Blog Post

What If We Could Build Higher Education From Scratch? What Would It Look Like?

What If We Could Build Higher Education From Scratch?  What Would It Look Like?

Updated Jan 7, 2014

What if we could start all over again and design higher education from scratch?  What would a university look like if there were no legacies from medieval knowledge traditions, Enlightenment epistemologies or taxonomies, or Industrial Age requirements, regulations, departments, majors, minors, distribution requirements, professional schools, or standardized assessment metrics, or contemporary problems ranging from defunding of public education to the burgeoning and ever increasing endowments of private universities? What kinds and forms of institutions of learning might we come up with? Or maybe we don't need any institutions at all?  And how could our imagined universities help to inform our activism about transforming the actual institutions we inhabit now?  Below the photo (of a student-generated two-day "FutureClass" at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona), you'll find a template and a series of open-ended questions to get us started on imagining the university from scratch.     #FutureEd

For UPDATES to the document below, and  to add your comments to an evolving document (we'll be collecting and adding to this until May 2014), visit this public commentable Google Doc:    

We have also started a second "assessment from scratch" Google Doc where you can comment:   "Designing Digital Badges from Scratch" 


*   *   *

To get the conversation going in an expansive way, check out the "opportunity art" of Chicago artist/real estate developer/community activist Theaster Gates.  What if his project was the space of higher learning?   What would you have to learn in order to be able to engage and organize a community in an impoverished part of Chicago to raise funds, convince the Mayor to give them the deed, and restore a beautiful bank abandonned for decades to be beautiful, functional, historically accurate, repurposed, and sustainable while remaining accessible and responsive to the needs of its community?  If you were President or Dean at Theaster University, what would you need to require for admission?  How would you design this educational experience so it was meaningful in the process and useful in the life beyond? What histories of building, renovation, decline and fall would you want your students to read?  What theories of community?  What political organization would you aspire to within the community of students, builders, artists, visionaries?  What social theory? What gender theory?  What race and class theory?  What educational theory?  Who would be the teachers?  You would be training carpenters, artists, philosopher, environmentalists, community organizers, teachers, managers, executives, and future mayors and presidents.  How would you certify someone's skills or declare someone's "graduation" from Theaster U? This isn't as far fetched as it sounds.  Gates's Rebuild Foundation is located at the University of Chicago's institute for Arts and Public Life.  What if, instead of being part of the university, Theaster U were  a university?   Think about it.  And for inspiration, read about Theaster Gates in Ben Austen, "The Opportunity Artist," New York Times, Dec 20, 2013.


 All this is part of the larger HASTAC 2014 #FutureEd Initative of open, user-created initiative of courses, workshops, seminars, and online crowdsourced resources.  Here again is the url where you can learn more or offer an event to contribute.  Just click on the  "Suggest an Addition" button and fill out the form to join the HASTAC Initiative on transforming higher ed:


DESIGNING HIGHER EDUCATION FROM SCRATCH:   An Evolving Template  of Open-Ended Questions


Name of  our [imagined, fictive, future] university:


Logo, mascot, or motto:


Drawing or napkin sketch of the university:


We specialize in:


Our mission is:


We believe that all education is vocational in the sense intended by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, that we are being trained for the vocation of leading better, happier, more productive lives that contribute to society.   The kind of society we are contributing to is:


The aspect of society to which our university contributes is:



(Where would the school be located?  Would it be in a building, online, take a whole city as its campus, or maybe the whole world?)

Would it be in a building, online, take a whole city as its campus, or maybe the whole world?)

Our university is mobile through


Our students are mobile through

Our university is part of a network of

Our students are networked to one another through



Our university is nationally located in

Our university is international in scope

At our university, we believe the role of higher education in society is to

We believe X % of our society should have a post-secondary education

We believe those without a post-secondary education should have training in

We believe the “sort” for who goes on to tertiary education begins at age

We believe the “sort” for what field you will study in higher ed begins at age

We believe/don’t believe general education is important for everyone because

We believe general education stops in formal education at age

The social philosophy behind our system of education is that higher education leads to social mobility and social mobility is a worthy goal because

The social philosophy behind our system of education is that social mobility is less important than providing everyone, at all social levels, with the means to thrive and those means should be provided at age




Our mission is:

Our mission remains the same/changes every year because:

We specialize in:

We pride ourselves on:

We value learners who have these skills, abilities, or qualities:

Our learners know that we value these skills, abilities, or qualities because:

Our learning content is designed to transfer these skills, abilities, or qualities by:

We know our learners have these skills, abilities, or qualities when they:

