Tomorrowland University: What Will the College of the Future Look Like?

Last year, Stanford students and faculty traveled to the future.

Over the course of a year at Stanford University’s Hasso Platner Institute of Design — better known as the d.school — they explored visions of Stanford 2025, imagining radical changes in the structure and function of higher education.

“This is a generation of students who are incredibly highly structured, but they’re going to be entering an increasingly ambiguous world,” explained Stanford d.school Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg at the WIRED By Design conference. “We need to be training our students not just to expect that they will be society’s leaders, but also to be our most creative, daring, and resilient problem-solvers.”

The d.school’s exploration ultimately crystallized around four major design “provocations” that reimagined what the undergraduate experience could look like in the future:

  1. Open Loop University: College is approached as a series of “loops,” or educational opportunities distributed over a lifetime and totaling six years, rather than in a single, discrete four-year period.

  2. Paced Education: Students progress through personalized learning phases that vary in length and do not use the semester as a unit of measurement.

  3. Axis Flip: The curriculum — and even the campus — is organized around skill competencies that are useful in a variety of contexts; it transcends traditional academic disciplines.

  4. Purpose Learning: Students focus their learning around a declared personal “mission” rather than a typical major.

Although the design experiment was framed as a vision of the future, it was clearly inspired by the current paradigm shifts provoked by modern technological and social change, and was well-grounded in the work of past education theorists and social philosophers.

The Stanford d.school’s presentation on Stanford 2025, for instance, cited labor statistics from "Job Hopping is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials", which reported that “the average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years, but the expected tenure of the workforce’s youngest employees is about half that.” In keeping with these trends, all four major concepts of Stanford 2025 emphasize personal flexibility and relevance based on how and what to learn — educational characteristics ideally adapted to this modern world of work.

Generation Flux and “The New Making It”

The increasing uncertainty, transience, and flexibility of modern labor and the acceleration of change have become defining characteristics of the 21st century. As Al Gore wrote in "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change," we are living in a “new period of hyper-change,” which “is now carrying us with it at a speed beyond our imagining toward ever-newer technologically-shaped realities that often appear, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘indistinguishable from magic.’”

And so the traditional university, with the ostensible purpose of training young people for this transforming world of work, understandably has become a focus of inquiry and discussion about how — or whether — the system is evolving to address these changes. “People are trying to work out how do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century,” observed education consultant Ken Robinson in a popular 2010 talk, Changing Education Paradigms, given at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). “How do we do that, given that we can't anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?” The paradigm shift proposed by Robinson was, like the vision of Stanford 2025, a call for a more flexible, individualized, creative, and collaborative approach, instead of the present-day “production-line mentality” and standardization of education.

In 2012, Fast Company published a cover feature on the modern labor reality of “multiple gigs, some of them supershort, with constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations, and no guarantee that you'll stay in a single industry,” naming the new generation of individuals adaptable enough to face these changes “Generation Flux.” The moniker, editor-in-chief Robert Safian explained, was “less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates — and even enjoys — recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions.”

In a similar vein, a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't,” traces the outlines of new forms of creative success in the Internet era; these have grown amid the downfall of traditional institutional gatekeepers like record labels, publishing houses, and newspapers. What “The New Making It” entails, the article suggests, is precisely the “Generation Flux” mindset that can invent and capitalize on new jobs, markets, and means of production. “These new careers — collaborating on an indie-­movie soundtrack with a musician across the Atlantic, uploading a music video to YouTube that you shot yourself on a smartphone — require a kind of entrepreneurial energy that some creators may lack,” writes Steven Johnson, a frequent chronicler of modern innovation. “The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft.” This ability to innovate, it would seem, is something that universities must develop in their students if they are to meet their mandate in training them to thrive in the 21st century.

New Changes, Familiar Flux

Despite the seeming newness of these changes, the modern meditations on our society in flux seem surprisingly familiar. “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today,” wrote Isaac Asimov in 1978. “No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

One hundred thirty years earlier, Karl Marx famously wrote in "The Communist Manifesto" that modern bourgeois society was defined by “constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” In 1970, Alvin Toffler defined a new term, “future shock,” for the experience of those who find it “increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterizes our time,” proposing that, “We have in our time released a totally new social force — a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionizes the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we ‘feel’ the world around us.” The following year, Donald Schön observed in "Beyond the Stable State" that “our society and all of its institutions are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.”

