Diversity and Democracy

What Can Global Learners Do?

It is perhaps inevitable that conversations about global learning turn to maps and questions of navigation. The concept itself is tangled in metaphors of space. When institutions map their global learning efforts, they often create documents that show where they have study abroad programs, where they have partnerships with other institutions, and perhaps where their students are from. The use of such maps to chart the geography of global learning opportunities suggests the need to similarly chart the metrics for improving global learning. But can we simply add these metrics to our existing maps? What would their inclusion mean for how we envision global learning—and global learners—at our institutions?

Plotting Global Learning

To begin to answer this question, it is helpful to consider where many of the current maps for global learning originated. A quick look at the history of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) Shared Futures initiative helps provide context. AAC&U launched Shared Futures in 2001 to engage with colleges and universities in exploring how the principles and traditions of liberal education might better align with efforts to ensure that students gain the knowledge, skills, and perspectives they need to thrive within dynamic social, political, cultural, and economic contexts—contexts more and more frequently characterized as global. We called this vision of context-rich liberal education “global learning” in order to differentiate it from well-established practices in international education. In doing this, we were reacting to trends we saw across higher education as institutions deepened their commitments to addressing elements of personal and social responsibility in the curriculum. We saw that institutional missions and curricular debates were beginning to focus on questions of democracy, identity, and civic engagement—in domestic contexts initially, and soon in global contexts as events made it more difficult to imagine such questions and issues in isolation from worldwide trends.

In some cases, this shift was framed as a political or moral imperative. At many Jesuit institutions, for example, institutional leaders saw a focus on global challenges as aligned with their social justice missions. In other cases, these leaders were simply acknowledging the reality of operating in a more complex, interdependent, and interconnected world. Different institutions evolve within their own contexts, their environments swirling with economic, political, and cultural issues that have variable significance and weight depending on how global change has affected the states and communities in which these institutions exist. Then as now, there was not a single model of global learning that fit all institutions.

New ideas are often expressed in familiar language. So it was not surprising that in the early stages of Shared Futures, when AAC&U asked our members how they were approaching global learning, we received answers framed in the idiom of international education. Ten to fifteen years ago, the international education agenda simply provided the categories, metaphors, and examples into which thought and conversation flowed. Colleges and universities had lengthy, well-established commitments to international education, and within institutions certain disciplines and programs had carved out areas of deep knowledge and specialized methodologies for better understanding the world.

In a sense, these well-established international education efforts provided maps for many institutions’ early efforts in global learning. The American Council on Education (ACE), for example, conducted an influential series of surveys to measure internationalization on campuses in the United States. Originally conducted in 2001, these surveys led to ACE’s internationalization index, which includes six dimensions: articulated commitment, academic offerings, organizational infrastructure, external funding, institutional investment in faculty, and international students and student programs. The survey questions in the academic offerings category can be read as a map of the most common international priorities and assumptions at the time:

  • Does your institution have a foreign language admissions requirement for incoming undergraduates?
  • Does your institution have a foreign language graduation requirement for undergraduates?
  • To satisfy their general education requirement, are undergraduates required to take courses that primarily feature perspectives, issues, or events from specific countries or areas outside the United States?
  • At your institution, what percentage of undergraduate courses offered by the following departments had an international focus? (Business, history, political science)
  • Did your institution administer for credit any of the following undergraduate programs last year? (Study abroad, international internships, international service opportunities, field study)
  • How many undergraduate students at your institution studied abroad last year? (Green 2005, 6)

Today, there are few institutions in which the conversations about either international or global learning expectations are so narrowly conceived. However, these survey questions illustrate two points. First, the list indicates that we have traditionally measured success primarily in relation to institutional resources and offerings, not in reference to student learning. In other words, we have mapped the geography of global learning in terms of where it occurs, not what outcomes it produces. Second, the list does suggest a set of assumptions about those outcomes, conceived in terms of what “international learners” can do: speak a foreign language, live comfortably in another culture, and have some mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in a relevant profession—likely business, cultural work, or diplomacy.

If that list and that profile of a learner seem too narrow, how would we rewrite them today? Rather than starting by mapping international or even global educational opportunities across an institutional geography, what would happen if we began by mapping what global learners can do?