People who work with our learners recognize them for being:

Our organization is part of a network that we value because:

Our learners are networked to one another through:

Our learners are interested in and motivated by:

Our learners do their best when:


COMPARABLES (Purpose: to elicit great innovative and historical comparisons worldwide)

We compare ourselves to these  X institutions (worldwide) that exist now because

We compare ourselves to X institutions (worldwide) that once existed

We do not believe any feature of our institution resembles any other because

We believe X feature of our institution is unique because



Our tuition is

Our tuition is paid by

For students who cannot afford our tuition, we offer

We do/do not accept philanthropic gifts

We use/do not use state funds

We use/do not use corporate funding

We do/do not have trustees

Our (future) alums will have no role/a role in our future by



Our ideal students are:  

We identify our ideal student by word-of-mouth from

We identify our ideal students by/not by test scores

We identify our ideal students by/not by GPA

We identify our ideal students by/not by an open competition

We identify our ideal students by

We contact our ideal students by

We advertise to our ideal students by

We recruit our key students by


We define diversity as


We ensure that diversity by


Our students are all in the age group of X to Y


Our pre-requisites for admission are:




All/none/some of our classes are lectures

All/none/some of our classes are seminars

All/none/some of our classes include labs

All/none/some of our classes have experiential learning



Our specialty is


We have courses in


We do not have courses, we have


Our courses take place in


You do not pass a course in a specific subject, content area, or skill until you


Our curriculum is arranged by :


We have/do not have required courses in:


We have/do not have distribution courses:


We have/do not have majors in:


Our major in X looks like:


We have/do not have minors in:


Our minor in X looks like:


No, we do not organize knowledge by majors and minors, we organize knowledge by:


An example of how we organize knowledge in X is

We offer/do not offer liberal arts or general education that looks like

We are specialist and follow the European and international model of only accepting students into a specialized area

The specialized areas we cover are




We have/do not have textbooks that are

Besides textbooks, we use   

Different courses use different kinds of books and other learning materials such as

Our university has a library which consists of

Our library uses existing/new/open access materials because



Our students are/are not engaged in original research on

Our students are/are not engaged in basic research in

Our students are/are not engaged in applied research in

The research and research facilities are funded by

The research is tied to learning/teaching through

The areas of original research are

We do/do not do social science research that may/may not lead to policy decisions

We receive/do not receive funding for policy research from

We support/do not support creative expression--in all the arts--as a fundamental component of research

We support/do not support research in the humanities as a fundamental component of research

Our students conduct original research in collaboration with

Our faculty engage in original research in/with/by/for



Our relationship to the community that surrounds us is

Community members are part of our institution by

Our town is our gown because



Classes are/are not graded

Attendance (physical, virtual) is/is not expected/required

You pass a class by

You fail a class by

There is no such thing as passing/failing a course because

We know when you have succeeded at our university, when . . .:

We recognize achievement by this assessment system:

We do not recognize achievement but assume peers will by this system:

We do not recognize achievement but assume our students will recognize it themselves by:

We acknowledge exceptional mastery by

We do not acknowledge one student as more exceptional than another

We have requirements for graduation and they are

We award graduation certificates for

We do not award any graduation credentials because

We ensure civil, creative behavior by students by

We have/do not have a judiciary system run by



 (See also the "Designing Digital Badges from Scratch" Google Doc where you can add comments.)


Our current assessment system is

There will/will not be assessment by humans (self, peers, experts/mentors, teachers)

There will/will not be assessment by computers

There will/will not be formative assessment

There will/will not be summative assessment

There will/will not be authentic assessment (assessment of real-world tasks)

There will/will not be rubrics

There will/will not be multiple-choice tests

There will/will not be

There will/will not be letter grades

Points will/will not be awarded

Assessment will/will not be binary (pass/fail)

Assessment will/will not align to internal standards

Assessment will/will not align to external standards

There will/will not be levels or tiers of assessment

Hard skills will be assessed

Soft skills will be assessed

Learners will/will not be involved in designing assessments



We chose our teachers by


We do not have any teachers because

We use peer mentoring and peer teaching because


We support peer-to-peer learning by


We use/do not use MOOCs or other online classes instead of classroom teachers


We have/do not have  flipped classrooms because


We have all full-time teachers, who have benefits and job security, because


All our teachers are contingent/adjunct faculty because


Some of our teachers are contingent/adjunct faculty because


Our teachers earn tenure by doing


None of our teachers have tenure because


All of our teachers have tenure with built in renewal requirements that are



We ensure democratization of the institution through  

Students govern by

Students and teachers govern together by

Change happens at our institution by

Innovation happens at our institution by

When there are strong, conflicting viewpoints, we resolve differences by



We do/do not have administrators because


All of our administrators are current/former teachers

All of our administrators are current/future students

Students “pay” tuition by running all aspects of our university including


We have a team of professional administrators

We do not have administrators; we have leaders because


We do/do not have a professional non-teaching staff who run the physical plant of the university

