The Future of the University: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education

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This essay proposes five models of innovation in higher education that expand our "Ideas of the University," envisioning educational start-ups in the spirit of entrepreneurial experimentation. The author seeks to realize each of these feasible utopias as a way to disrupt higher education.

The Future of the University

As I write this, the university reportedly is in crisis. Depending on who you listen to, the crisis results from inequality between the administration and faculty, students required to shoulder more and more of the financial burden of their education, decisions made on the basis of profit-seeking, students driven by vocationalism — or universities gone academically adrift. Whatever the causes, "disruption" is the most commonly recommended solution to the university's ills, probably involving technology. Philosopher of higher education Ronald Barnett observed:

Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. "Impoverished" because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and "hopelessly" because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defense of the emerging nature of "the entrepreneurial university."1

On the one hand, our ideas about innovation in higher education focus too narrowly on technological disruption. On the other hand, those resistant to innovation and disruptive change in higher education long for a return to a perceived Golden Age of the University as imagined by Wilhelm von Humboldt or John Henry Newman. Our visions for the future of higher education thus fall between Luddism and technological disruption.

This essay proposes five models of innovation in higher education that expand our "Ideas of the University." I am inspired by the 1920s and 1930s, when there was a general spirit of experimentation in higher education in the air, with the founding of Black Mountain College, Bennington, the Great Books at St. John's, the Experimental College at Wisconsin. The founders of these experimental colleges, such as John Andrew Rice and Alexander Meiklejohn, had a "start-up mentality." These educational entrepreneurs imagined a university different from what currently existed, grounded in a deep philosophy of higher education. I do not believe in one singular "Idea of the University," but rather a multitude of ideas. This article envisions five such educational start-ups in the spirit of entrepreneurial experimentation.

Speculative Design

To design means "to give form." Usually the term "design" in relation to the University writ large describes the campus's physical/architectural design. While what follows has a physical dimension, I am looking instead at the institutional and pedagogical form the University's design might take. The nature of those designs shapes the behaviors of the students, faculty, and leadership; the curriculum; movement of knowledge, and kind of knowledge exchanged.

This exercise in speculative design — "speculating how things could be"2 — considers designs that critique our current moment but also suggest possibilities for what might be. Not all these designs are practical, but only in the sense that they challenge existing norms or would never pass regulatory muster, since they operate outside of and challenge those norms. But these designs also provide blueprints for new institutional forms (in at least one case, I am working to develop the design into an actual university), and there is no reason these speculative designs could not also be actualized.

Polymath University

As a condition of matriculation, every student at Polymath University commits to three disparate majors. Faculty at Polymath University all possess competency in three distinct disciplines and teach, research, create, and think in the areas between those disciplines. Polymath University is built on the educational philosophy that creativity and innovative thinking emerge from the mashing-up of disparate ideas, from the ability to make connections between what appear to be different concepts.

Students choose one each from a "menu" of three majors: the professions, the sciences and social sciences, and the arts and humanities (table 1).

Table 1. Polymath University triple majors


Sciences/social sciences

Arts and humanities











Political Science




Religious Studies




Students could not major in English, History, and Philosophy, or Finance, Marketing, and Accounting. Instead, they would choose triple majors in History, Accounting, and Biology, for example, or Finance, English, and Chemistry. To ensure that students can obtain 40 credit hours in each major, Polymath University offers no general education courses; students learn writing, mathematics, and other general education skills as part of the major concentrations. Nevertheless, students develop a breadth of knowledge unattainable in a typical general education program. As Derek Bok conceded, taking an introductory course in one of the sciences is insufficient to develop any kind of deep knowledge of that subject.3 Polymath University models transdisciplinarity that places the disciplines at the center of the enterprise. The disciplines are like atomic elements or prime numbers: the roots from which all else is created.

Disciplines are types of ideas-spaces. An idea-space is "a domain or world viewed from the perspective of the intelligence embedded in it, intelligence that we can use…both to solve our everyday problems and to make the creative leaps that lead to breakthrough."4 Academic disciplines are idea-spaces in that they "embed collective intelligence about the most effective way to carry out research, typically providing an overarching framework of established theory, principles, practices, heuristics, methodological assumptions, lab techniques, and so forth."5 Thus, the majors at Polymath University are designed such that in 40 credit hours of instruction, students can demonstrate mastery of this collective intelligence. As Richard Ogle observed, "Creative leaps arise from the imaginative and insightful transfer of powerful, externally embedded intelligence from one idea-space to another."6 He detailed the experiences of scientists, artists, and other creative people who developed new ideas or solved intractable problems because they could "leap from one-idea-space to another without getting trapped in a single one."7 Polymath University induces such creative potential in students by inviting them to explore three different idea-spaces in depth.

