Alternative Design, Innovation, and Imagination in Higher Education

I did some traveling this month and that always gives me time to sit still and read without being distracted by a million other things. On my last flight, I read David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). It was a pretty fun read and despite the book’s ostensible audience of higher ed administrators and leaders, it offers some intriguing and imaginative proposals that could be of use for anyone working at a university today.

The most appealing thing about the book is that the Staley allowed himself to imagine 10 different forms of post-secondary education. These ranged from a industry focused liberal arts college to free form “platform college” where faculty and students are combine and disperse on the basis of interest and demand, to decentralized microcolleges that operate with loose coordination to offer almost individual instruction and radical colleges based on play, advanced cybernetic interfaces, and the body. The willingness to speculate and to imagine a future to higher education with only the barest number of institutional constraints and appeals to tradition is refreshing. More than that, it demonstrates that there is a place for “solutions in search of problems” in higher education, although Staley does conclude by saying that he hopes his experiment in imagination will demonstrate that alternatives exist to the increasingly commodified character of contemporary higher education.

At the same time, Staley’s alternative universities do have certain similarities that suggest a particular understanding of the higher education landscape that goes beyond his rather cursory diagnosis of the contemporary “crisis.” For example, nearly all the alternative universities managed to exist with a minimum of administration who tended to serve as coordinators and facilitators rather than leaders. Conversely faculty took center stage and while their work was often subject to the whims of the market (and students), the mentor-student relationship remained fundamental most fo the alternative universities proposed.

Likewise absent from his alternative universities were the onerous burden of assessing learning. In fact, Staley largely accepted that both students and faculty operated in good faith. Students committed to learning and faculty committed to teaching. In some of his scenarios, faculty will be on an island with students either instructing small groups as part of single-teacher micro universities, leading students in immersive experiences abroad in the “Nomad University,” or connecting and dispersing with demand and interest in the “Platform University.” Such free form experimental spaces as the Institute for Advance Play and Future University have outcomes that seem to almost resist formal assessment. A university based on play or the producing models of future society may have rules and expectations (i.e. humans won’t suddenly develop the ability to fly), but these do little to narrow the wide range of potential student outcomes.  

At times, I felt like Staley’s book was a bit naive about the ability of the market to self-regulate both within academia and the relationship between academic institutions and industry. The idea of a “Humanities Think Tank” and “Nomad University” rely on the idea that the private (and public sector) would consistently reach out to scholars in the humanities or in various applied sciences for collaboration. On the one hand, it’s Staley’s fantasy which always involves a certain suspension of disbelief and maybe that’s enough to sanction his exercises. On the other hand, I’m not sure that his more naive approaches to the functioning of the market offer a useful way forward. The idea that students will gravitate toward majors and funding will flow from industry toward innovative institutions ignores the complicated roles that ideology, politics, and tradition plays in shaping the economic and educational landscape. Of course, Staley acknowledges that his exercises in imagining operate at the margins of the possible, but how he defines these limits remains unclear. For example, he does not propose “Mars University” where students study Mars and the role of space on the terrestrial economy over the course of the multiyear curriculum taught during a trip to, from, and on the Red Planet. His selective reading of existing experiments in higher education – with example such as Deep Springs College – rarely explores less successful (or at least sustained) experiments (e.g. Black Mountain College) to understand the real limits to what is possible. This isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading and thinking about. Perhaps, he designed the fuzzy limits to his imagined solutions to push us to think about the constraints that currently exist within higher education or to encourage us to engage in a kind of “design thinking” that recognizes the interplay between ideas and constraints as the key environment for producing real change.

Lest my review seem too critical, I should emphasize that the book is inspiring. In the spring semester, I’m teaching a class that will focus not so much on a problem or a series of educational outcomes, but on a building on our campus that is scheduled for demolition. I was fretting a good bit about the point of the class, but Staley’s book put me more at ease. I was particularly drawn to the idea of an “Institute for Advanced Play” that Staley based on the idea that “play and the imagination define higher learning.” 

My one-credit course will focus on play and the idea that our bureaucratic, outcome driven education system leaves rather little time for engaging the world thoughtfully, critically, and carefully without a particular goal. To my mind, this might be the best thing about Staley’s book. Even if the problems that it seeks to solve and the limits to Staley’s imaging are fuzzy, the book encourages all of us to think about higher education in radically different ways and to enjoy the silliness of unwarranted provocation and the freedom from consistency, well-defined goals, and tidy outcomes. 

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