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Alternative Universities: Ideas that Could Shape Higher Education Futures

April 17, 2019

By: Katherine Prince

As KnowledgeWorks has been exploring for some time now, exponential advances in digital technologies are quickly ushering in a new era where our economy, institutions and societal structures may look dramatically different than they do today. The ways people work, teach, live and learn are also changing as part of this era shift. Educators must consider how their practices today will shape the future of learning tomorrow.

Some of the big questions on the horizon for postsecondary and higher education include:

  • As artificial intelligence and machine learning displace or change many jobs and as full-time employment becomes less common, will it mean to be college and career-ready, and what will the role of education be?
  • As students and their families increasingly seek out educational approaches and careers that fit their values, interests and lifestyles, how will established approaches to education and funding need to adapt?
  • What if postsecondary and higher education were more fluid, relying less on traditional institutional structures and more on network- and relationship-based structures focused on learners’ needs, interests and goals?
  • Could new tools and practices informed by technological developments, increasing understanding of the importance of social-emotional health, and more individual student data help postsecondary and higher education institutions create more responsive learning experiences than are common today?
  • Where might there be opportunities for postsecondary and higher education institutions to personalize learning, partner across sectors to create solutions, cultivate students’ understanding of their own impact on the world and build resilience in the face of turbulence?

In responding to the changes on the horizon and considering such questions, postsecondary and higher education leaders and innovators have the chance to broaden and diversify learning experiences, to consider new business models, to collaborate within and beyond the sector and to explore far-reaching questions about the purpose and outcomes of higher education. Working closely to create alignment and open lines of communication with K-12 will be equally critical to ensure that high school graduates are college-ready. If we are to raise the country’s low certification and college graduation rates and prepare graduates for a complex and rapidly changing world, we must adapt.

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This need to create new business models and adapt – and to do so more quickly than postsecondary and higher education have been prone to change – makes a new book by David Staley, Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education, especially welcome for expanding stakeholders’ understanding of what might be possible for the sector. In face of a perceived crisis in higher education – at whose heart lies a lack of differentiation – Staley invites readers to imagine ten alternative forms that suggest new ways of defining the purpose of higher education and the forms that it might take. These ten alternative forms are:

  • Platform University
  • Microcollege
  • The Humanities Think Tank
  • Nomad University
  • The Liberal Arts College
  • Interface University
  • The University of the Body
  • The Institute for Advanced Play
  • Polymath
  • Future University.

In exploring these alternative forms of higher education, Staley’s book aims to enrich our imaginations about what might be possible for higher education – and for the students whom it should aim not just to serve but to transform. Alternative Universities promises to inspire innovation beyond the bounds of most current efforts, something the field and society desperately need during this time of profound change.

As Brian Bridges of the United Negro College Fund put it in a strategy workbook on shaping the future of higher and postsecondary education, “Many students bring a whole host of circumstances that influence the way that they operate, how much money they borrow, their ability to take classes at certain times or to stay enrolled continuously, their time to graduation. There is a whole range of things that future delivery methods will have to take into consideration for higher education to remain viable: a student’s family situation, their work, their living situations, as well as their academic preparation.”

In that same workbook, Linda Schott of Southern Oregon University emphasized, “Instead of having a system that sorts people according to their ability to get a grade the first time around, we need to focus on helping all students achieve mastery.” And Jim Fowler of The Ohio State University said of his mathematics instruction and open calculus textbooks, “Real success means that students are inventing their own problems, questions and projects using the mathematics that they’ve learned. They’re actively discovering…. Learning should be intrinsically rewarding. I’ve never been of the opinion that academia exists to prepare people to be workers: It exists to prepare people to flourish as humans.”

Whatever your view of the purposes of postsecondary and higher education, considering alternative approaches promises to help ensure that institutions think and act creatively about preparing all learners for the future they will need to navigate and lead.

Pave your own way to the future your learning community wants with our toolkit “Mapping Your Journey into Liberatory Education Futures.”


Katherine Prince
Vice President of Foresight and Strategy

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