Blog Post

Open Letter to Students in "Mapping the Futures of Higher Education" #FuturesEd

Mapping the Futures of Higher Education


Includes Template Descriptions for Undergraduate CUNY Campus Courses


To:      “Mapping the Futures” Graduate Students Teaching CUNY Classes in S 2015

From:  Profs Cathy Davidson and Bill Kelly, course instructors, and FI Deputy Director Katina

Rogers (on behalf of the Futures Initiative team)

Re:      Syllabus-Building Workshop January 22, 4-5 pm, Room 3312. Plus logistics,

registration, CUNY college chairs and advisors, and templates for your courses.

Date:  December 17, 2015


Credit:  Graphic by Futures Initiative Fellow Michael Dorsch


Useful Links:

Course Description

Futures Initiative Group on Academic Commons

Futures Initiative Group on HASTAC

Collaboratively Written Syllabus (bibliography, topics, and ideas constructed using Think-Pair-Share exercises at four events)


Hi everyone,

First, good luck with a gruelling end of term!  And best wishes in advance for a good break and a great new year.  Below, are two urgent requests, one important (and, we hope, helpful to you) date for a syllabus-building workshop, and some ideas and support for building the syllabus for the course you will be teaching next Spring. 


URGENT:  Please make sure to register officially for the course.  Once you do, please send us the names of your department chairs and advisors at your Graduate Center department, as well as at the CUNY campus where you will be teaching in Spring 2015, so we might write everyone and explain the program and offer congratulations for your (and their) participation). 

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Syllabus Workshop:  On January 22, 4-5 pm, bring your syllabus to Room 3312, in whatever state it is in, and we will work with you on building in methods and options that correspond with the learning innovations in “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education.” Our objective is to find productive new methods without adding to the workload of your or your students. 

The Big “Why”?  Why are we doing all of this?  

First, we believe higher education is crucial to a productive, happy, independent, socially responsible adult life. The one thing that costs more than a college education is not having one.  We have the numbers:  Those with more education are employed at higher rates than those with less education, and they earn more. Period.  Higher education is by no means the only road to success, but a college diploma is important as credential and it is important as symbol:  it is the single most visible “marker” that you are able to voluntarily dedicate yourself to a long-term goal.  Although there are as many kinds and forms of higher education as there are college students, this voluntary commitment to a long-term goal is definitional and crucial of everyone who makes the commitment to go to university.  We believe that, as college professors, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure student success. 

This course explores a range of pedagogical methods that have been well researched and have been shows to help students understand, retain, and apply knowledge more successfully than traditional methods (typically, lectures or seminars) or conventional online methods (videos of lectures or seminars).  Exploring pedagogical methods that best ensure student success--by increased course completion rates, by confident and thoughtful self-evaluation ("metacognition"), and possibly even by test scores where relevant--is our first priority.

Second, only about half of those starting college finish with a degree. At elite private schools, over 90% of students receive degrees. The most elite schools spend twenty times more resources than public schools on instruction, support, and facilities.  At community colleges—where students work full-time, do not live in residences dedicated to their lives as students, and have family or other responsibilities—the success rate is 20-25%.  The interactive, adaptive methods we will be using in this class are intended to supplement the amount of time busy professors in public universities have to spend on individual students.  Peer-mentoring works as do an array of other "adaptive" learning techniques, again based on research directed toward promoting student success: student study groups, peer-leadership, interest-driven learning, systematic un-learning, peer-mentoring, public contribution to knowledge, and constant feedback on learning progress.  NB: These methods work for everyone, from doctoral students to economically disadvantaged middle-school students.  The best research on the efficacy of study groups for educational success was undertaken at Harvard and replicated in Chicago urban public middle and high schools.

Third, we believe that contemporary US institutions of higher education are still operating with forms and norms designed in the “Age of the University” (1865-1925), and specifically in the Taylorized industrial age and for the purpose of creating a new “professional managerial class.” Education, from kindergarten through professional school, was redesigned during that period for standardization, hierarchy, regimentation, division of labor, distinctions between leisure and work, and scientific measurement of productivity.  Higher education needs to be revitalized and transformed for the contemporary world of cultural diversity, technological complexity, and constant change.  We see you as the vanguard of the next generation of higher education leaders and thinkers.  Breaking down the boundaries across disciplines, between theory and practice, between thinking and making, and between “school” and the real world, are critical to the transformation of higher education. 

Fourth, we agree with the Department of Labor Statistics predictions that a major threat to the future of the American economy is a lack—not a surplus—of Americans with advanced education.  Championing the reinvestment in higher education as a public good is another motivation for this course.


