Education curriculum that better considers their unique life experiences and professional needs. Instead of choosing introductory classes in specific disciplines such as history or sociology, students will now follow a core General Education framework in which courses build upon one another, allowing for a broader background in the disciplines and a focus on knowledge acquisition. Courses will also familiarize students with technology, research methodology and academic writing as they move from the 100-level courses through 400-level courses. The number of credits students are expected to take remains the same; however, the approach is slightly different.
“The average age in our adult student population is between 32 and 36 years old,” said Anthony Siciliano, executive director of General Education for COCE. “Our adult learners need more relevancy for their courses to make sense to their professional goals and aspirations. The previous model in which students could choose from a multitude of different course options did not demonstrate that relevancy or pathway that our new program does.”
Courses that Build Upon One Another
In the new framework, students move from Foundation-level courses to Exploration and Integration. The Foundation-level courses aim to anchor students in writing, reading comprehension, quantitative literacy and introductory research skills before they move on to Exploration in four areas of study: Humanities; Social & Behavioral Science; History; and the Natural Sciences. The final tier, Integration, is where students would be expected to synthesize all their Foundation and Exploration skills within an interdisciplinary, seminar-style experience, according to Siciliano.
Julie Fischer, who has worked as a COCE new student academic advisor for three years, said that this approach will help students in all majors get the most out of their experience because assignments are applicable to everyday life.
“The types of assignments that students do in these classes focus on the subject at hand but are also designed to help students work on broader skill sets, such as analyzing primary and secondary sources or making social sciences-related observations about advertisements they see in their own lives every day,” she said.
The core comprises about a third of the credits required to complete a bachelor’s degree; therefore, it is important for students to be successful in these classes and understand how topics relate to their major, the workplace and the world around them. The rigor of the classes remains intense and requires intensive reading, reflection and writing throughout each learning block.
Student feedback from the pilot program was positive. Fischer said that students enjoy courses like HIS-100, which lets them study a broad period of history instead of just World War I, for example. They also enjoy the course format and the integration of course materials within the modules.
The Case for Creating a New Framework
Changes to the General Education program have been in the works since 2014 and began with a survey that asked faculty to outline what was resonating with students and preparing them for higher-level coursework and careers — and what was not. Not only did academic leaders desire to bring relevancy to adult students, they also wanted a way to measure student learning.
“The guiding question we started with was “how would someone who comes to college with more life experience and is already invested in a professional occupation and looking to advance their career find value in this same type of undergraduate experience?’” said Siciliano.
The academic team answered this question by looking at faculty feedback, research and the frameworks around the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AACU) Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Initiative. The team also talked to employers about skills gaps they were seeing in the workplace. Skills like writing proficiency, public speaking, data analysis and knowledge of industry-specific software topped the list of a recent PayScale report outlining the soft and hard skills recent graduates were missing.
Key issues with the previous General Education program:
- The sheer number of course options made it difficult for students to achieve the same transformative experience (practical and applied to real skills needed in the workplace).
- The typical survey style approach (names, dates, places) of most general education courses is more suitable for a traditional college student, age 18 to 22, who generally needs more direction, structure and help developing knowledge acquisition and developmental skills and exposure to different subjects. COCE’s average student, by contrast, is between 32 and 38, works full time while attending college and had difficulty finding professional relevance in a survey-style curriculum.
- The number of courses in the General Education program made it difficult for the academic team to accurately measure student learning.
Benefits of the new program:
Intentional relevance: The new General Education program promotes the achievement of transparent outcomes and professionally relevant career core skills, such as information literacy, quantitative reasoning and problem solving, fluency in multiple methods of communication, global learning and civic engagement, and lifelong learning.
- Integrative learning: The student is front and center in the new learning model. Educational experiences are interdisciplinary and focus on how students can apply what they learn.
- Transformative experiences: The curriculum’s high-impact practices and problem-based learning foster personal growth, directly connect to their programs through the lenses people use to interact with the world, and foster student engagement in their studies and communities.
Because more than 14,000 students would be affected by the change in the General Education curriculum, COCE piloted courses during the last academic year, enabling students like Carr to pick from the new courses as options. Students were required to give feedback so the academic team could incorporate it into courses before they fully launched. Also, faculty learned how to apply new pedagogy strategies specifically geared toward teaching these courses, and academic advisors were trained to talk to students about the new curriculum and the flow of the new courses.
Fischer said the new format may seem a little different at first, but advisors are ready to help new students embrace new technology, answer questions and guide them through their courses.
“I like to pair up a general education course with a major course whenever possible,” Fischer said. “Oftentimes they are surprised by how much they end up liking the general education classes that don’t relate as much to their majors.”
Carr said that she enjoyed progressing through the lessons, watching videos, and participating in Wednesday online webinars, in which instructors would highlight the lesson for the week and delve into what students should be contributing in their weekly assignments. Discussion boards in which students provided their reactions and posted their ideas also helped Carr examine history through different lenses.
“I found it helpful to put my thoughts up there and get other students’ comments,” she said. “Different people look at the same subject from completely different angles.”