Peer Review, Winter 2004

Vol. 6, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Greater Expectations and Learning in the New Globally Engaged Academy

The beginning of the twenty-first century is continuing to challenge the capacity of individuals across the globe to deal with change. Current wisdom holds that change is the only constant in our fast-paced, globally-interconnected, information-based society. Changes arise from and produce varied pressures. While the institution of the university has a long and distinguished history, individual colleges and universities evolve over time in response to both internal and external circumstances. Their histories tell fascinating stories of new directions, growth, retrenchment, and improvement, often related to the external environment. What have been the recent pressures on higher education, and how have institutions responded? What more revolutionary transformations might we envision in the very concept of the university?

At the most macro level, economic globalization, fueled by the transformative power of modern communications, reaches into every aspect of life. So too, do the new world order, the emergence of young democracies from the former Soviet sphere and in parts of the developing world, and a reshuffled balance of power leaving the United States as the single remaining superpower. No country can any longer exist in isolation, nor can its citizens ignore realities in other parts of the world. New diseases arrive by airplane, and global warming threatens us all.

  • While colleges and universities, like any societal institutions, are affected by changes of this order of magnitude, they also face more local challenges. The following are among the specific external pressures affecting American colleges and universities:
  • The opening of college doors to more students, more highly diverse students, and differentially prepared students who now continue their studies after high school
  • Chaotic attendance patterns as students stop out, change institutions, hold jobs, and attend to the needs of their families
  • Technological advances leading to distance learning and a new concept of the classroom
  • A quantum leap in the quantity of information available to individuals and a shift away from the university as the principal repository of knowledge
  • The needs of a changing workplace that include higher-order thinking and practical skills, global knowledge, and the ability to adapt to change and work constructively in diverse teams

What changes have these pressures engendered on campuses? While some critics may argue that American higher education has stagnated and reinforced walls isolating it from the larger society, developments at many AAC&U member campuses suggest a very different picture. The stories in this issue of Peer Review illustrate the dynamism of American higher education.

The term "evolution" seems appropriate to describe the process of change in individual colleges and universities. We are not talking simply of generic change, but of adaptive change made over time in response to external pressures and changing environments. In this environment, learning itself is changing. Of specific interest, then, is learning-driven adaptive change. If innovations find their way into the heart of institutional functioning, such evolution can become transformational.

Greater Expectations

What sort of college education will most effectively prepare students for a contemporary world characterized by change and global interconnections? What should be the central aims of the academy, and how will changes affect structures and processes, institutional missions and identities? These questions led AAC&U, in 2000, to create the Greater Expectations initiative. The initiative's influential and widely distributed report, which resulted from the work of a national panel, was published in September 2002. Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College* scans the external pressures on higher education and describes the academy's responses. It proposes that the education most effective in preparing students--all students, no matter their aspirations, chosen careers, or fields of study--for the contemporary world is liberal education. However, far from being an ossified liberal education out of touch with reality, this is a contemporary liberal education reinvigorated by becoming both more practical and more engaged. Such an education celebrates its usefulness in the largest sense, and by doing so, helps everyone understand the power of rigorous, challenging higher learning.

The adjectives "practical" and "engaged" refer both to the content and to the process of learning. Students in the New Academy described by the Greater Expectations vision would learn practical and intellectual skills that are useful for them individually and also useful for society. Colleges and universities would foster such learning in all students by employing teaching methods that actively engage them in their learning and with real societal problems. Classroom interactions would become enriched by complementary non-classroom experiences in the world of work, in the community, or in cultures around the world.

The Greater Expectations report also describes the central aims of such an education as preparing all college students to become intentional learners, integrative thinkers who can transfer their learning from one context to another and apply it to newly encountered or "unscripted" problems and environments. Such intentional learners are empowered through the mastery of intellectual and practical skills, informed by knowledge from many disciplines, and responsible for personal and social values.

The Greater Expectations internal scan of higher education reveals many disconnects that interfere with providing such a powerful, engaged, and practical liberal education to all college students. Practices and structures are still evolving. Even as the report recommends principles for changes at many levels--principles of "intentional practice"--it celebrates the diversity of institutions in American higher education as a real strength. While offering a compelling vision of a New Academy, transformed to focus on learning and improved student achievement, it stresses how this vision builds on, reflects, and will be reached through evolution at colleges and universities of all types. The recommended principles--of learning outcomes, effectively designed curricula, powerful teaching methods, authentic assessments--will become manifest in very institution-specific ways. These variations on a theme will help distinguish one campus from another, even within the context of a shared commitment to improved student achievement.