Real-world support exists for this approach: As a recent report from Vanderbilt University noted, "Many students report that their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles, and approach assignments more creatively. These gains are greatest when students major in two disparate domains of knowledge, especially combining science with art and humanities."8 Indeed, some learning theorists contend that this "transfer of knowledge" is the very definition of learning. "Such transfer occurs in its most cognitively valuable forms when students draw on something they learned in one context, ideally by generalizing its core principles, and apply it appropriately to a situation that is far different from the original." 9 Because they will be asked to transfer concepts and ideas from three disparate areas of knowledge, students at Polymath University learn to become flexible and creative interdisciplinary thinkers.10

Nomad University

Educational futurist John Moravec observed that:

Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas industrialization required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific concerning task and place…. A nomadic knowledge worker…is a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere.11

To educate these nomadic knowledge workers, Nomad University has no fixed physical location.12 The spot where learning occurs shifts around the globe, with professors and students seeking out problems and experiences anywhere in the world. Perhaps they seek to solve an engineering problem in sub-Saharan Africa, mediate clashes between the police and the community in an American urban core, or design a software solution for a global multinational. "Why work with case studies in books," argued Pieter Spinder, "when one can learn from real challenges, real-life assignments, with companies, interactions with governments, and work with non-governmental organizations?" 13 Students might travel to Monticello to read Thomas Jefferson's works and to Oxford, Mississippi, to read William Faulkner, rooting the study of literature in place.14

Each "course" at Nomad University is organized around a specific problem. The faculty mentor identifies the problem, likely grounded in a specific research question. Then via a virtual network, the students and the professor decide on the nature of the problem and the outcomes for completion (success). They assemble at a location determined by the professor, where they will work together on the problem for a specified period of time. When the participants and their clients are satisfied that some equilibrium solution has been achieved, the student-faculty ensemble disassembles until they meet again in another location to work on a new and different problem.

Students can choose either to arrive or not arrive to work on a problem, and the "class" might look different each time the group assembles; like the production of a motion picture, the class brings together "free agents." Students matriculate from Nomad University once they have participated in 12 such classes and developed a portfolio of their work. Clearly, the registrar's office is critically important to this university's successful operation. Technology plays a key role in identifying and tracking students' location in the world and maintaining a portfolio of their accomplishments.

Nomad University operates rather like a many-sided study abroad program, although here "study abroad" defines the entire educational experience. At one time, aristocratic Europeans ventured off on the "Grand Tour" as a kind of educational experience, travelling to encounter the cultural riches of Europe. Nomad University uses a similar idea, except that each student's tour meanders unpredictably across the globe, wherever problems and challenges might be found. As Mary Catherine Bateson observed, important, meaningful learning often occurs outside of formal educational environments through travel and the encounter with the unfamiliar.15

Interface University

In 2005, amateur chess players Steven Cramton and Zackary Stephen won the PAL/CSS Freestyle Chess Tournament, defeating both the best human and computer chess players in the world. The tournament, based on "hybrid chess," permitted human players to team with computers. Less than a decade after IBM's Big Blue computer defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov, humans and computers working together attained extraordinary results. Cramton and Stephen succeeded because they "were expert at collaborating with computers."16

Many worry that computers and algorithms will replace human beings in a whole range of cognitive tasks once thought impervious to automation.17 The legal and accounting professions, for example, have been disrupted by Legal Zoom and Turbo Tax. Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Taylor Cowen, among other commentators, speak of a near-term future where computer skill has replaced human skill, in the same way that mechanical labor supplanted human labor during the First Industrial Revolution.18

Interface University focuses on the idea that machines will not — indeed cannot — supplant human cognition. The curriculum presumes that humans and computers thinking together are better than humans or computers thinking alone, and that thinking with machines allows students to engage in a level of cognition not possible with the human brain alone. Thus, at Interface University students will learn how to "think with computers."

