Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pop-up colleges

For at least the past seven years, retailers and restaurants have been attracted to the pop-up store model. Pop-up, or flash shops allow shop owners to try out new merchandise, new locations, or new designs.  And since they are cheap to create and temporary by nature, they allow for experimentation in a way that a traditional store would not.

In the meantime, most colleges and universities continue to offer academic programs in much the same way they have in the past.  This is not, by definition, a bad thing.  But the difficulty of radically overhauling an academic program, getting rid of one that no longer has a market, or starting a new one in rapid response to student demand puts colleges and universities consistently behind demand for new programs.  In the past this misalignment was not tremendously damaging for higher education because there were no external competitors.  But with the availability of free instruction and cutting-edge content on the internet, colleges and universities face the prospect of losing out on the intellectual leadership in new fields.

So why not create a pop-up college--a school composed of teams of faculty who create new academic programs, recruit students, run two or three cohorts through the program with the plan to close it down after, say, five cohorts, and then take a year off to develop a new program and another to recruit new cohorts into it.

The financial model would require that the school save enough money over the life of a cohort to survive two years without income from the particular faculty team.  The academic model would require faculty to be generalists and learning facilitators, not primarily disciplinary specialists.  The programs would have to be deliverable in generic spaces, not spaces that require a particular design. Accreditation would be tough. But the downsides from these criteria would be offset by the possibility for innovation, deep learning, and meaningful collaboration among faculty.

I am not suggesting that all (or even many) colleges and universities ought to pursue pop-up education.  But I  expect that faculty who get it right could create a new school that delivered high quality learning at reasonable cost and innovated in design, delivery, and administration of the school.

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