Judging from recent books, articles, and editorials, higher education is poised for a cataclysmic collapse. There is a considerable body of opinion that systemic problems such as runaway tuition, student debt, low graduation rates and pervasive elitism are so wired into the collective culture of college faculty and administrators that only drastic and disruptive measures can break through institutional logjams.

In fact, this list barely scratches the surface.

On the other hand, it is hard to see a looming cliff. Portraying the university as an enterprise immune to change (at best) or actively hostile to it (at worst) is wildly inaccurate and misstates the actual pace of change.

At the start of a new year—and a new administration in Washington whose post-secondary agenda is unknown—it is worthwhile to take stock of the accelerating innovation in higher education.

Systemic problems often demand structural solutions. Five years ago, I was tapped to lead an internal think tank devoted to fundamental change in higher education, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. My job is to anticipate the kind of disruptive forces that would have structural repercussions for research universities like Georgia Tech.

Crafting an agenda for change from within a university presents unique challenges, including the complex task of declaring victory. Many of the current issues in higher education seem to require new players, markets, or external agents of change. Yet, I’m convinced that it is equally promising to seek renewal from within.

Read more at The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


Today’s #FutureHigherEd idea is a novel use of big data to match students with peers and mentors and improve the learning experience. In 2010,  Tim Renick at Georgia State Univesity started to examine millions of student grade reports looking for markers that might be predictive of classroom success.  Over time, Renick and his team developed analytical models that would alert students and advisors when an intervention is needed.  The resulting data-driven interventions improved graduation rates and saved GSU students over $3 Million in tuition payments.  It also saved the university money and those savings justified hiring more advisors. The GSU project helped launch a revolution in the use of data to improve outcomes and was the subject of an Education Advisory Board case study which can be found here.

Terry Hosler’s submission to the openIDEO Challenge takes this idea in another direction: using student data to match students with peers and mentors.  It’s an important concept because this kind of support strongly influences achievement.

For a student to be successful attending a university or college away from home takes a ‘village of support’ including guiding communication both before and once arriving on campus with both the student and their network of support (family, mentors, and, when the student chooses, a broader community to increase their confidence and comfort level.

This need is there for all students out of their normal cultural environment.

This cultural match is particularly crucial for low-income, first-generation, rural students who are academically astute but unsure of higher education opportunities ‘away from home’ due to lack of experiences and feeling ‘like a fish out of water’.

https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/future-of-highered/research/looking-back-and-looking-forward (Tyler’s Story)

How can Hosler’s idea be combined with the GSU predictive analytics model to identify not only culturally similar peers, but also a community of mentors and tutors who are likely to be effective at helping students improve classroom performance?





Prof. Dan Ryan from Mills College posted another thoughtful piece on #FutureHigherEd, posing the question what will the regulation of academic quality look like in a Flat World?

We can imagine the emergence of both disruptive skill/knowledge certifying enterprises that operate at the individual level and certification accrediting enterprises that operate at the program level.  To generate a healthy ecosystem of such “regulators” we will need to think not in terms of government regulation of educational institutions but rather of some collective regulation of regulators.

Ryan has in mind a collection of marketplace solutions that together will: :

  • free institutions to be more innovative in how they deliver learning
  • provide clearer signals to potential students about what institutions are most effective
  • provide clearer signals to employers, etc. about what people know
  • push one another to create ever more efficient and effective ways to assess teaching and learning and the organization of education
  • free individuals to acquire skill through multiple channels but still obtain recognizable credentials.

In short, these are reforms that should foster innovation.  It was the first thing that occurred to me in 2012 when the MOOC phenomenon started to reshape my thinking about technology-enabled learning:

Letting learning outcomes speak for themselves in a Linked-In network of referrals, accrediting course repositories rather than institutions, and crowd-sourcing ratings to help students choose among competing courses and curricula are all experiments that are under way.  Whatever their outcome, the future of accreditation will not be the same.

I was pretty critical of accrediting agencies back then, but over the past four years I have found myself returning over and over again to the idea that the same Flat World rules that inspired Dan Ryan can also breathe some new life into this necessary part of education:

Accreditation is, well, boring. Accreditors are the green eye shade players in the drama of higher education.  It’s hard to get excited about green eye shades, but today—improbably—I  find myself excited by accreditation. To be more exact, I am excited about what will replace it.



Today’s #FutureHigherEd post is by Mills College professor Dan Ryan, who teaches a course on how to use design thinking to improve higher education. Prof. Ryan asks whether an idea can be innovative if someone else is already doing it.

It’s a question that is interesting in its own right. The bottom line is that it is not only OK, there’s virtually no other way to make progress. A few years ago, Mike Brown at Brainzooming wrote about how to steal (borrow) creative ideas with a clear conscience:

Ryan’s students went looking for innovative ideas to borrow from other schools and came up with an interesting list, including:

Mike Brown thinks this is the basis for creative instigation, the process of searching intentionally for ideas that can instigate your own creative activities as you sculpt, adapt, and reassemble them into solutions that are meaningful and relevant to your circumstances.

