Designing Next-Generation Universities

Multiple approaches to innovation.

April 19, 2016

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying to imagine what lies ahead. After all, it is often an inspiring vision of the future that drives change. There has been much recent talk about the future of residential universities. Even though such forecasts are fraught with peril, let me offer several predictions of what lies ahead.

Expanded Experiential Education
Everything old is new again.  Ideas are continuously recycled and revived.  This is certainly the case in education. Take the notion of experiential education -- learning acquired outside the traditional classroom setting.  Examples include study abroad, internships, mentored research, field experiences, clinical opportunities, public performances, and service learning opportunities.

These real world, hands-on experiences can give students insight into the world of work and future careers, help them develop job-related skills, and contribute to the welfare of their community.

But so far, experiential learning is largely an “add-on.”  Except for a handful of institutions, like Drexel or Northeastern, it is not embedded in the curriculum or regarded as an intrinsic and essential element in the educational experience.

Implanting experiential learning in the pathway to a career makes sense.  At a time when too many students drift for years after graduation, experiential learning might help them define their future direction.  But that will require them to unpack their experience and engage in a process of reflection and critical analysis. It will require much more mentoring.  As John Dewey put it, “Experience plus reflection equals learning.”

Technology-Enhanced Education 2.0
Too often, technology-enhanced education consists of little more than PowerPoint slides, clickers, chat, computer-based drills, multimedia presentations, podcast lectures, or audio and video clips.

Then there are the somewhat more advanced uses of technology, which typically involve social networking and collaboration or the creation of blogs or wikis.

Next generation technologies include interactive simulations, virtual laboratories, and truly immersive learning environments involving augmented or virtual reality.  These technologies allow students to conduct an experiment virtually or traverse a historical site or engage with a case study – or create a virtual museum exhibition, a digital story, or contribute to an online, multimedia encyclopedia.

In the B.S. in Biomedical Science program at the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, students participate in virtual rounds organized around 16 diseases and conditions.  The point is to study these from multiple perspectives: From the point of view of the community of care, of the patient, of history, biology, epidemiology,  In a variety of courses, the students draw upon these materials and write up their observations and analyses.

Technology-enhanced education 2.0 requires next generation infrastructure – infrastructure that can support immersive highly interactive multimedia, powerful social experiences, and variable pace and term-less educational models. 

Some doubt that such infrastructure exists. A blogger recently described “11 EdTech Advances That Will Not Happen by 2020.” These included:

  • A Communications Platform That Will Cut Down on E-Mail
  • A Mobile Learning Platform that Will Displace The Browser Based LMS
  • Instructor Accessible Analytics That Will Enable Data Driven Teaching
  • A Learning Object Repository That Is Actually Used
  • An Enterprise Educational Online Discussion Tool As Good As Consumer Communications Platforms
  • An Online Meeting Platform That Actually Cuts Down On the Number of Face-to-Face Meetings and Conferences

All of these are actually being piloted right now.

Slack, for example, is a messaging tool that allows teams to organize communication into channels, share files, including documents, images, and spreadsheets, add comments, and send and receive notifications.

The UT System’s digital learning platform, TEx, is, at once, an e-Learning system,  a stack of services, and a data collection and analytics display system.  Unlike current LMS’s, TEx does not organize instructional content or assessments into separate files, folders, or tabs.  It incorporates its own note taking and indexing tools.

TEx can consolidate data from multiple silos, including the Student Information System, the Learning Management System, the Constituent Relationships Management System, and various apps, allowing access to unprecedented intelligence about student engagement, persistence, pace, performance, social interactions, and self-efficacy moves.  These data will, in turn, allow for the personalization of content, pace, and instructional pathways; the identification of bottlenecks; timely interventions when students are confused or disengaged; and continuous improvements in the learning experience. TEx’s dashboards alert students and faculty when learners are off-track, allowing interventions in real time.

Meanwhile, searchable content repositories, like Intellus’s learning platform, combine indexing and analytics algorithms to support personalized instruction and learning and make a wide range of pedagogical tools, readings, and instructional videos available on demand.

Learning by Doing
Education, like life itself, should not be a spectator sport.  Merely listening or even reading may create the illusion of learning, but without active engagement, retention of course material, or the ability to apply it, is laughably low. Students who engage in hands-on activities understand concepts more deeply and remember them more accurately.

Project-based, case-based, and team-based learning and problem-solving are activity-based approaches to teaching and learning, allowing students to become creators of knowledge rather than mere recipients of knowledge.

Students might annotate a text or play or work of art, map and analyze data, visually represent change over time, document a neighborhood or community.

The web can then make student projects and research publicly accessible.

By learning by doing can take even richer forms.  A solver community brings together students and faculty to “crowdsource” innovative solutions to the critical challenges of our time.  Tackling a real-world challenge is a proven way to nurture a community of engage, creative learners.  One of the broader goals is to transform a class of students into a knowledge network, an ongoing community that can continue to partner and share expertise and insights.

Then there are maker spaces.  These are innovation greenhouses, incubators, or accelerators where innovators – whether faculty, students, staff, or others from outside the campus – can work individually or collaborative on projects in a supportive environment.

A new kind of student populates many campuses defined not by demographic characteristics, but by mindset and aspirations.  Extraordinarily entrepreneurial, these students, in their spare time, create apps, found start-ups, and devise creative solutions to a host of pressing environmental, health, and technology problems.

