Blog Post

Shouldn't ALL Education Be Alt Ac?

What if you could design a university from scratch?  What would it look like?  What would we keep?  What would we change?  What would we discard?  And how would all the different "we"s that make up a university decide on which was which?   What if your implicit goal were not in training others to be educators like yourself but to take all you know and turn it into the best possible education for, collectively, improving the world beyond the classroom--including some subset of students to, in fact, be educators (but not like ourselves)?   What would your new university look like?  That, to me, is the exercise we all need to be doing right now---the real "alt ac" of 2012.


This question is inspired by the marvelous HASTAC Scholars Forum taking place now on "The Future of Higher Education."  I left a contribution there and hope yu will too . . . and do read the thoughtprovoking, useful, and interesting ideas others are contributing to The Future of Higher Education.   Check it out and leave your own ideas here:


I just left a version of the comment below on the thread and I will leave it here as well.  I'm often asked not just to give talks but to conduct workshops with leaders at universities or with graduate students or with departments about how to rethink the future of their institution and discipline.   I think the first principle is that should not be doing that.   The future of education has to be participatory.  We have to learn better how to play well with one another and see how our interests are intertwined with one another and with the goals of a better society beyond the classroom. 


So my workshops are always interactive on some level, some more than others depending on whether I have an hour or an afternoon.   Here's an example of a full-scale workshop.   We did a version of this yesterday with HASTAC's central administrative group, located at Duke.  We have a long, long action plan as a result of our meeting.  Try this, and you will walk away with a long action plan too.    (NB:  if you bring in champagn to celebrate the achievement of one of your members near the end of the day??  Well, that ends the rest of the day for work.  Epic fail?  Actually, I consider it an epic win.   JOY is the element of learning and working together  that I would most like to see returned as a motivating principle). 

Here's the prototypical exercise:  How To Reimagine ALL Higher Education as Alt Ac?   How To ReImagine ALL Education not as the training of potential future graduate students but for improving people's (students and beyond) lives and society beyond the classroom?   Ultimately if that is not the justificaton for higher education, we don't have much of one and we're in trouble. 

I bring in lots of poster paper (giant post it notes that we can draw on and put on walls):


1st exercise:  many academics have a fantasy of going off and starting their own university.  Draw yours. 

  • The challenge is to rethink everything about your fantasy university not from the point of view (implicitly) of producing people like yourself but from the point of view of what you, collectively, can offer that improves life beyond the classroom (including for those who plan to go on to be educators themselves). 
  • What are the ingredients of inspiring learning that you want to institutionalize in your fantasy university?

I usually have them work in teams of three or four.   Everyone posts their designs.  We take 15 minutes with no talking allowed to go around and have everyone take in everyone else's design.  30 minute discussion.   Who is the ideal university for?   What is its purpose in society?   What does it contribute?  How does it assess?   Who is its ideal student?  How much does it cost?   

    If the designs are radically different, I have them take their poster, return to their group, and decide either to keep their original or make a new one.   We post those and everyone spends two minutes, silently, going around and looking.



2nd exercise:  same group.   Draw a map of your discipline or department from scratch---you don't have to worry about keeping anyone's job---and how it would fit into your fantasy university?    Repeat process in 1st exercise.


3rd exercise:   This varies depending on how much overlap there is between groups.  If there is a lot, then I have them work in larger teams, maybe 8 or 10, to rethink their EXISTING department as inspired by their content map of their fantasy universities or fantasy departments.   If there is huge range, then I have them do this exercise in their original groups.   Then same follow up as previously.


4th exercise:   Think-pair-share exercise.   Index cards   a)   90 seconds, by yourself:  Write on your index cards what three things have you seen today that you would like to do in your actual department.     b)   90 seconds, work with a partner:  look at all six things.  Choose the ONE thing you have seen today that you would like to do in your actual department.   c)  Share:  have each pair read their one thing.   Someone records those things on a post it (and in an evolving google doc).  


5th exercise:   set yourself a time line, deadline, by which you will implement, as a department, at least one, two, or, if ambitious, three things on the final poster.  


Make a retreat date to return on that deadline to see how you have done.


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