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If Engineers Were to Rethink Higher Ed’s Future

Atlanta — Walk into a college president’s office these days, and you’ll probably find a degree hanging on the wall from one of three academic disciplines: education, social sciences, or the humanities and fine arts. Some 70 percent of college leaders completed their studies in one of those fields, according to the American Council on Education.

You’re unlikely to discover many engineering degrees. Just 2 percent of college presidents are engineers.

Yet, when we think of solving complex problems, we normally turn to engineers to help us figure out solutions. And higher education right now is facing some tough issues: rising costs; low completion rates; and delivery systems, curricula, and teaching methods that show their age.

So what if engineers tackled those problems using their reasoning skills and tested various solutions through simulations? Perhaps then we would truly design a university of the future.

That’s the basic idea behind Georgia Tech’s new Center for 21st Century Universities. The center is officially described as a “living laboratory for fundamental change in higher education,” but its director, Rich DeMillo, describes it in terms we can all understand: higher education’s version of the Silicon Valley “garage.” DeMillo knows that concept well, having come from Hewlett-Packard, where he was chief technology officer (he’s also a former Georgia Tech dean).

Applying the garage mentality to innovation in higher ed is an intriguing concept, and as DeMillo described it to me over breakfast on Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus on Tuesday, I realized how few college leaders adopt its principles. Take, for example, a university’s strategic plan. Such documents come and go with presidents, and the proposals in every new one are rarely tested in small ways before leaders try to scale them across the campus. After all, presidents have little time to make a mark before moving on to their next job.

In a garage, “the rules are different,” DeMillo explained to me. “Universities are set up to hit near-term goals. Few are thinking about what the university should look like years down the road.”

DeMillo already has a number of projects in the pipeline, including a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and a TechBurst competition where students create short, shareable videos on particular concepts, and the university as a whole is thinking of others. One favorite of Georgia Tech’s president, Bud Peterson, is X-College, which would allow students to essentially design their own degree programs focused on “grand challenges” facing society. It would also allow faculty members to experiment with learning techniques and the semester calendar itself. In keeping with the test-and-learn philosophy, Peterson wants it to start small, perhaps with 50 honors students next fall.

Georgia Tech’s center offers a unique opportunity to experiment in an industry not known for taking risks. At a kickoff event for the center on Tuesday, I moderated a wide-ranging discussion with some leading thinkers on the future of higher ed, and among my questions was this: If you had a chance to run this center, what one project would you put on its agenda?

Among the ideas I found most interesting:

Public research on the common questions. One way for public universities to reassert their relevance is to focus on public research on big common questions facing society.

Create incubators. It’s difficult for policy makers and campus leaders to get their heads around abstract concepts of the future. Bring ideas to life in small ways, and show how they can work.

Improve social engagement. So-called softer skills are more important than ever as technology limits face-to-face interaction. Figure out ways to embed leadership, social, and global skills in everyday curricula.

Interactive learning. Remove teachers from being the center of all knowledge. Learning no longer happens with the teacher in front of a roomful of students taking notes. Find richer, more active ways of learning.

Stop teaching subjects. Teach students how to diagnose problems starting in kindergarten and then give them the knowledge to get better at it. Helping students solve problems teaches them how to think.

Revamp the college admissions process and office. Jonathan Cole, a former provost of Columbia University, said the smartest people on a campus should work in admissions, and that includes faculty members. “They need to get involved in who is living in this house,” he said. Right now, admissions is too tied to test scores, and “we’re getting boring, one-dimensional students,” he said.

So if you had a chance to run this center, what ideas would you put on its agenda?

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