Scenario: the alt. residential campus of 2028

What might college campuses look like in the future?

I’d like to offer one scenario here, which I’ve variously called “Alt.Residential” and “ARcampus.”   It stems from my recent work, and is feeding into a chapter for my upcoming book, so you could consider this a small preview.  (I’ve been creating scenarios for a while.  For example, check out  “Health Care Nation“.  For more scenario stuff, including links to other people’s scenarios that I like, click here.)

For this scenario the major drivers of change are:

  • augmented and mixed reality
  • blended and hybrid learning
  • a more competitive marketplace for students

Let’s imagine the year is 2028.

One portion of American higher education is entirely online, with classes offered either by older bricks-and-mortar institutions or by wholly online enterprises.  A second portion consists of commuter students who take face-to-face classes but don’t live on campus.  The third portion of academia is residential and predicated upon face-to-face learning.  This is the familiar liberal arts college or state university, primarily teaching traditional-age undergraduates.  This portion of the future is what we’ll focus on in the present post.

How has that residential campus changed in the intervening decade?

If we set foot on its grounds, we would see familiar buildings with some changes.  Residence halls, administrative buildings, classrooms, the library, the wellness center are all there, but some feature giant digital screens, presumably weatherproof.  Others seem to have fewer windows than we might expect.  The dorms residence halls are larger and more impressive-looking than ours.

The population is also familiar yet slightly different.  We see students, faculty, and staff striding, sitting, or talking, but more of them are wearing glasses than we see in the distant past of 2018.  If we look closely at those who aren’t sporting glasses we can catch glimpses of tiny flashes of light in their eyes.

augmented reality eyewear_Bruce Sterling

What’s going on here?  Once we borrow goggles from the library we catch on.  The entire campus is saturated with augmented reality (AR) content and services.  The population accesses AR through glasses or contact lenses (hence those tiny flashes).  Through AR they can interact with much of the internet, including contemporary social media, class materials, shopping, and news from home.  Audio plays from earbuds connected to glasses or contacts; tiny microphones pick up the wearer’s spoken words.

This population also accesses information about the immediate environment.  Students can quickly see if their roommate is home.  Faculty can identify where a colleague has ended up and see where the shuttle bus is.  IT staff readily spot network outages.  Prospective students and their parents scroll through information about campus social nodes, institutional history, and the location of favorite classes.  All are uploading information passively through their motions and interface actions, while adding actively by voice and gesture.

Street Museum App on Cheapside_Alan Levine

Let’s go inside one of these buildings.  Perhaps classes will be different.

And so they are.  In several classrooms there are no whiteboards or PowerPoints; it seems students perceive that content through their eyewear.   Other classrooms are nearly coated in displays which wrap around all walls, including doors, tables, and even the backs of chairs.

It’s hard to find lectures, though, as most classrooms look… well, chaotic.  Students mill around tables and whiteboards, arguing with each other or gesticulating towards displays or at nothing we can see.  Some are furiously typing in the air or on their arms, while others quietly talk to themselves.  Others operate scientific machinery or art supplies on tables, although occasionally they seem to be pointing to or even manipulating spots in empty space.

Each of the classrooms has one or two instructors, but they aren’t the center of attention when we first enter this building.  Instead the professors move among the students, listening or quickly advising them.  Eventually we see one prof in what looks like an art class mount a lectern which, while plainly visible, doesn’t dominate the class space.  She delivers a three minute talk about a misunderstanding under which most of the class is laboring, and explains the truth, pointing them to next steps.  Students pay some attention to this.  When she’s done with her presentation, students return to their tables, walls, each other, and (to us) empty air.  After an hour one of us observes the ration of “chaos time” to lectures in minutes is about 5:1.


It’s time to check out other campus sites.  We exit the strange classroom building and walk across the quad towards the residence halls.  Along the way we see more signs of students, faculty, and staff engaging what would look like an invisible world, without the AR goggles.  We listen quietly to what some of them are saying, and ask others what they’re doing as they move outside.  The answers include bugging students about overdue work, chatting with friends, working with mental health staff, and singing for a friend’s new song.  As ever, some students sprawl on the grass, but instead of poring over a printed book they scroll through e-books or watch (or listen to) lectures presented to their eyes and ears.

Along the way we spot more of what seems to us to be non-academic buildings.  There are familiar climbing walls, formal gardens, and sports fields.  Two students are attempting to kayak down the overgrown creek which runs alongside the quad.  Other students are delightfully racing about the lawns, shouting at each other, waving their hands… and their behavior is incomprehensible, until we slip the goggles back on and see that virtual monsters surround the students, who battle or command them frantically.  The students now look different, clothed in weird armor; their bodies have changed, becoming new species or genders.  At times a student will grab a meter-long key from the air, and disappear it into a pocket.  Another student somehow produces a fiery sword longer than he is tall.

