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Creating "Connections 3.0"
Participation in the Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning (FLILL) project both recognized Wheaton College's past strengths in integrative learning and prompted us to deepen our approach. Currently, our faculty is revisiting our twelve‐year‐old Connections curriculum by adding the option of a three‐point curricular/applied learning Connection that would include two courses from different disciplines and a connected integrative experience (i.e., internship, service learning, research, cocurricular activity). This idea has been dubbed "Connections 3.0," following a much smaller change ("Connections 2.0") in 2011.
We believe a revived and re‐envisioned focus on integrative learning combined with applied learning suits Wheaton's innovative curricular history while advancing the potential to inspire faculty, staff, and students. At the same time, Connections 3.0 has proceeded slowly while we build support from the ground up, changing an ongoing curricular structure rather than crafting a wholly new effort. As such, it offers an example of how to support faculty as they initiate and develop a new idea.
Origins of the Connections Curriculum
In 2002, dissatisfied with traditional curricula that failed to integrate general education with the major and electives, the Wheaton faculty crafted the Connections curriculum to help students explore how different disciplines create knowledge and use it to identify and approach problems. Situating itself across the curriculum (rather than simply in the first two years), Connections links introductory or advanced courses across any two of six academic areas: creative arts, humanities, history, math and computer science, natural science, and social sciences. Through Connections, students experience a more integrated curriculum, where elective and major courses connect to each other more intentionally.
Students must complete two sets of Connections before graduating, offered in two ways. The first, faculty-created Connections, organizes courses around a common theme. For example, the African Worlds Connection links Anthropology 225 (African Cultures in Transition) with several possibilities, including English 245 (African Literature) and/or Music 212 (World Music: Africa and the Americas) and/or History 143 (Africans on Africa) and/or Political Science 203 (African Politics).
The second type is the student‐initiated Connection, created through a student's proposal in concert with the professors of the two courses. Student‐initiated Connections must be approved by a faculty curriculum committee. Although most students complete faculty-created Connections, we have discovered that inviting students to discover their own linked courses and write a proposal produces an intentional, reflective exercise that strengthens students' understanding of the Connections philosophy and outcomes.
Over the last dozen years, the Connections curriculum has become a major focus of Wheaton's identity, providing fertile ground for faculty conversations, organizing curricular thinking, distinguishing the institution to prospective students, and gaining attention from our peer institutions. Yet, as new challenges face liberal arts education, we wonder whether we are doing enough to prepare students for the world they will encounter, and whether Connections is as effective as we have hoped in supporting students' integrative learning. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) demonstrate some strong results for students' interdisciplinary critical thinking, but we would like to see those results outpace our peers to a greater extent, given the strong commitment to Connections.
Recently, students have begun to raise questions about Connections, suggesting that their peers' understanding and appreciation of the program is less strong than faculty assumed. In 2012–13, the student members of our Educational Policy Committee brought results of their brief survey of their classmates' understanding of Connections and its goals. Their data suggested that first-year students did not evince deep understanding of the value of Connections, tending to view it simply as a requirement. Upper-division students, too—who presumably had fulfilled one or both Connections—failed to articulate cross-disciplinary learning and application. These findings struck a chord with faculty who worry that Connections may have become stale, turning into "just a requirement" rather than an organizing principle for the way we want students to experience and analyze the world around them.
Concurrent with this reexamination is a growing interest in enhancing students' opportunities for applied learning, whether as internships, practica, or individualized experiences. Applied learning has a long history at Wheaton. In the late 1990s, Wheaton created the "second transcript"—an official record, parallel to the curricular transcript, of students' applied learning experiences. Officially called the Wheaton Work and Public Service Record, this document allowed students not only to chronicle their applied learning experiences, but also to engage in guided reflection on them. The second transcript was an excellent complement to classroom work, but after several years, it foundered under the weight of administration, lack of commitment by some students, and failure of deep integration with classroom learning.
Although the college continues to value applied and integrative learning, the cocurricular aspect of students' work has become increasingly distanced from the classroom experience. In fact, participation in the AAC&U project on integrative learning has revealed on our campus a frequent separation between the work of faculty and staff, even when they are both working on applied and integrative learning.
The original Connections curriculum was created in 2002 and a small revision in 2011 produced Connections 2.0. Recognizing some dissatisfaction with Connections' results, the provost initiated a call for proposals that would expand Connections with curricular or programmatic innovations that could prompt deeper integration. A few strong projects resulted. For instance, a new Peace and Social Justice minor brought the opportunity to apply classroom learning to an external social justice issue. A multidisciplinary center called the Wheaton Institute for Interdisciplinary Humanities helped students apply their classroom-based knowledge to professional fields, which provided deeper connections with experts. A cross‐disciplinary "makerspace" provided a technology playground where students (and faculty and staff) could apply their own problem-based learning skills. Yet, while these projects have added creative integrative elements to the campus, they have not deeply affected Connections as a whole.
The Genesis of Connections 3.0
Although a few faculty members took up the challenge of fortifying Connections 2.0, others sought additional ways to enhance the integrative power of Connections. In 2012, a senior faculty member partnered with career services on a workshop exploring various ways that academic departments were preparing students for life beyond the classroom. Their mutual goals were, first, to show how integrative learning was already happening across campus, even when it was not explicitly framed as such, and second, to help faculty learn from each other. The sharing of ideas at that workshop sparked discussions about integration throughout the next year, coinciding with participation in the FLILL project.
