Crowdsourced U: designing a university in 60 minutes or less

Gary Guadagnolo explains why deliberately taking a step into the world of the fantastical can breathe life into universities’ strategic planning conversations this autumn

Gary Guadagnolo is a director in EAB's research division.

It seems like an eternity ago, but back in June I hosted a session at Wonkfest entitled “The Crowdsourced University”.

I challenged 100+ attendees to prepare for the autumn term by designing a university from the ground up, leveraging what we’ve learnt about student and staff preferences and experiences in the wake of the pandemic. What old albatrosses should we leave behind, and what bold decisions might we make moving forward?

Over the course of an hour, session participants responded to fifteen multiple-choice prompts about the mission, strategy, physical footprint, academic portfolio, and enrollment ambitions of “Crowdsourced U”. For each question, the answer with the most votes determined the direction of travel for the fledgling institution.

For example: You want Crowdsourced U to tackle issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion head-on. Rather than splitting efforts, you decide to plant your flag in the ground on one of the following issues. Which do you choose?

  1. Expanding the recruitment of underrepresented students (34 per cent)
  2. Eliminating attainment and job placement gaps amongst students of colour (23 per cent)
  3. Ensuring gender and racial diversity amongst the senior management team (16 per cent)
  4. Increasing academic staff diversity to mirror student diversity (15 per cent)
  5. Decolonising the curriculum (13 per cent)

Three sector leaders joined me on the virtual stage to discuss the implications of the collective decision-making: Helen Watson, Registrar and Secretary at Goldsmiths; Aash Khadia, Director of Planning at University of Leicester; and Mark Ferrar, CIO at Newcastle University.

You are now entering Crowdsourced U

Just what kind of university did we create? Here are the brochure highlights, with indications of the percentage of session attendees who tipped the university in that particular direction. You can also download the questions in full via the link at the bottom of this article.

  • Crowdsourced U. is an urban-based (54 per cent), residential university (69 per cent) with a mission to serve underrepresented students (40 per cent) and maximise the in-person student experience (40 per cent). That widening access mission extends to prioritising more diverse intakes of international students, too—not just those who can pay full freight (71 per cent).
  • Particular effort will be made to ensure flexibility for students, not only in terms of transitioning between in-person and virtual modalities of learning as necessary (36 per cent), but also relieving the burdens of changing courses of study as student interests evolve (36 per cent).
  • In terms of academics, Crowdsourced U. eschews an “all things to all people” model, preferring to focus on a few areas of specialty for both teaching and research (57 per cent). As revenues come in, future expenses will be earmarked first towards learning technologies to improve engagement, effectiveness, and accessibility of the learning experience (67 per cent).
  • To help manage costs, many university services will be outsourced in some form or fashion – but library (59 per cent) and mental health/wellbeing services (57 per cent) will be kept in-house, given their mission-impact.
  • Looking externally, Crowdsourced U will prioritise relationships with local employers (73 per cent), an initiative that dovetails with a key segment for the institution’s growth goals: mature learners hoping to upskill with certificates and short-form credentials (53 per cent).

Beyond the here and now

I won’t blame you if you are sceptical about debating strategic and operational decisions for a non-existent university, given the many priorities that are undoubtedly lurking in your inbox. But intentionally stepping away from the tyranny of the urgent can help you avoid blind spots when it comes to thinking about the future of your own institution.

These blind spots tempt leaders to focus disproportionally on current and internal information when planning for the future. As a result, they tend to imagine the future will look fairly like their present context.

One way to combat this bias is to create and engage with future scenarios that are radically different from the present. The point is not to nitpick what is or isn’t feasible in those scenarios, but to step outside day-to-day concerns to consider what it would take to succeed in that future world. In these exercises, it’s helpful to ask, “Is this a future that I would want to help create? What therefore should be done—or not done?” That approach—looking beyond the here and now—was at the heart of the Crowdsourced U exercise.

If you’d like to see a compelling example of this future visioning in action, check out Stanford University’s Stanford2025. The university ran the experiment several years ago to consider possible directions that undergraduate education might take by 2100. Several of the ideas fancifully proposed in Stanford2025 as possible by the end of the century are already close to reality only a decade later (e.g. a lifelong learner model).

It’s all about the trade offs

For the purposes of Crowdsourced U, while tapping into the vox populi admittedly veered us away from the boldest possible reimagining of a university, the real benefit of the exercise came through in the debate about trade offs.

