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The North Dakota Story: One State's Path toward Collaboration and LEAP

The noteworthy feature of North Dakota’s collaboration—and its strength—is its successful efforts to create a general education community among all eighteen of the state’s institutions of higher education: public, private, and tribal. It is based on fostering connections among institutions of different missions, grounded in the LEAP initiative, and now in the process of becoming formalized as the North Dakota General Education (NDGE) Council.

Our project is the story of several different factors that seemed to coalesce all at once: opportunity, knowledge, trust, and a bit of luck. The opportunity to work together became attractive as we learned more about the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative and the national conversation about undergraduate learning and liberal education. The knowledge came from key leaders who had attended several AAC&U conferences and from a presentation by a member of AAC&U’s staff at our second summit. The trust was born of our commitment to respecting each institution’s distinct mission. And the luck—well that’s the story.

Where We Are Now

Today, after a little more than two years of working together, we have a group of college and university educators, joined together to foster a new vision of undergraduate general education (GE) across the state. Although we began with the eleven institutions in the state’s public university system, our collaboration quickly expanded to include the five tribal colleges and the two private institutions in North Dakota. At our last meeting (the Fourth General Education Summit, September 2010), we had representatives from all but two of the eighteen North Dakota institutions, and we anticipate that the remaining two schools will participate in the next summit. Creating a group that is truly statewide and all-inclusive will give us the best possible forum for sharing work and solving problems.

For us, this makes a lot of sense. Our state places high value on efficient, smooth movement between institutions. The North Dakota University System (NDUS) has operated under a general education transfer agreement since the early ‘90s; the tribal and private institutions also pay close attention to it. Because our state is relatively small (population about 650,000) and because we enjoy an exceptionally high rate of college attendance, it is important that all colleges and universities participate in discussions about the kind of undergraduate learning that North Dakota students will take with them as they move to and from our institutions.

The collaboration has enjoyed substantial interest among participants. The main interests have been simple sharing of specifics and problems within GE programs, but discussions have also touched on issues of assessment, transfer, and teaching. Initially, most schools joined to find out “what’s happening?” at the other institutions and nationally, but recent sessions have focused on building a more permanent organizational structure. Consequently, the group initiated an effort—ongoing now as of this writing—to establish a permanent council. To do this, we developed a draft constitution, approved it at our last summit, and then forwarded it to the eighteen campuses for their approval. The target is to have the constitution ratified by the April 2011 summit, which will allow us to hold our first official gathering of the council in fall 2011.

The council will have at least two critical tasks: to foster ongoing discussion and review of the “state of the state” in undergraduate GE, and to promote faculty and staff development so that we improve our capacity to actually offer a smarter, better program on each of our individual campuses. The first task has already started and has been keyed to the LEAP initiative. We asked our participants to go back to their campuses to ascertain institutional commitment to each of the four LEAP essential learning outcomes (ELOs). We invited campuses to focus on the specific, embedded outcomes, programs, and activities within each of the four broad ELOs. We did this to discover in more detail what each campus saw as essential learning for their students. Their responses generally supported the LEAP ELOs, but they varied in degree of support. That is, although a campus might wish to develop teamwork and collaborative learning in their students, the campus might rate their commitment at less than 100 percent because they were not sure how well they could assess learning through teamwork and collaboration.

As work on this task moves forward, we anticipate that there will be substantial support for and commitment to most of the learning activities embedded in the LEAP ELOs. Based on current conversations and reports, we find strong affinity for each of the LEAP ELOs and the undergirding philosophy. We believe that this support and commitment will form the basis of a statewide foundation for the kind of GE that we want. It remains to be seen how this foundation might affect our current programs and our current transfer agreements, but having the council in place will provide a “home” for such discussions to take place. The council discussions will also carry political weight in that its deliberations and agreements will likely offer persuasive proposals to the governing bodies in the NDUS, the tribal colleges, and the boards of the private institutions. Rather than individual campuses bringing forward competing proposals or work that is isolated from discussion at other campuses (or across the nation), proposals from the council come forward with the benefits of genuine statewide discussion, thoughtful consideration of the various missions of our different campuses, and the approval of a formal body whose job is to be knowledgeable about the nature and purposes of GE.

At the same time, the discussions are also rooted in a commitment and a trust that each individual campus mission will be valued and maintained. Not only is this crucial to a truly all-inclusive participation, but it is also critical to success in shared work. By starting with each campus’s goals and particular challenges, the council’s work will continue to move ahead as a grass-roots effort. Although it may take more time, we believe that, in the long run, this style of working together will provide the kind of staying power that large-scale projects require.

