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Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education

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How can we re-envision the university? Too many examples of what passes for educational innovation today--MOOCs especially--focus on transactions, on questions of delivery. In Alternative Universities, David J. Staley argues that modern universities suffer from a poverty of imagination about how to reinvent themselves. Anyone seeking innovation in higher education today sh How can we re-envision the university? Too many examples of what passes for educational innovation today--MOOCs especially--focus on transactions, on questions of delivery. In Alternative Universities, David J. Staley argues that modern universities suffer from a poverty of imagination about how to reinvent themselves. Anyone seeking innovation in higher education today should concentrate instead, he says, on the kind of transformational experience universities enact. In this exercise in speculative design, Staley proposes ten models of innovation in higher education that expand our ideas of the structure and scope of the university, suggesting possibilities for what its future might look like. What if the university were designed around a curriculum of seven broad cognitive skills or as a series of global gap year experiences? What if, as a condition of matriculation, students had to major in three disparate subjects? What if the university placed the pursuit of play well above the acquisition and production of knowledge? By asking bold "What if?" questions, Staley assumes that the university is always in a state of becoming and that there is not one "idea of the university" to which all institutions must aspire. This book specifically addresses those engaged in university strategy--university presidents, faculty, policy experts, legislators, foundations, and entrepreneurs--those involved in what Simon Marginson calls "university making." Pairing a critique tempered to our current moment with an explanation of how change and disruption might contribute to a new "golden age" for higher education, Alternative Universities is an audacious and essential read.


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How can we re-envision the university? Too many examples of what passes for educational innovation today--MOOCs especially--focus on transactions, on questions of delivery. In Alternative Universities, David J. Staley argues that modern universities suffer from a poverty of imagination about how to reinvent themselves. Anyone seeking innovation in higher education today sh How can we re-envision the university? Too many examples of what passes for educational innovation today--MOOCs especially--focus on transactions, on questions of delivery. In Alternative Universities, David J. Staley argues that modern universities suffer from a poverty of imagination about how to reinvent themselves. Anyone seeking innovation in higher education today should concentrate instead, he says, on the kind of transformational experience universities enact. In this exercise in speculative design, Staley proposes ten models of innovation in higher education that expand our ideas of the structure and scope of the university, suggesting possibilities for what its future might look like. What if the university were designed around a curriculum of seven broad cognitive skills or as a series of global gap year experiences? What if, as a condition of matriculation, students had to major in three disparate subjects? What if the university placed the pursuit of play well above the acquisition and production of knowledge? By asking bold "What if?" questions, Staley assumes that the university is always in a state of becoming and that there is not one "idea of the university" to which all institutions must aspire. This book specifically addresses those engaged in university strategy--university presidents, faculty, policy experts, legislators, foundations, and entrepreneurs--those involved in what Simon Marginson calls "university making." Pairing a critique tempered to our current moment with an explanation of how change and disruption might contribute to a new "golden age" for higher education, Alternative Universities is an audacious and essential read.

