Imagine a university without classrooms, lectures, disciplinary departments, or majors.

Such is the goal of Dr. Christine Ortiz, former dean for graduate education at MIT, who is using technology to build a new kind of residential research institution from the ground up. At IdeaFestival 2016, Ortiz explained that universities are not keeping up with technology advances, or adequately preparing students for life in the 21st century. She is laying out a plan to change that.

“Technology is accelerating, and modernization and expansion of the higher education system is desperately needed,” Ortiz said. “Our higher education system is still stuck in the Middle Ages.”

Our current university system has not changed significantly in over 1000 years, Ortiz said. So she and her colleagues are building a nonprofit university that:

  • focuses on the transdisciplinary interface between technology and humanity
  • emphasizes personalized, holistic and research-based pedagogy
  • employs dynamic organizational structures and a high quality, low cost, scalable financial model, to serve more underserved and underprivileged students, according to Ortiz.

To do this, Ortiz will place technology at the core of the school and its research projects from the start.

Today, the US has 4,664 post-secondary institutions, with 20 million students enrolled. Of those, just 207 are research institutions, with 4.7 million students.

SEE: IdeaFestival 2016: Why science and tech need the humanities to create maximum value, explains MIT physicist (TechRepublic)

“The 1000-year-old university structure is rigid and obsolete, inhibiting human potential and failing to prepare students for life in the new millennium,” Ortiz said. “Scientific and technological education is disconnected from humanistic studies and social impact at a time when their integration is increasingly critical to a prosperous future for humanity.”

The world’s challenges do not fit neatly under a single subject area, Ortiz said; rather, they are interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and require diverse thinking to develop solutions, which our higher education system currently does not facilitate.

Part of the problem is the process of curriculum design, which can take at least one to two years to be approved–too long, considering how quickly technology is evolving, Ortiz said. “The edtech industry is booming, technology is booming, but it’s difficult to infuse them into the current system,” she added.

In her new institution, which is yet to be named, students will design their own learning path, and use flipped curriculum to meet goals. “We see research as the most advanced form of project-based learning,” Ortiz said. “This platform will enable us to evolve those pathways rapidly as things evolve.”

Students will design a research project in collaboration with faculty at the start of the year and build an individual curriculum around it. Ortiz’s team created a software platform for computer-guided intelligent curriculum design, which will help students and faculty create educational pathways across disciplines, with some constraints.

The curriculum will integrate science, technology, and humanistic fields. For example, one research area might be titled Improving the Human Body and Mind, combining medicine and education. Ortiz said she plans to make share much of the information and best practices regarding the building of the university, so that the barriers to entry for others may be reduced.

Ortiz’s team aims to run several pilot programs. By the end of 2016, they plan to incorporate as a Massachusetts public charity, and by next year, gain nonprofit status. By 2020, the team plans to apply for regional accreditation and open to students.

“We need to increase not just the higher education, but the frontier science and technological higher education,” Ortiz said. Economists forecast the need for 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields in the US by 2022 than expected, she added.

The idea has received overwhelming support, Ortiz said.

“One of the most significant strengths of American higher education is its diversity, allowing for exciting and innovative approaches like Dr. Ortiz’s,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “Her university’s focus on transdisciplinary research, project-based and personalized learning, and the interface of science and technology with the humanities and arts is more critical than ever as we prepare students to address the complex global challenges of the 21st century.”

The promise of MOOCs

The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in 2012 has not resulted in transformative change in the higher ed system, as some educators expected it would, Ortiz said.

“The impact of MOOCs remains uncertain–they have opened up access and changed the way we share information, but continue to have low completion rates,” Pasquerella said.

However, MOOCs have catalyzed faculty development around flipped classrooms, allowing for more engaged learning in traditional classrooms, and prompted research and discussions around the benefits of providing different forms of assessment and more frequent feedback to students, Pasquerella said.

Take Harvard’s edX program, founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, which offers more than 950 free MOOCs from a variety of universities. “MOOCs dramatically extend the formula on reach,” said Huntington Lambert, dean of the Division of Continuing Education and University Extension at Harvard University.

Harvard edX courses have more than 4 million registrations, though far fewer complete them, said Peter Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning. When administrators examined the data, they found something surprising: More than 70% of registrants already have a bachelor’s degree.

“There was a lot of talk about how this was going to disrupt higher education, but that has not happened,” Bol said. “The real disruption has been starting to build out our rigorous learning to be something that continues after graduation from college.”

Harvard has succeeded in its three main goals of MOOCs: To better engage faculty with technology, to create a large-scale research dataset, and to make Harvard classes more accessible to the rest of the world, Lambert said.

“What MOOCs have not done is come at all close to replicating what it means to extend education to learners,” Lambert said. “Just 1% of people out there can go to a library, read a textbook, and know the material. That same 1% thrives with MOOCs, and another couple percent learn a lot. The rest are just curious.”

The future of tech in higher ed

No matter how much technology advances, learning remains human-based, Lambert said. “We use tech to amplify humans, not replace them,” he added. “There will always be a cost of teaching and learning. One does not learn by reading a textbook, but by engaging thoughtfully with peers and professors.”

Lambert expects to see the structure of higher education to change a little bit, but does not expect schools like Ortiz’s to replace the entire system.

“There’s no doubt that higher education in the US and Western world has completely changed the social and cultural landscape for our populations, and brought us to a much higher economic level,” Lambert said. “What technology does for the first time is allow the student to control time, place, and pace. It doesn’t change the equation of higher education, but makes it much more inclusive.”

Technology can further change higher education by turning the audience from 18-to-22 year-olds to 22-to-82 year-olds, Bol said.

“There’s a very large public that wants to continue learning and has been starved of that,” Bol said. “Now that we know we can reach them with technology, the question for higher ed is whether we see that as something we should be investing in.”

Technology is not value-free, said Pasquerella. “We need to interrogate the ways in which we use it to achieve our objectives and assess whether the values at the core of our particular institutional missions are served by its use,” she said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Dr. Christine Ortiz, former dean for graduate education at MIT, is building a new nonprofit research institution that will focus on interdisciplinary work between technology and the humanities.
  2. Students at her school, scheduled to open in 2020, will design curriculum based on research projects that move across different disciplines.
  3. While massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were expected to revolutionize access to college, very few people actually complete courses on these platforms, and most of them already have degrees.

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