Here’s What Happened When One University Asked Everyone for Ideas to...

Digital Learning

Here’s What Happened When One University Asked Everyone for Ideas to Reinvent Campus

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 21, 2018

Here’s What Happened When One University Asked Everyone for Ideas to Reinvent Campus

Here’s an idea for revolutionizing a college campus: run a zipline from one prominent building to another. That would help keep pathways less crowded and could be opened to the public on weekends to generate new revenue.

That was one of about 24,000 suggestions sent in last week during a two-day online discussion asking students, faculty, staff, alumni and anyone else to make suggestions for what Long Beach State University should look like in the year 2030.

While the zipline suggestion was likely tongue-in-cheek, transportation was a key theme (not surprisingly for a campus based in Southern California). For designers of the online discussion, perhaps the biggest challenge was figuring out how to run such a large-scale online brainstorming session without it devolving into petty complaints about parking or a general airing of grievances.

The solution was to make the online discussion feel like a game. Attendees submitted ideas in the form of cards (limited to 280-characters, like a Tweet), and let players win points when other users added links or other suggestions to the original idea.

“Everything's meant to incentivize and inspire you to talk to other people and try to look at a problem from other people's point of view,” said Jane McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, which was hired to lead the online discussion.

The discussion was one part of a larger strategic planning effort by the university that is expected to take two years.

“This is to really get community input on what are the big ideas for the future,” said Dhushy Sathianathan, vice provost for academic planning for the university, who helped coordinate the discussion effort.

To participate, users had to set up an account or log in with their Twitter or Facebook identities, so there were no anonymous trolls posting. Sathianathan said 98 percent of the 3,600 people who chimed in had some direct connection to campus.

No comments were deleted or modified. “We didn’t want any kind of editing on this,” he added.

Not surprisingly, one of the most popular ideas boiled down to two words: "free tuition."

There were disagreements. One involved how much corporate involvement to allow on campus. On one extreme, some participants suggested inviting major companies to set up mini-campuses on campus. As one wrote: “Maybe we could get more buy-in from other companies who would hire our students and possibly lower the cost to students.”

Others warned against that kind of corporate influence, though. “Becoming corporatized is a clear concern,” wrote one participant. “Even if it’s not Amazon, other corporations may have greater influence in the future. Let’s be proactive to determine other sources of revenue.”

Not all the imagined futures for the university were positive. Some worried that the rising cost of tuition and housing might force some students to pitch tents on campus as a more affordable living option.

Some wondered whether AI would—or should—replace professors by 2030. While some said that AI teaching assistants could free up faculty time to work more closely with students, one participant said, “I’m afraid of losing actual communication with professors and classmates.”

McGonigal, who designed the discussion interface, said the thing that surprised her most was how many people talked about environmental issues, in just about every subtopic of the overall discussion. One reason is that while the game was taking place, wildfires burned in the state, causing poor air quality. McGonigal herself had to evacuate her home temporarily due to dangerous conditions.

“Climate change kept bubbling up as an issue, whether they were talking about how should the majors change and what students are learning to what housing should be like or the future of athletics,” she said.

Some participants dreamed that by 2030 the campus could do away with cars on campus, and made suggestions for new amenities that could be built in prime locations that now house parking decks.

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