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This moment is ripe for change in higher education. Scores of technology entrepreneurs, foundations, and policymakers are already trying to shape what the future looks like for both learners and institutions. The message for colleges and universities is clear: they can either sit idly by or join in to design their own destiny. As a selective public institution with a history of educational innovation, the Georgia Institute of Technology sits squarely in the middle of the forces shaping higher education. It is uniquely positioned to model what the university of the future might look like.

This report of the Georgia Tech Commission on Creating the Next in Education (CNE) is an effort to draw with broad strokes the nature of education that defines the technological research university of the year 2040 and beyond. The Commission was formed because many within the institution are convinced that by the second half of this century Georgia Tech will be different from the university that matured and prospered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Georgia Tech’s mission seems to demand that the Institute examine the choices that lie ahead and make plans for a future that, however uncertain, is bound to present opportunities and challenges that cannot be understood as incremental changes in the status quo.

Drivers of Change

In a prior report titled Discovering the Drivers of Change in Higher Education (Georgia Tech 2016), the Commission outlined the forces likely to affect Georgia Tech, including a new and accelerating revolution characterized by technology-driven disruptive change throughout society, shifting public attitudes about the role of public universities, and demographic trends that challenge long-held assumptions about who will benefit from a college education. Upon publication of that report, the Commission engaged in a broad search for ideas about how best to anticipate the kinds of changes that are certainly in store for Georgia Tech and to synthesize a roadmap for the future.

The Georgia Tech Commitment

The overarching recommendation of the Commission is an ambitious proposal called the Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education. It is a concept unlike anything that exists today—a future for college not conceived solely just as a physical place one enters at a particular age and exits when a degree is completed but rather as a platform for an increasingly diverse population of learners.

By the year 2040, Georgia Tech learners will be more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Some will be much younger than traditional undergraduates; others will be much older. Neither group will resemble the traditional, residential college student in terms of their expectations or demands. Their numbers may far exceed the current residential enrollment. The Georgia Tech Commitment is a promise to these new learners to provide the rigorous, high-quality experience that has defined a Georgia Tech education for more than 130 years but to do it in a way that is individually personalized and sustainable for a lifetime. This commitment is a promise to invest in the success of all Georgia Tech students.

For the Georgia Tech Commitment to become a reality, the Institute must redefine its fundamental approach to educational delivery with four key actions: eliminate artificial barriers between college and pre-college schooling, invent flexible educational pathways and credentials that recognize continual learning, reinvent the physical presence of a university for a worldwide population of learners, and provide advising and coaching networks that serve the lifetime needs of Georgia Tech learners of all ages.

Innovation is required for each of these steps to be successful. An integral part of delivering on the promise of the Georgia Tech Commitment is a set of initiatives that are aimed at closing knowledge gaps, prototyping new products and services, and building technological infrastructure that enables this broad expansion of Georgia Tech’s mission.

These initiatives are conceived as research programs that will be launched upon completion of the Commission’s work. They will be planned and managed by an expanded ecosystem for educational innovation.

The Initiatives

The Commission identified five initiatives to better understand the challenges standing in the way of achieving the vision of the Georgia Tech Commitment and to create tools, invent methods, and collect data that will be required to make progress. Included in these initiatives are immediate actions and longer-term projects that will require both invention and sustained research. These initiatives address problems that the Commission believes are on every critical path to the Georgia Tech Commitment and many other conceivable futures as well.


Initiative 1: Whole-Person Education

Georgia Tech graduates have a reputation for strong technical skills and initiative, but, increasingly, other skills are needed for success in the twenty-first century workplace, including cognitive skills, such as problem solving and creativity; interpersonal skills, such as communications and leadership; and intrapersonal skills, such as adaptability and discipline. The Commission found that virtually all employers consider these skills to be a distinguishing characteristic for long-term success. Employers look to leading colleges and universities to provide graduates who have not only deep disciplinary knowledge but also these additional skills.

This initiative consists of four interrelated projects that address important aspects of delivering whole-person education to Georgia Tech learners:

  1. Experiential learning that embeds the learning experience in authentic, relevant contexts.
  2. Globalization at home to develop a culture in which critical thinking and collaboration can be taught in the context of a multicultural world.
  3. Professional development of graduate students that fuses whole-person education with the more research-oriented training typical of graduate education.
  4. A new whole-person curriculum that emphasizes interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions of education in addition to cognitive dimensions.


