Diversity and Democracy

Equitable Designs for Global Learning

What kinds of learning experiences should count as global learning, and how can institutions of higher education increase the number of students who participate in these experiences? Campus conversations on this topic too often start and end with efforts to increase student participation in study abroad. There are three shortcomings to this strategy. First, only study abroad experiences that are intentionally designed with carefully articulated outcomes are likely to meet broad campus goals for global learning. Second, very few students—only 14 percent of American bachelor's degree recipients, and only 1 percent of US students within a given academic year—participate in study abroad (Institute of International Education 2012). Third, study abroad has historically represented a significant challenge to equal opportunity, and is relatively inaccessible for students who work, have family caretaking responsibilities, or are facing financial hardship. While many institutions have initiated programs to increase the participation of underrepresented students in study abroad, much work remains. For example, community college students—more than 40 percent of whom are first-generation college students (American Association of Community Colleges 2012)—make up only 3 percent of the already small share of students who study abroad (Institute of International Education 2012).

These numbers suggest that higher education should invest in more robust and holistic approaches to global learning—approaches that are, by design, available to all students. For more than a decade, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has worked with colleges and universities through its Shared Futures initiative to develop effective and inclusive curricular designs for global learning. AAC&U has organized these efforts around the assumption that large, complex, global challenges can bring coherence to the undergraduate curriculum by serving as thematic platforms upon which students can build a deep and broad liberal education. By encouraging campus partners to emphasize issues of diversity, identity, citizenship, and responsible action when designing these platforms, Shared Futures aims to move questions of equity, equality, and justice toward the center of student learning while also making such learning available to all students.

Defining Global Learning

AAC&U designed the Shared Futures initiative as a curriculum and faculty development laboratory where participating campus teams could experiment with curricular designs that require students to move across disciplinary boundaries and faculty to collaborate in interdisciplinary "trading zones." In this laboratory, global learning is more than a single course or experience: it is a viable alternative to disconnected general education and distribution requirements. The curriculum, not the course, is the unit of focus, and the most important measure of success is students' ability to integrate and apply their knowledge, skills, and sense of personal and social responsibility across general education, minors, and majors.

AAC&U has long argued that a well-conceived liberal education needs to help students make sense of the interdependence and interconnection of the world. While this case and its connections to global learning seem to have gained acceptance, global learning itself has become more difficult to define. Global learning has been described elsewhere (see, for example, the November–December 2011 issue of About Campus, to which AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider and I contributed an article). But in its basic form, it generally includes the following elements:

  • An effort on the part of faculty, administrators, and staff to translate lofty goals for student outcomes into concrete learning experiences;
  • Experiences that span curricular and cocurricular locations in interesting and creative ways;
  • Linked educational experiences with clearly articulated shared learning goals, resulting in well-marked pathways that enable students to integrate their knowledge, skills, commitments, and actions;
  • Thematic organization of general education using complex global questions (climate change, migration, human rights, epidemics, poverty, etc.);
  • The expectation that students will be able to make connections between general education and their majors, perhaps by exploring the role of disciplines in addressing global problems, challenges, and opportunities;
  • The expectation that students will demonstrate what they have learned and what they are capable of doing through authentic assignments and meaningful engagement with real-world situations.

AAC&U encourages institutions to build on these basics, but each institution—participating in Shared Futures or not—must craft its own definition of global learning. This is a challenging but crucially important process to set the stage for successful curricular reform.

Global Learning on Campus

Colleges and universities participating in the Shared Futures project General Education for a Global Century have made great progress in developing the theory and practice of global learning. At Michigan State University (MSU), for example, Shared Futures participants have connected their work to the institution's liberal learning goals—analytical thinking, cultural understanding, effective citizenship, effective communication, and integrated reasoning—some of which are defined in ways that resonate with questions of equity and global learning:

  • Cultural Understanding: "The MSU graduate comprehends global and cultural diversity within historical, artistic, and societal contexts."
  • Effective Citizenship: "The MSU graduate participates as a member of local, national, and global communities and has the capacity to lead in an increasingly interdependent world."
  • Integrated Reasoning: "The MSU graduate integrates discipline-based knowledge to make informed decisions that reflect humane social, ethical, and aesthetic values." (Michigan State University Office of the Provost 2010)

Advocates of global learning at MSU have identified a parallel set of global competencies and placed them in dialogue with these widely-supported goals. In an important sense, the global competencies describe why the liberal learning goals are important—notably, for reasons clearly linked to questions of equity and equality.

So, for example, MSU's framework for global learning asks graduates to demonstrate their cultural understanding for the purposes of (among other things) "question[ing] explicit and implicit forms of power, privilege, inequality, and equity." They will demonstrate effective communication for the purposes of "us[ing] observation, conflict management, dialogue, and active listening as means of understanding and engaging with different people and perspectives." And they will demonstrate effective citizenship for the purposes of "develop[ing] a personal sense of ethics, service, and civic responsibility that informs their decision-making about social and global issues"; "understand[ing] the connection between their personal behavior and its impact on global systems"; and "us[ing] their knowledge, attitudes, and skills to engage with issues that address challenges facing humanity locally and globally" (Michigan State University Office of the Provost 2010). MSU is infusing these global competencies into several courses across the curriculum (described below).

