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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

30 comments

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Photo of Howard Johnson
Team

Hey Dan; I've been thinking similarly; working on a follow up to this piece: https://higheredrevolution.com/higher-education-and-inequality-729da87b9261#.fmeiyjx1b
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
Team

Intriguing ideas Howard - thank you for sharing! 

Photo of Andrew Ciszczon
Team

I'm liking this. My idea was not as developed, but similar in the notion of being project based. After all, why are we waiting for students to make an impact? That is when the most learning takes place and the retention is higher as well. I don't think it's limited to "divergent" students. Perhaps, they are targeted early as they will find it easier to transition to, but the increased value and learning makes this idea attractive for all learners. 

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Andrew - your "flip the script" idea I believe is right on - I could see that being key for students in their third or fourth year of study.  And agree about "divergent" students - there could be a more mainstream appeal to this... Thanks!

Photo of Betsy Streeter
Team

I'd love to see this explored in relation to nonprofits as well, for two reasons:
1. Nonprofits that target under-resourced people might be operating in many of the same localities that a micro-campus might thrive
2. Nonprofits have a never-ending need for people, and in addition to their specialties many of them can offer solid business experience around accountability, scheduling, management, client relations, and more
I posted an idea exploring using nonprofit experience as a way to generate credit. For this to work the time spent would have to offset classroom time so that working students didn't find themselves with no hours left in their lives. But proximity could be key - having a micro-campus and a family of local or urban nonprofits working in tandem could be very powerful.

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Betsy.  I agree completely that there is rich room for partnering with local nonprofits.  I like your "lens, link, and pipeline" idea - thanks for sharing!

Photo of An Old Friend
Team

Hmm, I think we're definitely on the similar page. The major difference is an approach using city-owned lots under land stewardship programs for peer-to-peer learning. Also, the cost of learning in my model is established by live/work trade agreements of well-qualified staff including about a 20% compensation in currency which could actually be created by a cooperative-based skillshare with marketplace model with cross-disciplined study.

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Intriguing model Amber - thanks for sharing!

Photo of Cristel de Rouvray
Team

I'd love to talk about this and see if there is a way I could  help. Many facets of your idea resonated with me, as directly applicable to our challenges at College Track:
1. the urban facility located in the neighborhood where students live (this is what we build for our after school programming but we have not (yet) used it for our college aged students)
2. the transformative requirement for any good education, facilitated by educators who are trained for this and can build lasting relationships
3. the self directed student path that can leverage an  increasing array of resources to make new learning combinations (including MOOCs but embodied resources as well - museums, local research universities).
4. the possibility to use this micro-campus as a launching pad back into the traditional education system (a new breed of transfer student)...
Let me know if there is an area where we could help -
Cristel

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Cristel for the support!  Would love to talk as well and learn more about what College Track is doing and how what you are doing might inform the Micro Campus for Engaged Learning idea...

Photo of Irene Kien
Team

Hello Dan!
I really like your concept. I look forward to hearing more about your idea. Can you tell me more about what cities or communities this concept would work best with?

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks for the question Irene.  This concept would work in almost any urban area where businesses and residential areas are in close proximity (it likely would not work well in a suburban or rural area). This is due to the expectation that the micro-campus would operate in close partnership with businesses, ngos, and other partners in the local community.  For example, in Orange County California where I live I could see this working very well in downtown Santa Ana (our only real downtown area), but it just wouldn't work at the typical suburban neighborhoods where most OC colleges and universities are located. I also believe that it would ideally be located in neighborhoods like Santa Ana where you would find a large number of first-generation college students and others for whom the lower-cost and higher-engagement model would be a perfect fit. 

 There are many cities around the US and around the world that I've visited where I could see this taking off - São Paulo, Cape Town, Bangkok, etc....

Photo of Amber Dailey-Hebert
Team

Hello Dan - I absolutely love this model and concept! (so many potential advantages and possibilities exist).  Have you considered working with external partners in these cities to help support/fund a portion of the expense?  In the grad program where I teach, we partner with external organizations to have our students work on real-world problems (i.e. the organization gets free consulting from our students and the student gets great experience/exposure).  Perhaps such collaborations could lead to partnering organizations paying a nominal fee that could be used to help support the costs for your learners?  Just a thought.....also, there is an organization in the Netherlands (called "Seats to Meet") that you might be interested in exploring along these lines as well.  Again, VERY cool project idea!

