The University as a Design Problem, Part I

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Few people within the Georgetown community are aware that every week on the second floor of Healy Hall, undergraduate Hoyas are working to imagine and redesign the university of 2033.

The University as a Design Problem course, taught by Vice Provost for Education Randy Bass and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Design Ann Pendleton-Julian, seeks to engage one of its future’s many stakeholders—Georgetown students. In concert with Georgetown University’s Designing the Future(s) initiative, the course gives undergraduates of diverse backgrounds and interests, from four of Georgetown’s schools, the opportunity and tools to develop innovative proposals that could integrate the existing model of education with the rapidly changing needs of the 21st century.

Throughout the semester, students systematically consider and brainstorm solutions for the question: what should the university look like in the year 2033?

What Is a University?

Traditionally, a university has served as an educational institution where professors, students, and community members interact in classes on a campus. As suggested by President DeGioia, a university should prepare students as citizens of a global community; provide professors the resources to further research for the creation of knowledge; and enrich the lives of the university’s neighbors, both immediate and extended, for the common good. In other words, a university should educate—in the broadest sense—men and women, create new beneficial knowledge, and serve the greater community.

The digital revolution, however, paired with rising costs of higher education and increasingly advanced analytic tools in the age of big data, has challenged the standard model and required adjustments to the definition of a “university.” This course is not the first to reconsider the structure of the university, and certainly won’t be the last to consider the grim “iron triangle;” which describes the nearly impossible trifecta of options of quality, access, and cost, and where typically only two axes of the triangle can work in concert.

“The University as a Design Problem” challenges students to break the existing model with a fresh new interface, while ensuring the resilience of Georgetown’s educational goals and Jesuit values.

Georgetown Values +
Goals of a University +
Recent & Rapid Technological Innovations
= The Georgetown of 2033

Rapid globalization and the digitization of information encourage students to look outward rather than inward. By applying design-thinking to the problems facing Georgetown, as well as the contemporary university system at large, students draw upon this outward focus to create a multitude of reimaginations of the higher education system.

Though diverse on paper, all of the projects that the students have been working on share two common themes: a global disposition and radical yet realistic rethinking.

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On Design-Thinking

Small groups within the class have deconstructed the university, thought critically about the ideal educational system, and reimagined what sort of institution could only exist in the near future. Students must deal with challenges of how to construct a new university without losing its essential values.

Radical thinking like this requires extended analogies that force students to create literal sketches, diagrams that project abstract systems of learning onto more tangible understandings. Pulling inspiration from a variety of alternative learning models including Google, Minerva University and the Shaolin monks, students push the limits of thought to try to define new educational ecosystems which some students, for example, have represented as lily pads, symphonies, or cell bodies.

The Five Pump-Priming Ideas document created by Provost Groves and Vice Provost Bass demonstrates that Georgetown’s proposals for experiments relate in form and substance to what current Georgetown undergraduates imagine their university to look like in 2033.

The University as a Design Problem course might be considered a petri dish allowing new systems of thought to thrive, encouraging self-regulated abstract and critical thinking, and driving project-based growth to give students a small glimpse into the futures of the university they, themselves, imagine.

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