Using General Education Review and Accreditation to Drive Change at the University of South Carolina
University of South Carolina Professor of English David Miller knows firsthand how learning can become fragmented in a large research university. "I've often been riding in the elevator and heard other faculty members talking about what they're working on, and I've thought to myself, gee, if I'd known about that a long time ago, we could have collaborated on that project, and my students could have really benefited," Miller says. His students have felt the frustration, too. In an institution the size of USC—with more than 25,000 undergrads on the main campus, fourteen colleges, and more than three hundred degree programs—options for academic courses, internships, research opportunities, and service learning are so exhaustive that they can feel overwhelming. But USC is working to change that. With an ambitious new plan to introduce an integrative core curriculum, and a Quality Enhancement Plan focused on bridging the gap between classroom learning and the cocurriculum, USC is striving to create a university where intentionality and integration are the hallmarks of learning.
Creating the Carolina Core
A revision of USC's generation education program begin in 2005, prompted by the fact that a close examination of the program had not taken place since 1986. In 2007, a task force of more than one hundred faculty members convened to consider what learning goals were most important for students facing a new century. The problems task force members saw in the existing general education program were similar to the ones Miller and his students experienced—a lack of clear connections between general education and the major and between the classroom and the cocurriculum, and a widespread feeling that general education courses were simply an obstacle that needed to be cleared before reaching the major.
A General Education Committee was formed in 2008 to move the task force's recommendations to the level of actual proposed curricular changes. These changes centered around the creation of seven core areas—like aesthetic and interpretive understanding; global citizenship and multicultural understanding; information literacy; and values, ethics and social responsibility; and nine specific learning outcomes—including such things as "communicate effectively in more than one language," "apply the principles and language of the natural sciences and associated technologies to historical and contemporary issues," and "create or interpret literary, visual, or performing arts." The new program—dubbed the Carolina Core— would also include an integrative learning requirement, something that had not been included in previous iterations of general education, explains Helen Doerpinghaus, vice provost and dean for undergraduate studies, and a cochair of the General Education Committee. "When we're talking about the core, the things that kept coming up were that students needed to be able to be interdisciplinary, to be able to reflect, and to do learning beyond the classroom."
The General Education Committee formalized the proposed changes and began the process of seeking campuswide approval, and in a January 2009 university-wide forum, the outline for the proposed new program was presented. After several months of feedback and changes, the USC Faculty Senate approved the Carolina Core in April 2009. Currently, faculty consultants are working to map learning outcomes, discussing assessment options, and exploring the distribution requirements and credit hours students will actually use when the Carolina Core is implemented in 2012.
The technology component of the QEP will include a virtual world that will help students make connections between their academic interests and cocurricular opportunities.
The QEP: Integrating Out-of-Classroom Experiences
At about the same time that the General Education Committee was working to develop the Carolina Core and its new learning outcomes, USC administrators were beginning to think about the Quality Enhancement Plan required for Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaccreditation. The QEP would need to be a large-scale, five-year plan tied to the university's mission and focused on improving some aspect of student learning. In a meeting between Doerpinghaus, Miller (also a General Education Committee cochair) and USC president Harris Pastides, President Pastides reviewed the proposed Carolina Core plan and inquired how it would help students incorporate learning beyond the classroom. "One thing about Carolina that's distinctive is that we're both a Research 1 institution and a Carnegie [Foundation]-designated Community-Engaged University," Doerpinghaus explains. "It's unusual for one institution to be both of those things." A QEP program to intentionally connect classroom activity with cocurricular activity would build upon existing strengths at USC.
USC Provost Michael Amiridis solicited proposals about how the university could enrich student learning. More than twenty proposals were submitted in fall 2009, and the proposal review committee, which includes faculty, administrators, and students, selected four promising proposals in spring 2010. Currently, the committee is working to blend elements from each proposal into a single QEP plan, tentatively called USC Connect, which will be finalized by the end of 2010. Focuses of USC Connect include connecting students with appropriate opportunities, both one-time and ongoing, helping students construct meaning from their participation, and synthesizing and analyzing experiences in demonstrable ways, such as through the creation of electronic portfolios.
One major portion of the USC Connect plan is a technology component that will help students integrate and understand the nine learning outcomes of the Carolina Core. The technology component may eventually exist as a virtual environment in which students can more easily see the connections between what they're studying and the resources available on campus and in the larger world. Actions and thought processes that now take place independent of one another—choosing courses, deciding between service-learning opportunities, selecting an internship, finding a lecture to attend—could be connected in this virtual portion of USC Connect, driven by a set of databases that could include course data and syllabi, upcoming events, research opportunities, study abroad options, administrative information, and more.
Using the data-driven interface, a biology student interested in public health would be able to find out that there is a lecture on malaria being presented on campus next Tuesday, as well as which faculty members in departments other than her own are doing health-related research, and that a local hospital has a volunteer lab technician opportunity related to her interest in waterborne diseases. The system would be built on an appealing, user-friendly platform similar to Second Life, the virtual world in which users create avatars that interact. "The more students use the system, the smarter it will get—similar to Amazon.com's recommendations," explains Miller, who is also director of USC's Center for Digital Humanities, which has grant support for a humanities gaming project that is already investigating the possibilities of such a system. "We can make the system accessible by handhelds, like iPhones, and as a student walks past the student center, her cell phone might prompt her that in half an hour, there will be a samba lesson that's related to her Spanish culture course. Students can use this system for advising, course selections, and inquiries—I want to study abroad, so how do I get ready? I want to be a Rhodes Scholar, how do I prepare myself?"
Working Together: Faculty and Student Affairs
Developing USC Connect requires the cooperation of players from many parts of the university's organizational structure, including administrators, faculty members, and student affairs professionals. "We cross-pollinate all our committees and boards to include both faculty members and student affairs staff," explains Dennis Pruitt, USC's vice president for student affairs and vice provost for academic affairs. In 2009, a team made up of senior members from both student affairs and the faculty attended AAC&U's Greater Expectations Institute, where they developed ideas that eventually became part of USC Connect. "The group that went to that institute was symbolic of the relationship between student affairs and faculty," says Pam Bowers, USC associate vice president for planning, assessment, and innovation.
Making USC Connect a distinctive part of the USC curriculum will take time and planning. "We want to develop messages that create a high expectation among students about aligning their curricular and cocurricular experiences," Pruitt says. "If we want to make this a signature program for USC, it's important to create those expectations as soon as students arrive, and even prior to their arrival." Pruitt and his colleagues will be working to integrate the USC Connect program into University 101, the first-year experience course that all students take, by introducing beyond-the-campus learning opportunities and also conducting baseline assessments to determine how much students know about these types of cocurricular opportunities. Later assessments will determine whether USC Connect has been successful. Advising, too, will include discussion of the Carolina Core and USC Connect from a student's first advising session.
The ultimate goal for both USC Connect and the Carolina Core will be to provide students at a large research institution with some of the benefits of a small liberal arts college, Doerpinghaus says. "We have a lot of capabilities to create enriched experiences for students. We're taking advantage of the structures we have in place and are moving forward." Or, as Miller puts it, "We dream big, and now it's time to act."