A Semester Designed on the Fly


A Semester Designed on the Fly

Why Fall 2020 Will Be a Real-Time Prototyping Challenge for Colleges

July 21, 2020
by Ken Gordon
HigherEd Illustration KG BLOG

What if your whole family could attend college together?

Not long into our socially distant era, I had a vision. I imagined a Netflix-style, on-demand education service, one that every member—Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Grandma, and Pop—could use. Each person could choose from an online menu of courses and professors, and stream the learning content on their own devices (Zoom.edu, as imperfect as it is, isn’t going anywhere). They could take courses together, run in-home tutorial groups, and maybe even link up with their professors and other families. Such an offering, I thought, would not only create a bigger student pool for schools and new revenue sources; it would provide more value to college families, many of whom believe colleges provide insufficient value in regard to their cost.

Then I asked my daughter, Shoshi, an actual incoming freshman, if she’d be down with college on the family plan.

“No one wants to go to college with their family,” she said.

She was, I reluctantly admitted, right about this. In my haste to rethink higher ed, I’d forgotten the role a college experience often plays in the intellectual and social maturity of young people like Shoshi. As this just-published EPAM Continuum report, “Beyond the Degree: The Future of the Undergraduate Experience,” says: “College is special because it provides the protected space and time for the developmental activities that are necessary to create productive, thoughtful, engaged citizens—essentially taking teens and turning them into adults.”

Siddhartha must leave the palace, alone, in order to become the Buddha.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t done with the notion. Maybe, I thought, there were parts of the school experience that family members could share. Perhaps schools could let parents audit lectures and participate, with other parents, in a kind of massive multi-player colloquium. Siblings could access a school’s professional network, say, or receive discounts on faculty books.

And just before I started emailing friends and family to solicit their reactions… I recognized three truths: (a) this fall, schools must redesign the student experience, whether they like it or not; (b) whatever they cook up must be quickly tested and intelligently refined over time; and (c) iterative experience design is a foreign idea to most colleges, whose appeal largely resides in their timeless, traditional model of education.

Hard not to have empathy for our schools and their leaders. It’s a tough gig in ordinary times. In 2017, my colleague Toby Bottorf said an administrator must be an “inspiring educator, pragmatic COO, and subtle diplomat among passionate experts. A weaver of a harmonious social fabric, and simultaneously a patient untier of knots. Visionary, yet a master of incrementalism.” Now COVID-19 has made improvisers of them all.

It’s a huge, difficult task to prototype within any sizeable organization—the trick is getting companies to prototype responsibly, saving them months and millions by getting to the right design as soon as possible—but colleges, with their culture of tenure and endowment and their declining enrollments, may find redesigning on the fly an impossible challenge

How might schools proceed in the most intelligent manner possible? The first step is to be humble in the face of this task. I think most higher ed leaders understand the difficulty of this dive and the need to remain humble. As RISD president Rosanne Somerson told Dezeen: “This is without a doubt the biggest challenge we've faced in our entire history as an institution.”

Next, it’s a good idea to examine any new ideas through the seven lenses identified in “Beyond the Degree” as central for redesigning the undergraduate experience. One of which suggests that academic leaders will need to establish the conditions for student independence, no matter where the kids are located. “Schools need to help students create boundaries between college and living at home, and support conditions for them to have the kind of experiences that build independence, both online and remotely,” it says in the whitepaper.

No one knows what will work this fall, online or off. But decades of innovation experience suggest that for new ideas to have the best chance of succeeding, they must be considered holistically, along several dimensions; they must have metrics that inform their success; and there must be enough flexibility, in the process, to shift when reality dictates.

For me, reality is dictating that Shoshi will head off, alone, to school in late August. Could my family-style concept have come from the fact that I was ambivalent to see her go? The answer, I think, is yes.

She’ll be going to a freshman-only campus, an experience that will include twice-weekly COVID testing, classes delivered remotely, social distancing and facemasks. It’s not ideal—it’s a considerable distance from my relatively free-and-easy undergraduate days—but it feels worth the heavy investment. She needs to leave the house to learn. To grow up.

The $64,000 question—well, nearly $64,000 question—is: Will the school make it worth the price?

Illustration by Kyle Wing

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