Pedagogical Innovations:  The methods we will be using in this course have been well researched and fall under the category of interactive, peer learning. Some simple pedagogical experiments, such asThink-Pair-Share, are an analog version of adaptive learning, giving real-time feedback to students and providing  a quick diagnostic that doesn’t require expensive technology.  Many people use TPS as a combination learning exercise, pop quiz, and attendance mechanism. We’ll also help you think through some possible ways that the CUNY Map of New York—our common project linking students across all the colleges—can be incorporated into your class.   (Here is a very interesting video about how to make science videos that has real relevance to the importance of dialogue form, adaptive learning, and “unlearning” versus just passively watching a video or a lecture or, for that matter, reading a text on a topic:  “You always have to start with the misconception”:


Peer, Engaged, Connected Learning Principles:   Here are some of the main principles of connected learning. As you will see, they form an “ecosystem,” where each component influences and changes the others. These principles draw from constructivist, engaged “public educators” (Stuart Hall’s term)  going back as far as Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey and including Howard Gardner, Franz Fanon, Jacques Rancière, and digital pedagogy theorists such as Yochai Benkler, Howard Rheingold, and Mizuko Ito.

[Cathy’s addendum: The truly remarkable extra authority we'll be adding to the mix in our "Mapping the Futures of Higher Education" course is that we will be  able to put these theories and principles and classroom practices and other aspirations of combining equity and innovation into real-world institutional perspective due to the unique opportunity here of co-learning with the former President of the Graduate Center CUNY, Bill Kelly. This is the real game changer.] {So exciting for me! BK} 


●      Learning is  teaching.  We know from extensive research across many fields that the single most successful way to learn is to teach someone else.  In medical school, this is called “See one. Do one. Teach one.”  And we have added “Share One” since there is a digital, public component of this course.

●      Learning is research and research is learning.  That is the project, in the purest form, of the Graduate Center.  The GC structure is such that  current students immersed in their own specialized research turn outward to teach some 200,000 undergraduate students in the CUNY campuses every year.  That is inspiring!  The structure of this course (and the Futures Initiative) fully embodies the unique research mission of this public institution.  [NB:  We are very fortunate to have an “embedded librarian” in our course, as a reference and research person for all we do.]

●      Learning is institutional and engaged, relevant learning changes institutions. What is the relationship between mastering a discipline and changing it?  How does knowledge evolve? How do fields?  How do institutions?

●      Learning together is key—in class, in study groups, online.  But successful collaboration is not born; it is carefully nurtured, challenged, assessed, revised, and designed.

●      Learning is a formative test, not a high stakes summative one. An ideal way to learn is to builds challenges into the learning process in ways that help a student understand what s/he knows, what s/he is missing, and offers an individualized pathway to mastery.

●      Learning makes a public contribution to knowledge.  It makes no sense to substitute a blog for a term paper if there is no real change in audience, outcome, and purpose.

●      Learning in public requires digital and data literacies, being aware of how, why, and by whom one’s knowledge is being used. 

●      Learning is a social activity and social responsibility.

●      Learning can and should be interest-driven and fun. 

●      Learning opportunities are everywhere: the city is a classroom; everyone and everything is a resource.

●      Learning is vocational—in a good way.  Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that all education should be vocational and that vocations lead to good, productive, socially responsible and happy lives.

●      Learning is about access, equity, and equality. There is a powerful explicit and implicit social justice component to all engaged, connected learning. 

●      Learning is sustainable if it keeps these principles and practices in mind.  Keeping on, keeping on!


Templates for your syllabi:

Below are some templates you can edit and insert into the syllabus of the class you will be teaching S 2015 on one of the CUNY campuses if you wish.  The single most important thing you can do isreassure your students:  they should be honored to be part of this enterprise but not frightened.  Their success is our chief purpose.

The templates below are provided for your convenience; please ignore if they are not helpful.  They are intended to help you explain to your students the nature of the larger project in which they are participants.


On course requirements and pedagogical innovations:  

Congratulations!  You are taking one of a dozen courses in the CUNY system chosen to be part of  theFutures Initiative.  This is an honor, one that will come with many exciting opportunities for you. 


There are no additional assignments, no add-on course work for this course. However, one difference is that much of what we do this semester will be public. 


In our course, you will be learning the content and methods of this subject.  You will also be developing study and learning skills, communication, collaboration, time management, and project management skills.  These will serve you throughout your college career, in the workplace, and even in everyday life.  We will be doing some group work, guided by research principles that have been designed to ensure your success in the classroom and beyond. 


