Blog Post

Some Initial Thoughts on The Futures Initiative, Graduate Center CUNY #FuturesEd

Here are some initial thoughts about ideas I've been sharing lately about the new Futures Initiative.  These ideas are preliminary and will certainly evolve over time.


The Futures Initiative is based on the idea that all education is "vocational" in the broadest sense that education should prepare us for the vocation of leading better, richer, more satisfying, responsible, joyous, and productive lives (in whatever form). Education should be about meeting tough challenges and exploring novel opportunities--coupled with introspection, curiosity, creativity, and social justice too, and all on the way to mastering content and beyond. 

These learning principles are not intended to displace traditional learning.  They may.  But that's not the point.  Rather, they pertain in, around, above, and beyond traditional education--no matter whether one is preparing to be an engineer or an artist, a historian or an accountant.  We need to learn how and when to take chances--and how to recover when we make mistakes. In a world changing rapidly, in many different directions at once, and where precarity can sometimes seem overwhelming, expertise can become outmoded quickly.   How to adapt and change when it is appropriate and how to be a leader and a maker of change (often in alliance with others) in the right circumstances can be an invaluable survival skill.

Although most of graduate education is carefully scripted and prescribed--with degree requirements, time limits, reading lists, approval processes, mentoring systems, rewards and recognition, and so forth--the Futures Initiative is not.  There is no game plan.  Rather, there will be many points of entry and ways to participate.  It is hoped that participants will have a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, expertise, skills, experiences, and career objectives.  We'll be using HASTAC's model of "collaboration by difference" to work among and across those.  

The Futures Initiative has a technology assumption.  It is founded on the assumption that "web literacy" or "digital literacy" is crucial to thriving in the world, in the same way that  reading, writing, and arithmetic are literacies upon which one builds.   Since April 22, 1993, when the computer scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications released the Mosaic 1.0 browser to the public, more and more of us have lived with a tool that allows us to expand our human capacities in ways not imagined before:  now, anyone with an internet connection can communicate instantaneously, and without an editor, to anyone else in the world with access to an internet connection.

While work and life have changed radically as a result of this new technology, it is not clear how much formal education has  rethought its basic structures in order to prepare students.  How much and how deeply have we really reconsidered and transformed our Industrial-Era educational principes, rooted in Taylorist labor practices:  standardization, regulation, bureaucratization, compartmentalization of knowledge, hierarchies of expertise, regulation of credentialing, machine-gradable multiple-choice testing, and so forth.  Digitizing the status quo isn't enough.  Neither is simply learning about technology.  We also need to be learning (both critically and creatively) through and with relevant technologies and thinking deeply about new global economic, labor, and market conditions (including income inequality and, closer to home, the adjunctification of the professoriate) within these contexts. 

The Futures Initative is also based on the assumption that until higher education changes, there can be no significant, substantive change in K-12.  No responsible parent will tamper with a child's chance at a productive future. Until higher education changes its methods and expectations, its assessment and credentialing practices and its legacy disciplines and reward systems, K-12 cannot and will not change. 

The Futures Initiative is an open initiative kicked off by The Graduate Center CUNY and with ambitions that extend throughout all higher education everywhere. 

Please join us!   This an open and evolving Group.  


Some key components of The Futures Initiative are:

