A New Network To Support Better General Education

DOHA—Talk about frustration! That’s how I felt when I found that the three differently wrapped chocolates in an expensive box of chocolates tasted the same. The dream of getting three different flavors vanished. All pieces turned out to be one kind, one taste, one texture, and one color on the inside.

Like a box of chocolates, university curricula should not pretend to offer a variety of courses and then deliver something bland. Key to that curricular variety is courses known as general-education courses. Sometimes called “core curriculum” and implemented through a distribution requirement, the central idea behind general-education courses is that students should take courses outside of those needed for their degree and get a broad education to prepare them to participate in society.

The debate about whether general-education courses are a must or a waste of time has been around for a long time. I believe when general education is done right, it is a must and, particularly in the MENA region, is more needed today than ever. The current situation in the region has increased the significance of general education. We need not only to develop the capacities of the students to succeed in the job market but to create well-informed, tolerant, responsible and independent-minded members of society who can make wise decisions.

My colleagues throughout the region who favor general education have been discussing ways to promote it. My thinking about general education has come after an extensive literature research, examining best practices and models in the United States and in the MENA region. I have delved deeply into this field—reading, examining models, thinking, and reflecting. I have visited universities and talked to people in charge of these programs in the United States and in the region, discussing general education with people in the field in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some universities in the MENA region have made great strides in developing programs that are in line with best practices, but there is always room for improvement.

I found that the distinction between general-education courses and major-specific courses is not clear. The two types of courses often look the same in the syllabi, the prospective learning outcomes, and the delivery of the course.  At times, the only difference is the level of the course—whether it is introductory or advanced. When general-education and major-specific courses look the same, why students need general education tends to be lost. The answer to this quest should never be just the oft-repeated slogan “to have a well-rounded student.” This idea has led to the “cafeteria” model, which has resulted in too many scattered, discrete, not thoroughly thought-through courses. The students are then forced to select their general-education courses with no clear goal other than the need to get some disciplinary content and to fulfill the required credit hours.

Too often, general-education courses are perceived as those easy courses that students must get out of the way to get to their major. This misunderstanding tends to be reflected in the behavior and beliefs of both students and faculty members. Even academic advisors may unintentionally deliver these messages. Accordingly, when students are not sure why they are taking these courses, they are unlikely to be motivated, and the faculty members teaching these courses are likely to pay much more attention to their other, higher-level courses for students in their field. This situation will tend to persist unless universities have explicitly defined institutional learning goals and objectives for general-education courses and work relentlessly toward achieving them.

Another problem with general education is the shortage of general-education specialists. The faculty members developing and teaching general-education courses usually come from the academic disciplines. They know how to teach for their field, and they understand the teaching methods for their field, but they do not know the specific features and current trends in general education. They do not always realize the difference between designing a course for a broad cross-section of students and designing an introductory course for students within a major.

Unfortunately, the selection of those teaching general-education courses often means finding a subject-matter specialist who is available at the proposed scheduling time or, as commonly happens, has recently joined the university. That means experience is not a factor in selecting faculty members to teach these courses and also reinforces the idea that general –education courses are “easy courses and anyone can teach them.” Thus, professors tend to develop and teach these general education courses just the way they have been designing and teaching the courses in their discipline. Some of those who are asked to teach such classes are expatriates, especially in the Gulf countries, which have a large proportion of expat instructors. Some expatriates come from educational systems that do not offer general education and thus are unfamiliar with the concept.

Because of the longstanding tradition of stressing discrete, narrowly specialized courses, efforts to reform general education have faced resistance, especially when moving toward current trends in the field that stress integrative approaches. General-education leaders in the MENA region have come to recognize the need for a meaningful general education. Thus, it was possible to attract about 15 members to join a new initiative, the MENA General Education Network, of which I am very proud, that will be launched in a general education conference on the 15th of October at Qatar University. The members of the network will meet before the conference to think through the vision, mission, and objectives for the network.

This network is greatly needed to promote collaboration in general education and build mutually supportive relationships among universities in the MENA region. The types of collaboration needed include research, professional development, and the development of educational materials. Most importantly, it will help to ensure the creation of specialists in this field to take the lead in developing general education that works well in the MENA region. The main goal of the network will be to close the gap between the way general education is currently delivered and the way it should be delivered.

I hope that by forming the MENA General Education Network, general-education programs will be examined and discussed among members both as to their content and their structure. Content and structure should go hand in hand. General education cannot be an orphan within the university administrative structure: Those who are organizing general education need to have some authority and ownership to be effective. This will enable the programs to be in line with best practices, including coherence (courses built on each other) and well-defined objective- and learning-based outcomes. General education should emphasize conceptual learning that pertains to transferrable skills more than to disciplinary knowledge. Thus, the majority of general-education courses will be interdisciplinary and use integrated approaches.

Although preparing students for their future careers by providing them with the necessary credentials is essential, the need to prepare informed and engaged citizens with the disposition and abilities necessary to make changes during their lives is essential.  All modern education must keep in mind that people often change career paths over the course of their lives, something that has become especially true as globalization has increased.  My hope is that this network will provide the opportunity to share the special features and outstanding models of general education in the MENA region in ways that allow a transfer of knowledge between countries and universities.

The MENA region urgently needs broadly educated citizens to lead our countries, their corporations, and their civil institutions forward. My colleagues in the new network and I hope that it will be taking a small step forward toward creating a larger cadre of such citizens.

Maha Al-Hendawi is director of the Core Curriculum Program and the Foundation Program at Qatar University and one of the founders of the new general education network.


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