We do/do not have a professional non-teaching staff who run admissions, recruitment and other functions

We do/do not have a professional non-teaching staff who care for the grounds (if we have grounds)

We do/do not have a professional non-teaching staff who design and manage technology

We do/do not have a professional non-teaching housekeeping staff



We have/do not have residential living facilities


We have/do not have varsity sports teams


We have/do not have intramural sports

We do/do not have clubs, social events such as

We do/do not have outside lectures, speakers

We do/do not have performances


We have/do not have community engagement programs


We have/do not have undergraduate research experiences


We have/do not have fraternities and sororities


We have/do not have arts facilities


We have/do not have labs


We have/do not have computer and technology maker spaces


We do/do not give out tablets/iPads to all entering students


We do/do not have enterprise educational software

We do/do not give out ukuleles (see comment), sketch books, other unexpected creative and social materials in order to  



Our students go on to be

Our students go on to professional schools in

Our students go on to graduate schools in

When students leave our institution, they are



We are using ideas generated from this exercise to make a real world intervention and innovation here _______

Our method for having real world impact is

Our communications plan for action is

Our networking plan for forming alliances with other change makers is


The photographs are of FutureClass, a two-day series of workshops, panels, exercises, and activities put on by five of my students in a tent outside the Museum of Modern Art as part of Mozilla's Drumbeat Festival. Nov 3-5, 2010



Gosh, I have never thought about this before! Given the foundations upon which higher education has been built (and the inequitable systems that exist within them), it is almost painful to try and think what such an institution would look like. 

For example, in thinking about admissions requirements, how could we seperate and create a new institution when the institutions where students would be coming from are ones that rely on industrial age requirements/thinking and standardized tests etc. Perhaps it would be too big of an idea to tackle, but what we'd have to do is rethink the entire pipeline, no? How would our new institution be funded? I need to think more about these ideas, but just sharing some thoughts...Regarding tenure/adjunct faculty, I wonder if these prompts are too leading. I guess the stories I have read about adjunct faculty lately (like this) has just left a bad taste in my mouth.  If we are going to create a new insitution, I'd want to think of different roles or ways to keep faculty engaged and motivated to work at my institution. 

I can definitely see on the Ebony & Ivy book will add to this discussion. I just ordered Presumed Incompetent, which continues the conversations of the current inequitable practices in academia regarding women of color. I think I'll share this activity with colleagues and see what they think!


Totally agree about rebuilding the pipeline.  What I find, though, from talking to K-12 audiebnces--students, teachers, parents--is until higher education changes its focus and standards, K-12 cannot change.  Parents and teachers are far too worried about hurting their kids' futures.   If education reform happened at higher ed level, it would reinforce and emphasize and underscore the changes prior.   I don't think it can work the other way around.


I will go back and revise the language about adjuncts.  I wanted my students to think about the labor conditions at their university (and others) but didn't mean for it to be leading.  Thanks for that feedback.  


I like this idea for a course.  I have signed up for it on Coursera.

As a student of the subject I would initially point out that many of the questions you pose as foundational to the subject either explicitly state or assume a position for institutions such as universities and colleges (of the physical or virtual variety).  I suggest that building a model for HE from scratch requires explicit challenge of this institutional assumption, since (higher) education is not provided by these institutions, but rather merely facilitated by them.

Education occurs between individuals: student-to-student, teacher-to-student, etc. Universities and colleges are merely the dominant means of facilitating these individual education relationships.  In short they are middlemen and ones I consider unnecessary and detrimental to the civil enterprise of HE.

To "build HE from scratch" demands that we question the continued use of this iconic institutional model, especially in light of its persistent and substatial failure to meet the needs of educators and students.  The reality is there are alternative viable models to faciltate HE.  I hope there is opportunity to discuss these alternatives during the course...


I completely agree and hope the students working on new models think through EXACTLY these issues.   I am trying to spell out factors of current institutions because I find that, unless you make current institutional arrangements visible, they seem not to exist----and that's where the trouble lies.   It's simply my method (and there are lots that work for other people) to try to define and historicize the features of the present in order to be able to say, "Hmmmm.  That's not natural.  Someone designed that into this system for a purpose.  I don't agree with that purpose.  So how can I design something else, something that suits my purpose."   