This issue of Peer Review provides snapshots of the work proceeding at six very different colleges and universities. While each story is unique, they all share elements and themes that can help illuminate the larger universe of adaptive learning--driven changes occurring across the country and, indeed, across the world. Collectively, these stories reveal progress toward turning the vision of a New Academy into reality.

At the core of an individual institution are its mission and identity. Although neither of these characteristics changes often or easily, colleges and universities created in one environment may turn out to be less competitive, insufficiently attractive to students, or simply inadequate for a drastically changed set of circumstances.

In the United States, we tend to act as if college education is primarily a private good--a credential to land a better job or begin a successful, lucrative career. The more broadminded among us also recognize how college study enriches an individual's quality of intellectual life. Yet despite the very dependence of a democratic society on an educated populace--one able to weigh alternatives, make informed decisions, and undertake appropriate action--our country still largely ignores higher education as a public good, whether one interprets "public" locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. Several of the articles in this issue remind us of how education serves the public good as well as the private goals of individual students.

Preparing students for a globally interconnected world involves empowering them with the capacity to work in diverse groups and communicate in more than one language; informing them with knowledge of the world's cultures; and developing responsibility for others through sensitivity to cultural difference. All of our six featured campuses are evolving to improve students' global preparedness.

The Global Context

Just as no country can any longer thrive in isolation, this issue examines the changed role of the academy both in the United States and abroad. In 1998, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convened a World Conference on Higher Education and five years later took stock of progress. The commitments to higher education for all and education as a public good--commitments central to Greater Expectations--engaged educators from many countries. Cristovan Buarque, Brazil's minister of education, provided a visionary look at the role of the university itself as a societal institution and urged major change. Excerpts from his address are included in this issue. Rather than accepting mere evolution, Buarque makes a case for revolutionary change to turn the university into the revalidator of lifelong learning. Further, he advocates for the logical conclusion of an education focused on outcomes: that time to mastery be flexible. Just as Greater Expectations calls on all stakeholders in college learning to join forces, Buarque pleads for worldwide action.

Whether one believes the multiple pressures on higher education will engender adaptive evolution, transformational evolution, or revolution, higher learning in this new century promises to differ dramatically from the past. Hang on for the ride!

The Intentional Learner

The Greater Expectations National Panel recommends that college graduates be prepared to adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives. To thrive in a complex world, these intentional learners should also become empowered through the mastery of intellectual and practical skills; informed by knowledge about the natural and social worlds and about forms of inquiry basic to these studies; and responsible for their personal actions and for civic values.

The empowered learner. The intellectual and practical skills that students need are extensive, sophisticated, and expanding with the explosion of new technologies. As they progress through grades K-12 and the undergraduate years, and at successively more challenging levels, students should learn to

  • effectively communicate orally, visually, in writing, and in a second language;
  • understand and employ quantitative and qualitative analysis to solve problems;
  • interpret and evaluate information from a variety of sources;
  • understand and work within complex systems and with diverse groups;
  • demonstrate intellectual agility and the ability to manage change;
  • transform information into knowledge and knowledge into judgment and action.

The informed learner. While intellectual and practical skills are essential, so is a deeper understanding of the world students inherit, as human beings and as contributing citizens. This knowledge extends beyond core concepts to include ways of investigating human society and the natural world. Both in school and college, students should have sustained opportunities to learn about

  • the human imagination, expression, and the products of many cultures;
  • the interrelations within and among global and cross-cultural communities;
  • means of modeling the natural, social, and technical worlds;
  • the values and histories underlying U.S. democracy.

The responsible learner. The integrity of a democratic society depends on citizens’ sense of social responsibility and ethical judgment. To develop these qualities, education should foster

  • intellectual honesty;
  • responsibility for society’s moral health and for social justice;
  • active participation as a citizen of a diverse democracy;
  • discernment of the ethical consequences of decisions and actions;
  • deep understanding of one’s self and respect for the complex identities of others, their histories, and their cultures.

* The full text of the Greater Expectations report is available online at, where you may download a PDF copy or order the printed version.

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