College and university presidents who met in Palo Alto this week brainstormed the future of higher education by discussing hypothetical students and hearing from edtech startups.
"These folks were brought in to help us think a little differently about how we organize both work and learning," said Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill De Anza Community College District, who participated in the meetings Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
University leaders attending ran the gamut from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to the upstart Western Governor's University, an online institution founded by 19 governors in 1997 that now has an enrollment of more than 35,000 students.
Tiny Bates College in Maine was represented as well as huge state institutions like the University of Wisconsin.
"It's not often that we have this type of dialog across the different sectors of higher education," Thor said.
There was a basic acceptance that online learning, including the so-called "massive open online courses" (MOOCS) that attract tens of thousands of students, is here to stay, she said.
Instead of debating that, discussion centered on ways higher education needs to reorganize itself to serve students in a variety of ways, traditional and new, given all the "drivers of change," Thor said.
Those include "moving from episodic to continuous learning -- getting a degree doesn't end your education any more and everyone will have to continue to learn," she said.
Also, "we're moving away from having faculty that were the conveyers of content to -- now that there's so much more information available -- becoming more curators of the content, of helping guide all the sources," Thor said.
With the rise of things like digital badges that signify various accomplishments, "there's actually some thought that the emphasis on degrees may be reduced as other kinds of assessments come into play," she said.
"Are we moving away from students being associated with an individual institution to students aggregating their own educations from a whole variety of sources and players?"
Edtech startups including oDesk, MobileWorks, DevBootcamp and BioCurious were brought in to give presidents a flavor of future possibilities for work and learning, Thor said.
The presidents broke into small groups to discuss hypothetical students such as Laura, an 18-year-old child of divorced parents living in a "party dorm" of a large state university. She's interested in theater but majoring in biology and not doing very well. She doesn't understand much about college and what it has to offer.
Thor said her group concluded that, although there are counselors and advisers available in higher education "what a lot of people need is more of a coach, not necessarily associated with a particular institution."
When the presidents meet again in October in Washington, D.C., Thor expects the discussion to center more around business models.
"If we recognize the need to organize ourselves differently, deliver education differently, then how do we fund it, how do we govern it?" she said.
"This is what the future looks like and this is where we are today, and how do we get from here to there?"
This week's "Presidential Innovation Lab," funded by the Bill & Melida Gates Foundation, was facilitated by the local think tank Institute for the Future. It was organized by the Washington-based American Council on Education, whose members include 1,800 accredited, degree-granting college and universities.