October 2012
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Starting this fall, Hong Kong’s public universities will add an extra year to undergraduate degrees, with most of the additional credits dedicated to general education. (Photo courtesy of City University of Hong Kong)

A New Approach to General Education and Integrative Learning at City University of Hong Kong

Graduates of Hong Kong’s eight public universities consistently rank among the top students in the world on international assessments of science and mathematics. But despite these scores, government and business leaders in Hong Kong fear their region’s students aren’t developing the kind of integrative thinking skills required for continuous learning and problem solving in the twenty-first century.

To better prepare their students, Hong Kong’s universities are implementing new, extended curricula that focus more on general education and interdisciplinary learning. At the City University of Hong Kong (City U), this change has resulted not only in a curriculum that includes thirty credits of general education—previously unknown in Hong Kong—but also changes to pedagogy, with a focus on helping students achieve integrative learning outcomes and make original contributions to their fields of study. The goal, says Han Cheng, director of education development at City U, is to “better prepare students for the rapidly changing professional world they would enter after graduating.”

Region-Wide Educational Reforms

The changes at City U are part of a larger overhaul of the secondary and postsecondary education systems in the Hong Kong Special Administrative region. Until 2000, secondary education for most Hong Kong students lasted five years, until the age of 16. The top third of students, as determined by city-wide exams, were eligible to attend two more years of secondary education, and students from the top half of that class were eligible to attend one of Hong Kong’s eight public universities. Under the new “3+3+4” system, Hong Kong universities will continue to accept only the top 18 percent of students, but all students will receive three years of junior secondary education and three more years of senior secondary education, and the university curriculum has been expanded to four years.

This additional year of university will be devoted to providing a more integrated general education. The change aligns Hong Kong’s universities with the educational systems in mainland China, the United States, and much of Europe. But the focus on general education and other curricular changes in Hong Kong are spurred by more particular concerns of the region’s business leaders, says Paul Hanstedt, a professor of English at Roanoke University and one of several Fulbright scholars who have advised the Hong Kong universities on general education development. Employers acknowledged that Hong Kong university graduates were very technically adept and knowledgeable in their fields, but they complained that many graduates were unable to adapt to new situations and apply their skills to unexpected problems, Hanstedt says.

These concerns are addressed in a 2000 report from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Education Commission, titled “Learning for Life, Learning Through Life: Reform Proposals for the Education System in Hong Kong.” These change to the 3+3+4 system, according to the report, is intended “to enable every person to attain all-round [sic] development in the domains of ethics, intellect, physique, social skills and aesthetics … so he/she is capable of life-long learning, critical and exploratory thinking, innovation and adapting to change.”

A New Curriculum

The University Grants Commission—the governing board for Hong Kong’s public higher education system—stipulated that the extra year of university education be devoted to some kind of general education, but the specifics of curricular design were left to the individual universities.

City U had to balance “accreditation considerations, general education, and a progressive philosophy based on suffusing the curriculum with opportunities for students to discover, innovate and create,” says Cheng. “To ensure that our new curriculum would meet the standards of the professional bodies that accredit many of our programs, departments worked closely with cognizant accrediting organizations as they designed four-year versions of their curricula.”

The first step in designing the new curriculum was developing specific learning goals for all undergraduates at the university, says Janel Curry, provost of Gordon College and a general education Fulbright scholar who spent two semesters at City U. Those learning outcomes reflect the broad goals of the regional reforms: all graduates from should be able to “reflect on the ethical and social responsibilities required of professional citizens in a global society; apply multidisciplinary critical thinking skills to solve problems and create new ideas; generate a positive and flexible approach to lifelong learning and employability; apply effective communication, language, numerical, and IT skills to a variety of professional setting; [and] relate cultural awareness to collaborate effectively in a broad range of teamwork situations.”

Based on these outcomes, Cheng says, courses were “modified to shape students’ attitudes to help them realize they can make original contributions in their field of study; enhance students’ ability to imagine and create in their chosen field, or provide opportunities for demonstrating students’ creation of new knowledge or innovation.” The general education program requires thirty credits, mostly taken during a student’s first year. In addition to six credits of English (the language of instruction at City U), students must take three credits of Chinese civilization and at least three credits from each of three areas: arts and humanities, science and technology, and a cluster titled “Study of Societies, Social and Business Organizations.”

