Recapping AAC&U’s 2013 General Education Conference

“What colleges have been doing isn’t wrong or irresponsible. But, it is insufficient.” These opening sentiments from Dr. Terrel Rhodes, AAC&U’s Vice President set the stage for considering the change facing higher education at the 2013 conference on general education. The meeting’s setting along Boston’s Freedom Trail was a telling metaphor for for a conference both honoring the vibrant history of collegiate work and calling for a revolutionary momentum required to rethink higher education.

Opening speaker Dr. Bobby Fong, President of Ursinus College, asked attendees to consider the benefits and drawbacks of technology as a driver of change in higher education. He fears the development of a class-based system of higher education where some choose liberal learning while others are offered career credentialing. In his words, “Knowledge mastery does not equal learning…There is a real-world serendipity at play that leads to learning.”


Plenary speakers Peggy Maki and Sarita Brown both presented visions of the future of higher education. Maki, a higher education consultant and author of Assessing for Learning, suggested that the future for faculty is to become learners of misunderstandings, misconceptions, and errors in logic. Our role, she says, is to invest ourselves in the knowledge synthesis and application business.

Brown, director of Excelencia in Education, laid a framework for meeting and welcoming the post-traditional undergraduate student to higher education. Excelencia focuses on the successes of Latino students, inviting colleges and universities to work with the demographic changes in the American population.

Closing speaker, the renowned psychologist Dr. Robert J. Sternberg, advised attendees on the need for measuring college-level learning through multiple measures, both direct and indirect. Not only must we cause students to learn, we must be able to show that they did. And, this learning is the goal of the college experience – not just the college classroom.

Throughout the conference, presenters in sessions shared their work on campuses from New Hampshire to Southern Utah in general education. During these sessions, some key takeaways for me regarded the need for general education to incorporate student choices and student-directed learning opportunities.

I’m continually excited to be considering general education as a subject of study and brainstorming about how colleges can move their work forward into a new mindset.

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