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Gen Ed Reform -- Supersized

March 11, 2008

Kathy McAdams considers herself an admirer of the general education revisions announced over the past several years at private institutions like Harvard University. An academic administrator at the University of Maryland at College Park, McAdams wants to see some of the same focus on thematic courses reflected in her campus's curricular changes.

But she also knows that Maryland's gen ed model will look somewhat different. McAdams, the associate dean of undergraduate studies and an associate professor of journalism, has to think about what's best for 24,000 students -- more than three times Harvard's undergraduate student body.

When public flagships look at revamping the curriculum, as Maryland is doing this year as part of a broader strategic planning process, resources factor prominently in the conversation. What are the institution's strengths? How can it develop a model that works for both pre-professional students and those in the liberal arts? Is there funding available to make the changes?

“Our bigness is what makes it exciting,'" McAdams said. "We teach almost everything, and now almost everything can be included in the general education framework.”

Maryland is in the early stages of deciding how to restructure the program. The provost's office has appointed a committee of administrators, faculty and students to make recommendations, and a broad outline of the group's initial work was released for public comment last week. Faculty leaders will have their say in the coming weeks.

Elizabeth Beise, a professor of physics who chairs the committee, said Maryland's accreditor has called the university's general education program overly rigid and "outdated." She said students often perceive the courses as ones to "get out of the way."

“What we’re trying to do is present the material in a more coherent way," Beise said. "Students should be able to pick a theme and find courses in the sciences and humanities that are related."

McAdams agrees that program updates are long overdue. She expects major changes.

"It's not that [the program] is despised, but it's looked at as a utility that a university has to have," she said. "By reconsidering gen ed at the same time we're doing the strategic planning, we're saying we want this to be something that makes a Maryland graduate unique."

Maryland's current program includes a three-course math-writing requirement called fundamental studies. The committee's first proposal wouldn't make major changes to that component of the curriculum. Students now choose at least nine courses from among a range of choices in various departments to fulfill the distributive studies requirement. Additionally, they take at least one 300- or 400-level course that's outside their major, and a class on human cultural diversity.

One idea is to fold the cultural diversity class into either new or restructured courses that emphasize similar themes. Beise said students would be better served by courses that teach across academic fields.

Among the suggested thematic areas are globalization and interdependence; diversity, identity and culture; and civic engagement. McAdams said she expects new courses to be developed, new clusters to emerge and teams of professors to work on changes for months. Beise said some distributive courses could remain untouched, but that some would likely no longer fulfill gen ed requirements.

The advanced course requirement could also be abolished in favor of smaller introductory classes offered to freshmen. The committee has discussed the possibility of translating seminar courses taught for honors students into introductory classes that serve a general audience. Maryland administrators have expressed an interest in offering smaller courses for freshmen.

“One challenge is diversity of students," Beise said. "Some places have a model that all freshmen take the same courses. It would be really challenging for us to do that, and not even clear that it would be best thing for students.”

Both Beise and McAdams agree that one of the key changes would be to allow disciplines that traditionally have no representation in the gen ed curriculum to enter the mix. Most core classes now are either in the College of Arts and Humanities or the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Business, engineering and other professional schools should also have a say, Beise said.

"Students need to see themselves in these issues and respect the way that other disciplines fit in," McAdams said.

Another likely scenario is that with the changes, students would have fewer gen ed course requirements. That, Beise said, would ease the burden for some students who complain that with introductory and major requirements, there's little room to take electives. (But McAdams said there could be changes in the way the university counts Advanced Placement credits -- with the possibility of some credits not allowing students to place out of intro courses.)

Kenneth G. Holum, a professor of history and chair elect of the University Senate, which includes faculty, students and staff, said he likes the idea of adding diversity to courses. But he said he's waiting on more concrete information from the committee before forming a final opinion.

"There doesn't seem to be much of a threat to any of the [academic units]," he said. "But there's always the possibility of turf warfare."

The idea is for the new curriculum to be tested in fall 2009, and for all students to follow the new guidelines by fall 2013.

 

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