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WASHINGTON -- The academy’s primary liberal education group is working to redesign general education pathways, which it says are becoming obsolete and need to be better grounded in learning outcomes, or competencies.

Armed with a $2.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Association of American Colleges and Universities is leading the ambitious effort. The goal is to “develop a portable and competency-based framework for general education,” the association said in a written statement.

The General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project began last month. It will focus on both online and in-person academic programs.

The association on Wednesday kicked off its annual meeting, which is being held here. The “remapping” of general education around proficiencies is a central theme of the conference.

Three working groups will lead the GEMs project. They will create and test “design principles” for high-quality general education pathways. The association hopes the new framework will help students learn more effectively and also “demonstrate and apply their learning outside the classroom.”

In some ways the project appears to be an effort by the higher education establishment to respond to the push for student learning outcomes as well as increasing scrutiny about the value of a college degree. And the focus on competencies is an upmarket migration of some of the approaches used in competency-based programs that so far are almost entirely confined to adult-serving, open-access online institutions.

Lawmakers, foundations, education reformers and, increasingly, the general public are pressuring colleges to do a better job of measuring the value of the education they provide. They also want assurance that a degree comes with marketable skills.

“There’s a long-term shift going on in American higher education,” said Carol Geary Schneider, the association’s president. It includes an increased emphasis on institutional learning outcomes and a move away from the credit hour, she said, which has long been the gold standard for tabulating student achievement.

Schneider said the new project will be an effort led by top academics from public, private and for-profit institutions to shape the best answers to the question of “how should the educational experience be organized?”

As a result, the association hopes to also influence the fast-moving discussion over competency-based education and other emerging models that tend to have a strong online focus.

They won’t be working in a vacuum. The project's leaders will study institutions that have already attempted to redesign their general education pathways. Schneider said examples might include the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the College of William and Mary, the University of Delaware and the California State University System.

(The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, known as WICHE, is leading a similar effort with its recently announced Interstate Passport Initiative, under which institutions agree to a transferable general-education core of competencies.)

“We’re playing off a lot of stuff that’s going on in the field,” said David Paris, the association’s vice president for integrative learning and the global commons, who is leading the GEMs project.

Schneider said all too often institutions fail to share what they have learned in this work. The project will seek to change that by moving away from “islands of innovation.”

The three committees will also analyze missteps. For example, Schneider said they might look at the City University of New York’s controversial Pathways initiative, which created a new, universitywide system of general education requirements and transfer pathways. While Pathways has earned plenty of praise, Schneider said it also “left faculty alienated.”

Going Beyond Grades

In addition to the general education redesign, the $2.3 million Gates grant is helping to fund a related, ongoing project by the association.

That work, dubbed the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE), for several years has sought to create ways to test students’ work from across curriculums. It is an attempt to “see how well students are developing the intellectual skills and knowledge they need to deal with open-ended questions and problems – problems to which the ‘right answer’ is not already known,” the association said in a written statement.

Also at play, and featured at the association’s annual meeting, will be the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which Schneider helped author. That effort seeks to define what students should know and be able to do in order to earn an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

First released in 2011, the foundation is working on an update, which it plans to release later this year.

The competencies that are spelled out in the DQP will be used as a “point of departure” for the general education redesign, according to the association. Likewise, the project will build on the association’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), which promotes learning outcomes.

“It will honor the DQP’s assumption that not everything worth learning occurs in the classroom,” Schneider said.

Both projects also question the long-established tradition that a college education should begin with breadth – think introductory courses taught in 500-seat lecture halls – and later move to depth – major specialization and smaller, seminar-style courses.

Association officials said that approach is seriously out of date.

“The DQP maps a way to make general education more integrative and more educationally effective, from the first to the final year of college,” Schneider said in a written statement. “Many institutions and some systems have already put such ‘vertical’ approaches to general education in place, and GEMs will be further informed by their work.”

The general-education redesign will be aimed at helping all students, officials said. But it will focus in particular on underserved populations, such as lower-income, adult students who are both mobile and diverse.

The association said it hopes the final product will better ensure that students “continuously engage in problem-centered learning in every institution they attend, enabling speedier progress toward degree attainment and producing the needed levels of learning.”

The work by the three committees will overlap. But they will focus on different areas.

The design/leadership group will consist of about 25 officials from institutions that are already devising outcomes-based, portable general education pathways.

The focus of the equity research working group will be studying what works best for underserved students. And, finally, the digital resources study group will evaluate online learning strategies that help students have multiple options for meeting degree expectations.

Paris said the overarching plan is to determine “what are the proficiencies that we want undergraduates” to have when they earn a credential.

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