Initiative 2: New Products and Services

To meet the demands of evolving job markets and the desires of a widely disparate population of future learners, the Georgia Tech Commitment calls for flexible learning experiences and continual learning opportunities. New products will need to be created that afford future learners the ability to customize their educational experiences. Development of these new educational products and services will be enabled by four projects that address both near-term and long-term problems:

  1. Microcredentials to create more efficient packages of experience and achievement.
  2. A matrix of minimester classes that will allow students to replace monolithic three-credit-hour classes with more granular and flexible modules.
  3. A new credit-for- accomplishment unit measured by demonstrated competencies and skills.
  4. A new decentralized transcript based on blockchain technology that allows students to combine evidence of learning and achievements into credentials that are relevant to potential employers.


Initiative 3: Advising for a New Era

Advising for a new era is a challenge to the traditional fragmented approaches to advising. The Commission recommends a robust learner data backbone as well as artificial intelligence assistants that integrate prescriptive, intrusive, and developmental advising services to personalize them and provide a new advising experience, at scale, to learners of all types. Three projects are key to launching this initiative:

  1. Personalized advising for effective and scalable advising services tailored to the needs and prospects of individuals at all stages of life.
  2. Technology-enhanced advising to deliver new ways for supporting personalization at scale.
  3. Personal Boards of Directors to create professional networks for Georgia Tech learners.


Initiative 4: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Personalization

Georgia Tech has led in the development of AI-based personalization systems. The “Jill Watson” experiment used the IBM Watson system as the basis for an artificially intelligent teaching assistant and was widely hailed as a breakthrough in both AI and educational technology. The opportunity now exists to augment “Jill’s” skills to handle other tasks that are associated with personalized learning. A multifunction virtual tutor can be deployed to advisors, coaches, and even mentors located at distributed Georgia Tech locations around the world. Three projects are envisioned as part of this initiative:

  1. Pilots for mastery-learning and adaptive-learning platforms that can put the kind of technology that will allow customized delivery of material into the hands of learners within two years.
  2. Personalized and multifunctional tutors to take advantage of advances in AI to push the envelope in personalized learning.
  3. Human-centered AI to support the development of interactive AI agents whose interactions with humans are informed by cognitive models and contexts.


Initiative 5: A Distributed Worldwide Presence

The idea of a physical campus—a designed space for students, teachers, and educational programs—has been a mainstay of the college learning experience for a thousand years. The physical campus is, however, a fragile model. A campus has the advantage of making educational facilities broadly available, but it does not necessarily match services to regional needs.

The Georgia Tech Commitment values the personal presence of instructors and advisors in the educational experience but recognizes that problems of scale and expense will limit the number and kind of such deployments. It is always an option to provide remote or online facilities to connect new students to a central campus, but Georgia Tech’s experience with affordable online master’s degrees convinced the Commission that there are better ways to create a real presence as part of the Georgia Tech learning experience. The following projects will enable experimentation with new modes of student interaction:

  1. The Georgia Tech atrium™, a concept that recreates in other locations the scalable gathering places and portals to educational services that have become ubiquitous on Georgia Tech’s central campus. These spaces can be located near clusters of Georgia Tech learners in co-working spaces, corporate offices, or even retail malls. Each atrium can be programmed to suit the needs of local learners and can provide cost-effective, high-quality educational experiences to Georgia Tech students and others by matching personnel, expertise, and facilities to the needs of the communities served.
  2. A Living Library for Learning (L3) that expands an already successful network of Human Libraries to a broad range of educational contexts. Through an L3 portal, Georgia Tech will be able to provide personal, on-demand access to individuals who have first-hand experiences to relate to classes or individual learners. The Human Library vision of “loaning people, not books” has great appeal for technological universities.

The Culture of a Deliberately Innovative Organization

The five initiatives represent radical departures from usual ways of delivering rigorous university-level learning experiences. The pace of innovation required to achieve their goals is daunting. Recognizing the often-slow pace of change in higher education, the Commission envisions a long-term process for instilling in the culture of Georgia Tech the ability to innovate in a more predictable and timely way, moving to becoming a more deliberately innovative university.

