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Big Picture | Q&A

Technology and the Future(s) of the University

Georgetown University is calling on its entire campus community to explore what the institution of 2030 will look like and to experiment with new ways of educating students. The impact of its discoveries may ultimately end up being felt throughout American higher ed.

Introducing innovation in education is easier when the institution is new. Founders can construct their programs however they want to imagine them. That's not so easy to accomplish, however, when the school has been around for decades or even centuries. Faculty and staff practices and processes tend to get entrenched, and introducing too much change can simply lead to internal revolt. Yet that is the conundrum that must be faced by nearly every university and college in the country that wants to thrive in a new world order where learning can take multiple forms and students have numerous options for achieving formal education.

Georgetown University, established in 1789, may not necessarily be the first institution to come to mind when thinking about innovation related to higher education. But an initiative introduced in November, called "Designing the Future(s) of the University," is calling on the entire campus community to explore what the Georgetown of 2030 will look like and to experiment with new ways of educating its students.

The "(s)" in "Future(s)" is intentional, according to the university, as a way to designate several aspects: the many facets of the conversations, which cover the future of Georgetown as well as higher ed in general; the exploratory nature of the initiative; and an acknowledgement that the answer itself could be that the institution "explores many paths into the future."

The endeavor is a joint project of Georgetown's Office of the President, Office of the Provost, and the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarships (CNDLS), as well as Information Services.

CIO Lisa Davis, who joined Georgetown in 2012 after careers at the United States Marshals Service and the Department of Defense, and a team of panelists presented the project at this year's SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX. Davis recently spoke with Campus Technology about the Future(s) project to explain how it's unfolding, where IT is participating and how the impact of its findings could ripple not just through Georgetown but every other American campus.

Campus Technology: It looks like Georgetown wants to do the impossible — take a centuries-old institution with all of its deeply embedded traditions and remake it as if it were a green field initiative.

Lisa Davis: I think it's certainly a challenging initiative. These are questions that all of us in higher ed are struggling with. What differentiates Georgetown on this effort is the engagement we have from all of our different constituents — students, faculty, staff, administration and alumni in alignment with leadership: What will the Georgetown of 2030 look like? I think Georgetown is leading in this area now as we build the future university because of that engagement and alignment, which is extremely difficult to do in a university environment.

CT: There are three aspects to it: exploration of issues; engagement of stakeholders; and experimentation. Can you talk about each of those?

Davis: Let's start with the faculty. On the faculty side, experimentation such as the Initiative on Technology Enhanced Learning (ITEL) and MOOCs is faculty driven. The faculty submit proposals to incorporate technology into their current courseware and also develop new curriculum and MOOCs. With our partnership with edX, one of the first MOOCs we launched was on globalization, which came out of ITEL. Faculty are part of the experimentation in terms of how we change the core curriculum, [figuring out] what those other things are that we should be thinking about, engaging in those dialogs.

Part of the Designing the Future(s) initiative brings in other experts and leaders. We just had the former president of MIT, [Susan Hockfield], visiting and sitting in on a discussion with our president, really just presenting those views on what we should keep, what we should change, what the issues are they're struggling with. That's part of the engagement with partner institutions and leadership in the field.

On the student side — talking about another constituent — is where we have been building over the last two years a culture of innovation — having innovation summits, sponsoring hackathons, doing a story-telling summit.

We recently held a skillhack a couple of months ago, which focused on what work skills are needed to be successful once you graduate and leave college. Where are they getting those skills? How does Georgetown address that gap?

From an alumni standpoint what's interesting is what we're doing now with "design labs." These are being held by our vice provost for education, Randy Bass. They bring the alumni into discussion with current students and faculty. It's almost like a mini hackathon — taking two to four hours to sit down and break apart or dissect what resonated when they were at Georgetown, what those things are that are critical for us to keep as we continue to change our curriculum, incorporate technology and try to reinvent ourselves. And what should we do differently as we plan for a university of 2030?

Those things are all going on at the same time, with dialog, experimentation, engagement, and it's happening across all the various stakeholders at the university.

CT: How do you retain the thoughts, concerns, criticisms and insights that bubble up as the work progresses?

