Scenario: Retro Campus

What if colleges and universities decided to withdraw from today’s technology?

In this scenario we envision a university in the year 2030 that has struggled mightily to recapture the campus of 2000, or even 1990.  This represents a deliberate strategy to preserve what some academic leaders value in academic life and to resist certain features of the outside world.

The retro campus physically resembles that of the twentieth century, although some buildings appear in various postmodern architectural styles.  Residence halls, administrative buildings, academic buildings, wellness centers, the library, the field house are all present, and less marked by digital displays than is the outside world’s built environment.  Students, faculty, and staff stroll brick-lined sidewalks and grassy quads, less likely to be seen using smartphones or tablets than they would be off-campus.

Secure, well lit, and very visible lockers for mobile devices are available at key points on the edge of campus, as well as in the campus library.  Some of these lockers spaces are accessible by analog keys.  Some offer power charges for detained devices.  Signs encourage or warn people to take advantage of these resting places.

Classroom buildings also have device lockers, both just inside their main entrances and next to some classrooms, especially large lecture halls.

mailboxes bennyseidelman

Depending on the university, students are either strongly encouraged or mandated to place devices there.  Many lockers bear the campus logo, while others are sustained by campus organizations, including sports teams, fraternities and sororities.

Classrooms look very much like those of 2018, except for the far smaller amount of digital devices.  Instructors write and sketch on non-interactive whiteboards, primarily, although some present from offline PowerPoint files, present from books through a document camera, or use a smartboard to wrangle documents.  Students take notes with pen, pencil, and paper.  Some classes have students addressing themselves to print workbooks and paper handouts.  Certain classrooms are labeled “NO NETWORK ACCESS” spaces, occasionally backed up by being surrounded in Faraday cages.

Faraday caged_Cory Doctoriow

Faraday and a cage.

The pedagogies on Retro Campus are also aimed at 2000 or 1990.  There are very few active learning classes, fewer instances of project-based learning, and non-humanities classes remain un-flipped.  Humanists insist that they are the original flippers, since a core teaching practice has long been seminar discussions.  Scientists alternate classes between large lectures and hands-on lab sections.There are fewer e-reserves (accessing them is the main function of the LMS), and most instructors and librarians discourage students from researching on the open web, especially the notorious Wikipedia.

Maker spaces are lively presences on Retro Campus.  Students interact with each other and with other members of the community (both academic and local) as they explore pre-digital technologies.  They learn about woodworking, sewing, tin-smithing, and engine parts from each other, from older practioners, and from much older printed material.  Maker spaces are one part DIY zones, one part historical reenactment.

Scholarly communication practices also resemble those found in the late twentieth century.  Most researchers have stepped back from blogging and social media.  Few maintain web content beyond basic departmental web profiles. Most of their reading takes place either in print (journal issues, monographs) or through proprietary sources (databases, scholarly society publications).  Many value face to face professional meetings very highly, seeing them as thoughtful refuges from a device-addled world.  They leave their laptops in their hotel rooms and resist the temptation to check their phones during sessions.

Campus IT departments have changed greatly since 2018.  Their services have dwindled.  They also now have a defensive mission aimed at keeping the population from digital overuse.  After all, someone has to make sure the device storage lockers are maintained and the Faraday cages are powered up.  Someone has to research emerging digital threats.

The Internet of Things is scarcely present.  Digitization efforts have paused.  Blockchain doesn’t occur here, nor does badging; all certification is by diploma, printed on sheepskin (real or synthetic, depending on the campus).  Few faculty connect with the digital humanities movement, and fewer still speak of it.

“Retro Campus” is one name for the new university, but there are others that reveal different attitudes.  “Luddite U” is sometimes lobbed sarcastically, yet also stated with pride, for those who see the struggle over new technologies as economic or existential threats.  More quietly, some use “Amish College” to emphasize keeping an older way of being alive in the teeth of a society busily doing the wrong things.  Others refer to “campuses of justice,” seeing them as keeping people safe from the injustices of the online world.

Campus cultures sometimes make a point of recalling the 1990s.  Students will try out that period’s clothing or attempt dancing to its music. The Clinton administration is often aired with a sense of nostalgia.

What would drive such a scenario to occur?

Security threats played a role in driving campuses away from the 21st century digital environment.  Fears of hacking, data theft, identity theft, phishing, and more led campus leaders to view the online world as simply too dangerous to inhabit, much as study abroad programs avoid sending students to nations on the State Department’s danger list.  Concerns about businesses and governments misusing data for profit and/or surveillance added to this reaction.  Every major data scandal drives Retro Campus one step closer.

Another driver for Retro Campus is the belief that modern digital technology has become toxic.  Mobile devices are addictive.  Social media supports too many horrible things, such as threats to individuals and groups, the publication of offensive content, and representation that poorly reflects social realities.  There’s a general sense that the huge companies behind modern tech (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter) are deliberately benefitting from users’ distraction and misery and therefore should not be supported.  Retro Campus is designed to wall off this toxic internet, creating instead an alternate space for learning and knowledge that is safer and better for all.

