The ‘Uncharted Territory’ Update to the Stanford 2025 Project

What higher ed innovation looks like five years later.

November 20, 2019

Five years ago, the release of the Stanford 2025 Project made something of a splash across the higher ed community.

The influence of this report on four “provocations” for possible futures of Stanford a decade hence went well beyond the specific ideas explored. Rather, Stanford 2025 was impactful because it represents a rare instance of a group within a university (but outside the formal field of education … in this case the applying its methodologies and tools to study its own environment.

As the 2014 report coincided with other developments, such as the apogee of MOOC mania and the rapid ascension of online education programs at traditional nonprofit universities (as for-profit schools were in retreat), Stanford 2025 was exquisitely well timed.

It was not the specific visions for the university of the future that made the original Stanford 2025 report so important, as all of the ideas that were put forth have a long history of discussion and experimentation across the postsecondary ecosystem. Instead, the Stanford 2025 report was a catalyst for other colleges and universities to initiate a range of cross-disciplinary conversations about the future of higher ed.

Now five years later, the has released a follow-up report, “Uncharted Territory: A Guide to Reimagining Higher Education.” This publication differs from the original report in that it broadens its lens outside Stanford University, profiling the innovations that are occurring across a diverse set of 12 institutions of higher learning. (Full disclosure: Georgetown University, with which we are both affiliated, is profiled.)

Each of these case studies is presented as “innovation destinations,” with the publication written in the form of a travel guide. At each institution profiled, the people who run and champion the innovations are cast as travel guides, walking the reader through the history and lessons learned from each program or initiative that is profiled.

The purpose of “Uncharted Territory” is not to provide readers with a set of instructions or best practices to catalyze innovation activities on their own campuses. Rather, the designers of the publication intend the project as a longer-term effort to shift how colleges and universities think about innovation.

The idea is to shift higher ed innovation from one with finite outcomes (projects, initiatives, etc.) to one of an ongoing and never-ending process of continuous change and growth. “Uncharted Territory” seeks to spur this postsecondary cultural mind shift by highlighting a handful of places where this shift has occurred, and by exploring how the people at these institutions have gone about the business of driving cultural and organizational change.

“Uncharted Territory,” in contrast with Stanford 2025, is primarily a document of case studies that explore how innovations are playing out across each campus profiled. Readers of “Uncharted Territory” are likely to discover that the innovations profiled in the report have analogues and similarities to innovations occurring on their own campuses.

Because of this, the importance of “Uncharted Territory” may not be that it presents portraits of a series of college or university outliers but rather that it may help those leading higher education innovation efforts see that they are not, in fact, alone. Not an easy task. Campus innovators, particularly those focusing on learning innovation, are not connected to the degree they could be. As the report relates, “Many people who are working inside or outside the system to develop, test, and deploy new models in education periodically feel isolated.”

We make a similar case in our upcoming book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, where we also catalog a number of other colleges and universities in which this work is happening. Part of our solution to this need for community is to conceive of campus learning innovation more along the lines of an interdisciplinary academic field, as opposed to a professions network, with the expectations of critical scholarship and training that accompany a disciplinary orientation.

What’s missing?

While “Uncharted Territory” may help inspire those engaged in university innovation to persist in that work, catalyzing systemwide change is difficult work. For systemwide innovation to occur across the postsecondary sector, the lens must be broadened further to mechanisms that finance higher education, from rising tuition costs to adjunctification to significant cultural trends to vocational training. There is only so much that individual schools can do in the way of systematically redesigning the higher education experience from the ground up.

Colleges and universities play in a highly regulated and structured environment, with funding for students (mostly loans), accreditation processes and external research funding determined largely outside the control of any single institution.

Large-scale policy initiatives, such as GI Bill and the exponential increases in university-directed research funding following Sputnik, can reorder the postsecondary landscape. For instance, a political movement to support universal funding of higher education attendance would significantly alter the structure and shape of the postsecondary sector.

But these are beyond the scope of “Uncharted Territory,” and perhaps rightly so. This is a moment for Stanford to celebrate the look in the mirror that it is taking. Instead of sticking our collective heads in the sand or deciding our best option is for all of us to become coding boot camps, many are thinking thoughtfully and reflectively about the future of higher education. It’s good to see Stanford keeping this thinking moving forward.

Ideally, the publication of “Uncharted Territory” provides the higher education innovation community a new touch point in which we can engage in cross-institutional conversations about our shared work.

What innovations on your campus might have been highlighted if your school was included as a case study in “Uncharted Territory”?

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