An Unexpected Revolution In Higher Education

Tune in to a conversation about higher education today and you’re sure to hear about MOOCs—online courses that enroll tens of thousands of students from across the world, all for free. There’s no doubt the Internet has the potential to disrupt higher education as it did the publishing industry, or political leadership in the Arab world, by delivering access to information and democracy, but there’s another revolution happening in colleges and universities that is potentially more profound.

This revolution is not just about putting higher education as we know it online, it’s about reimagining the very purpose of the university.

In late February, 650 people from 40 countries representing 150 institutions of higher education descended on San Diego to participate in the Ashoka U Exchange. Participants included university presidents, professors, students, and social entrepreneurs. They came to San Diego because they wanted to learn how higher education can help students develop as changemakers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and problem solvers.

Just five years ago, the Ashoka U Exchange included 40 people; now it’s at more than 600 and growing. That’s a 1,600 percent rate of growth and a telltale sign of the consumer demand for a smart alternative to higher education—tuition and fees have increased 12-fold over the last 35 years and student loan debt in the U.S. is now greater than both auto and credit card debt. But the demand for Ashoka U also represents the need for an educational experience that is not only affordable, but also transfers real-world skills.

Universities must evolve into communities where students explore the world alongside peers, leading mentors, entrepreneurs, thinkers, and practitioners from around the world. Why? So they may learn to design and develop ideas to help make the world a better place—from entrepreneurial ventures to research projects and everything in between.

Universities are now beginning to adapt to today’s students and the complex challenges of our interconnected world. As an Ashoka Fellow, I’m the founder of one such program featured at the Exchange: Watson University. Watson is working to realize this new vision for higher education—a vision built on the belief that we can design a better model of higher education that doesn’t leave students on the day they graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, little direction, few relevant skills, and only a lamb-skin degree to show for it.

Watson University is a semester-long experience for current undergraduate students that includes:

  • Award-winning training in creativity, resilience, grit, teamwork, and empathy, inspired by Transformative Action Institute;
  • Short “Master Courses” taught by a network of transformative teachers, ranging from a leader of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines to one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people;
  • The Watson Lab, where students pilot, prototype and scale ideas to make the world a better place.

“The Ashoka U Exchange brings together organizations like Watson University that are experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what the university can and should be,” said co-founder of Ashoka U Erin Krampetz.

Watson is currently accepting applications for the first class of 20 scholars who will come to Boulder, Colorado, for the fall semester and experience a new way to do higher education. Any current undergraduate student can apply. Watson makes it possible for undergraduates to take a semester to explore their passions, advance their ideas with a network of mentors, learn the skills needed to succeed in today’s world, and receive academic credit from the University of Colorado at Boulder—a leader in social entrepreneurship education—to graduate from their home university on time.

Luckily, Watson isn’t standing alone. Ashoka U works closely with a network of 19 Changemaker Campuses, including CU-Boulder. Each Changemaker Campus is re-thinking the university experience through new courses, partnerships and programs. As a result of this unexpected revolution, the educational experience of students is beginning to look different. Maybe by the end of this decade higher education can emerge with a new purpose that is matched to the unique students and real challenges of the 21st Century.

This post was written by Eric Glustrom, the founder of Watson University and Educate!—two sister organizations transforming education worldwide. Recognized as an Ashoka Fellow, Echoing Green Fellow, and one of Forbes’ 30 social entrepreneurs under 30, Eric’s work is driven by a simple belief: to solve the toughest challenges facing humanity, the place to start is within the hearts and minds of the next generation.


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