On Public Writing:

Our class has a public website built using CBOX, the CUNY Academic Commons platform.  You will be contributing assignments to this public website.  If you are not comfortable writing in public, we will be able to create an alternative identity or pseudonym/avatar for you.  Through this course website, you will be connecting to CUNY students across the entire system. 


You will also be connecting to the greater public by publishing the best examples of your work on an open learning network called HASTAC (“haystack”: Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Alliance and Collaboratory).  HASTAC has over 13,000 network members and is dedicated to “Changing the Way We Teach and Learning.” Anyone who signs up (it’s free) can contribute content as long as it is relevant to HASTAC’s goals and respectful of other community members. 


On the Structure of the Courses:

As your instructor, I am taking a class with a dozen other Graduate Center students called “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education.”  My professors are President Emeritus William Kelly, the former President of the Graduate Center, and Distinguished Professor Cathy N. Davidson, who just came to CUNY this year after a long career at Duke University.  My class is dedicated to learning innovations that we will be studying and then using in our classrooms.  You will be invited, along with the students in all the CUNY classes, to offer feedback on these methods.  Do they work for you?  Do they help you to learn the material and have a sense of how it can be applied elsewhere?  How would you improve on the method?  You will also be connecting to students in other classes and you will be invited to come to the Graduate Center for some open sessions and to a party afterward where you will meet other CUNY students.


CUNY Map of New York  All the students in all the Futures Initiative courses will be contributing to one collective project, “The CUNY Map of New York.”  We will begin by putting our campus and our class and each of us on the map.  We will decide as a class how to make our own map based on course content. Our final mapping projects will all be displayed at the Graduate Center, possibly on screens facing out onto Fifth Avenue, across from the Empire State Building.  We are putting CUNY (and ourselves) on the map!


Futures Initiative Scholar:

As a student in this class, you are a “Futures Initiative Scholar,” a title you may use on resumes, scholarship applications, job applications, and so forth. 


Futures Initiative Mentor:

If you successfully complete this class, you will be offered the opportunity to be a Futures Initiative Mentor for 2015-2016.  You will be able to help guide next year’s students.  (Professors Kelly and Davidson are currently working to raise funds to be able to offer a small stipend to anyone who wants to be a Mentor.  If they are successful, there will be a mentoring workshop at the Graduate Center this summer as part of this program.)




Offering Extra Credit or Alternative Credit    

If students in “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” are comfortable with it  (and make sure to consult with your department chair if appropriate), one way of participating in the CUNY Map of New York project is by offering extra or alternative credit to your students who might be willing to be project leaders on your class’s contribution.  Probably in any random CUNY class of 20 or 30 students, one or two will have some GIS, mapping, data visualization, or graphic arts skills and might be interested in demonstrating mastery of course subject matter through this means (versus a term paper or another kind of final project).  The challenge will be finding a way that the Map is integrated into the learning outcomes of the course and can be “counted” towards a final grade.  It would also be ideal if those students leading the project worked with others who might be good at explaining, at creating databases, or even doing empirical research to be included in the project. 

●      Example #1:  A project on sound might do actual research on decibel levels in indoor and outdoor spaces around the campus.  If ambitious, students could record sounds and include podcasts, MP3s, or other links.  If really ambitious, they could make the sound interactive--a soundscape of the city. 

●      Example #2: A literature course set in New York could include walking tours or cultural maps of the city. 

●      Example #3:  A writing class might have students do oral histories of relatives and then create a map of where all of one’s relatives were born.  For any of these, there might be an open component (moderated, probably) where students in one course could invite those in another to contribute to their map.  [NB: Feel free to use the Comments function on this Google Doc to make suggestions about other examples your colleagues might consider.  Important: Always keep the learning objectives of your course foremost in any assignment.]


Mapping the Futures - Tentative Course Schedule







Feb 3


Cathy & Bill


Feb 10


FI Fellows; livestream


Feb 17

Group 1



Feb 24

Group 1 recap/eval



March 3

Field trip to Chancellory



March 10

Group 2



March 17

Group 2 recap/eval

Cathy away


March 24

Group 3



March 31

Group 3 recap/eval



April 7




April 14

Open session

Livestream + reception


April 21

Group 4



April 28

Group 4 recap/eval



May 5

Open session

Invite undergrads


May 12

Project displays

Livestream + reception


May 19




Additional items to consider:

Feb 19:Jen Jack Giesekingwill give a public talk on mapping

[Date TBD]: Field trip to NYPL to view map collections and exhibits, such as this one by Graduate Center Professor Lev Manovich:

[Dates TBD]: The Futures Initiative will co-sponsor other talks, workshops, and open sessions throughout the semester. You are welcome and encouraged to join us for as many as you'd like.


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