Learning and Relearning

Naturally, these early prophets of hyper-change called for a shift in education as the key to facing the ever-changing future. “By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education,” wrote Toffler in “Future Shock.” A year earlier, educator and cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” that “survival in a rapidly changing environment depends almost entirely upon being able to identify which of the old concepts are relevant … [and] getting the group to unlearn … the irrelevant concepts as a prior condition of learning.”

Donald Schön proposed that this approach had to be built into the institutions of society. “We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are 'learning systems', that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation,” wrote Schön. “The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning.”

Systems scientist Peter Senge popularized this idea with his 1990 book, “The Fifth Discipline.” Learning organizations, he explained, are "organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Models for the Future

The Internet has undeniably opened up the possibilities for learning and the access to educational tools and resources, and has put the model of the “learning system” easily within reach. In 2010, Sugata Mitra gave a popular TED talk on "The Child-Driven Education," explaining his research on the remarkable ability of children to learn for themselves without direction, simply with access to the Internet — even with no training on how to use a computer.

In 2013, Mitra was awarded the TED Prize to "Build a School in the Cloud" platform to expand access around the world to what he called “Self Organized Learning Environments,” empowering students to learn individually and from each other, independently of institutions.

While much has been said about the revolutionary potential of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — such as those offered for free by major universities through sites like edX and Coursera, the courses themselves are simply online replicas of their real-world counterparts, not radically different ways of structuring the educational experience. Recently, though, a variety of web startups have emerged to build frameworks to enrich the experience. SlideRule not only aggregates MOOCs from various websites, but also builds them into relevant, skill-focused “Learning Paths”— curricula which combine online courses with other materials, such as articles, YouTube videos, and useful PDF guides. P2PU facilitates “Learning Circles”— groups participating in online courses together in libraries — in the belief that the “future of learning is not in ‘disruptive’ technologies,” but rather “in the power of people exploring together.” Degreed enables individuals to track, record, and score all online learning — whether it be from a MOOC, a New York Times article, a TED talk, or a podcast. The shared goal of these online interfaces is to empower learning that takes place outside of educational institutions and provide individual flexibility and choice in what and how to learn.

And then there are a host of organizations that have sprouted up in the real world to take advantage of the customizability and collaboration made possible by digital technologies and effectively supplant the role of the traditional universities. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel believes so strongly in the obsolescence of college, particularly for creative innovators and entrepreneurs, that he established the Thiel Fellowship to pay promising young people $100,000 over two years not to go to school — though, ironically, he attended Stanford University and Stanford Law School, and returned to teach a Stanford class in 2012 on startups.

Dale J. Stephens, one of the original 24 recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, founded UnCollege, which promotes non-college paths to entering the professional world with relevant skills and experience. UnCollege offers a Gap Year program, following the common European practice of taking a "gap year" before college as a way for young people to find their own direction and build “cognitive skills, confidence, and professional aptitudes they can utilize in all future endeavors,” whether or not they choose to go on to college afterward.

The Experience Institute proposes a “holistic approach to higher ed” with a self-designed, real-world, and relatively inexpensive 12-month program. “Through apprenticeships, self-guided projects, meetups, and coaching, we create a space within higher education that helps individuals build creative confidence, agency, and a compelling portfolio.” General Assembly, which focuses on skill-building courses in design, business, and technology, is successfully training students to enter new careers in these fields, sometimes with nothing more than a single 8–12 week, day-long course.

These sorts of models could well be higher education’s “disruptive innovation” — to employ the term championed by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the 1997 book, "The Innovator’s Dilemma," describing the phenomenon of technology-induced market upheaval. Although the book’s precise theory of market change has suffered recently from criticism of its historical methodology by fellow Harvard University professor Jill Lepore in The New Yorker and debunking of its business claims in a case study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, the book’s broader theme found such resonance in the culture at the dawn of the 21st century because it gave a name —“disruption”— to a social and economic reality that seemed at once obvious and overlooked. Any institution too committed to past methods of success, or even simply present ones, would be swept away by the oncoming waves of change. The future is forever in flux, and we need to be ready for it, or face failure.

Will colleges and universities radically transform in the next decade along the sorts of lines envisioned by Stanford 2025, or will they maintain their traditional form while new alternatives proliferate and outgrow them? It may be too soon to tell. If there is one certainty in this age of hyperchange, it is that nothing is certain. The future of the university is unwritten, and to a greater extent than ever before, it will be determined by the decisions of students themselves.

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