30 review for Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nat

    I'm just sitting around during the lockdown worrying about the future of universities, and I happened to have this lying around. There are some good ideas in here: "...a group of students find they have a common interest, announce their desire for a course, and seek out a teacher...to satisfy their demand" (p.32). We had a version of this at the U of Chicago in the grad program in philosophy, where faculty solicited requests from the grad students for courses to teach. The lists generated themsel I'm just sitting around during the lockdown worrying about the future of universities, and I happened to have this lying around. There are some good ideas in here: "...a group of students find they have a common interest, announce their desire for a course, and seek out a teacher...to satisfy their demand" (p.32). We had a version of this at the U of Chicago in the grad program in philosophy, where faculty solicited requests from the grad students for courses to teach. The lists generated themselves were interesting, but it was totally voluntary if faculty ended up teaching any of the modules, and they almost never did. And I agree with the concluding thought that universities would benefit from greater differentiation from one another (p. 216). There's also a lot of ideas put forward that already seem questionably out of fashion (though the book was published in 2019): "Platform University will resemble Burning Man..." (p.40) "The Microcollege features sensors embedded in the learning environment to capture spoken language...data from sensors and wearable technology indicate how well students are perservering through distractions or how vigorously they are participating in discussions" (p.45) "Researchers at MIT have taught the eyes in our machines to detect human emotions. As we watch the screen, the screen is watching us, where we look, and how to react...Gesture recognition like this is another way students at the University of the Body interact with information, similar to the way we swipe a phone today" (p. 151) "General education classes--and the other courses taught at Future University--seek to inculcate these habits of mind [a "growth mind-set" and "grit"] in all students" (p.203). Maybe also courses on power-posing? I would like to see historical studies of some alternative forms that universities or university-adjacent institutions have actually taken, as a better guide to what kinds of changes in universities are possible. So, e.g., Deep Springs College, Black Mountain College, medieval Oxford halls, the RAND corporation, Bell Labs, DARPA, Rockefeller University, Stanford's CASBS, Institut Jean-Nicod, the Santa Fe Institute, Minerva, etc. etc. Some of these get mentioned, but are not discussed in any detail. There's also some obliviousness to already existing academic practices that do some of the things that are proposed in this book. For example, at "Nomad University", students "learn to be cosmopolitan: to embed themselves wherever they might be in the world...cosmopolitan means being immersed in a culture, even if one is not a native" (p. 95). What about the extensive fieldwork done by grad students in linguistics and anthropology? At the Stanford Humanities Center there were postdocs who had spent years in their target cultures--studying urban noise in Taiwan (anthropology) or learning Wolof in West Africa (linguistics). "Universities were born during the rise of the book, and one could argue that they have retained a sensorily impoverished information culture that the book enforces" (p. 150-151) What about laboratories, operating theaters, studios? One of my offices as a grad student was next to some piano practice rooms.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    The main issue that I have with this volume is that, "Speculative Design," does not necessarily mean announcing each and every non-traditional concept for education as a possible source of innovation if there is no surrounding analysis and context for how any of this could work. The other issue that is more ancillary but may have made this even somewhat practical would be discussing the actual majors that several of these university designs could specifically target. This would not be appropriat The main issue that I have with this volume is that, "Speculative Design," does not necessarily mean announcing each and every non-traditional concept for education as a possible source of innovation if there is no surrounding analysis and context for how any of this could work. The other issue that is more ancillary but may have made this even somewhat practical would be discussing the actual majors that several of these university designs could specifically target. This would not be appropriate for all of them but for the majority, even a quick analysis as to how one type of student or one specific major could be transformed via these models would have at least extended an olive branch to those of us not content to operate exclusively at 50,000 feet regarding our profession. If you are looking for some notions way out in left field that likely have not been imagined by any of your current university committees, perhaps this would be worth a perusal. Otherwise, I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I heard his ideas, thought about them, and now have no new information nor insight as to how any of this would be tenable, especially in a post-COVID world.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Tara Brabazon

    I cannot convey how dreadful, naive, pathetic, bonkers and boring this book is. I had high hopes. The revisioning of the university is an important project. Moving beyond 'the crisis' is necessary. The higher education studies research literature does need to get over itself. Higher education studies is not as powerful and extraordinary as higher education. But going over the rainbow or digging deeply into an oxycontin addiction are not intellectual strategies to be recommended. The 'speculative' I cannot convey how dreadful, naive, pathetic, bonkers and boring this book is. I had high hopes. The revisioning of the university is an important project. Moving beyond 'the crisis' is necessary. The higher education studies research literature does need to get over itself. Higher education studies is not as powerful and extraordinary as higher education. But going over the rainbow or digging deeply into an oxycontin addiction are not intellectual strategies to be recommended. The 'speculative' designs offered in this book are ridiculous. They were either completely disconnected from the political economy or created a 'microuniversity' that 'serviced' the gig economy. This book is bonkers. Our universities were - and are - extraordinary institutions. They have lost their way, but setting up a classroom in a church is not a forward-facing strategy.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Leah Sciabarrasi

    A provocative exploration into possible Higher Ed models As a fellow Higher Ed admin quarantined in the time of COVID, this book was a compelling read that presented many models to imagine operating in. There are definitely some possibles (Nomad U, Polymath) and there are definitely some favorites (Microcolleges, FutureU). Instead, I think it's better to imagine a possible future of Higher Ed institutions with the best elements of them all - student choice (Platform), travel experiences (Nomad U) A provocative exploration into possible Higher Ed models As a fellow Higher Ed admin quarantined in the time of COVID, this book was a compelling read that presented many models to imagine operating in. There are definitely some possibles (Nomad U, Polymath) and there are definitely some favorites (Microcolleges, FutureU). Instead, I think it's better to imagine a possible future of Higher Ed institutions with the best elements of them all - student choice (Platform), travel experiences (Nomad U), influencing policy (Think Tank), sense making (Liberal Arts), niche environments (Microcolleges), cross majors (Polymath), cyborg evolution (Interface), and designing the future (Future U). If not done carefully, we could end up with what we've got; post-COVID, we may have no other choice but to truly evolve.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Liz Davidson