This means more than simply giving students iPads during their freshman year. The curriculum aims to enhance the quality of the interface between computer and individual brain. Branden Hookway defines an interface as

a form of relation that obtains between two or more distinct entities, conditions, or states such that it only comes into being as these distinct entities enter into an active relation with one another…and such that its overall activity brings about the production of a unified condition or system that is mutually defined through the regulated and specified interrelations of these distinct entities.19

Students indicate their readiness to matriculate when they have demonstrated this unified condition or system, this "state of interface." The pedagogical and epistemological philosophy of Interface University asserts that the highest goal of education is achieving the kind of symbiosis between human and computer intelligences as exists between a horse and rider.20

At Interface University, faculty and students treat the computer not as a tool but as a "third hemisphere" of the brain, and higher learning means developing a metaphorical "corpus callosum" with this digital hemisphere.21 Howard Gardner imagined a future where "those hooked on creative activity will also use computers as intellectual prosthetics…. [M]ost innovations today — from the architectural designs of Frank Gehry to the decoding of genomes by the company Celera — would not be possible without powerful computers."22

No mere tool, the computer is an equal partner in creativity, in thinking, in cognition. On matriculation, students will identify the computer/algorithm/artificial intelligence with which they "interfaced" throughout their university studies. That specific computer's identification would accompany the student's records in any official transcripts, portfolios, or certifications.

Humans have always had "hybrid minds."23 Long before the invention of the computer, human beings engaged in cognition coupled with external tools. The development of writing, for example, was not a mere tool: humans-coupled-with-writing could engage in a level of cognition unattainable for pre-literate humans. Thinking and cognition do not occur within the wetware of the brain alone; our cognition is equally a function of the external technological prosthesis we employ. The networked computer represents the next great cognitive prosthesis.24

Education has always involved developing an interface with our cognitive prostheses. Alexander Mieklejohn's "Experimental College" at Wisconsin was a liberal arts institution where students worked with books. "The intention of the college," he wrote, "is that…minds shall be fed, and trained, and strengthened, and directed by the use of books."25 Interface University also revolves around an intimacy with tools while assuring students that they cannot be replaced by computers and other machines, only enhanced.

The Neo-Liberal Arts College

Studies by Northeastern University26 and the American Association of Colleges and Universities27 found that a large majority of employers look for college graduates with broadly applicable skills like oral and written communications and a capacity to think critically, solve complex problems, take responsibility, and innovate, as well as people who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity. Specific industry experience ranks much lower according to these surveys.28 The Institute of the Future has identified 10 work skills for the future: "Rather than focusing on future jobs, this report looks at future work skills — proficiencies and abilities required across different jobs and work settings."

  • Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency: the ability to operate in different cultural settings
  • Computational thinking: the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • New-media literacy: the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  • Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mindset: the ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management: the ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration: the ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team29

The Neo-Liberal Arts College teaches broad, practical intellective skills that are ready-made for action in the world, and students develop fluency in these skills. The college has no majors or electives: a degree from the Neo-Liberal Arts College signals competence in each of these 10 skills.

When considering these skills, it would seem that employers look for those characteristics long considered central to a liberal-arts education: communication and critical thinking, innovation and collaboration, integrity and responsibility. But liberal arts colleges do not really teach these skills: they teach subjects/disciplines (history, psychology, English, chemistry). Or, perhaps more correctly, if students acquire these skills, they do so as a byproduct of this subject-based education. Further, even at liberal arts colleges, students major in or concentrate on only one or two subjects.

At the Neo-Liberal Arts College, the broad-based skills of the liberal arts experience align with workforce development needs: the skills identified by employers become the subjects of a liberal arts education. Thus, rather than history or chemistry, students study sense-making, communication, complex problem solving, and other such skills, with formal courses organized around each skill. This college also requires a new type of faculty, one knowledgeable in skills rather than academic disciplines.

Ludic University (or the University of Play)

Play, typically associated with the activities of children, makes "adult play" seem a contradiction — or an arrested state of development. As a consequence, adults have few formal venues to develop and exercise advanced play. Nevertheless, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown claim that "the ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century." They define play as "the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules." In a state of play, we have "unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries."30 Play is a state or way of operating in the world, a disposition. Ludic University facilitates this disposition for adults.