A Global Learning Rubric

Efforts at MSU and elsewhere to define global learning in its most ambitious and capacious sense have motivated AAC&U staff and a group of Shared Futures participants to develop and test a Global Learning Rubric. The rubric design committee hopes that this instrument will help campuses not only measure students' global learning, but also more clearly articulate how global learning connects to significant national conversations about student learning outcomes, assessments, and portfolios. Now completed, the Global Learning Rubric has become part of AAC&U's ongoing Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project, which provides rubrics that reflect broadly shared criteria for assessing AAC&U's Essential Learning Outcomes (http://www.aacu.org/value).

The rubric design committee agreed on the following definition of global learning, which aligns with Shared Futures goals and attends to questions of equity:

Global learning is a critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies (natural, physical, social, cultural, economic, 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 difference, 2) seek to understand how their actions impact both local and global communities, and 3) address the world's most pressing and enduring issues collaboratively and equitably. (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2013)

Like all VALUE rubrics, the Global Learning Rubric describes expectations for demonstrated learning in multiple dimensions at four levels of performance—Benchmark, Milestone 1, Milestone 2, and Capstone. The rubric's dimensions currently include global self-awareness, perspective taking, understanding cultural diversity, personal and social responsibility, understanding global systems, and applying knowledge to contemporary global contexts. (Editor's note: A more complete description of the rubric and its development process will appear in the Summer 2013 issue of Diversity & Democracy.)

Not every global learning experience will address every dimension of the Global Learning Rubric. However, the rubric should prompt colleges and universities to use a fuller range of the curriculum and cocurriculum to ensure that students make progress in gaining the knowledge, skills, and practice they need to solve problems in collaboration with diverse communities. In fact, faculty and administrators can use the rubric to map a wide variety of educational experiences against goals for student learning outcomes and to identify potential cross-curricular collaborations and connections. Through this process, global learning can become an unavoidable part of the undergraduate experience that reaches all students, not just the small percentage of students who study abroad.

Global Learning in Local Contexts

The approach to global learning outlined here challenges a persistent and dangerous misconception—that global learning is primarily characterized by its location. Too often "global learning" refers implicitly to education that occurs elsewhere, rather than to issues, challenges, and problems that influence and implicate everyone (albeit differently depending on position).

In fact, colleges and universities can design global learning opportunities to help all students more fully understand the effect of interconnected global systems and events on their own lives, even as they develop the capacity to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. Through Shared Futures, colleges and universities are challenging students to explore the relational nature of their own identities—as shaped by currents of power and privilege within an interconnected and unequal world and within a multicultural and unequal nation, region, city, or community. While such learning can certainly occur abroad, it is too often simply assumed that an international experience is necessary to global learning, or that global learning automatically occurs in such contexts.

The Shared Futures initiative encourages colleges and universities to explore the potential of a global learning framework and the integrated curriculum it requires. Such a framework can give students the knowledge and skills they need to move from locally oriented questions of immediate personal relevance to global questions where the implications of personal and social responsibility may be less clear. Global learning, in other words, is not effected by simply translating or shifting the focus of an educational experience from home to elsewhere. Instead, global learning must help students understand the world in which they live and prepare them to engage urgent, interconnected, real-world problems—including questions of equitable access to resources like education.

Global Learning at Michigan State University

Michigan State University is aligning learning activities on campus and in the local community with its global competencies. For example, the Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience (http://mrule.msu.edu/) program is collaborating with the Center of Integrated Studies in Social Science (http://cis-ss.msu.edu/) to bolster global learning opportunities in two four-credit courses. In these courses, students spend one hour of classroom time each week attending a peer-led dialogue group. These groups discuss social issues from multiple perspectives and engage in activities in underresourced communities. The organizing theme of each course guides students to think critically and question social orders that are unjust and unsustainable.

Social Differentiation and Inequality (ISS 215)

This course uses the acronym CHOICES—representing categories of inquiry—as its organizing theme:

  • Class/Caste Status
  • Health and Human Rights
  • Optional Ethnicities
  • Immigration
  • Civil Rights
  • Education
  • Sustainable Development

These categories serve as a template for making connections among different aspects of social reality in the United States and around the world. Implicit in the discussion of choices is the role of individual and group agency to promote social change and improve access to resources and quality of life.

Global Diversity and Interdependence (ISS 315)

Focusing on both global problems and their solutions, students in this course examine global diversity and interdependence through the lenses of socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental issues. Through a personal inventory, students place themselves in the world as they experience it, ask how they know what they know, and imagine ways to maximize their ability to engage in a social reality that is increasingly diverse and interconnected.

Jeanne Gazel and Jim Lucas, Michigan State University


American Association of Community Colleges. 2012. Reclaiming the American Dream: A Report from the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/21stCenturyReport.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. "Global Learning VALUE Rubric." http://www.aacu.org/value/.

Institute for International Education. 2012. "Open Doors 2012: International Student Enrollment Increased by 6 Percent." http://www.iie.org/Who-We-Are/News-and-Events/Press-Center/Press-Releases/2012/11-13-2012-Open-Doors-International-Students.

Michigan State University Office of the Provost. 2010. "Liberal Learning & Global Competence at MSU." http://global.undergrad.msu.edu/userfiles/file/LLG__GC_combined_table.pdf.

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

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