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Amber for the feedback.  Yes, I absolutely think that this model will lend itself to close partnerships with various city partners.  I'm imagining students initially doing research as free consulting as you suggest, building relationships that later in their studies could result in paid internships or job placements.  I'll look into "Seats to Meet"... Look forward to following your team's work as well...

Photo of Denny Wong
Team

Hello Amber - thank you for sharing. It does seem that there is a (re)convergence between space (co-working or available office space) with local communities and individuals. In this context between students, 'school' and organisation - to work on real-world problems. For me this is definitely a way forward - (re)making applied science literally. https://www.seats2meet.com/en - is an interesting concept. 

Another example that takes this concept another step further are : https://www.kaggle.com/ or http://www.innocentive.com/ - My intention is to bring such approach into tertiary education level - to allow students to work on real-world problem by combining online tools with in-person support.

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Denny.  Intrigued with how the InnoCentive or openIDEO models might be adapted for higher ed purposes...

Photo of Denny Wong
Team

Great idea Dan. What a synchronicity ;-) I am currently working on somewhat similar idea. 

My post: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/higher-ed/ideas/student-and-business-as-one is part of the bigger project - which I chunk it, to make it more accessible. This is the part where the school is interfacing with the (local or global) community. This could be NGO, None-Profits or For-Profits entities either in 'regular' business or socially conscious domain.

This 'direct' interface will allow the school to be 'anchored' to a local community, somewhat similar to your micro-campus idea. 

Secondly, the idea is to put the student in the center - hence the need for a strong self awareness to be able to be self directed. This would allow students to craft their own learning according to their interest, while learning enduring life skills that allow them to achieve their ambitions.

The intention is to have a 12 months 'guided' journey program to set them on the 'right' track - while accompanying them along their life long journey after the intensive 12 months guided program with their self-guided program (ie. think of it as some sort of alumni program) - which is continuous. 

Finally, is to have a tech platform that allow students to 'self quantified' for self development and tracking their own progress - with option to use it for credentialing purposes (as a benefit) later. Hence my other post: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/higher-ed/ideas/an-app-for-softskills

Photo of Shane Zhao
Team

Thanks for the post Dan! And lovely use of visual storytelling to bring this idea to life. In addition to the thought of micro-campuses as an alternative education model, have you also considered how this idea can be integrated into existing colleges? Can this approach help more existing higher ed institutions cut cost and improve learning? What specific partners might you engage early on to collect feedback on this idea? Looking forward to how this will evolve!

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Shane, thanks for the comments. Yes, I do think that existing colleges could implement the micro-campus for engaged learning model. For example, colleges might consider the micro-campus as a lower-cost but high-support pathway for non-traditional students. Students could complete the first two years of study in a micro-campus setting, then transfer to the traditional campus setting for specialized training...

Photo of Jim Rosenberg
Team

Dan,

Really like your idea. This question about how to start experimenting made me think of this example from a school in New Hampshire. Their approach doesn't go into changing the pedagogy as you've suggested, but it points at one possible starting point: the simplified, education-centered, urban college experience. From there a university could layer in new project-centered education. "Southern New Hampshire, a private school, has a traditional campus in Manchester that houses about 3,000 students. LeBlanc opened a satellite campus in 2008 that sits in an office park and charges one-third the price of the main one. It’s all about fundamentals, he told the Washington Monthly at the time: “Could we offer the essential educational experience—lots of academic support and advising, and really good teaching, and small classes, the things that are at the heart of what we do—and strip away all of the other things that add cost?” The idea worked, and other schools (including state university systems) began to copy it..."