Ludic University makes play the highest form of learning, well above the acquisition and production of knowledge. Engaging in play turns out to be related to the processes used by artists,31 so the activities within Ludic University look much like the kinds of activities artists engage in. If the seminar room and the laboratory define the modern research university, then the studio defines Ludic University. The university has no set curriculum, no prescribed set of courses to follow. Students follow their curiosity, exploring those subjects necessary to satisfy that curiosity on an as-needed basis.32

Ludic University students explore novelty and engage in generative creation: imagining that which does not exist, bringing the new into being. Howard Gardner observed that all children reach a stage in their intellectual development when "they are able to envision a state of affairs contrary to the one that is apprehended by their senses, to capture that imaginative activity in public symbolic form, and to continue to elaborate upon that imaginative capacity."33 Capturing imaginative activity in public symbolic form defines the central activity of Ludic University.

As Gardner noted with children, play and imagination are closely linked. A key epistemological tenet of Ludic University is that play and imagination define higher learning, and so the university cultivates the imagination. The ontological terrain on which Ludic University operates is that of the subjunctive, the "adjacent possible," and the future. That is, students enact play not within the actual world but in possible worlds. "The most fundamental characteristic of the imagination," wrote Richard Ogle, "is its ability to let us free ourselves from the grip of present reality…. [T]his characteristic enables us to construct and play with alternative ways of seeing, understanding, and acting in the world that allow something new, interesting, and useful to emerge…. The imagination frees us from the mesmerizing grip of reality, allowing us to invent, play with, and even try out alternative worlds."34 To play means to imagine that which would not otherwise exist.35

Miguel Sicart observed that "Play happens mostly in contexts designed for that activity [and] context is the network of things, people, and places needed for play to take place."36 One reason we might not associate play with the actions of adults is that there are so few spaces, so few contexts, for such play. Ludic University provides that context for serious play, being designed as a playground, a space for the imagination — as through the manipulation of props or other objects — and open to any and all who wish to appropriate and hack.37 Indeed, this university exists to be hacked: teachers and students play with/appropriate the very space and organization of the university. The permeable boundaries around Ludic University let students enter and leave the playspace/university when curiosity strikes or when play beckons. The university becomes a platform "for experimentation, speculation, and the reimagining of everyday life."38
Students of the University-as-Playground engage in world-making, with players building pretend worlds, inhabiting them, playing in them, and role playing within these imaginary environments. Students and faculty also transgress the rules, invent new rules, and play games based on these new rules. The exploration of "what if?" is one of the highest forms of inquiry: Students wonder, "What if work were separated from employment?" or "What if the dirtiest, grungiest jobs were paid the highest?" Students/players explore these worlds through virtual simulations and also through the construction of actual physical worlds. For example, someone might ask, "What if the University were designed to facilitate serious play?" and build such a world not only through words but as an actual structure and organization, wherein players perform roles in this imagined world.
Ludic University values and encourages experimentation and tinkering with no end goal: play is a process of aimless curiosity. Indeed, "play is autolelic," asserted Sicart, "an activity with its own goals and purposes, with its own marked duration and spaces and its own conditions for ending."39 There may be "real-world applications" of the results of play, such as a new way to organize the economy, but creations that act upon the world are not the outcomes sought at Ludic University. Its motto? Ludite ut sibi fin. (Play as an end unto itself.)

Unlimited Disruption

The university is indeed ripe for disruption, but that disruption need not be limited to the MOOC-ization of higher education. Too many of our ideas about the future of the university involve technological solutions alone, which divert our attention from other equally efficacious forms of disruption. "We desperately need more imagination to be brought to bear in identifying new ideas for the development of the university," concluded Ronald Barnett. Barnett imagined what he terms "feasible utopias":

[Feasible utopias] are precisely not the present situation, and probably are unlikely ever to be fully realized, given the structures of power and ideology at work. However…these utopias are not entirely fanciful, for the depictions that I have conjured can already be glimpsed in our daily practices in universities and higher education. They are, therefore, feasible utopias. In the best of all possible worlds, they could just be realized even if it is unlikely that they will be.40

This essay similarly imagines the University of the Future as feasible utopias. 41 I see each of the five models for future universities as the beginnings of a blueprint, of actual universities we might design and build. I hope others will join me in seeking to realize each of these feasible utopias as a way to disrupt higher education.


