Author: Vice Provost Randy Bass

Designing the Future with Georgetown Alumni

Holding Experimental Events with 50 Alumni in 3 Cities in 2 Weeks

“Connecting with friends around ideas.”

“Learning through community.”

“The opportunity to persevere through problem solving .”

“A place to enter into experiences ignorant of expectations”

“A chance to have uncommon learning experiences that inspire serendipity.”

These are some of the themes that Georgetown alumni associate with the most formative—indeed transformative—experiences while at Georgetown. The context for talking about them was a series of Design Labs that we held in late February and early March as part of the Designing the Future(s) of the University Initiative.

In three events held in Palo Alto, San Francisco and Austin (at SxSW), more than 50 Georgetown alumni participated in an experimental Design Lab format in which we were addressing the question, “What kind of Georgetown education will be possible in the year 2030?” To address that requires diving deeply into two important questions: “What do you value most about your Georgetown education that you don’t want to lose?” and “How will the context of 2030 shape the kind of education that Georgetown can offer its students?”

The Design Labs flow in two parts: first we ask the alumni to represent, through some kind of visual, a “formative experience” they had at Georgetown. These pictures are inevitably filled with images of place (Healy Hall and DC), community (tables and chairs, dotted lines and arrows making connections and bridges), and opportunities to learn outside the classroom – in DC and abroad. We explore what binds these experiences, what makes them memorable. What makes them Georgetown.


Then we turn to developing the context for the year 2030: what will technology be like? Mobility? Access to information and knowledge? Networking? The complexity of global challenges, such as climate change, that will shape the world. This is the context for which we are designing the Georgetown of the future.

Everyone has experience with the future: how Netflix or Amazon personalizes their choices; how social networks extend their sense of community far beyond boundaries we ever imagined, sometimes uncomfortably; how information at our fingertips makes it possible to learn and problem-solve in a far more fluid manner than ever before. We also all have experience with what we might be losing: the ability to slow down, focus, dive in depth, create and sustain deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Georgetown alumni are in a perfect position to help us think through these questions: they are “products” of our educational experience; many of them work in fields that are innovating for the future. All of us live in a rapidly changing world.


How will these new conditions shape a Georgetown education? If our residential campus has been an ideal place to build community do we need to shift our thinking in a new context to optimizing for networking, inclusive of face-to-face and virtual community? If we now try and nurture both the formal curriculum and the co-curriculum, will the next stage greater integration of the two? Given the changing nature of knowledge and skills, might we create better ways to offer ongoing educational services to alumni, to see the boundary of “graduation” much more porously than ever before?

I feel privileged to have led all three of these events with our fantastic alumni. Their deep commitment to Georgetown is palpable. Their eagerness to yet deepen their connection to this innovative work was positively energizing. We look forward to doing more of these Labs in continuous variation and experimentation.

There is no clear map to the future of the University: only creative designs and our collective imagination.

Disrupting Ourselves

At the launch for this Initiative, President DeGioia affirmed the three interlocking elements that constitute “the university”: the formation of men and women, the creation of knowledge, and serving the public good and the common good. Not only are these the three essential functions of the university, he argued, but they are interconnected: it matters that the formation of students takes place in the company of faculty who have devoted their lives to pursuing questions of significance; and those lines of research and scholarship are similarly shaped by a deep interest in serving the common good, which in turn is integral to the formation of men and women.

The challenges and potential disruptions to this combination of three essential elements have been well-documented, both in President DeGioia’s talk and in the rising (and falling) trends in the media. Not all disruptions, however, are external. Long before MOOC’s and educational technology startups rattled the higher education landscape there was growing evidence of the misalignment among some of our structures and those very core elements that make us who we are.

For example, we know from multiple sources that students report their most meaningful learning experiences as occurring largely outside the traditional classroom, from experiences where theory and practice (and reflection) come together around questions or projects of significance. The set of learning experiences identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement as “high impact practices” are typically located either in the co-curriculum, or in anomalous learning experiences in the formal curriculum (e.g. first-year seminars). This is not to say that students don’t have transformative experiences in formal coursework. Nor is it to say that coursework isn’t essential as a foundation for students to have transformative experiences outside the classroom. But I do believe that we have come to a point where we have to confront how we can leverage structured experiential learning in more central and less marginal ways, given the data that we have about its impact on learning and student success.

This is the phenomenon that I identified a couple of years ago as “disrupting ourselves.” That is, our own expanding conceptions of learning and learning environments are running headlong into our structures. We already know enough to motivate efforts to recenter some of our practices around the high-impact learning that we know is the most transformative. The rising external pressures only accelerate this shift. This is one of the central design challenges of Designing the Future(s): how to respond to the structural tensions that our own ambitions have created.