Gathering and analyzing student data has come to be seen as part of this toxic internet.  Many faculty, students, and staff fear that third party providers can’t be trusted with data.  They view data analytics as dataveillance, as dehumanizing surveillance, preparing students for Skinner boxes rather than for lives as well rounded and thoughtful human beings.

A failure of the open movement could further drive Retro.   If open education resources don’t manage to win the support of the professoriate, textbook prices will remain high or increase; the digital world, where OER dwells, will offer no alternative.  If open access to scholarly articles and books fails to win over researchers, established and proprietary publishers will lack incentives to innovate, and can easily fall back on their 20th century models.  Much like most ebooks are effectively pdfs or text files, scholarly materials won’t offer any new affordances in their digital incarnations, reducing faculty interest in networked scholarship.

Some students bring retro interests to Retro Campus.  Older students can take comfort in returning to what they perceive as the academic life they knew of years ago.  In contrast some Millennials and members of generation Z enjoy analog technologies, from vinyl records to physically making chapbooks, and Retro Campus appeals to that instinct.  They see “Luddite U” as a fun alternative to the digital world they otherwise inhabit.  Additionally, some students dislike the flipped or active classroom, preferring the classic combination of lecture and homework.

Demographics help build this university to some degree, as the most digitally immersed and youthful generation occupies an ever-shrinking portion of the total population and as older students become more prevalent on campuses.  Even Millennials, the first net.generation, accept Retro U as a pleasant alternative to their digitally drenched adult lives.


I first came up with this scenario idea in a tongue in cheek mood.  I had in mind plenty of conversations with people urging a return to simpler times, some of whom called themselves Luddites.  I wondered what would happen if they had their way and managed to haul universities back in time.

So I offered the scenario to a group of academic CIOs, who thought it was a riot.  They chuckled and roared with laughter.  They, of course, had had the same kinds of conversation.

Beyond that entertaining event Retro Campus stuck with me.  I liked the way it went the wrong way in a progress narrative and defied the logic of continuous innovation.  Its perversity offered a twisted mirror for scrying the future.  At the very least the scenario, however unlikely, makes us take seriously the desire to regain the past.

(Campus theater photo by Nancy L. Stockdale; mailboxes by Ben Seidelman; Faraday, caged by Cory Doctorow)

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3 Responses to Scenario: Retro Campus

  1. Vivian Forssman says:

    Imagine no need for faculty development services to coach and cajole faculty with labs on how to use the LMS! No tech support required for faculty and students. Are we also back to Turin g in assignments in a box outside the profs office door? And the grade book – what’s that?! And the line up to manually register for next terms courses. The mind boggles.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    It strikes me that the thing which is missing from your scenario is the residential environment. Or specifically, I think you’ve assumed a large commuter population; the tech-free zone is primarily limited to the classroom.

    What if it weren’t? My first reaction to this piece was to ask “so, a secular monastery?” If I really wanted people to buy in to Retro U, I might want a 24/7 experience. Practically, I suspect this would have to use a block schedule, where each term serves as a retreat from the outside world (but not a terribly long one). Pulling it off for a 4-month semester seems unrealistic for a large enough group to keep the doors open, unless we’re prepared to take that monastery idea very literally.

    “But Joe,” I hear you say, “residential colleges are a tiny and economically exclusive segment of higher ed.” And I say “right.” I think Retro Residential College throws a spotlight on just how much privilege is invoked when white-collar workers appropriate the Luddite name. Just consider that nobody on that campus is a primary caregiver, if they can lock away their cell phones and not fret that the school or the nursing home might call. (Or the hospital, or the police.) Nobody needs a screen reader or a dictation app or Google Translate. Nobody particularly needs to “reach out and touch someone” they can’t, well, reach out and touch.

    Caesar conquered the Gauls.
    Did he bring not even a cook with him?
    -Bertolt Brecht

    You can’t dress trashy ’till you spend a lot of money.
    -Billy Joel

  3. Interesting prompt!
    I’ve used a complementary one in brainstorming workshops: imagine a university where the only teaching strategy was faculty talking and demonstrating 100% of the time, while students take notes. I’d predict that educational outcomes would be disappointing and ask the audience to suggest changes to Presentation U that would improve those outcome.
    With that in mind, I realized that Retro U’s definition lays entirely in technology, leaving open the question of whether faculty can use technology to upgrade pedagogy, and therefore improve outcomes.
    It’s easy to think of examples going back to the 1980s of faculty using technology to support change in teaching & learning strategies. How to teach writing when students can use word processing instead of pens or typewriters. The distinctive potential of asynchronous conversation. The way that tech tools and resources open up a vastly wider range of possibilities for undergraduate research, writing intensive courses, capstones, study abroad — the high impact practices. Another advantage for non-Retro U: imagine yourself a faculty member in a discipline where digital technology furnishes the everyday tools for research and creative work. Now imagine being at Retro U where students were not allowed to use such tools…

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