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University System of Georgia Launches MOOC to Imagine Higher Ed's Future

As colleges and universities grapple with disruptive change in higher education, a few pioneers are taking an innovative approach to reinventing themselves and their future. For example, last November, Georgetown University's "Designing the Future(s) of the University" called on the entire campus community to explore what the Georgetown of 2030 will look like, and a July report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to redefine the future of MIT's education.

Now, the University System of Georgia is embarking on a similar mission to "Invent the Beyond," and it is opening up the process to others in higher education in a MOOC-like collaboration starting this week. In three interactive sessions, participants will visualize what learning models will look like in 15 years and explore the factors critical to the success of students, faculty and post-secondary institutions.

The phrase "Invent the Beyond" stems from a November 2013 talk on new learning models by USG Chancellor Hank Huckaby, who spoke about the need to examine and explore the future fearlessly because, as he noted, "…we don't know what lies beyond."

"Even though it is slightly challenging to think about what to do next, that is our job," said Myk Garn, USG's assistant vice chancellor for new learning models. "But once you get out beyond five years, it starts to get almost playful. We need to be imaginative in this process and a little playful, but it is serious play. When the chancellor said, 'We don't know what lies beyond,' it was clear that he understands the need within our system for significant change. In Georgia we are going to invent the beyond."

The expanded time frame of the planning project could ease tensions for participants addressing sensitive issues, Garn said. For instance, a conversation about affordability in the short term usually turns into a discussion of current costs and finding less expensive ways to offer instruction. "But when you start looking 15 years out, it provides people more freedom to discover the best ways to work within a new environment," he said. "You get into discussions about the critical success factors for faculty in a new scenario. And it gives you a space where you can have conversations about those harder issues, yet they don't have ramifications for what you are going to do tomorrow."

The questions the scenario-based planning process will ask include:

  • What are the factors that will be critical to the success of the university system over the next 15 years?
  • To what extent are the operational rules and accepted practices we are using today the right ones for the future?
  • What business models will best support learners, faculty and institutions in 2030?

During the three sessions this fall, participants will identify trends and critical uncertainties facing higher education over the next 15 years. Trends would include future-impacting issues whose trajectory is relatively certain, such as rising operational costs. Examples of critical uncertainties might involve legislative policymakers becoming more active in specifying what happens in higher education or how much the disruption from technological change will continue to increase. "We will be rating how impactful they will be and how certain or uncertain that impact is going to be," Garn said.

From their list of uncertainties, they will identify four scenarios for the future of learning in 2030. During four follow-up sessions in early 2015, participants will explore how students, faculty and institutions might fare in each of those scenarios. A final session will summarize and consolidate the findings and implications of the process.

The idea to expand the process beyond Georgia grew in part out of logistical concerns. USG has brought together 60 people from across all of its 31 institutions to form a New Learning Models Task Force. Members include chief information officers, student leaders, faculty senate members and adult learners. Getting the 60 people together frequently to go through the work, discussions and materials was going to be difficult, Garn said. "We decided to do it in more of a MOOC format. That way, the members can begin to experience some of the new learning models for themselves, and it also allowed us to make it a much more inclusive process."

The MOOC collaboration is not so much about Georgia in particular as it is about higher education in general. "Our task force will participate in it, and take that work and focus it on making it fit for Georgia," Garn explained, "as other participants can do for their organizations. The idea is to give everybody a framework."

Through the MOOC process, Garn hopes to identify critical success factors in four scenarios for students, faculty and institutions. "The task force will begin to study the implications for business models," he said. "We have four different types of institutions ranging from community colleges up to research universities, and each might use those scenarios differently and project different student personas into them. It gives them a starting point to think about it."

One scenario might be called "Corporate Lifeline," involving corporations increasing their sponsorship of colleges. "So you begin tracking articles about how scenarios are beginning to play out," he said. "If corporate participation really is increasing, then you begin thinking about the critical success factors we need to have in place to thrive in that kind of world."

The first MOOC module kicks off this week. More than 200 people have signed up to participate, but registration will remain open throughout the process.

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