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Exploring provocative ideas for undergraduate education at Stanford

Over two evenings last week, several hundred members of the campus community got a glimpse of some of the unconventional ideas coming out of Stanford's d.school for potentially reimagining the undergraduate experience of the future. The ideas are intended as a prompt for further discussion and experimentation on campus.

Ian Terpin Members of the campus community consider possibilities for the undergraduate experience of the future at a d.school exhibit last week.

Members of the campus community consider possibilities for the undergraduate experience of the future at a d.school exhibit last week.

What if you were admitted to Stanford not for four years at age 18, but for six years you could use at any time in your life? What if you declared a "mission" rather than a major? What if your transcript displayed not the courses you have taken, but the skills and ideas you have put to work in the world?

These are among the "provocations" coming out of a yearlong exercise at Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as the d.school, which has been exploring ideas big and small around how the Stanford undergraduate experience could be reimagined for the future.

The process, dubbed "@Stanford," has included classes of undergraduate and graduate students, exploration of institutions and industries undergoing disruption to their business models, and lots of thought experiments with faculty, students and staff across the campus.

The goal is to pose some provocative ideas about learning and encourage discussion and experimentation on campus. It's the first time the d.school has applied its "design thinking" processes to Stanford itself, said David Kelley, the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering and head of the d.school.

"One of the greatest things about Stanford is you can do this kind of thing," Kelley said. "We talked to students to try to understand what would be extraordinary for them. And we talked to stakeholders all over the university. We're trying to paint a picture of what the future might be, and hopefully that might stimulate you."

To share the ideas with the Stanford community, the d.school turned its own space, Building 550, into an "immersive exhibit" over two evenings last week. More than 300 members of the Stanford community walked through a simulated time machine that transported them forward to the year 2100, where they explored a "museum" documenting the kinds of educational changes Stanford could have made around the year 2025.

Ian TerpinVisitor at the d.school exhibit.

At a d.school exhibit, visitors explored the kinds of educational changes Stanford could make in the future.

Many of the exhibits on display at the "Stanford 2025" event can be seen on a new website, 2025.stanford.edu, which describes the key ideas coming out of the @Stanford process.

"The opportunities right now in higher education are exactly the kind of challenge that design thinkers get excited about," said Sarah Stein Greenberg, managing director of the d.school. "It's complex, it's fundamentally about human experience, and the disruptive potential from online learning has everyone a little off-balance. By using a human-centered design approach, we can gain some glimpses into how human behavior and society's needs are shifting and get excited about solving for those."

Visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to apply ideas from the @Stanford process to their own educational journeys – writing out, for instance, a personal learning objective explicitly tied to a larger purpose ("I'm learning political science to impact health care reform") or charting the patterns by which they might move in and out of Stanford over the course of a lifetime as their needs and interests change (perhaps crossing paths with alums Chelsea Clinton or Larry Page).

"There are some intriguing ideas here," said Harry J. Elam Jr., the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford. "Universities across the country are recognizing that they may need to reinvent the structures of learning in order to continue serving their students well in the future. The ideas here are early-stage ideas, and some of them are quite radical, but they are part of an important discussion for Stanford. I expect there will be continuing conversation about many of them among the faculty and the rest of the Stanford community."

Reimagining the undergraduate experience

The d.school's work comes as Stanford continues to pursue a variety of initiatives to evolve and refine the undergraduate experience. Following the 2012 completion of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), the campus has been implementing the Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing general education requirements, which provide for curricular breadth while encouraging students to chart their own educational paths, along with the Thinking Matters requirement for freshmen.

The campus has continued developing a variety of Introductory Seminars offering small-group courses for freshmen and sophomores. There are two new dormitory-based integrated learning environments – ITALIC, focused on the arts, and SIMILE, focused on science and technology in their historical and cultural contexts. And there are new off-campus programs under development, including a Stanford in New York City program and a new Bing Overseas Studies Program location in Istanbul.

Organizers of the d.school event – while prepared for skeptical reactions to some of their concepts – emphasized that the unconventional ideas are intended to ignite discussion and encourage experimentation, even in small ways, by people on campus interested in exploring them further. "We hope you take something with you that you can implement on your own," said Scott Doorley, creative director of the d.school.

The ideas are organized around four principles:

The "open loop" university: Embracing lifelong learning, this concept reimagines the college experience as a series of "loops" over the course of a lifetime. No longer called "alumni," returning students would loop back into Stanford for a mid-career refresh, while younger students might take a loop outside of Stanford to test what they are learning in an external environment. The d.school exhibit on this topic came complete with hypothetical marketing materials ("Now, Stanford isn't just a time in your life, it's a lifetime").

Paced education: In this model, the "class year" is replaced by adaptive learning. Students progress not through the freshman through senior years, but through personalized learning phases of varying lengths. The intended outcome? Better choices about what to study deeply, along with better understanding of one's own learning styles and strengths.

The "axis flip": This concept would organize the curriculum around skill competencies that could be used in many contexts over the course of a lifetime, rather than around traditional academic disciplines. A campus could be physically redesigned around different kinds of "competency hubs" and transcripts redesigned to focus on competencies.

Purpose learning: Under this model, students would declare a "mission" and couple their academic work with the deeper purpose fueling it. The goal would be to accelerate the university's transformative contributions to the world by grounding the undergraduate experience in personal, deeply felt meaning.

Nina Church, a Stanford sophomore who is designing her own concentration within the Program in Science, Technology and Society, has participated in the @Stanford process since the program was launched with a class at the d.school last spring. Now, she's focused on developing experimental programs that could begin testing out some of the ideas.

"I have been so inspired by this project," Church said. "This has brought together so many people from across the university, exploring so many different ideas. I'm optimistic that the rising generation will force us to think about these things – it's a matter of staying relevant. People are going to start demanding these types of change."