If we lift our eyes from the immediate vista and look about we can see the campus is speckled with imaginary fantasies.  A gorgeous and impossible castle towers over one residence hall.   One student harmlessly caroms a somewhat pixilated basketball off the very tangible side of Colas Hall. A flock of cryptic robots, each named after their student creators, march around the library.   Historical figures wait patiently on footpaths, while a set of enormous DNA molecules interfere with the parking lot.  Artifacts we can’t understand tumble and glimmer under the sun.

Campus history is available in meticulous detail.  With a spoken command visitors and residents can scroll a building back in time through the years, seeing additions, repairs, construction, and the pre-architectural site.  Faculty from decades past can be summoned up in their old offices, along with information about their classes, research, and personality.

It isn’t all fun.  Several people look pained as they interact with virtual figures.  One weeps openly, then slowly walks towards the wellness center.  Several students are immersed in conversation with staff members, but we can’t hear them; either their conversation is entirely virtual, or their eyewear has somehow muted their voices.

Are these students more unhappy than they were in the past?  We argue about this briefly.  They seem to have greater access to mental health services than we do.  Does that mean the campus has helped a larger number of students come to terms with otherwise suppressed issues, or is there a kind of social contagion of desire for therapy?  Are we statistically confused because there are, according to the goggles, fewer students here than there were in 2018?

Let’s take off the goggles and return to the present.  What did we just glimpse?

AR bodies_PinkPink Sorbet

It’s a campus where blended learning and augmented reality have synthesized and become mainstream.  This population is comfortable living in a thoroughly intertwined dual reality, where virtual and physical content coexist as comfortably as digital movies inhabit DVD cases today.  At the most challenging users toggle between worlds like bifocal wearers switch depth of field.

Academics are deeply blended now.  Classrooms and pedagogies are designed to this “bifocal” experience.  Flipped learning is the norm.  Lectures have receded, either becoming accessible online or delivered live, on spec, to address an emergent and local issue, as well as to (hopefully) inspire students to carry on.

You’ll notice that nonacademic or student life services are also blended.  Students can access all kinds of entertainment in both analog and digital forms, and are comfortable interweaving one among strands of the other.  They also access other forms of care, including counseling and managed social interaction.

The built environment has changed, but not radically.  There are fewer windows because people can layer their walls and rooms with virtual images and objects.  Classroom interiors are more like studios and less like theaters.  The outdoors offers more entertainment in both modes.

Campuses are managed somewhat differently than they are now.  They devote more resources than ever to make the student life attractive, as demographic, economic, and cultural shifts have depressed the higher education market.  Faculty now perform multiple roles as instructors, student support aids, and campus guides.  Research is less important (and we can talk about research universities in this world).  Professional development combines the fields of disciplines, student life, institutional research, law, and therapy.

Some campus leaders view this new order as akin to the historical transition movie theaters went through.  When would-be viewers could see epic amounts of visual content in their homes or on their devices, theaters had to make their experience much more attractive.  They had to pitch themselves as worth going to, worth spending extra money for.  Similarly the alt.residential campus is a lavish experience.  Sure, an 18-year-old can access a universe of learning from their devices (eyewear and other) without leaving their parents’ home, but the alt.residential campus is so, so much more attentive and engaging.

Let’s conclude by imagining an 18-year-old’s life in this alt.Residential world.  I’ll borrow the idea (and logo) from Beloit College’s Mindset List, advancing things a bit so that this hypothetical student, 18 in our 2028 future, was born in 2010.

Beloit mindset list

They grew up in a blended world.  From childhood on the virtual/analog mix was simply part of life.  Those coming from the most fortunate parents (wealthier, more educated, white or Asian, etc.) are likely to have escaped the testing regime that preceded them.  Instead, they grew up on project-based learning.  Blank spaces, such as undecorated walls or unoccupied rooms, are desirable as canvas is to a painter: sites for work, creativity, and play.  They find their pre-blended-world elders to be variously alien, hilarious, fascinating, or pathetic.

Let’s take a step back.  The preceding is a kind of fiction, a scenario: a story about a hypothetical future.  It’s not a forecast, but a way to imagine one possible campus if certain things strongly shape it.