    An interesting read, chock full of cool ideas. This is clearly meant to be a thinking tool, rather than a blueprint for anything in particular. However, that was also a drawback in a lot of ways—our society has expectations of what a university can and should do, and it's always going to be hard to push on that. My main concern, though, was that very little of this book focused on the quality of teaching, pedagogy, and ensuring teachers are more than just experts. I get why, that's not really th An interesting read, chock full of cool ideas. This is clearly meant to be a thinking tool, rather than a blueprint for anything in particular. However, that was also a drawback in a lot of ways—our society has expectations of what a university can and should do, and it's always going to be hard to push on that. My main concern, though, was that very little of this book focused on the quality of teaching, pedagogy, and ensuring teachers are more than just experts. I get why, that's not really the purpose of this book. But I also don't think any college, with any structure, can thrive without excellent, cultivated teaching (and that a lot of otherwise blah experiences can be amazing because the teacher was amazing).

  6. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

    I find it disorienting and terrifying thinking about how much energy goes into "reimagining" ultimately very little. Perhaps a better word would be re-optimizing? A lot of very passive hand-wringing over VC and silicon valley vampires turning their claws towards higher education and nary a mention of capitalism or the upstream neoliberal causes driving this crisis. This anemic understanding of capitalism creates a text that ricochets wildly and naively between great ideas and positively dystopia I find it disorienting and terrifying thinking about how much energy goes into "reimagining" ultimately very little. Perhaps a better word would be re-optimizing? A lot of very passive hand-wringing over VC and silicon valley vampires turning their claws towards higher education and nary a mention of capitalism or the upstream neoliberal causes driving this crisis. This anemic understanding of capitalism creates a text that ricochets wildly and naively between great ideas and positively dystopian ones. There's some vaguely interesting stuff in here but you’ll have to dig it out with a scalpel and reshape it drastically.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Wiebke Kuhn

    An interesting collection of thought experiments on what higher education could look like. It’s key message that higher ed institutions need to start differentiating themselves more carefully from others to find a market niche in a field that will become increasingly competitive with forecast dwindling student numbers is timely. Many of the ideas are already in place to some extent while for others the author did not/could not provide examples. Worth a read if you are interested in thinking what An interesting collection of thought experiments on what higher education could look like. It’s key message that higher ed institutions need to start differentiating themselves more carefully from others to find a market niche in a field that will become increasingly competitive with forecast dwindling student numbers is timely. Many of the ideas are already in place to some extent while for others the author did not/could not provide examples. Worth a read if you are interested in thinking what could be possible in higher ed.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cory Sprinkel

    Such a refreshing read that really gets you thinking about the purposes and possibilities of higher education. Staley presents a vision board of potential for universities that any higher education professional should read. Is higher ed functioning to meet the needs of the future? How can we move beyond the tired, even oppressive systems we're accustomed to? This book presents some essential questions and allows for imagining that is essential to the field. Such a refreshing read that really gets you thinking about the purposes and possibilities of higher education. Staley presents a vision board of potential for universities that any higher education professional should read. Is higher ed functioning to meet the needs of the future? How can we move beyond the tired, even oppressive systems we're accustomed to? This book presents some essential questions and allows for imagining that is essential to the field.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ann Campbell

    I read this book for a work group. I don’t know how this waking dream got five star ratings from anyone other than an administrator wanting to trim faculty payroll, but I didn’t find anything useful in it. It’s a series of musings about different educational models that share one thing in common- corporations are kings serviced by students and teachers and there is no faculty job security, specialization, etc or really any reason whatsoever anyone would pursue university-level teaching.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Interesting and thought-provoking. Requires much deeper thinking to apply the imaginative ideas presented.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Erin Garrett

    Meh.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Quazzo

    With all that is being provocatively written about the much needed transformation of higher education, this book didn’t add a lot to the discussion.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Susan Grajek

  14. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  15. 4 out of 5

    Fooby Dooby

  16. 5 out of 5

    Hao Guang Tse

  17. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

  18. 4 out of 5

    Adam Leader-Smith

  19. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Hetrick

  20. 5 out of 5

    Beata

  21. 5 out of 5

    Barry

  22. 4 out of 5

    Josh Manner

  23. 5 out of 5

    Megan Fahey

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matt

  25. 4 out of 5

    David

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jason Fenske

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Mayoh-bauche

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Swartzentruber

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ameya Gharpure

  30. 5 out of 5

    Karen J

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