  1. Ronald Barnett, Imagining the University (London: Routledge, 2013), 1.
  2. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 2.
  3. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 45–46.
  4. Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), 13.
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. Ibid., 4.
  7. Ibid., 30.
  8. Richard N. Pitt and Steven Tepper "Double Majors: Influences, Identities, & Impacts," A Curb Center Report, September 2012, 12.
  9. Dan Berrett, "Students Can Transfer Knowledge if Taught How," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2014.
  10. Paula Krebs, "Step Outside the Major, Please," The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 2015.
  11. John W. Moravec, ed., Knowmad Society (Minneapolis: Education Futures, 2013), 18.
  12. I first encountered the idea of a Nomad University by working with colleagues at the Stir conference in October 2011, where we designed a design education program around the idea of apprentice designers travelling the globe to work on problems.
  13. Something like this can be found at at Knowmads Business School in Amsterdam. See Moravec, Knowmad Society, 163–174.
  14. Douglas Brinkley taught an American history and literature course by travelling around the country and reading history and literature in place. See The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey (New York: Anchor Books, 1993).
  15. Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).
  16. Clive Thompson, Smarter Than You Think (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 4.
  17. Derek Thompson, "A World Without Work," The Atlantic July/August 2015.
  18. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee , The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014); and Tyler Cowen, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (New York: Dutton, 2013).
  19. Branden Hookway, Interface (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014), 4.
  20. This idea comes from the designer Donald Norman, who described our relationship with intelligent machines as like that between a horse and rider: two intelligences that work together. See The Design of Future Things (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 9–10.
  21. On the idea of a "corpus callosum" between brain and machine, see Michael Chorost, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet (New York: Free Press, 2011), 8–9.
  22. Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 101.
  23. See especially Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers. "The Extended Mind," in Richard Menary, ed., The Extended Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
  24. This is the thesis of my book, Brain, Mind and Internet: A Deep History and Future (Palgrave, 2014).
  25. Quoted in Adam R. Nelson, Education and Democracy: The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872–1964 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 153.
  26. "Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes, Public Opinion Survey Results," Northeastern University 2nd Annual Innovation Poll, September 17, 2013.
  27. The Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates, "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success," April 10, 2013.
  28. Nick DeSantis, "Business Leaders See U.S. Colleges as Lagging in Readying Students for Jobs," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2014.
  29. The Institute for the Future, "Future Work Skills 2020," 1.
  30. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform , 2011), 114, 18–19.
  31. See George Szekely, From Play to Art (Portsmouth, N.H. Heinemann, 1991).
  32. Cindy Foley, "Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist?" TEDxColumbus, November 2014.
  33. Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 71.
  34. Ogle, Smart World, 69, 73.
  35. See Peter Murphy, Michael A. Peters, and Simon Marginson, Imagination: Three Models of Imagination in the Age of the Knowledge Economy (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 28. "The work of the imagination does not represent 'what is absent.' It also posits objects that otherwise would not exist."
  36. Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014), 7.
  37. See Pamela Meyer, From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
  38. Dunne and Raby, Speculative Everything, 31.
  39. Sicart, Play Matters, 16.
  40. Ronald Barnett, Being a University (London: Routledge, 2011), 5, 4.
  41. For other such exercise in imagining feasible utopias, see Brian Mathews, "No Classrooms, Just Experiences: 'Free Thinking' the Future of Higher Ed," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 9, 2014. For other speculative models for universities, see Steven Mintz, "Four Emergent Higher Education Models," InsideHigherEd, April 2, 2014; and Jeff Selingo, "Reimagining the Undergraduate Experience: 4 Provocative Ideas," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22, 2014.

David J. Staley, PhD, is an associate professor of History and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Design at the Ohio State University, where he also serves as Director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching.  He is the author of Computers, Visualization and History; History and Future: Using Historical Thinking to Imagine the Future; and Brain, Mind and Internet: A Deep History and Future.  For the past three years, he has led a working group at Ohio State on “The Future of the University.”  He serves as President of Columbus Futurists, the local chapter of the World Future Society, consulting with organizations and lecturing frequently on future trends. 

© 2015 David J. Staley. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.