Where We Began

The catalyst for the first meeting of the North Dakota collaboration grew from the 2007 AAC&U Conference on General Education and Assessment, where faculty from different schools were intrigued by the possibility of continuing the conversation among state campuses after the conference. Excited by the new direction that undergraduate learning was taking—from course counting and checklist-based programs to a stronger integrative education aimed at student learning and essential skills and knowledge—they wanted to share their new thinking. Talking together about these directions led to a proposal to host a statewide presentation on North Dakota’s GE at a statewide arts and humanities conference the following year.

That presentation kicked off interest from more schools and from the state system office. It led to the first-ever meeting of the public state system institutions with a special emphasis on GE. At that meeting, schools shared their programs and current challenges, organizers briefed the group on LEAP and the national conversation, and the state system administration encouraged the group to continue to meet and discuss common issues. Follow-up meetings were expanded to include the state’s tribal colleges and private institutions, and the discussion turned toward creating a formal structure for discussions of GE across all the institutions.

In addition, spurred by study and discussions of the ELOs, the group began to discuss shared commitments. Summit participants returned to their home campuses with a LEAP-based assignment: to share the LEAP ELOs, entertain campus-wide conversations with faculty and administration, and then report back at the next summit. The goal was two-fold. The first was institutional engagement: to trigger campus-by-campus discussions of what general education ought to do in terms of student learning. The second objective was discovery: to ascertain our state’s shared “vision” of undergraduate general education. By asking each campus to report on the ELOs as we describe above, we hoped to locate the core of statewide agreement. Judging by our summit discussions and by the national consensus (as reported in various AAC&U reports), we feel confident that the eighteen North Dakota institutions will come together with strong commitment for most of the ELOs.

Different Perspectives, Unified Vision

North Dakota is a state with a strong populist tradition, which promotes the belief that every voice should get a chance to be heard. With a small population, not only is this practically possible, it’s also a basic expectation when people come together.

For a state with a small population, North Dakota has a large number of institutions of higher education. Some have suggested that this is another outgrowth of populist tradition: different needs and different interests lead to different homes for a wide variety of programs.

These two facts underlie the work of the North Dakota collaboration to date, and they will be formative factors in the work of the NDGEC in the future. The council will need to develop a common vision of a strong, effective general education that can empower students no matter which particular institution(s) they attend. To be effective, the council will uphold the diversity of its many campuses—public two-year and four-year, tribal colleges, research universities, technical colleges, and private institutions.

Speaking from the perspective of one of the state’s regional four-year universities, author Andrea Donovan of Minot State University concludes, “The development of a State General Education Council and, eventually, a cohesive system will benefit institutions of all levels for North Dakota. This development helps us address two major concerns: educational quality and transferability. Our council will help with transferability among all the schools in the state and it will also greatly improve the quality of the education of our students by improving the skills needed for the promising twenty-first century individuals who will be the next movers and shakers.”

Connecting with both two-year colleges and four-year institutions is a key collaborative feature in the state. Author Brad Tews of North Dakota State College of Science is convinced that “membership in the NDGEC provides a two-year, open enrollment, comprehensive institution which emphasizes career and technical as well as liberal arts curriculums, with many distinct advantages. The adoption of the LEAP outcomes brings institutions of higher education together with a shared set of student learning outcomes that can be adopted within the context of one-of-a-kind curricula. Data collected to support the accomplishment of these outcomes provides transparency and credibility, two very important benefits for accountability that legislators, parents, students and other stakeholders require.”

For author Ryan Pitcher of Bismarck State College, “The benefits of having a state General Education Council are multiple. First and foremost, it provides a voice for tribal and private institutions in North Dakota by including them underneath the same umbrella with the institutions of the NDUS. Secondly, it helps our institutions to start thinking more as a system rather than as a hodge-podge collection of GE courses. This leads to a more specific focus on ‘proficiency-based’ assessments rather than on a ‘knowledge-based’ collection of facts.”

Next Steps

As this article indicates, the North Dakota story is clearly a work in progress. Ratifying the constitution for the NDGE Council will establish an organizational forum for debate and discussion of the state’s GE programs in a way that we have not had. This will allow for substantive decisions about portability, transferability, and assessment (among others). Providing a statewide home for such discussions and decisions will be a major boost for GE and all college learning

The ongoing work over a statewide vision of a “new and improved” GE that is based on essential learning outcomes will also be significant. A strong consensus is already there but needs to be more clearly focused and then agreed upon. As that work moves ahead and as the state “sees” where the new GE is headed, the council will play a leadership role in guiding both individual campuses and the groups of institutions that currently exist.

We think the North Dakota story is one of a great start, a model of inclusive statewide collaboration, and, most importantly, a commitment to future work and development.


Thomas B. Steen is the director of Essential Studies and an associate professor of physical education at the University of North Dakota; Larry R. Peterson is a professor and chairperson of history department at North Dakota State University; Andrea Donovan is an assistant professor of art and humanities at Minot State University; Ryan Pitcher is an assistant professor of Spanish at Bismarck State College; Brad Tews is an associate professor and department chair at the North Dakota State College of Science.

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