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CURRICULUM CHANGES

Balancing Academic Tradition and Skills Employers Demand

Debates over whether students, such as Aakash Butala of George Washington University, should focus on liberal arts or precise skills are common nationwide.
Debates over whether students, such as Aakash Butala of George Washington University, should focus on liberal arts or precise skills are common nationwide. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

While designing a new core curriculum at Virginia Commonwealth University to help graduates thrive in the 21st century, Vice Provost Joseph Marolla seized on an old standard to ensure its success: teaching students to write better.

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This school year, all freshmen at Virginia's largest university began taking a two-semester course called Focused Inquiry that replaces English 101 and targets specific skills, writing chief among them.

The same thinking was behind a shake-up at the 50,000-student University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where an initiative was launched this school year, and a new department created, to make writing an essential element of every student's education.

The push to improve writing is taking hold at many colleges and universities amid a national debate about what higher education in 21st century should look like in the face of government projections that nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree -- a degree only one-third of adults have.

The curriculum debate started at least 200 years ago when Thomas Jefferson grew tired of trying to change the curriculum of the College of William and Mary and founded the University of Virginia to launch the "liberal arts." It is being played out at schools that are revamping curriculum to meet the demands of business leaders who want workers better trained in problem solving and collaboration and academics dedicated to a broad, intellectually rich education.

"We don't want college to be a trade school," Marolla said. "Everybody understands that. But as we've moved into the 21st century, we know that college kids have to have certain skills to be able to be successful over their lifetime."

Yet some worry about taking curriculum change too far.

"A college education is increasingly recognized as critical for career success," Cornell University President David J. Skorton said. "So much so, in fact, there is a real danger of thinking of higher education predominantly as a job training enterprise."

Changing curriculum is a difficult task in higher education, where traditions are often entrenched and no academic department wants merely a bit part. Harvard University, for example, approved a new general education curriculum last year for the first time in 30 years after a discussion that lasted at least four years.

Even at VCU, where institutional change is easier to accomplish because its traditions are not as enshrined, Marolla said he met resistance to designing curriculum around skill areas instead of the traditional content areas. It took him two years to convince his colleagues that the curriculum change should revolve around six skill areas -- communication, critical thinking, information fluency, collaborative work, ethical and civic responsibility, and quantitative literacy.

"Academics say, 'No, no, no, I don't work with skills. Competencies, maybe, but not skills. It's not what I do,' " he said.

But whatever it is called, writing is in demand. "The number one thing everyone says is that people have to be able to write," he said.

Complaints about student writing are not new, but they are growing louder. College professors are surprised at the lack of writing ability that students display. At the same time, employers are screaming for workers who are better trained in problem solving, collaboration and communication.

"We had a lot of comments from employers who said new graduates, because of the effect of e-mail and other digital technologies like instant messaging, have adopted an informal style that's not always appropriate for workplace communications," said Laura Gurak, chairman of the University of Minnesota's new department of writing studies and co-chairman of the task force that recommended the writing initiative.

Workplace concerns helped drive creation of the curriculum at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, which opened in August 2006. President Mel Schiavelli met with more than 100 chief executives across the state to help him figure out how to balance science and technology with the humanities, a school spokesman said.

Concern with the workplace might not be high on the list of importance at highly selective colleges, Marolla said, but most U.S. workers don't go to those schools. Most four-year college students attend large urban research universities such as VCU in Richmond, he said, where up to 50 percent of those enrolled are first-generation college students.

"These are the universities that will define the future of this country," he said. "Harvard, Brown and Yale will produce a small group of elite and powerful people . . . but the mass of people who are the workers don't come from elite universities.

"If our democracy is going to thrive, we have to have a literate population, and to me, creating a literate population is our job," Marolla said.


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