Davis: Whether it's an innovation or skillhack or design lab, all of the dialog is being recorded, videoed. Then leadership — the CNDLS organization — really determines the lessons learned, what bubbles up to the top as important issues, what are those things that are resonating and seem to be a consistent theme through each experiment or initiative. There's nothing scientific about it at this point, because we've really just started. We expect to be doing this at least over the next three years.

CT: What role is the IT organization playing?

Davis: We play lots of different roles. Certainly the IT organization at Georgetown initially drove the student innovation piece, in terms of hosting the innovation, the hackathons, all those things — in partnership with the Provost's office and our faculty and alumni.

Part of what I've done at Georgetown over the last two years is to try to build this culture of innovation. Because we don't have an engineering school, we don't necessarily think innovation or technology. So how could we change the language, change the perception, and get that engagement [around] what technology could be and could do to transform Georgetown?

When I meet with senior stakeholders and leadership, my messaging has been, this is not what we should do, but what we have to do to remain relevant — now, five years from now and in 2030. The technology should be a critical component of everything we consider from this point forward.

Before we got there, we had to build a level of trust that we could be a partner and execute to get things done. That was the first hurdle that we had to jump over. Two years later we're at the table as a partner, as we're thinking through these issues.

We're certainly in the experimentation element of it. We are a critical partner in terms of platform decision-making, integration into existing core databases. The foundational technologies are imperative to enable whatever it is we want to do from a pedagogical and tech perspective in the future, whether it's global collaboration or continued platform experimentation. Platform technologies [such as] networking and WiFi need to be there to be able to support those.

The initial design labs have been focused from a pedagogical or academic standpoint, in terms of what would we keep and what we change. Now we're coordinating for two design labs with our alumni — one in Washington, DC and one in Silicon Valley — to really think out of the box about what we can do differently with tech, other than what we already know about — Twitter, simulations, crowdsourcing. All those things we know of today. Let's think beyond those boundaries and imagine: Maybe it's an aspect from the Internet of things or wearable technologies or [other] tech trends and how they're going to have an impact on the institution. We're coordinating for those two things to happen in the next six months.

CT: If this work is meant to define what the university could look like in 2030, what is IT itself going to look like in that timeframe?

Davis: One of the things I think about a lot is what I call this seamless intuitive experience between living and learning. If you start thinking about where we're going in terms of the Internet of Things, let's say the blinds automatically open and shut because their sensors know what time of day it is, and sidewalks heat up when they feel a temperature change because of the sensors. [Those kinds of things] will alter the way our students and faculty now live and do academics and research. That could really transform a university campus. Can you imagine what that would look like? It's mind boggling.

CT: The university has some deliverables for the summertime — possibly consisting of the four-year combo BA/MA; the competency-based programs with certification; and new forms of outreach to alumni. Those don't sound like low-hanging fruit.

Davis: They're not. I don't think the four-year BA/MA will be ready by summer. I think this is part of the experimentation and curriculum and engagement with faculty as to how we would do that. Certainly, the discussion is ongoing, but that's something that will take a little bit of time. It's not going to be implemented this summer.

One of the things we are implementing this summer is one-credit skill courses. This ties directly back to our skillhack — identifying those practical skills that students need to be successful in the workplace. We know now that the age of economic independence is 32. So how do we provide lifelong learning to our graduates until they become economically stable and independent?

My understanding is they're going to be one-credit courses targeted to one particular subject area. They run the gamut from financial literacy to negotiation skills to how to build a web page to developing a business plan to interviewing skills to coding skills. All of these things have come up in numerous conversations with students and with corporations that recruit many of our undergraduates.

CT: As you mentioned, every university in the country is grappling with the same pressures facing Georgetown. Will Designing the Future(s) impact other institutions beyond just Georgetown?

Davis: Absolutely. That's why Georgetown is really interested in partnering with other institutions. We all face this. This isn't something that we're dealing with ourselves. We certainly recognize that. We are always open to partnerships and lessons learned and hearing about how others are grappling with this.

It's an incredibly exciting but challenging time as we tackle some of these issues that are facing our institutions. That's why from a tech perspective I think being in higher ed is one of the most interesting tech jobs to have today.

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