The Georgia Tech Lifetime Commitment and the initiatives proposed to achieve it are bold, and they need to be supported by an underlying culture of educational innovation that is both robust and agile so that it can adapt to disruptive forces and a rapidly increasing rate of change in technology and society. Georgia Tech’s current culture has produced internationally recognized innovations in education that have had great impact, but the Commission feels there are still cultural shifts that would improve the university’s capacity for continuing innovations. By making innovation processes the subject of study and applying research-based methodologies, the Commission believes that Georgia Tech can become a more deliberately innovative organization.

A systems approach would allow the examination of innovation processes in interacting groups of people and organizations, and it would support taking deliberate actions to improve desired outcomes over time. The Commission envisions five steps that are necessary to launch the Institute onto this pathway.


Merging Two Successful Cultures

Georgia Tech’s capacity for educational innovation has grown dramatically over the past decade, but to a large extent, successful innovation in education is still not systematic. Inventions germinate and successfully change the way education is delivered, but success or failure seems to depend as much on luck or circumstance as on merit or need. The Commission imagines a merger of two existing, successful cultures for innovation: a grassroots culture and an institutional culture. Each culture is individually effective, but aligning the two will create a more agile and sustainable environment for innovation.

A Systems Approach to Becoming Deliberately Innovative

A systems approach to creating a deliberately innovative organization improves on current successful models of innovation. The Commission recommends long-term steps to immerse educational innovation practices in the kinds of cultures that are known to enhance innovation at the enterprise and organizational levels, shifting academic structure and processes when necessary to better align with those known to promote innovation.

Enhancing the Innovation Ecosystem

The Commission examined ways that the current educational innovation ecosystem might evolve into a broader, more coordinated entity, with expanded scope and range. A great advantage enjoyed by Georgia Tech is its vibrant research environment. The Commission recommends fusing the values and mindsets of research and education communities at all levels of university operation and governance.

Bridging Organizational Silos

Organizational silos are policies, procedures, or cultural limits that inhibit people of different groups from free interaction. An example of such limitations are the disciplinary silos common in academic organizations. 

Motivating Individuals in the Innovation Process

The Commission recommends policies that acknowledge, reward, and incentivize faculty and department leaders to pursue educational innovation. Everyone at Georgia Tech should be immersed in a culture of educational innovation. Every investment decision should be steeped in it. The Commission endorses total immersion, but it will take time to create conditions that connect the individual goals and aspirations of Georgia Tech’s faculty and students with the goals of the Georgia Tech Commitment. It is an opportunity for individuals to grow by leveraging what they know while being honest about what they do not know and by taking risks while thinking through worst-case scenarios.

What’s Next?

Demographic and economic forecasts gathered during the six-month discovery phase that kicked off the Commission’s work paint a clear picture: higher education institutions of all kinds are facing a far different future compared to the world to which they have become accustomed. In many ways, the current challenges facing higher education are similar to the ones that confronted Georgia Tech at its founding. Today’s challenges, like those of the mid-nineteenth century, are the consequence of rapidly expanding knowledge, industrial revolution, and immense change in the world economy.

In the previous era, colleges and universities and their leaders approached those changes with great optimism and a feeling that change was an opportunity for growth. The Commission believes that spirit can be rekindled today. A group of universities will need to lead higher education through the changes promised in this next decade and beyond. Georgia Tech is determined to be in this group by expanding its mission to include the Georgia Tech Commitment to a Lifetime Education.

The roadmap presented here is a result of looking up and out to grasp the bigger picture of higher education and its future. We imagine a future where artificial barriers that have existed in education disappear and the role that people and technology play in guiding students in their lifelong educational journeys is better understood. In such a future, new educational products will be needed, and, as simple skill acquisition becomes easier to achieve, the whole-person education needed to prepare individuals for new workplaces will become an essential part of higher education. Finally, the success of all the projects described in this report is predicated on an immersive culture that fosters deliberate innovation.

Access to higher education and scholarly research has long been the lever universities have pulled to promote their prestige. In higher education it is difficult, if not impossible, to stray far from the pack and think differently about how to engage new generations of students and how to provide them with the most immersive educational environment, all while being on the cutting edge of the next discoveries in the world. But the changing needs of both the global economy and higher education demand that universities like Georgia Tech move in a new direction to remain relevant in an increasingly automated and diverse world.

CNE timeline

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