  • mentality:   thinking together about what higher education is for now and should be for (see Designing Higher Education from Scratch as an example of an introspective inventory of the purpose of higher education; see Connected Learning and The Aspen Task Force on Learning and the Internet for key learning principles)
  • theory: researching the best thinkers on the purpose of education in general, and higher education more specificaly, now and in the past, now and in the future, in the US and internationally
  • history:  making visible the institutional processes and decisions that led to the creation of the current status quo in order to understand what is involved in changing it
  • pedagogy: understanding how the methods we use in the classroom for different disciplines, different kinds of courses, and different kinds of studends embody ideologies;  what are the best pedagogies for helping students master the material?  what are the best pedagogies for modeling the kind of learning and the kind of society to which we aspire
  • peer learning: learning how to give up hierarchy and the "tyranny of expertise" and to support student-led learning and peer-to-peer learning is both difficult and rewarding--and absolutely essential to The Futures Initiative
  • creativity: re-valuing creativity, inspiration, curiosity, imagination, improvisation, and innovation in all forms of learning is key.  One conviction of The Futures Initiative is that the decline in interest in STEM learning is that it has been progressive stripped of its founding principle of curious, inductive, problem-solving and experimentation.  We need to restore the spirit of exploration and experimentation to all learning.
  • collaboration:  learning to work together productively is a skill, not a natural talent, especially in school where solitary, silent, individual achievement (such as test scores or research papers) is sometimes over-valued.  "Group work," though, is a conscientious practice, not something one can just assume will happen on its own.  See the student-created book, Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Learning and Teaching
  • digital, web, and data literacy:  committing ourselves to new ways of knowing and learning that foster an adequate understanding of how we create, communicate, share information, and can protect ourselves and others from commercial, government, or individual invasion of our online identities (see The Trust Challenge as a current example)
  • data analysis: understanding how to gather and use data while also being aware of how to protect one's data against unwarranted use by others is a key literacy
  • visualization:  understanding what and how we visualize data (and how we should not) is another contemporary literacy as is underscoring the humanity and the actual humans beyond any accumulation and visualization of user data
  • assessment: designing new, peer-to-peer, formative, customizable, and yet reliable forms of assessment is both a challenge and an opportunity presented by new online data tools; badging, microcredentials, and nanodegrees all have potential to replace standardized testing (invented in 1914) as a more equitable, open, and verifiable machine-readable (algorithmic) system (See "What Is a Digital Badge?"
  • open source and net neutrality: protecting open access, net neutrality, and other forms of contribution are an essential part of contemporary learning
  • creative contribution: taking our skills in critical thinking and implementing them as creative contributions--to our classrooms, in our research, to society in general
  • disciplinary structures: considering which divisions of knowledge continue to serve us and which are legacies that replicate and propogate divisions that have outlived their efficacy
  • innovation: considering how to make the most meaningful innovations in learning, teaching, and research, including in the use of technology to enhance learning, connection, access, diversity, and equity.  Where technology truly does make education available to more people for less money (and not for corporate profit), the Futures Initiative is dedicated to being at the cutting-edge of technology adoption, use, experimentation, and improvement.
  • institutional change: strategizing the most effective ways to change institutions
  • income inequality:  taking in the sobering realization that higher education exacerbates rather than reduces income inequality in the U.S. due to a forty-year defunding of public higher education, of public research funding, and of other forms of civic life and a collective vision for the future good.  What can we do to reverse this trend?
  • equity:  prioritizing equity and social justice as motivators in all innovation is key.  That includes non-discrimination and overt anti-discriminatory praxis on every and all levels, including championing equal opportunity across race, gender, sexuality, religion, citizenship, physical or cognitive ability, and beyond.
  • access:  analyzing who is excluded from our Futures?  How do we adddress and redress the missing and the invisible?
  • alliance:  championing other change makers is essential to success.   How do we focus on implementing change and then modeling our success for others?  
  • celebration:  celebrating victories (however modest) is an essential component to successful, lifelong activism.  We need to think together about how to manage our expectations, build on our successes, make alliances with other change makers and trumpet their triumphs, and, as often as we can, party.  Really.   Strategic optimism only works within community.  Community requires comaraderie (in addition to all the other components). Learning to include the joy in the syllabus of learning, research, and professional advancement is a crucial lesson--especially for academics. Learn early.  Practice often.


The key components of the Futures Initiative are invigorating because they all cross boundaries. In the past I would have asked why Interdisciplinarity is not included. However, "interdisciplinarity" has become inadequate to account for the complexity of boundary crossing today. So, I suggest an added component whether it is included formally or not – Boundary Work. I look forward to seeing what others have to contribute and watching their own boundary work as they do.

Julie Thompson Klein, Wayne State University


I like your approach a lot, Julie.   One of the bullets above is:

  • disciplinary structures: considering which divisions of knowledge continue to serve us and which are legacies that replicate and propogate divisions that have outlived their efficacy

Thinking about boundaries, interfaces, connections, and so forth is the next step.  Thank you!  To the Futures!


I favor Boundary Work over Interdisciplinarity because the boundaries being crossed are many: disciplines, interdiscipilnary fields, occupational professions, sectors of society, and technologies of learning past and present. The Futures Initiative is a great way of expanding awareness of this new complexity, much as you and David Theo Goldberg reimagined "institutions" as "mobilizing networks."