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks for the feedback Jim. I agree that the SNHU regional center hybrid model is worth following as an experiment.  As you note, they have stripped away many things that add cost, but from my perspective they haven't really added much to take advantage of the smaller urban campus setting. What I propose is a model where you strip away many of those same things that add cost, but that you then reinvest some of those cost savings into the development of new models of teaching and learning. I would invest in training and resourcing a cohort of faculty to build a model focused on high-impact, engaged learning pedagogies.  Schools like SNHU have clearly demonstrated that there are more affordable ways to teach classes, but what I want to see are models that show we can move beyond an affordable and "good enough" education (see Dan Butin's excellent article - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-w-butin/when-a-good-enough-higher-education-isnt-good-enough_b_7341700.html) to a model that is both affordable AND learning-centered /highly transformative...

Photo of Jim Rosenberg
Team

I definitely see where you are aiming and agree. There is a lot more that can be done to improve the college educational experience than simply stripping away costs to focus on core educational activities. I was just thinking about the difficulty of driving change in large institutions and how one might proceed one step at a time. Professors in a stripped down environment could certainly teach small engaging seminars, flipped classes, or highly engaging project-based classes rather than aiming for Butin's "good enough." All that said, I didn't mean to distract from or argue with your vision here -- I really like it (and sometimes change, and funding, is easier to drive with a big vision than with a stepwise approach in any case). Thanks again for sharing this idea.

Photo of Alexandra Alden
Team

Hi Dan! Alex from Path to Pitching here, really cool idea! We're excited you are interested in the Path to Pitching. To be pitch ready you'll need to form a team and get out in the community and talk to your users to validate your problem and customers. Maybe you could interview people who have gone through these programs as well as higher ed institutions.  Once you've done that start prototyping as soon as possible. Publish all your learnings here!

Learn more about the Path to Pitching: http://bit.ly/1HzPkeV
Check out our Human Centered Milestones, we created them to help you develop your idea: http://bit.ly/1N6hgbQ

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Alexandra!  I'll follow up regarding the Path to Pitching and Milestones...

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell
Team

Dan Waite your idea resonates with mine (not the one you linked to, but another one): Democratized Learning: The $ 2000 Tuition University 
It came out of a brainstorm over coffee with a colleague, on a sunny day in Minnesota (they do exist). If pursuing our ideas, we might want to join forces 

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Katerina!  Love your idea of a hybrid model will off-line hubs, as well as emphasis on active experiential learning - some similarities to what I've been thinking about.  Hoping for more inspiring sunny days in Minnesota... Will follow your ideas!

Photo of Joel Gingery
Team

Hi Dan,
Nice!  I really like the way your idea disrupts our current thinking on education - less linear (subject silos) and more student control - providing a great alternative to current status quo.   Thinking out loud but, if I had the chance I would want to participate in a program like yours; it would be my first choice.  As such, if money is not a primary issue, I might be willing to pay more for a quality experience, for example one administered by Harvard or MIT.  

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Joel for the comments. I don't think this kind of program is for everyone - some students will prefer the traditional campus experience.  However, there's research that suggests that there's a certain percentage of students who are disengaged in the current models, students who would thrive in a more active and engaged model of learning.  Hire the best faculty and train them in engaged learning pedagogies, and I'm convinced that the learning experience would be better than Harvard - and I speak as a Harvard alum.  I agree that I'd love to see a school like Harvard or MIT lead an experimental college of the sort I propose...

Photo of Eunice Corbin
Team

Hi Dan,

Thank you for mentioning that my story for the higher education challenge inspired you. I found your personal story and the outline of micro-campuses also inspiring. This idea embraces the original concept of university and community. I enjoyed your presentation and storytelling method which included some awesome sketches! It made me feel hopeful that we can rethink traditional campus models and spread the value learning based on experiences. The more conversations we have about re-imagining higher education, the more possibilities there are for others to embrace new ideas in terms of what education means. Stories like yours, are reminders that there are different ways to learn. I agree… It’s time for an educational revolution.

I would love to see the micro-campuses idea come to fruition. If you think I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Photo of Dan Waite
Team

Thanks Eunice!  Can't agree more with your assessment that we need to re-think our marketing of higher ed and change expectations for what a university education should be about.  As the idea of engaged learning in a micro-campus setting is refined I'd love to have further input...