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Project On: Reimagine course cost structure based on project-based learning

In last two years of college, students pay course materials fee and optional advising fee for all courses, which replace exams with projects

Photo of Lucy Chen
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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Facing the ever-changing world, students need to skillfully direct their own learning to move beyond controlled classroom scenario. That is why PBL (project-based learning) is ever important in educating students how to think. Professor, in this case, is more like a content provider and a mentor, thus, the student fee for course should be structured that way. Students should be granted a choice to look for mentor themselves outside the class and not paying for the advising fee for prof.

【Greater Context】

1 Lectures are not the way to learn.  -> Essential PBL (Project Based Learning is the right way to go).

2 Academia and the corporate world are disconnected in a lot of ways:

    a. Hiring is costly and inefficient. Looking at GPA is not the right way to hire.  -> Student projects provide a deeper and higher explanation power about what a candidate can really create. 

    b. Students learn too little about how to think and how to create. They enter the industry to follow and take years for them to gain 'creator' mindset to think for complex challenges.

    c. Training is expensive. 

3 Student tuition are not transparent. Students, especially undergraduates, should be paying to the necessary parts from which they receive benefits. 

【How does it work?】

In Junior and Senior year, all student 

    A. a framework to produce PBL course in a more efficient manner to lower the cost of course design,

    An analogy would be OpenIDEO platform: given the framework of several steps in idea creation, we only need to worry about content change for every new challenge. 

    B. $ student pay for a course = $course content material + $ advising(Optional)

    In addition to lower cost of course design, students have opportunities to pay even less for the class, if they can find the mentors outside school, recognized by the course professor. Therefore, each PBL course would not need too many mentors, whose salary may comprise a huge part of the course cost. 


1 Significantly decrease the tuition cost for students in Junior and Senior years through: 

   a. replacing all exam-oriented courses to project-based courses

   b. producing PBL courses at the lowest courses 

   c. mobilizing the intellectual powers outside academia to mentor

       students as advising fee for course professors is optional 

2 Promote PBL and project-based transcript to bridge the disconnect between academia and industry:

   a. encouraging project-based transcript as a more concrete way to    

       identify students' competencies and potentials, so to:

                i. better the hiring process

                ii. save companies in professional training 

                iii. prepare more talent to solve complex challenges

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【Questions to think about】

1 If we look deeper in the repetitive and most costly part of professional training, we can incorporate the findings into designing the PBL framework.

Curiosity Has no Cure

Stay tuned! 

More to update soon:  

【Stakeholder Analysis】 

【Prototype for PBL production framework】

【Sample PBL course design with more details】

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

1 I believe PBL should be adopted in all disciplines but portfolio-based transcript are more acceptive in certain field. Design -> Humanities(History, Philosophy, etc) -> Sciences (Physics, Maths, etc) We will find PBL classes existing in college, preferably non-design classes. We will work on a framework to produce PBL courses to decrease the cost per course and propose to the college curriculum development board. 2 Assess student job performance who have participated in multiple PBL courses

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

1 More research on funding/income for professors and their research, especially how much of that comes from undergraduate tuition 2 More research to support PBL help students connect their learning to real world practice 3 More testimony from the academia and corporate(esp. human resources) to support project-based transcript, portfolio, are more beneficial than course score-based transcript Please send me your ideas regarding the questions posted earlier!

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm
  • An OpenIDEO meetup

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes


Join the conversation:

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi again, Lucy,
FYI, just want to share an interesting and comprehensive review that may help put this IDEO contest in perspective: "Harnessing the Power of Information Technology: Open Business Models in Higher Education." and "The Future of the University: Speculative Design for the Future."

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi, Lucy,
Very nice idea!  As a retired pharmacist I think it would have been a nice addition to our course work, and in our clinical rotations.  The one question that came up regards the need to lower cost.  Looking at it from a school's perspective, might they say that PBL is perceived as more desirable:  more fun and garners more respect from prospective employers, for instance, and is 'more efficient' in developing job candidates, so maybe we can charge more for it, because students will pay more to take these courses.  Also, if these courses replace other courses, the institution may want to not want to lose or diminish the revenue stream from the discontinued courses.  All of which is to say maybe you are thinking about leasing a BMD for the cost of a Chevy?    Anyway, a very interesting idea with lots or possibilities and ramifications!  I can see where it could cause some serious disruption.

Photo of Lucy Chen

Hi Joel, Thanks for the great feedback. I see your point that the institution might not want to participate as it might be a way to cut revenue. However, I am thinking it more as a concept/model. If PBL is a good way(needs more proof and system design), why would schools not be part of a movement to revamp the current stagnant exam-oriented and all-inclusive tuition? Moreover, students will have a more personalized tuition structure. How would you address the missing link here? Would love to have some of your inputs 

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi, Lucy,
The short answer is:   there is no short answer; its complex.  You are working with a complex adaptive system.  It may develop that, after a short or long campaign, several factions favor the change and out-vote the others.  But since not many, if any, of the staff have expertise in running or directing a systems-wide PBL program, the college would probably need a period of time for experimentation and development.  It might be prudent to start with a small, optional, pilot program, such as you suggest in the senior or junior and senior years, to give people an opportunity to become familiar with the concept.  Then, depending on the findings, PBL might be expanded or discontinued, and a pricing structure determined.  I seems to me it would depend on the competition and how the administration judged the market for students wanting to take these courses, the prospect for revenue vs costs, status with other similar colleges, etc.   I think its the way to go, but not everyone is on board yet.  Might be interesting to think of this process as similar to adoption of new ideas:

Photo of Daniel Wong

This is a wonderful idea, Lucy!  I liked how you're taking on some of academia's sacred cows, namely exams and all-inclusive tuition, to create a personalized and more effective approach to higher education. I think a world of Uber, Airbnb and other mega platform plays, this platform you are suggesting to significantly reduce costs for students and give them exactly what they need in their future endeavors is truly disprove. 

It looks like this is a work in progress, but some things I wished you covered are 1. Who is the user?, 2. What does success look like? You've made your point that this would be for junior and senior year students, but beyond that what are the characteristics of the kind of student who would benefit the most from PBL?  As for success, I'm wondering if a particular number of projects, number of student and faculty participants, discounted PBL rate, or a mix of those would be the ideal outcome for your project. 

Finally, I'm curious which and what kind of institutions would be on board with this. I think the potential for partnerships is very promising. Between private and public colleges, four year or community colleges, it's a broad landscape and thinking about the kinds of allies for this and how they would benefit differently would be useful. Perhaps not institutions at large but individual departments are a better way of thinking about stakeholders, since they have more control over student theses and capstone project. I hope you'll consider those for your stakeholder analysis! I'm curious to see how this develops and would love to see this come to life. Good luck!