Pedagogy and University Culture

“I think the learning outcomes forced a pedagogical change, and that’s been part of what’s been going on,” Curry says. “More emphasis on interdisciplinary teaching and learning has forced interaction across disciplines.” That’s a big challenge, she notes, given that there is little tradition of cross-departmental interaction at City U and the other Hong Kong universities. As an instructor in faculty workshops, Curry always co-taught with a partner so that “we not only covered the topic they wanted us to cover, but we also tried to model the pedagogy during the actual presentation.” In addition to ongoing faculty workshops with general education experts, City U offers faculty the opportunity to take “in-house sabbaticals” to work on teaching skills and course development.

Still, financial incentives are needed to prioritize general education, Curry notes. “There’s been some recognition in the form of money allocated to departments for having someone teach general education courses. But in terms of tenure and promotion, that’s a more difficult one— that’s changing the culture in each department.” In light of this difficulty, City U recently launched a Performance-Based Pay Review (PBPR) scheme that prioritizes teaching and links salary increases directly to performance in the classroom. While requiring a great deal of effort for initial implementation by the campus, the PBPR scheme has helped align the efforts of staff members and their departments with City U’s strategic plans, Cheng says.

Changing the assessment structure for courses has also gone a long way toward influencing classroom pedagogy, Curry says. “There’s a move to evaluate students differently—there are group projects, written assignments, some exams. That’s probably one of the ways things have changed dramatically is more assessment along the way in the classroom, as opposed to a single final project or exam—there’s really a push away from that,” she says, although many courses still require students to demonstrate proficiency through completion of a final project. “And that’s one of the factors that you can actually change,” Curry says. “It’s harder to change what happens in individual classrooms, but when you’re approving a general education class you can at least look at the kind of assessments and make sure there are a variety of assessments, and assessment across the semester rather than just at the end.”

City University faces a number of challenges in implementing the new curriculum—including the logistical challenge of increasing its undergraduate population by a third as the university adds a fourth year to the curriculum. (Photo courtesy of City University of Hong Kong)

Challenges Moving Forward

While many changes to the secondary school system have already been implemented, the 2012–13 academic year will be first for the new four year curriculum, and many challenges lie ahead—not the least of them logistical. This year will see two simultaneous cohorts of students at Hong Kong’s universities—the first four-year cohort, and the last three-year cohort.  This will be “a kind of stress test for our campus,” Cheng says. “This has impacted every part of campus, ranging from the efforts of academic departments to commensurately increase staffing, to our capacity for student advising, to our usage of housing, dining, and recreational facilities, IT, and financial systems.”

It will also likely take some time for the new changes to become an accepted part of the culture at each university. Hanstedt points out the difficulty of changing what happens in individual classrooms, adding that, as at colleges and universities in United States, various faculty members and administrators at all the Hong Kong universities have embraced integrative teaching at different levels. “It’s not enough to give a distribution—you have to ask students to think about how things connect, and that can affect the kind of assignments people give, the kind of teaching they do in the classroom,” Hanstedt says. “In the US, there are universities and faculty who haven’t quite gotten the integration thing yet, and we’ve been working on general education for a hundred years.”

Advising could also pose a challenge. Because Hong Kong students have traditionally been accepted into a specific major or program at a university and followed fairly rigid course pathways, the universities have little experience with academic advising. Now, students are accepted into a particular college within a university, but not a specific major or program, and at City U students don’t choose a major until after their first year. City U has developed an online tutorial to help students choose general education courses, but advising will likely remain a challenge, especially for students who decide they want to change majors. “I don’t know that anyone knows what will happen if a student comes into the college of science and technology and decides they want to become an English major,” Curry says.

One of the biggest challenges for all of Hong Kong’s universities may be making general education their own, Hanstedt says, but he is also hopeful about this development. The new curricula should be informed by the best research from around world, including the US, “but the actual shape of it, that’s about fundamental ideas that should really reflect Chinese and Hong Kong culture,” he says. “I’ve actually seen a lot more of it going back, more than I anticipated. I saw a lot of adaptation and re-creation that I was impressed with.”

Read more about City University of Hong Kong’s new curriculum, or explore more resources on general education from AAC&U.

 

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