Is this Bandwagon a Handbasket?

One of the most reliable reflex actions in higher education is the urge to re-make general education every decade or so.  The effort described in this article is exemplary for its inclusion of just about every current buzzword and trendy reform.  Competencies. Portability. “Outside the classroom.” Design thinking.  Learning Outcomes. Value of degree.  Measuring outcomes. Marketable skills. 

My prediction: schools will come up with cute names that offer a local brand for a program that is a hybrid of existing models dressed up with features that are buzz-wordable.  None of it will be based on known outcomes – methods and models will be attractive because school X tried it (and each of our institutions will fixate on a small number of role model institutions), not because of evidence that it works.  A small group of faculty will champion it and non-tenure stream faculty will be recruited to support it with implicit promises of employment.  The more entrepreneurial departments will help craft the program in a manner that generates enrollments and a share of the “new resources” that will be necessary to make the program a success.

The efforts will be marked by no real documentation of what the failings of the current system are and even if some are identified, the new program will not demonstrably address those failings. Political considerations will dominate so that even if the underlying trope is about basic skills, marketability, and preparation, the new program will have heavy doses of “values” education around race, class, gender, social justice, etc. and the content will be more political compromise than coherent.  No one will articulate criteria by which the success or failure of the new program can be evaluated.  And in ten years it will need to be replaced, primarily because “we never really implemented it as we planned.”

Most of all, schools that are really concerned about enrollment and career placement will never seriously consider the fact that almost no one enrolls at a college because of its general education program and almost no employer hires a graduate on the basis of general education skills.  This is especially true when every school is jumping on the bandwagon – the illusion of uniqueness in general education is just that, an illusion.  And for four year schools, it’s a funny strategy to put ooodles of energy into the one part of their curriculum that is the same as what students get in community or junior colleges.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but by now we should have learned to be wary of things with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stamp on them.  Be sure to read the press release behind this story. There you will see that this effort is an extension of Gates’ ongoing efforts to import ideas from K12 into higher education and it’s tied very closely to the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile. Expect more rubrics, more mapping of curricula, and more efforts to turn faculty judgments of student work into grist for the big data mill.