Yet outside of business and engineering schools, campuses have only just begun to provide the kinds of holistic support and mentoring that entrepreneurial-minded students need. These include Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, MIT’s Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and Stanford’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students and its Technology Ventures Program.

But if maker spaces are to fulfill their potential, these hotspots must provide a full range of support, including in such areas as business planning, legal issues, and commercialization and technology transfer.

Nor should maker spaces or solver communities be confined to a small subset of students.  A growing number of campuses will probably imitated Mexico’s Tec de Monterrey, which hosts an annual i-Week, when all of its students collaboratively address challenges laid out by faculty and then have their solutions evaluated by faculty and industry experts.

Classrooms and Universities Without Walls
Imagine classrooms without walls, where students taking part in clinical or field experience are able to connect remotely and participate actively through their mobile devices. Or “paired” courses in which students in multiple locations are participants in a learning network. Or a university that is the polar opposite of the Ivory Tower -- seamlessly integrated into its surroundings, not a place apart.  It is connected to high schools, workplaces, the community in which it is located, and other institutions in this country and around the world.

The university without walls seeks to transcend the internal and external barriers that characterize the current educational model: The rigid division of campuses into colleges, departments, and programs; the separation of town and gown; the divides between the academic, the co- and extra-curricular, and the outside world.

Already, we are seeing a growing number of “distributed” universities not confined to a single place.  Instead, we are seeing a proliferation of branches, satellites learning hubs, and boutique or storefront campuses, a pattern pioneered by community colleges.  Population sprawl encourages universities to extend their footprint, both to preempt competition and to reach underserved markets.

But precisely how a distributed university should be organized remains unclear.  Should the tentacles specialize, duplicate courses and services, or, in the digital age, disseminate courses electronically, for example, through videoconferencing?

“Edgeless” universities would promote networked, distributed, connected, and social learning.  This would encourage collaboration across institutional boundaries, pairing classrooms or creating solver communities or communities of practice.

Personalized Learning Pathways
Personalization is one of the defining features of the digital economy, and it is only a matter of time before it reshapes higher education.

Personalization represents a radical challenge to the current course-based, term-based educational model in which all students are expected to acquire a common body of knowledge at the same pace.

A truly personalized approach to education would take into account prior learning and experience.  It would allow for individualized learning pathways and alternate modes of assessment and ways of demonstrating proficiency.  In addition, it would support accelerated and decelerated pace, and help those students who move in and out of college or who shift from one institution to another, by giving them the opportunity to receive badges and other credentials that demonstrate their mastery of specific skills and knowledge.

The University as Big Tent
Despite profound differences in institutional mission, funding, size, and student populations, colleges and universities resemble one another in striking ways.  Almost all non-profits organize their calendar around fixed-length terms, rely on credit hours to determine faculty workloads and student course loads, and expect students to take three, four, or five courses a semester.  Most deliver general education through a series of distribution requirements, and require students to complete a major that consists of twelve or more courses in a program that generally contains little coherence.

To be sure, there have long been exceptions:  These include one-course-at-a-time models at Colorado and Cornell Colleges or the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s.  Evergreen State College has no majors.  Antioch, Drexel, and Northeastern, and a number of engineering schools, offer a co-op model that combines classroom education with work experience.

But such experiments are isolated exceptions to the rule.  Now, however, we are beginning to see a proliferation of alternate models.

An older experiment that has proliferated in recent years is the honors program, a college within a larger university that seeks to give high-achieving students at large public and private institutions the rigorous intellectual experiences, extensive co-curricular activities, and well-rounded liberal arts education associated with small colleges.  Typically, these programs offer lower-division students an interdisciplinary introduction to seminal texts that address enduring issues in aesthetics, literature, philosophy, moral and political philosophy, and theology followed by a capstone experience, typically an honors thesis.

Interestingly, even elite institutions have created their own “honors” programs, like Yale’s Directed Studies.  Meanwhile, Harvard has created a series of “framework courses” devoted to the arts of listening, reading, and looking.  Hum 10 and Social Studies 10 offer team-taught introductions to literature, philosophy, and the arts and to social theory.

But now more radical alternatives are taking root, like Stanford’s "CS+X" joint majors, which integrate the humanities and computer science.  Then, too, there are new kinds of credentials – badges, certificates, specializations, among others – that don’t require four years to vet.

Not all students share the same goals and priorities.  Some, of course, want the opportunity to explore; others are more goal-directed.  For those latter students, guided, optimized pathways with a synergistic curriculum and learning objectives aligned with a career will provide an attractive alternative to a traditional major and minor.

Other students, with an entrepreneurial bent, will no doubt be attracted to maker spaces, technology greenhouses, and innovation labs.

It seems likely to me that many campuses will greatly expand their life-long learning initiatives, especially their continuing education programs, which are the fastest growing segment of higher education. Many campuses will want to treat their students as life-long partners, who will turn to their alma mater as they need to retrain or upgrade their skills.  And many will follow Harvard’s example, and deliver many of these programs in a low residency format, which will encourage the students to strongly identify with the institution.

A great danger is that the future of higher education will be even more stratified than it is today.  For all the differences in expenditures on instruction, student support, and academic support, and in the number of small classes and seminars, education at most public and private institution looks surprisingly similar.  This is not surprising, since most faculty members are trained at the same subset of institutions, and share certain common values and aspirations.

Even now, marked discrepancies are emerging in access to mentored research experiences, study abroad, or maker spaces.  Among higher education’s biggest challenges is to ensure that all students  have access to the opportunities they need to fulfill their potential and ambitions.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


Back to Top