I also have a second less lofty purpose:  by making visible the conditions of current institutions, I hope that we have some better ideas than MOOCs for disrupting those institutions.   But again we cannot really change things without seeing what is there, and thinking about what we want to be there instead.    


In the end, the Coursera course is really about redesigning and reforming existing institutions . . . but also has some pretty lofty ideas about other ways of working together to design a future. 


And, in the end, I like yours a lot.  I hope that is one possibility students come up with once they realize that, if there were not such legacies, a lot of what we think of as "institutional" would be unnecessary.  Thanks so much for contributing.  This is exactly the kind of deep and meaningful conversation I'm hoping for.


Several "boundaries" come to mind if you're re-designing what higher ed might become. Obviously, "the book" is a very different thing now than what once it was, and courseware - whether didactic or exploratory - is both far more interesting and far more controversial (and controversy is a very good thing as opposed to bad words from bad people). So also is "seat time" an idea vastly outdated, whether in a lecture, viewing a lecture (which can be fast-timed), or reading a book (with adequately clear outline and computerized index). So also, for that matter, is the relatively limited skill of "recall" which has been vastly transcended by critical judgment of quality research available online. Where once we could - with declining justification - dismiss online research as "unreliable," now we can "check it" and think twice - or more - about it's conclusions before citing it. That is a huge difference in itself. I once was late in teaching my history class a few years ago only to arrive to see two students arguing the "reliability" of the Illuminati in explaining American history using a smart board and pulling up contradictory pages. THAT was much better "history" than any lecture I could deliver....]

But more critical than the boundaries of content, time, media and reliability is when college starts and when it ends. Those have become much, much fuzzier in the past 20 years, with Early College High Schools, teens taking MOOCs, and vastly extended tuition loan payments. We really ought to "count" college as whatever it is that dominates our calendar and/or budgets, and that starts at around 16 years old and, now, extends to 40.

That's why I began to think of innovative scholarship programs that might be earned as early as high school, and come "due" on graduation from college - to give the colleges a new source of funding helps them, and much less directly their students. A "$10,000 scholarship" helps the financial aid office spread their money wider, but not the student who's college resources are reduced in proportion to such outside contributions. And that began to raise issues of how employers could pay for the expertise of their younger employees with college loan payments, saving taxes from both student and the employer, and freeing those students by buying greater loyalty for less cash than salaries alone represent. When a community college makes a deal with a local tech company to teach coding, for example, they could give credit for nothing if they're paid by the employer....

As you explore such options don't forget, however, to look at history. Many of these "innovations" happened in the Depression and before - ranging from "continuing education" (a fee-based MOOC) to "correspondence schools" (a MOOC-based model) to "work study." One of the most creative solutions I've seen has been MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, where students use work study to complete local service programs, usually involving research or at least documentation, while earning money as well as credit with a faculty mentor. Boston University, I recently discovered, has created their own version, and I'd hope others might as well. As a "community activist" I'm outraged at how colleges create unpaid "internships" in which they force students to work with neither credit nor money. Slavery is, at least, tasteless, and colleges ought, at a minimum, teach taste.


I was surprised not to see any questions about libraries - will the new institution have library collections or spaces?  Dose the institution license electronic content for its community, or rely on individual community members to purchase access to needed materials?  Will reference services or other types of research support be available to students and instructors?


Scholarship and the "algorithm".



I want to connect this thread to Shawn Warren's model in a separate blog post.  Thoughtprovoking and inspiring!


I am participating in Cathy Davidson's course on the history and future of higher education.  As we go into week four, we have been encouraged to comment on, and contribute to, the Redesigning Higher Education from Scratch project.

I have added my two cents worth to the relevant wiki, and will be interested in comments from others:

Health warning - I'm not an academic, and I am not in higher-ed - but I am a passionate historian, who sees a tough future for young scholars wishing to acquire research skills and to finance their research in the humanities, and for older men and women coming back into education, and shocked at the cost of doing so.


The economy is pretty much dictates the country. It determined if things are good or bad. With the economy being in bad shape, some people may be serverly affected increasing the poverty level. Unfortunetly with many people living in poverty, the struggles affect children negatively. In agreement with me is the AASA "Our society refuese to acknowledge that poverty is, by far, the single biggest factor in determining student achievement. We operate in a society that funds its educational system in the most inequitable way, allowing wealth or lack of it to determines the quality of schools." This causes a lack of motivation and drive to want to do well in school and become successful. What people fail to realize is that the outcome of good education is based on a stable economy.