One campus imagines its future: the Georgia Tech plan

How might universities reinvent themselves for the 21st century?

Georgia Tech recently released an ambitious plan for its future development (pdf), and Jeff Selingo shared his observations at the Washington Post.  He interviewed me for my reactions, so you can find some Bryan comments about the plan and about higher ed in general.

I’d like to expand on those thoughts here, because the plan (“Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education”) is very interesting.  I’ll summarize some of the key points and add questions.  It might give some glimpses into future directions for universities.

George Tech plan

Georgia Tech is addressing some major trends we’ve been exploring in FTTE (hey, the new report came out yesterday!), the Future Trends Forum, my upcoming book, and in this very blog.  They identify change drivers including demographic shifts by age (“dwindling numbers of students in the college pipeline…”), class, and ethnicity (“Georgia Tech learners will be more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.”

I also give the report kudos for celebrating science fiction by referencing Neal Stephenson through the “Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer” chunk of The Diamond Age (1995).  That’s the bit (the best bit of the book, too) about an AI living in a mobile device (an e-reader) which – spoiler alert! – teaches our heroine how to become a revolutionary leader.  (I’m curious how the story reads in 2018.  Is it still an inspirational design fiction, or is it now problematic?  For instance, what to make of mobilizing a force of poor women, people of color?)

“Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education”‘s path ahead is very useful for anyone interested in the future of higher ed.  The document reads like an anthology of innovative ideas being aired and explored now.  Some are technological, like the use of AI, blockchain for certification, microcredentials, and tech-mediated personalized learning.

For AI, remember that this is the Jill Watson campus, and that invention plays a major role in the text:

Georgia Tech has led in the development of AI-based personalization systems. The “Jill Watson” experiment used the IBM Watson system as the basis for an arti cially intelligent teaching assistant and was widely hailed as a breakthrough
in both AI and educational technology. The opportunity now exists to augment “Jill’s” skills to handle other tasks that are associated with personalized learning. A multifunction virtual tutor can be deployed to advisors, coaches, and even mentors located at distributed Georgia Tech locations around the world.

I was surprised to see nothing on open education resources, nor on open access in scholarly publishing.  That seems like a major silence. Perhaps this reflects a political tension among Georgia Tech faculty members, either on OER (classical objects include concerns about discovery and quality) or on open access (concerns about quality, too, but also about the economic viability of small scholarly societies that depend on non-open publishing for revenue).   Perhaps GT’s Library Next initiative will pursue open…?

Other planning ideas don’t necessarily use tech, like making it easier to start taking classes, setting up global learning opportunities (the GT “Atrium”), and rethinking students as “episodic learners.” They would repeatedly take classes over time, separated by non-class-taking intervals.  As the document puts it,

[t]he Georgia Tech Commitment imagines a future not marked by arbitrary entries on a calendar, but one with numerous entry and exit points where students associate with rather than enroll at Georgia Tech.

I wonder if the university is committed to producing on-demand online learning modules for their entire curriculum, to serve students whose interest and circumstances don’t align with the scheduling of live classes. I’m also very curious about their financial model as they get past charging per credit hour.

On the Atrium, Jeff Selingo nicely describes it thusly, in terms of what seem to be:

essentially storefronts that share space with entrepreneurs and become gathering places for students and alumni. In these spaces, visiting faculty might conduct master classes, online students could gather to complete project work or alumni might work on an invention.

I’m intrigued by this, and have questions.  How will Georgia Tech pay these experts, and how support their physical housing (offices, say)? How many will be unpaid volunteers? Further, how will governance and accountability work?

The plan calls for deeper connections between the university and high schools.  For example, it calls for “[a]dvising and professional coaching that starts much earlier in high school.”  There’s a call for a historical break: “[t]he boundaries between K-12 schools and higher education are an artifact from last century.”

Georgia Tech also calls for what they label “Whole-Person Education”, aimed at teaching the

other skills [that] are needed for success in the twenty-first century workplace, including cognitive skills, such as problem solving and creativity; interpersonal skills, such as communications and leadership; and intrapersonal skills, such as adaptability and discipline.

Maybe I’m biased by working full time for two decades in the liberal arts space, but sounds an awful lot like “liberal education,” a phrase which does not appear anywhere in the document.  Perhaps they’re thinking along the same lines as the University of Colorado, or there’s a sense that a technology campus can’t do liberal education.

Personalization takes a further step forward with the idea of each student having a “Personal Board of Directors.”

The vision for the Georgia Tech Commitment includes a flexible network of peers, advisors, mentors, and colleagues from which Personal Boards of Directors will be assembled to foster high-value interactions around intellectual and professional goals for both undergraduate and graduate degree holders, adding a distinct value to Georgia Tech offerings.

Note the role of alumni connections here:

Students can also function as board members for alumni, turning the traditional mentor/mentee relationship upside down. People who have lost a connection to the Georgia Tech community may find a new spark of inspiration from current students.

Selingo neatly paraphrases this as a “network of advisers and coaches for a career.”

I was fascinated by the document’s rejection of competency-based education (CBE).  To be clear, the plan speaks approvingly of competencies developed by Georgia Tech students; what it dislikes is the use of CBE to certify non-academic prior learning.  “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education” criticizes the latter for being too expensive, especially when it involves a “combin[ation of] project-based instruction with skills assessments.”  Further, the plan deemed current CBE efforts (it cites Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University) as “a mismatch for Georgia Tech students,” perhaps for being too abstract.

There is also this interesting objection, which turns a popular pro-CBE position on its head:

Another problem not addressed well by either CBE or
CDIO is the churn of knowledge problem in the future workplace. Any fixed listing of skills must confront the speed at which knowledge is changing in key industries. An approach to replacing or supplementing credit hours that requires the concurrence of a third party (like an accrediting agency) or
the membership of a consortium (like CDIO) will not be agile enough for the workforce of 2040.

There’s a lot that’s specific to Georgia Tech in this plan, both explicitly and implicitly.  But the ideas are of general interest and some piloting, and I recommend educators read and discuss it.

Would anyone from Georgia Tech be interested in discussing this fascinating plan further, either on this blog or on the video Forum?


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2 Responses to One campus imagines its future: the Georgia Tech plan

  1. Phillip Long says:

    Nice summary Bryan. It’s too bad that “liberal education” isn’t recognized or honored even it if didn’t originate at a technology university, and perhaps is, as you note a cultural stretch for them to embrace.

    The absence of OERs but more importantly open research and open access is striking. Given the resurgence of DORA, the recent UK Progress towards the use of metric responsibly: Three years on from The Metric Tide report, and worries expanding about ethics and ethical use of ML and AI, this seems particularly concerning from, as the report highlights, the university that piloted the Jill Watson AI tutor.

    Finally, I don’t buy, at least not yet, the argument that competency-based learning requires large components that recognize prior learning in terms of that as a distinguishing characteristic of CBE. They have been co-mingled in the past. But they do not seem dependent one upon the other. And the case that the pace of technological change and science will render recognition of or persistent value of competencies unworkable just doesn’t make sense. The pace of change and what makes certification of ability in that changing environment difficult applies equally to a traditional degree pathway as it does to one that gives greater emphasis to individual pacing and demonstration of competencies.

    I hope folks from Georgia Tech will join in the discussion. Nice report, and a HT to Jeff Selingo’s commentary on this report, as well.

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