In a world of limited resources, what does it mean to say “no” to otherwise good ideas – to prioritise eliminating attainment and job placement gaps amongst students of colour over efforts to increase staff diversity, for example?

As the results of the polling came in, our Crowdsourced U panellists noted a number of these tensions. They merit consideration in your own institutional contexts this autumn, too.

  • The more distinctive you are as an institution, the more risk you take on. As we built Crowdsourced U, we debated how to stand out in a crowded higher education sector. Some audience participants wanted even bolder “value propositions” than what came through in the polling. Fair. But leaning too far in a single direction can also open you up to risk. Our institutions don’t operate in a hermetically sealed environment, so political agendas, changing student interests, and unforeseen external forces beyond our control can rapidly change viability and attractiveness. Is there a way to be distinctive…but also hedge our bets?
  • What’s most important to us philosophically doesn’t always align with what we’re best at operationally. Many universities operate essentially as city-states, with ownership and oversight over a staggering array of services. Our students, staff, and communities have come to expect that we can respond to an entire universe of needs. But are we really the best equipped to provide top-tier teaching and research…along with data storage and food catering and mental health services and energy management? We often think of outsourcing or hiring out these services as undercutting their importance, when we should really be asking who is best equipped to deliver on quality at the right price, even if that’s an external partner.
  • Complexity is the hidden underbelly of flexibility. The audience responses to the Crowdsourced U polling anticipated a future world in which universities are much more flexible—in terms of when and how students learn, where staff carry out their roles, and more. Undoubtedly, resistance to this future state has melted away on many campuses. But despite that newfound enthusiasm, bringing this vision to life remains extremely complicated. It requires an incredible amount of development, upkeep, and monitoring from specialists who are experts in database technology, software engineering, machine learning, and more. That effort doesn’t come cheap—so investments should align with priorities and lead to action.

BYO (build your own) university

Exercises like the one we undertook with Crowdsourced U need to have a tangible impact on your present context. In other words, when embarking into future scenarios, don’t forget to book a return trip.

Even in the sixty minutes we spent building Crowdsourced U, participants surfaced the right kind of questions to spark reflection:

  • “If these priorities really are in the best interests of our students, what’s actually stopping us from pursuing them?”
  • “What would it look like to run this exercise with our actual students and customers – how would their actual answers differ from our perceptions?”
  • “Do the elements of our offer that we claim as distinctive actually differentiate us from any other university?”
  • “Can we ever really be innovative by following the preferences of the majority?”

Alas, I don’t have all those answers for your institution. But you or a colleague might – so don’t be afraid to take a step outside of your comfort zone and day-to-day priorities and engage in some future visioning. Use the questions linked below or make up your own. Have another good idea for sparking this kind of strategic imagination? Feel free to share in the comments.

This article is published in association with EAB.

4 responses to “Crowdsourced U: designing a university in 60 minutes or less

  1. Interesting exercise and I think worthwhile. I did wince a little at how pro-outsourcing this write-up is, and am wondering how you the ‘cons’ of an outsourcing approach were represented. There are clearly some assumptions at play – right or wrong – about what gives a service mission-impact.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Katie! I certainly did not mean to come across as either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ outsourcing — I think there are probably good reasons to go in either direction, and those reasons almost certainly differ from institution to institution. The point was more to think about prioritisation, and what really matters to this ‘invented’ university.

  2. Though innovative thinking is a great thing, I think the biggest takeaway from this exercise is that if you squash the ideals of multiple universities together, you end up with a muddled strategy with no direction. Instead of a strategy balanced with its own coherent goals, this experiment created something balanced among the ideas of multiple organisations but incoherent with itself. Crowdsourced U is an institution wanting more global reach, with the aim of focussing on its local community. Great goals that don’t fit well together. Likewise, an outsourced (read not local) university that works closely with the local community.

    You seem to have highlighted that if you balance the ideals across a sector instead of working to the strengths of an institution or towards creating a unique selling point, you inevitably don’t really have a defining strategy.

    1. Thanks, Tim. I definitely agree with you. This was an experiment on many fronts, and one takeaway is that setting strategy based on popular opinion and mass input can come at the cost of the kind of coherence you described. Had we another hour in the presentation, we probably would have gone back to the characteristics we nominated and discussed whether we created too much of something out of Frankenstein’s lab, and how to fix it.

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