I’ve also left out a range of factors and possibilities, partly for narrative purposes, and partly for time and space limitations.  I assumed this AR tech would be working well at commodity and enterprise levels by 2028; this could, of course, be wrong, or people will just become as accustomed to glitches with “eyewear” as we are now with, say, windows or the automobile.  I downplayed the role of data and analytics, assuming that in a decade we’ll have become comfortable with them through various measures.  I underplayed the role of library and IT organizations.  And so on.  Please feel free to pile on and extend or challenge this fiction in comments or elsewhere – that’s part of the function of scenarios.

I’m drawing on a bunch of sources for this scenario, including Kelly Walsh, Vernor Vinge’s novel Rainbows End (our book club read it), the Digital Bodies team, and Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s Soonish (which we read in 2018). 

(AR eyewear via Bruce Sterling; historical overlay by Alan Levine; red and black parallel by PinkPink SorbetHololens photo by SNDRV)

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3 Responses to Scenario: the alt. residential campus of 2028

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Fascinating scenario! Thanks for that. A few thoughts:

    I’m intrigued, when so much of the AR scenario is about goggles, that you also appeal to screens pretty heavily (to the point of eliminating windows). I’d assume the opposite – if individuals could control screen position and brightness, the architects would give us even more natural light whenever possible.

    The classroom you describe sounds a lot like a modern primary grades classroom, with periods where students move through “stations” perhaps in teams instead of learning as a single group. (Would students like that model for being familiar, or reject it for being too unlike “college”?) It’s really intriguing to think about how “stations” might work on the collegiate level. Maybe every class meeting might have a half-hour lab, almost like a mandatory study hall? Maybe they’re opportunities for interdisciplinary work, team teaching, or forming cohorts along the lines of first-year seminars or other of the high-impact practices?

    My friend, I do want to push back on one particular piece of language, where your narrator (or perhaps their interlocutor) refers to “a kind of social contagion of desire for therapy” as a sign of unhappiness. If I could have one wish for 2028, it would be that we’re not thinking about therapy this way. (Ok, maybe 5 or 6 wishes, but it’s high on the list.) Instead of a stigmatized model of mental health care, what if we thought of that “social contagion” as a wonderful thing? What if we thought of “therapy” as not particularly different from going to a doctor for a checkup, a trainer for a workout regime, or a spiritual advisor or mentor or life coach for… well, some things which have remarkable congruencies to therapy. We’re already seeing models for online and phone therapy, and colleges signing up with such services as ways to extend their wellness center staff. What if we reinforced that therapy isn’t just about being “broken”, but is a valid pro-health, pro-happiness choice that everyone should check out?

    • Roxann Riskin says:

      As a learning designer, technologist, I am also a new mindfulness teacher and pause to digest something you have responded to – the ‘desire for therapy’. I hope the current wave of newly embraced wellness models, presenting now on many campuses as (MBSR, Mindfulness, Yoga, faith-based, secular etc.) are actualized and seen as positive types of service models on all virtual or physical colleges and universities for any student, faculty and staff member. Yet, a guess is that maybe formal wellness practices earlier on in elementary and high school might not be offered or a part the curriculum. Why is this important now and in 2018 or ten years from now? For one thing, take a look at these serious stats. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s and suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students. Abstract: Suicide is a leading cause of death among college and university students in the United States Ohio State University.
      I am in agreement with advocating health and wellness centers for all ages now and in the future. 🙂

  2. The traditional narrative has been to graduate high school, go to college, and then go to work. I sense that there will be a greater need for businesses to employ students with the skills and experience to operate in virtual worlds than there will be a desire for students to “waste” years of their lives in college campuses racking up more debt.

    Instead, I propose a convergence of degree-based education with in-service employment because (a) the value proposition of time dedicated exclusively to education will diminish, (b) the necessity to be in a physical space to learn will diminish the necessity to be someplace in order to earn a degree, (c) the higher education enviroment will not be as rich a social environment for accelerating connections, sharing knowledge, and professional growth as the workplace. (The concept of the workplace in 2028 is, in itself, a whole ‘nuther discussion!)

    I agree with Bryan’s vision of the campus experience of the future, though I suspect that it will be only one of several options for students to consider. The decision to pursue one kind of experience over another may be driven more by subject matter. For example, a person pursuing a degree in Business or Finance may find a richer education experience in a workplace environment than at a campus. The opposite may be true for someone pursuing Liberal Arts.

    Ultimately, this suggests that businesses may take on more of an identity as educators, given optimal tax and accreditation structures. If Microsoft believes it needs to hire an Ethnographer (danah boyd), then who else might they hire? To what end?

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