The Georgia Institute of Technology has a fondness for bold experiments. It created the nation’s largest online master’s program in computer science, which won praise for its quality and low cost. It is home to the Center for 21st Century Universities, a “living laboratory” for educational innovation. It introduced artificially intelligent tutors in the classrooms. And it is reimagining the campus library to focus less on books and more on teaching, research, and collaboration.Three years ago, the university took this experimentation a step further when it established the Commission on Creating the Next in Education, asking it to imagine the public research university of 2040 and beyond. Which business and funding models will become outdated? How will Georgia Tech best serve the next generations of learners?
The commission’s report, recently released, contains a number of provocative ideas. Among them: new credentials that recognize continuous learning, a subscription fee model instead of tuition, “education stations” that bring services and experiences to students, and worldwide networks of advisers and coaches for life.
Bras spoke with The Chronicle this week about the commission’s report and what the future may hold for public universities. Here are excerpts from that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Q. In your report, one line in particular stood out to me: “The Georgia Tech Commitment imagines a future not marked by arbitrary entries on a calendar, but one with numerous entry and exit points where students associate with rather than enroll at Georgia Tech.”
A. To me it is the heart of the idea, and it shapes everything else. It is quite evident to us that, after graduation, students and learners everywhere will probably have 10 jobs, 10 professions.
On our residential side, we see that many of our students are really and truly developing their own businesses. Our goal is to spin out in the reasonably near future no less than 100 companies of students a year. They are beginning to commingle their education with their work, with their job, with their profession.
So all this is blurring, and that is what the Georgia Tech Commitment is all about. It is recognizing that it is already happening and will happen more.
Q. What is the role of the traditional university in this future? Is it a question of rebalancing what you have now, to put more emphasis on a virtual university, or do you see a dismantling of the traditional undergraduate experience?
A. I don’t believe in dismantling the undergraduate experience. I believe there will still be a significant demand for high-quality residential experiences. What this says is that it will possibly be more hybrid. Not in the delivery of education, but in the activities of the students.
The campus will remain very strong, because in that age bracket you will probably still see significant interest from people maturing in that type of environment. But I do believe it will be a more porous environment, and more porous in that it will bleed more in and out in the K-to-12 arena and reach out into the older population.
Q. What’s the hypothetical student journey going to look like? Would a student take a year or semester on campus, stop out, then continue later?
A. You could imagine increasing engagement in the K-to-12 arena, where the teachers themselves are engaged with us all the time, where students in 10th, 11th, 12th grades are potentially taking some courses, if they are advanced enough, that put them in the college environment.
Then they may choose to come to Georgia Tech. Some would spend four years, others come for a couple of years, develop a company, and then may choose to stop out for a semester, while being mentored by us, and develop their business. They come back and optimally graduate and finish that period in life.
Then they go out for five years in a company, realize they want to do something else, and engage with us via other offerings. The question is what offerings are out there for them, and how do we establish a link that is beyond the digital or cyber?
Q. The report mentions something called the Georgia Tech atrium. What exactly is that? Is it an entrepreneurship lab? Or is it a place where someone could take a class?
A. We’re beginning to define it. Imagine us with a presence — not a large presence — in a shared space with entrepreneurs. That presence becomes a gathering place for individuals, some alums, some not, who are looking for a number of things. It could be access to information. It could be mentoring. It could be traditional lectures with visiting faculty. It could be a place where you participate online, but rather than doing it from your house, you sit there in a group that works together in going through this program.
The Future of Learning
We found already in many of our professional master’s degrees that students self-organize and love to be together. Just like start-ups want to be together. You could imagine self-organized cohorts that are going through a computer-science or analytics program, and that all occurs in the Georgia Tech atrium.Q. The report also proposes a subscription model, like Netflix. Do you think higher ed might benefit from moving toward this model?
A. It’s something we need to explore seriously. You could imagine that, as you move with the Georgia Tech touchpoint throughout your life, that in essence once in, you’re in forever. Part of a possible business model for that would be a subscription basis that you pay ahead or pay as you go. I don’t know what the answer to that is yet, but how do you make it happen?
People have thought of that before, I don’t know that anybody has tried it. And maybe it’s not the perfect answer, but it has to be considered.
Q. The report also talks about the importance of artificial intelligence in executing this vision, through AI-enhanced services like advising and tutoring.
A. There is a role for AI agents for all types of things. Not to take the place of humans — in fact, we want to increase that, but in some dimensions and not in others.
We had an experiment with a teaching assistant that was an AI agent (“Jill Watson”). That was an eye-opener. It was very successful. We are increasingly doing that. The great majority of exchanges [between students and professors] are easily handled by that type of tool. Now, as you push the envelope for a more sophisticated tutor, I think there’s still work to be done. But it’s very feasible.
There are some things that an AI tutor is not going to be able to do, and that’s where we warm-blooded humans must come in. But we are moving in that direction, and that will allow better service to more people.
Public universities are public for a reason: It’s access. And we believe in that. So we need to find a way to provide excellent access information, and tutoring in a different way. Because we cannot do it with the old model.
Q. Do you expect that external partners will come along as well — accreditors, employers, government agencies? How optimistic are you that they will say, Sure, let’s try this new thing?
A. Employers I’m not worried about as much. Our online programs show that employers are willing to accept quality no matter how it was delivered. Accreditors and the government and all that, they’re seeing the same things we are. It will require some conversation, but none of this is insurmountable.
Q. Given how cash-strapped many public universities are right now, and the pressure they are under just to graduate the students they have on campus, do you think such a radical rethinking of higher education is feasible?
A. I think it is. Everything we have suggested in there, and certainly everything we’re doing, is still guided by that concept that we want excellence that is affordable and accessible.
Yes, everybody will say, If I have a little bit more, it will be easier. But I don’t believe it’s going to stop us from doing the right thing.
Q. But how do you do it when public institutions are under so much pressure just to get the job done they have in front of them? How do you create the space, money, or staffing to create these new structures?
A. You may need to think a little bit out of the box, in terms of the model of delivering education and how you deliver it more efficiently. Maybe that’s part of the messaging. We cannot look at higher education as just one model any longer. I really believe that it will be a hybrid in time and space, and it will be a hybrid of offerings and delivery methods. And when you begin thinking that way, it gives you more flexibility in how to achieve things with the resources you have.