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Reimagining Higher Education from the Inside Out

It’s time to reimagine higher education from the inside out. Whether you prefer revolution or renaissance, it’s clear we have entered a new era. As we begin to master the art of reach, bringing unprecedented numbers of lifelong learners into the system and making the system big on the outside, we must not forget to also make higher education big on the inside. Let me explain. To help, I may call upon some summer reading from Musk, Wells, and Asimov.

I’m fascinated by Elon Musk’s track record for innovation in complex, highly regulated industries – transportation (Tesla), energy (SolarCity), and aerospace (SpaceX). In Ashlee Vance’s biography on Musk’s captivating journey to the entrepreneurial pantheon, it is clear that to the Tesla CEO, everything is a design problem. There is a particular gem of a quote when Musk is asked about differentiation and designing the Tesla Model X. Responding with Muskian swagger and near contempt of inferior design efforts, Musk responds, “Anyone can make a car big on the outside. The trick is to make it big on the inside.” Musk goes on to describe the substandard experience of climbing into the third row of a competitor’s vehicle only to have your legs pressed up to your chin. 

You can only make a high performance vehicle so heavy. Tesla designed the outside of the Model X with lightweight aluminum body panels in order to reserve heavier items for the optimization of the user experience on the inside of the car. Musk wants everyone to have a great experience, regardless of where they sit.

As we reimagine higher education from the inside out, how do we avoid building a third row of seats? As we solve for diversity and create more flexible pathways into a more porous university, how do we anticipate and solve for problems around inclusion and equity?

As we solve design problems in higher education, we must anticipate the new problems that follow. As an important example, we know we need to solve for diversity. We need more, on every dimension. We know the many benefits of diversity and we know our mission. Full steam ahead. Yet as we make large strides forward in attracting more diverse learners to our campuses, we have to anticipate new design challenges around inclusion and equity. If the new students and lifelong learners that enter our campuses are forced into third-row contortionism, have we really solved the problem? It’s not personalization or scale, it’s both.

To say this differently, and by way of a classic Simpsons reference, our goal is not to build the Canyonero. Anyone with funding can chase and indiscriminately add shiny features to make an institution huge. Our design choices must increase student learning. Fortunately, our emerging academic R&D models use evidence-based design and experimentation to create catalysts for academic innovation in the service of this goal.

Yet we can’t underestimate the barriers to diversity and inclusion. Today we experience digital polarization and design higher education solutions to reverse the trend. But this trend isn’t new. Look no further than H.G. Wells and The Time Machine to see how some problems endure. Here’s Wells in 1898 on the refinement of education for the few and not the many:

“Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people –due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor — is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.  About London, for instance, perhaps half of the prettier country is shut in against intrusion. And this same widening gulf- which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich- will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent.”

Sound familiar? Some problems aren’t new. Happily, there are new opportunities to solve them. Technology and analytics present new opportunities to expand the reach and quality of experiences we provide. Yet technology is a tool. We need creative models for academic R&D to uncover the most mission-aligned opportunities to leverage technological, pedagogical, and business model innovation. Good news, there’s a positive storm swirling.

In January I had the privilege of delivering opening remarks at the first Harvesting Innovation for Learners gathering, or the HAIL Storm.  The HAIL Storm was born out of shared interest across a range of institutions to establish new models for academic research & development to improve access, quality, and equity in student learning. At the time of our first huddle, I suggested that we have an antifragility problem in higher education and called upon the Japanese art of kintsugi as a heuristic. There is beauty in brokenness and opportunity to go beyond institutional resilience. Through regular exchange with my HAIL Storm colleagues over the months since January, it’s clear to me that our emergent academic R&D models are progressing rapidly to solve some of our most important design challenges.

Through new models of academic R&D we seek and share evidence, enhance our organizational self-awareness, and create space to solve the most important design challenges in higher education.  We are creating antifragile institutions that become stronger when challenged and when exposed to chaos and uncertainty.

In mid-September, we’ll convene the second HAIL Storm discussion, this time in Palo Alto on the beautiful campus of Stanford University. The case for investment in academic R&D is mounting as we ready ourselves for a second exchange of ideas and another opportunity to challenge each other to push our models forward.

In the meantime at my own institution, the case for academic R&D at the University of Michigan is clear, and clearly supported by our President and Provost. As we reimagine education at a 21st-century global, public, research university, our academic R&D model is designed to create an open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation; a personalized, rigorous, and inclusive model for residential learning grounded in learning analytics and experimentation; a flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning that embraces the evolution of the “porous” university; and a participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates knowledge dissemination and information collection.

As we gather again for the second HAIL Storm, I hope to explore the following with my colleagues across higher ed. As we advance diversity, how should we think ahead to create more inclusive 21st century learning environments? As we advance personalized learning, how should we think about shared experiences? As we advance more flexible models for lifelong learning, how should we think about hybrid learning environments that maximize student learning? As we advance public engagement, how should we think about activating public concern and encouraging multi-directional exchange of knowledge and information?

It is important that we focus on “should” and not “could”. To create a future higher education model where everyone can participate, we need to acknowledge that some problems have been around for some time. We have to embrace antifragility in order to experiment, learn, and share. We have to identify the most important design problems, and anticipate the problems to solve for next. We have to be contrarian. Only then will we understand our possible and probable futures and maximize the likelihood of reaching our preferred future.

With such a complex set of challenges in front of us, what do we need to get started? As usual, Isaac Asimov makes the complex simple. From his classic Foundation series: “The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia.”

As we move toward the second HAIL Storm discussion there are many design challenges to attack with similar inertia. I’m reminded that the problems we face vary widely: some are old, some are new, some are borrowed, and some are blue. Wells reminds us that a widening gulf between rich and poor is an old problem in want of new solutions. A new problem comes from our success. Last month, Michigan surpassed 6 million enrollments in massive open online courses since launching our first MOOC in 2012. That sounds like the start to solving an access problem. But how do we avoid building a third row of seats? As we engage more deeply in strategic partnerships and expand the ‘build versus buy decision’ to ‘build, buy, or partner’, we increasingly borrow the design challenges of other organizations. Of course, some challenges are also uniquely ours. While institutions of higher education have many shared interests and face many common challenges, they are also distinct. For Michigan, we need to design for our own institutional mission, strengths, and opportunities. Something (go) blue!

As we increase investment of energy and resource into new models for academic R&D, like Musk, Wells, and Asimov, we need to look carefully at the past and present while peering around the corner and into the future. We need to understand what futures are possible, probable, and preferred. Through increased investment in academic R&D, we can go beyond the design of something simply big and make higher education big on the inside.

James DeVaney (@devaneygoblue) is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan where he leads the Office of Academic Innovation.

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