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Reimagining the Undergraduate Experience: 4 Provocative Ideas

How can we reimagine the undergraduate college experience in the future?

That was the question at the heart of my column last week on the overworked bachelor’s degree, which generated plenty of discussion, agreement, and pushback in the comments. It was also a question at the center of a yearlong exercise at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school.

The exercise was the first time that the school turned its renowned “design thinking” process on itself. Activities over the year included classes of undergraduate and graduate students along with discussions and experiments with faculty, students, and administrators across Stanford’s campus.

“From a design perspective, we were fascinated by a set of issues,” said Sarah Stein Greenberg, managing director of the d.school. “There are clearly new human behaviors around the way people are learning. It’s changing faster than ever. We wanted to know what we’d uncover and add another layer to the conversation.”

Unlike other design exercises that focus on problems or industries students are sometimes unfamiliar with, in this project every student was in the middle of what they were studying. “There was a real sense of mission and purpose,” Stein Greenberg said.

The goal of the exercise, Stein Greenberg said, was to emerge with provocative ideas that would spur discussions and pilots on campus. “There are folks who take action as a result of a provocation,” she said.

Four broad provocations emerged:

The “open loop” university. I mentioned this idea, which imagines the college experience as a series of “loops” over a lifetime, in my column last week. This plan would admit students at 18 but give them six years of access to residential learning opportunities, to use anytime in their life. It would allow alumni to return mid-career for professional development and new students to get real-life work experience.

Paced education. This abolishes the class year and replaces it with adaptive, personalized learning that allows students to move through phases of learning at their own pace. The goal is to help students make better choices about what they want to study and understand their own learning style.

Axis flip. Rather than traditional academic disciplines, the curriculum would be organized around common and transferable skills that could be used over the course of a lifetime. Schools and departments would be reorganized around “competency hubs” so that there would be deans of scientific analysis, quantitative reasoning, moral and ethical reasoning, communication effectiveness, among others.

Purpose learning. Instead of majors, students would declare a “mission” to help them find meaning and purpose behind their studies.

You can find a complete description of the ideas, along with design sketches of them, here.

Now the d.school is bringing together faculty and administrators from across the campus to brief them on the ideas. “We want to see what resonates,” Stein Greenberg said.

Of course, like the comments on my column about rethinking the bachelor’s degree, it’s easy to find hurdles to adopting many of the ideas that emerged from the Stanford project. But in the design process, Stein Greenberg said, “we tend to lead with desirability.”

What do you think of the ideas to reimagine the undergraduate experience? Do you have other ideas or areas of the experience where we should focus our efforts? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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