Do you think this is a missed opportunity for educational innovators?  My experience is that ideas originating off-campus (or, shudder, from other industries) have a hard time competing with local ideas.  Think N-I-H: Not Invented Here. Why is the N-I-H syndrome such a powerful force? How much better off would we be if we routinely built on the work of others?


Today’s post from the openIDEO #FutureHigherEd Challenge is from my very own institution.  It concerns Georgia Tech’s Commission on Creating the Next In Education (CNE), a group that has been asked to look out ten years or more (well beyond any planning horizon) and recommend investments, experiments, pilots, projects, partnerships, and ecosystems that would help guide the choices of future leaders to maintain or even improve the Institute’s  mission to provide the best and most valuable education to new generations of learners:

Georgia Tech’s mission to define the technological university of the 21st century is not strategic boilerplate. It is a beacon. It is tempting to conclude that future success will follow from continuing the successful strategies of the last 130 years — that the same beacon will attract new generations of scholars and students. That may be true, but it is equally likely that the Georgia Tech student of 2030 will be different in fundamental ways from the student of generations past. The changing landscape of a Georgia Tech education is evident to anyone who looks at the numbers.

Armed with extensive data and a charge from the Institute, CNE will have a rare luxury: adequate time to develop ideas that might be acted upon. The mid-21st century is well beyond Georgia Tech’s current planning horizon. The Commission’s role is not to engage in premature planning but rather to consider the ideas, experiments, and novel ways of organizing that can inform future strategy…

“The Commission will lead Institute-wide discussions of fundamental questions surrounding topics such as the knowledge 21st century students should gain and how sustained lifelong learning differs from the transformational learning experience of recent high school graduates. In a sense, CNE is an opportunity to deepen the knowledge needed for the Georgia Tech community to pursue strategic ‘options’ that can be exercised over the next 20 years.

Do you know of any other efforts that have this scope and charge?  If so, how did those projects turn out?  Is there advice you can give to the Georgia Tech team as it enters its ideation phase?


More ideas from the openIDEO Challenge: All are tied together by existing credentialing and business models, but they each address the challenges of learning communities not well-served by traditional residential degree programs. These speculative models were inspired by David Stanley’s EduCause Review article

  • Polymath University: For T-Shaped learners in the 21st-century workplace, Polymath University requires students to major in three distinct areas.  By the same token, faculty members must be capable of teaching in three distinct programs.
  • Nomad University: A kind of competency-based model, the Nomad University has no fixed location (and in some interpretations, no fixed courses). For learnings in the gig economy, this flexible approach to education has some advantages.
  • Interface University: I was struck by this idea of constructing an entire university curriculum around the notion of computational thinking.  There are elements the interface university in Georgia Tech’s computational media degree which combines computing and the humanities in a degree focusing on technology-enabled content.
  • Neo-Liberal Arts College: There is a great deal of discussion about how to bring the liberal arts to science and engineering curricula, but  little effort on the opposite side of that coin.  How would you design the arts and humanities around technology?
  • Ludic University: This is the university of play.  Instead of lecture halls, seminar rooms, and laboratories, this is a university built around design studios. According to Kate Rushton, “this is the university of what-if.”

These are five novel ways to organize post-secondary education.  What problems would these universities solve?  How are they different from current experimental approaches to higher education, and which ones would actually change our system if they were successful?



Kate Rushton contributed a startling idea to the Future of Higher Education Challenge  #FutureHigherEd:  Suppose you were studying Environmental Justice.  You might attend lectures, read some books, pore over a few case studies…or you might want to actually talk to someone who was affected by, say,  the Flint, Michigan water crisis or the events following the Fukushima tsunami:

If I was studying it today, instead of reading about Exxon Valdez or Brent Spa, maybe I could learn from the perspective of the people involved in current issues around the world today e.g. the conflict between the Sami and Britain’s Beowulf Mining over an iron ore mining project in the north of Sweden from the perspective of the Sami, other locals, the Swedish government, Beowulf Mining and shareholders in the company, and buyers of iron ore.

That’s the idea behind the Human Library.  What if we could create a platform that would allow learners to easily host events involving people that would otherwise be difficult to assemble.  In Kate’s terms, “What if we could borrow people instead of books?”  It turns out there is a way to do this on a limited scale. Human Library UK is an international movement to facilitate conversations.

The Human Library is an international equalities movement that challenges prejudice and discrimination through social contact. It uses the language and mechanism of a library to facilitate respectful conversations that can positively change people’s attitudes and behaviours towards members of our communities who are at risk of exclusion and marginalisation.

It’s an idea that applies to many different conversations.  Wouldn’t it be great for computer scientists studying cyber security to assemble key players in the discovery, capture and containment of the Morris Worm, widely believed to be the first broad cyber attack on the Internet? How might a small liberal arts college host a classroom discussion with participants from around the world? The 1981 collapse of a walkway at the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel is often used as a case study for ethics classes, but many of the stakeholders (victims, engineers, construction personnel, government officials) are still living.How about  engaging in a dialog with them?

If this appeals to you, visit the openIDEO Challenge website and add your thoughts.