The Wheaton FLILL team decided to build on the enthusiasm generated by the workshop, even as we observed several disconnected ideas about integrative learning being discussed around campus. For instance, we saw growing attention to how career services can help students enhance their liberal arts educations. This observation led to an idea for Faculty Fellows to work with career services. Simultaneously, faculty debated the question of whether to grant academic credit for internships—an issue that provoked considerable disagreement. Even when faculty valued internship outcomes, they differed on whether participation in these experiences always merited academic credit.
As the FLILL project played out, our team undertook discussions across campus, both officially and unofficially, hoping to bring together the ideas around integrative learning. We visited the Educational Policy Committee to discuss the project, and later presented it to the entire faculty. We coordinated efforts with a faculty/staff group that had been convened by our dean of Spirituality, Service, and Social Responsibility to discuss AAC&U's civic responsibility initiative, and together we sponsored a faculty/staff lunch to brainstorm ideas. Out of these efforts came an important recognition: our campus has frequently presumed that learning occurs only in classrooms under the guidance of faculty members, often ignoring the contributions of staff who support students in cocurricular and applied settings. This recognition prompted another May workshop in 2013 to explore building applied learning more intentionally into the curriculum, using staff as partners. That workshop produced the idea now called "Connections 3.0."
The proposal for Connections 3.0 asserts the value of applied activities in expanding the learning potential of connected courses. In doing so, our team recognized the Wheaton faculty's preference for building on its strengths; so, rather than create a new structure, Connections 3.0 takes advantage of the power of the extant Connections curriculum and the faculty's commitment to it. The proposal would create a new type of Connection with a third element added to connected classroom courses: a related applied learning activity.
To spark the project, the provost provided seed money in summer 2014 for six projects planning to build applied Connections. For instance, a Connection course titled Race as a Social Construct will pair traditional courses with dialog groups on race conducted at the Multicultural Center. Exploring the Human–Animal Bond will add an internship at an animal sanctuary to the connected religion and psychology courses. Student leadership experiences as resident advisers, team captains, or student government leaders will become the applied element in the Modeling Leadership in Theory and Practice connection.
Bringing Connections to Fruition
Connections 3.0 is a work in progress on the Wheaton campus. Although the project was initially sparked by our FLILL participation, we realized we were engaged in something bigger: efforts to influence campus culture and to model new Wheaton‐appropriate strategies of leadership around integrative learning. Curricular ideas at Wheaton succeed best when they develop organically from the faculty, rather than being presented through administrative recommendation; because this idea was developed outside the usual committee structure, the FLILL team has had to move deliberately. We do have some recent successes: the faculty voted to grant Wheaton internship credit for certain applied experiences, and six Connections 3.0 proposals are moving forward. Even so, the larger discussion about experiential learning continues. Because of our experience in this climate, Wheaton's story may offer lessons for other campuses where curricular change faces structural challenges. Thus, we articulate here our best practices and principles for implementing curricular change.
Lesson 1—Develop Your Idea out of Campus Experience
Although there are times when a completely new idea can invigorate people's thinking, our campus finds that initiatives succeed best when they resonate with campus values and past experience. In this case, the addition of an applied learning experience to Connections harkens back to the "second transcript," which recognized the value to students of practical work related to classroom learning.
Lesson 2—Embed Your Idea within Existing Structures
Applied learning is easily fostered by service learning offices, internships through career services, undergraduate research with faculty, and other settings. At Wheaton, joining applied learning to the mainstay of the curriculum—Connections—gives it an integrative force and a curricular prominence that bodes well for its strength and continuity. Embedding applied learning in the curriculum encourages faculty oversight, even as it invites staff colleagues more formally into the teaching role. Yet, the new idea will succeed only if it is vetted and approved by appropriate faculty committees.
Lesson 3—Build Consensus for Your Idea
Each campus understands the variety of settings and structures needed for vetting new ideas; curricular innovators must attend to each of them. Repeated iterations of the conversation—although clearly an impediment to quick success—will improve both the effort and the product, enhancing the chance of adoption and support.
Lesson 4—Empower as Many People as Possible to Contribute to the Idea
On a campus that values grassroots initiatives, the team must allow others to explore, alter, and expand the idea. At Wheaton, athletics staff, junior faculty, and student affairs deans all contributed widely to our integrative learning reforms. If a curricular idea truly represents integrated learning, it can be owned by many people and enacted in different but complementary ways.
Lesson 5—Recognize Staff as Co‐Educators
Since a liberal education philosophy stresses that students learn in many settings, faculty must recognize that potentially everyone on campus is an educator. Students rarely isolate learning that occurs for them in the classroom, on the field, in the work–study job, or in the practicum. When staff as well as faculty stand ready to respond to students' puzzles and inquiries, integrative learning occurs more easily and widely.
Linda Eisenmann is the provost, and a professor of education, and professor of history; Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus is a professor of religion, chair of the department of religion, and program coordinator of Jewish studies; Lisa Gavigan is the director of career services; Kathleen Morgan is an associate professor of psychology—all of Wheaton College.