THE BLOG
10/14/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Four Ideas to Help Colleges Become Relevant Again

I am constantly asking the question: How can we help those in education really equip students for life? It's actually the broader question of a yearlong exercise at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school.

May I remind you of our current reality within the field of education? Students, parents and employers are all asking if our current liberal arts path is the right one for the 21st century. Does it need updating to become relevant again? I think so, and so do thinkers far wiser than me.

"From a design perspective, we were fascinated by a set of issues," said Sarah Stein- Greenberg, managing director of the d.school. "There are clearly new human behaviors around the way people are learning. It's changing faster than ever. We wanted to know what we'd uncover and add another layer to the conversation."

Unlike other design exercises that focus on problems or industries students are sometimes unfamiliar with, this project placed every student in the middle of what they were studying. "There was a real sense of mission and purpose," Stein-Greenberg said.

The goal of the exercise, Stein-Greenberg said, was to emerge with provocative ideas that would spur discussions and pilots on campus. "There are folks who take action as a result of a provocation."

Four broad provocations emerged in this discussion at Stanford:
  1. The "open loop" university. This idea imagines the college experience as a series of "loops" over a lifetime. This plan would admit students at 18 but give them six years of access to residential learning opportunities to use any time in their life. It would allow alumni to return mid-career for professional development and new students to get real-life work experience.
  2. Paced education. This abolishes the class year and replaces it with adaptive, personalized learning that allows students to move through phases of learning at their own pace. The goal is to help students make better choices about what they want to study and understand their own learning style.
  3. Axis flip. Rather than traditional academic disciplines, the curriculum would be organized around common and transferable skills that could be used over the course of a lifetime. Schools and departments would be reorganized around "competency hubs" so that there would be deans of scientific analysis, quantitative reasoning, moral and ethical reasoning, and communication effectiveness, among others.
  4. Purpose learning. Instead of majors, students would declare a "mission" to help them find meaning and purpose behind their studies. This moves the emphasis in college from "choosing a major" (and changing it four times) to "choosing a problem to solve." Intrigued with a world problem, students remain engaged and seek to gain tools to create a solution.

You can find a complete description of these ideas with design sketches here.