One of the central goals of higher education is to prepare students for lifelong learning. It flows from our commitment to some essential skills and tools. We all want our students to be capable communicators, competent decoders of information in multiple forms (quantitative, qualitative), and sensitive to cultural and historical contexts in which ideas and facts (so far) are developed. These abilities will allow graduates to navigate changing circumstances, make important decisions with appropriate evidence, and cultivate habits of mind that help them evaluate ideas, situations, and actions thoughtfully.
These are goals that flow from the ways in which we try to balance the general education curriculum, the work in the major, and any number of applied learning activities that we promote to our students. This kind of lifelong learning is a core value for all of higher education, and it is an important one. But there is another part of lifelong learning that might benefit from a little more thought. This kind of lifelong learning lives in the co-curricular experiences we build on our campuses.
Universities differ in the kinds of co-curricular experiences they develop, largely as a result of their context. A primarily residential campus in a rural location will need to provide many more activities to occupy the out of classroom hours than a residential campus in a vibrant urban setting. A primarily commuter campus will need to think about ways to weave students together outside of class time in ways that a primarily residential campus does not. On campuses where students are juggling significant external responsibilities (jobs, families), the co-curricular has to be meaningful enough to convince students to stay or return to campus and convenient enough for them to do so. We haven’t even gotten to the question of what might be interesting to students.
There’s a lot to think about here. One of the biggest issues for many campuses right now, including WCSU, is that our students have such divergent needs that designing for all of them seems almost impossible. Nevertheless, we are thinking things through because it is very clear that the co-curricular experiences have the capacity to enhance learning, connect students to each other and to networks of alumni who may support them after graduation, and they provide an opportunity to see the learning in the classroom in the many contexts in which the ideas may apply. It is these connections that will help our students expand their habit of asking questions from the classroom to multiple contexts, exploring divergent ideas, and perhaps pursuing more education.
But even when we develop activities, clubs, etc. that are designed to support students at different points in their education with experiences that are meaningful in that moment, we run into the biggest wall of all – time. Between course schedules that leave no open times for co-curricular engagement and the actual demands of keeping up with five classes per semester, we really signal to students that the things outside of class are a nice, but not an essential part of the educational experience. Add work and family to the mix, and the co-curricular becomes an occasional thing at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are students who figure out the juggle and participate fully, but it is a lot to ask and for many it is just too much.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if these time constraints are undermining our lifelong learning goal. When we don’t make room for discovering connections between the classroom and everything outside of it, are we communicating that curriculum is something separate from life? Are we saying, focus on this, get through it, and then you’re done? I think we might be and this is the opposite of preparing for lifelong learning.
At WCSU we’re having some good conversations about how to better meet the co-curricular needs of our diverse student body. With students just out of high school, residential and non-residential students, students who are returning to education after a brief or long hiatus, students who are changing course and coming back for new degrees, and graduate students working and pursuing that next degree, this is a big puzzle. Still, the conversations are exciting and I hope they grow and lead to some great ideas. At the very least, I hope they help us plan together in productive ways.
But I think that the time constraints are a barrier that needs a deeper dive. For many years I have thought that higher education has trended toward courses that are over built (too many assignments without enough time for reflection) and majors that are over built (too many credits in the major without enough time to explore other disciplines). Add to this the endless financial demands and other responsibilities that so many students face, and it is clear that these conditions are undermining our ability to create holistic educational environments.
But it is the holistic that we need to guard closely if we truly care about lifelong learning. The holistic helps connect the dots, creates the opportunity for synthesis and transformation, and opens up students to experiences that might lead them to new questions in and out of the classroom. So, as my colleagues think about the kinds of activities and experiences we should develop, I am spending more time looking at how we are organizing our time (read schedule grids and learning outcomes), and wondering if we might find something a little more bold to do. Something that makes room for students to develop not just the skills for lifelong learning, but the habit of seeking it out as a way of life.