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The Micro Campus: A Low-Cost Hub for High-Impact City-Engaged Learning (Updated 12/10)

Create a lower-cost, higher-impact model where urban micro-campus hubs host student communities engaged in active, project-based learning.

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

This model targets “divergent” learners who will excel when a passive campus-based experience is replaced by adventurous, community-engaged learning. The cost of college will be reduced by at least 40% by shifting to a "city-as-campus" model where community partners fill most campus roles and the primary investment is in a faculty trained in engaged-learning pedagogies. Creating a program based on high-impact, engaged-learning will improve learning outcomes, retention, and career readiness.

Is it possible to have an Ivy League quality college education without the ivy-covered campus, and without the Ivy League cost?

My university runs a study abroad program where thirty students, two professors, and two GAs travel around the world for three months, living in hostels while engaging in service learning and research projects in local communities. The curriculum is based on a package of tightly integrated liberal arts courses that allow the students to explore different set of global issues each semester.  The program has stripped the higher education experience down to the bare essentials - to a community of learners who are digging into the great ideas of the past, critically engaging with the problems of the real world, and working on building new solutions.

Rather than complaining about the fact that they are missing out on all the accoutrements of university life for which they are paying so dearly, the students rave about this bare-bones program with glowing statements like, “I’ve learned more in the last three months than the previous three years.”  The program is challenging, and it isn’t for everyone, but there is a certain type of student who thrives in this engaged-learning environment.  These are the “divergent” students who are not easily pressed into the mold of lecture halls and one-subject majors, students who are more concerned about building things than they are concerned about the grandeur of campus buildings.

Taking students out of the artificial world of the mega-campus allows for a shift from passive-learning to active and engaged real-world learning.  In this model high impact learning practices like learning in community, service-learning, collaborative project-based learning, cross-cultural learning, internships, and field-based research move from the periphery to the center of the student experience.  And the result is students with their brains on fire, students who have shaped pathbreaking career plans and innovative business models by the time the semester is complete.

So my question is, why don’t we experiment with new models of higher education where the entire experience is built around engaged learning practices?  This could be accomplished by creating a global network of micro-campus hubs which provide enough space for students to form community and work together on engaged learning projects, but not so much space that students become dis-engaged from the city and the issues around them. 

A micro-campus engaged learning model would address three key dimensions of the university that have gone astray…

  •  Micro-campus engaged learning could recapture the mission of higher education.  The core mission of the university is to prepare students for life and for vocation, but our existing campus-centric models do neither well.  Engaged learning models, however, excel at helping students discover the intersections between their personal passions and ways they can create value for the world. The engaged learning model shifts priorities from building concert halls and sports franchises, to growing scholar-entrepreneurs who will build solutions for their communities and address the world's greatest problems. 
  • Micro-campus engaged learning could restructure for margin in higher education. While this model does require a significant investment in building a cohort of experts in engaged learning practices (faculty will need to be re-trained for new roles as curators, coaches, and co-creators), that is the primary expense.  The micro-campus model is focused on learning – the other functions of the university can be provided by local community organizations or larger research universities. The resulting savings could be passed on to students, thus making a high-quality higher education more accessible.
  • Micro-campus engaged learning could re-imagine the methods of higher education.  In a micro-campus engaged learning model students could engage in a variety of modes of learning.  While the core focus of this model would be high-impact engaged learning methods of learning, some areas of competency could be gained through MOOCs or high-tech online learning (another area of cost savings), and some technical or lab-based areas of learning might be achieved through taking coursework at partner research universities.   Internships, apprenticeships, research, and other experiential forms of learning would also be central to the model, particularly as the student narrows in on areas of specialization.  This model would also lend itself to alternative degree timelines and a paradigm of lifelong learning. 

Feedback: One question that has been posed in various ways has been - how might the Engaged Learning Micro-Campus partner with existing higher education institutions?  I envision several options, some encouraged through your ideas:  1) an existing university could create an Engaged Learning Micro-Campus as an experimental college, allowing the students the option to transition into a traditional campus program for further studies.  2) An Engaged Learning Micro-Campus could be created by a non-profit organization, but partner with an existing university for accreditation of the program and possible transfer. or 3) as necessary an Engaged Learning Micro-Campus University could be established on its own and go through the accreditation process as a full-fledged university, possibly evolving into a full-degree offering institution. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to each option - looking forward to further ideas and feedback. Thanks!  

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

This city-as-campus and engaged learning models are already being tested and refined in existing experimental study-abroad, gap-year, experiential learning, and urban immersion programs. The next step will be to move beyond one-off semester experiences to see what learning outcomes would emerge from a full degree program of two-to-four years centered around high-impact, engaged-learning practices. The model could be tested by experimenting with small cohorts in one or two micro-campus sites.

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

Since there are already many experiments in high-impact, engaged learning at the margins of higher education, it would be helpful to have input from educators and entrepreneurs in the engaged-learning space on what is working (or not working), and what their programs might look like if moved from the margins to the center of the higher education experience. There is also a need for expertise in refining the financial model.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm
  • A student collaboration

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

  • Yes


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Photo of Howard Johnson

Hey Dan; I've been thinking similarly; working on a follow up to this piece:
Primary thoughts are that 1. recent learning theory supports your idea and not the Cartesian mind / body split that is implied by the organization of traditional universities. Also 2. if we analyze highly selective universities by function and not surface structure, I believe I believe highly selective schools, like Stanford U, function more like your model and other colleges organized to look like elite schools provide only a only a shadow of their educational experience.

Photo of Dan Waite

Intriguing ideas Howard - thank you for sharing! 

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