Profiling Global Learners

If, instead of mapping where our internationalization efforts occur on campus and in the curriculum, we focused on mapping the development of global learners, we would likely create a very different set of maps. Instead of the geographic default that naturally comes to mind when thinking about a complex, interconnected world, we might find ourselves considering an alternative metaphor: the functional magnetic resonance image, or fMRI. Focusing on global learners rather than on global learning, these maps would show not the structures and courses that our old maps displayed, but something that is happening within students themselves.

While this is an intriguing visual, the key to giving it some practical relevance lies in the effortful task of defining global learning outcomes and identifying the characteristics of work through which students could reliably demonstrate that they were exercising the “global learner” parts of their brains. One attempt at this task is AAC&U’s recently published global learning rubric, part of the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) suite of rubrics aligned with the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Essential Learning Outcomes. In the global learning rubric, a working committee of Shared Futures faculty members and administrators defined global learning as

a critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies (such as natural, physical, social, cultural, economic, and political) and their implications for people’s lives and the earth’s sustainability. Through global learning, students should (1) become informed, open-minded, and responsible people who are attentive to diversity across the spectrum of differences, (2) seek to understand how their actions affect both local and global communities, and (3) address the world’s most pressing and enduring issues collaboratively and equitably. (AAC&U n.d.)

This definition represents an ambitious vision of undergraduate education, and one that fully reflects AAC&U’s long-term commitment to framing liberal education around compelling challenges at the intersections of diversity, democracy, civic engagement, social responsibility, and sustainability. It is the product of long conversations and should be seen as suggesting the kinds of approaches that multiple stakeholders on campus might work through within their own contexts. Focusing on global learners—who they are and what they can do—may help those conversations become more concrete and productive as they progress.

The global learning rubric is further articulated as a set of domains mapped across a developmental arc. Those domains are Global Self-Awareness, Perspective Taking, Cultural Diversity, Personal and Social Responsibility, Understanding Global Systems, and Applying Knowledge to Contemporary Global Contexts (Anderson and Blair 2013, 10). The domains represent complex and overlapping expectations. But with widespread campus conversation and collaboration, it should be possible to translate the milestone and capstone markers in each domain to answer the question—what can a global learner do? For example:

  • A global learner articulates her own values in the context of personal identities and recognizes diverse and potentially conflicting positions vis-à-vis complex social and civic problems.
  • A global learner gains and applies deep knowledge of the differential effects of human organizations and actions on global systems.
  • A global learner understands the interactions of multiple worldviews, experiences, histories, and power structures on an issue or set of issues.
  • A global learner initiates meaningful interaction with people from other cultures in the context of a complex problem or opportunity.
  • A global learner takes informed and responsible action to address ethical, social, and environmental challenges.
  • A global learner applies knowledge and skills gained through general education, the major, and cocurricular experiences to address complex, contemporary global issues.

The rubric domains are overlapping and flexible, and this list does not exhaust the possibilities. But in each domain, students will require scaffolded instruction to introduce, develop, and master the requisite knowledge and skills.

The Global Learning Rubric is just one example of how the profile of a global learner—the real-life equivalent to the metaphorical fMRI—is being reconceived. Similar efforts are underway on campuses across the country and around the world. Institutions are using rhetoric in their missions and admissions statements promising that their degrees will help students solve the big challenges the world faces. But as our vision of the global learner changes, the infrastructure that supports these learners must change as well.

Creating New Maps for Global Learning

The complex range of outcomes suggested by the global learning rubric will not be met in a single course. Instead, they will only be met across a wide variety of curricular and cocurricular learning experiences through which students will be able to recognize a coherent vision of themselves as developing global learners. Implicit in the theory of the global learning rubric is the notion that students will understand and take responsibility for how the parts of their learning come together. They will demonstrate their progress and reflect on the connections they are making through well-crafted assignments. Thus, if we are going to focus on mapping what global learners can do, we also need to focus on mapping how we might design and implement the kinds of assignments that would provide evidence of progress and achievement.

One of the complicating factors in rethinking what global learners can do involves distinguishing between the goal of developing specific global expertise (the global learner as a candidate for the foreign service exam, for example) and the goal of developing a more general level of global understanding (the global learner as citizen living in an interconnected world). Though these two goals are not in contradiction, they can confuse efforts on campus to define global learning. Ideally, comprehensive maps of global learning will account for both of these goals.

