Imagining the Future of the University

[This is a guest post by Lisa Spiro, the director of NITLE labs, editor of the Digital Research Tools Wiki, and author of Digital Scholarship in the Humanities blog. You may find her on Twitter as @lisaspiro. -GHW]

I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future?  What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studio? a reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?

As Rice University celebrates its centennial and looks forward to its next 100 years, it hosted a dialogue on “ The Future of the Research University in a Global Age” at the De Lange Conference on February 27-28.  The conference featured presentations by current and former university presidents such as James Duderstadt of the University of Michigan, Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, and Charles Vest of MIT, as well as by Burton McMurtry, former chairman of the board at Stanford and Rice trustee emeritus; leading thinkers on higher education and learning such as John Seely Brown, Cathy Davidson and Robert Zemsky; and current and former leaders of organizations promoting research and education, such as Rita Colwell, former director of the NSF, and Hunter Rawlings of the Association of American Universities (also former president of Cornell and the University of Iowa). While the speakers discussed many challenges facing higher education, they also articulated strategies for shaping twenty-first century learning and pointed to some innovative models.

In many ways, universities’ present and near future seem gloomy. Although many Americans think of the US as being number one in education, Charles Vest presented OECD statistics telling a different story, with the US ranking 11th among OECD nations in the percentage of young adults with high school diplomas, 16th in the rate of college completion, and 48th in the quality of K-12 math and science education. According to Hunter Rawlings, 41 states cut funding for higher education in the last year. With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.

In the face of public skepticism about the value of higher education, Rawlings called on universities to renew their commitment to undergraduate education by rewarding teaching as much as research and drawing on learning science research in designing effective pedagogy. As Rawlings noted, some universities are recognizing the need to re-focus on undergraduate education; for example, Stanford recently released a report on The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford embracing “adaptive learning,” the ability to “integrate” one’s education and experience to tackle new challenges (13). Gutmann likewise emphasized the need to integrate knowledge across disciplines, questioning the artificial division between liberal and professional education and speaking to the importance of cross-disciplinary work. For example, the Penn Integrates Knowledge program recruits faculty whose research and teaching transcend disciplinary boundaries. Such a cross-disciplinary approach is essential in addressing “thorny challenges” like reforming health care, which involves policy, ethics, economics, business, science, nursing and medicine. Speakers cited models for innovative pedagogy, such as Johns Hopkins’ Gateway Science Initiatives, which promotes active learning in introductory science courses; Michigan’s “high-touch,” interactive approaches to teaching calculus; and the University of Minnesota Rochester’s emphasis on peer instruction and concept-driven learning over lectures. Vest suggested that “on-campus personalized learning” (such as CMU’s Open Learning Initiative) holds promise for delivering better learning at a lower cost, since it combines faculty guidance with technologies that are based upon learning science research, assessing the learner’s progress and providing customized exercises and support. But how can we disseminate and scale up such approaches, especially given resource constraints?

In part, we need to rethink how we conceive of education. Cathy Davidson and John Seely Brown (JSB) articulated learning frameworks for the fluid, dynamic Digital Age rather than the Industrial Age. Davidson explained that many of the practices we associate with education, including multiple choice tests and attention to task, were designed to serve the needs of the Industrial Age for standardization and a regulated labor force. In contrast, the Digital Age calls for mash-ups, customization, multi-tasking, data mining, and collaboration by difference. Davidson suggested that we should ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments. Asking “are we preparing students for the interdisciplinary approach necessary to solving grand challenges?,” JSB advocated for entrepreneurial, playful approaches to learning. He celebrated the creative problem-solving represented by design practices, which bring together thinking and doing (“head and hand”), provide an environment where it is OK to fail, and engage in peer and collective critiquing to promote new perspectives. Likewise, Vest (who was president of MIT when it launched the Open Course Ware initiative) suggested that universities can help to solve grand challenges by bringing together bits and brains, providing open access to data and enabling people to learn and solve problems.

Ultimately the conference suggested to me the need to “hack” higher education, to question traditional ways of operating and to play with creative solutions to these challenges. Throughout the entire conference, speakers emphasized the need to tackle “ wicked problems” such as the Grand Challenges for Engineering (which includes “advancing personalized learning”). Of course, solving such problems requires the skills and insights of people from many disciplines and backgrounds; indeed, Vest offered a preview of a new grand challenge program, which will include partners from the UK and China and extend to disciplines in addition to engineering. The final session of the De Lange Conference, held jointly with the National Academy of Engineering, focused on “Engineering for Impact: Effecting Sustainable Change in the Developing World” and illustrated the promise of creative, user-focused, collaborative processes leading to low-cost, easy-to-use solutions in areas such as health care and energy. We can also see such a spirit of experimentation and innovation in blogs such as ProfHacker and Hack Education, books such as Hacking the Academy, funding programs such as Digital Media and Learning Competition and the Next Generation Learning Challenges, and programs such as the NITLE Innovation Studio (which I am coordinating).

So, ProfHacker readers, what would it take to “hack” thorny problems facing higher ed, such as expanding access to an affordable college education, improving learning, or devising more meaningful assessments?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo "sanaa, zollverein kubus, 2003-2006" by seier+seier]

Return to Top