The Shared Futures initiative has primarily focused on general education, for two reasons. First, general education designed to help students become global learners carries all the elements of engaged liberal learning; and second, global challenges provide coherence to general education designs in which distribution requirements can cloud the sense of interconnection and integration they were originally intended to provide. If general education is geared toward encouraging global learners, all students who complete their general education requirements will share some common ways of approaching problems and some baseline knowledge and skills needed to begin to frame global questions. At the end of the process, however, not all global learners will look the same, nor will they share a common set of literacies. They will follow significantly different paths through the major and through cocurricular and life experiences. Thus the disciplines are also critical to global learning. Recognizing this, most disciplines have already begun the important task of asking their own central questions: What is a global engineer and what can she do? What is a global historian and what can he do? What is a global chemist and what can she do? What is a global nurse and what can he do?

These questions imply a focus on action, and with it, a central role for problem solving and integration in global learning. If the ability to integrate knowledge, skills, and perspectives in order to solve problems is the hallmark of a global learner, then upper-level problem-solving capstones that link general education to the major may become signature design features of the global curriculum. Such a move would align with current shifts across higher education toward more problem-centered learning strategies that focus greater attention on competencies and proficiencies than on course content. What would education look like if it were based around a large sample of complex problems that we wanted advanced students to be able to wrestle with, learn from, practice on, and suggest solutions to? Would it be possible to reach agreement about what made such problems “global”? Could we expand these problem-centered experiences into curricular pathways with capstone experiences designed to ensure that students acquire certain knowledge and skills? Could we distinguish between the outcomes associated with general global competencies and those associated with deeper explorations—both discipline based and “global”?

If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, we may be able to identify elements of global learning that are foundational, including skills that are necessary for global learning but that also extend beyond it (such as evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, and communication). We may be able to identify global knowledge that is so fundamental that it would comprise a basic level of global literacy, as well as specific global knowledge associated with capstone-level understanding of the topic at hand.

With these elements in mind, we might be able to ask all students to demonstrate their capacities as global learners, through global learning experiences that are in fact quite different from each other. Such a possibility might suggest that global learning is more about developing integrative ways of thinking and the capacities to connect knowledge in ways attuned to an interdependent world than it is about building a specific concrete body of knowledge. This might sound similar to the goals of a good capstone experience, and we should apply our global systems thinking to curricular design and take advantage of such existing frameworks. But just as a good liberal education is not necessarily global by nature, a good capstone experience will not inevitably lead to global learning.

All of this suggests a third kind of map, one that connects the geographies of international and global learning with the fMRI of the global learner profile. With this map, it might be possible to imagine how aspects of the global learner profile align with the curriculum—showing what students can actually do in relation to what educational opportunities they have. The resulting three-dimensional map could not only show foundational global skills and knowledge, but could also reflect more advanced problem-centered and disciplinary endeavors, both depicted against the backdrop of students’ curricular opportunities. On this map, foundational global learning experiences would be broadly construed, representing the kinds of cross-cutting capacities students need to pursue more sophisticated work. Peaks of capacity would appear in areas of more advanced work, where the specific knowledge and skills associated with global learning would be situated. When layering global learner profiles across a campus, these peaks would most likely cluster in topics that have traditionally been associated with global/international concerns—area studies, international affairs, cultural studies, etc. However, over time, such a map might encourage additional experimentation in less familiar areas—especially those associated with complex, transdisciplinary problem-centered learning.


With three-dimensional maps charting the capacities of global learners against the opportunities for global learning, we can identify multiple areas of the curriculum and cocurriculum that are, in various student-specific ways, forming the foundation for global learning. Some students would build on that foundation in a wide variety of disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, or programmatic contexts. Others might not. But all students would have the basis for taking their cross-cutting capacities into a world of work and civic engagement that is global beyond disciplinary boundaries.

Ideally, these students’ identities as global learners would be unbound by their time in college, with its scaffolded global learning experiences and opportunities. Their global learning maps would extend outward in space and time as they continue to gain skills, knowledge, and practice in navigating a complex and interconnected world, through formal education and through life experiences. Charting their own multidimensional, twenty-first-century pathways, these students would have the capacity to become lifelong global learners.


Anderson, Chad, and David Blair. 2013. “Developing a Global Learning Rubric: Strengthening Teaching and Improving Learning.” Diversity & Democracy 16 (3): 10–12.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. n.d. “Global Learning Value Rubric.” http://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/globallearning.cfm.

Green, Madeleine F. 2005. Measuring Internationalization at Comprehensive Universities. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Kevin Hovland is senior director for global learning and curricular change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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