MIT has just launched a bold, brave and pub­lic ini­tia­tive to reimag­ine what the uni­ver­si­ty could be in sev­en years. This is the kind of nextsens­ing ini­tia­tive that so many pub­lic and pri­vate enter­pris­es des­per­ate­ly need to do but either (a) don’t know it, or (b) are too hes­i­tant to begin. And one imag­ines that MIT Pres­i­dent L. Rafael Reif thought a good deal before launch­ing his “Insti­tute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Edu­ca­tion”. But he did launch it; and, now, under the guid­ance of Pro­fes­sor San­jay Sar­ma (MIT’s Direc­tor of Dig­i­tal Learn­ing) and MIT Exec­u­tive VP/Treasurer Israel Ruiz, a pan­el will study how MIT can thrive, if not lead, in a world of increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal class­rooms. The pan­el is to report in six months, with a final report due in a year.

Why is this excit­ing? I count (at least) five ways.

Pres­i­dent Reif admit­ted that edu­ca­tion is in the midst of a rev­o­lu­tion. One sens­es that he and oth­ers at MIT not­ed the rapid growth of online learn­ing trends (such as their own edX and MITx efforts) and became dizzy think­ing about the pos­si­ble impact on a cam­pus that occu­pies 168 acres and enrolls thou­sands of stu­dents. Will we have as many stu­dents com­ing here in sev­en years? How many will actu­al­ly want to reside near the cam­pus year round? If there are few­er stu­dents on cam­pus attend­ing reg­u­lar class­es, what will hap­pen to all our fac­ul­ty? MIT had to have asked ques­tions like these and found that there were few obvi­ous answers. That’s dis­rup­tive ambi­gu­i­ty!

The pres­i­dent appoint­ed two top, cred­i­ble lead­ers to lead the pan­el. This sig­nalled the grav­i­ty of the oppor­tu­ni­ty and the impor­tance of the issues at stake. Hi-pro­file lead­ers for a project like this means that the pres­i­dent is ful­ly back­ing their work. Every­one at MIT, thus, must take note.

android learnerThe pres­i­dent launched this nextsens­ing effort with a total­ly open com­mu­ni­ca­tion. You can read his launch let­ter here. This has set the stage for the entire insti­tu­tion to at least sup­port, and like­ly to par­tic­i­pate in, the process of devel­op­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty fore­sense of what MIT needs to become by 2020. (Notice I’m not say­ing could become; I have no doubt that MIT will need to change, and fast, to remain an edu­ca­tion­al leader. This entire effort is thus both a chal­lenge as well as an oppor­tu­ni­ty.)

The pres­i­dent made clear that the stakes are high, and not just for MIT. In his charge to the pan­el, his first two sen­tences state, “High­er edu­ca­tion is striv­ing to respond to the forces of dis­rup­tive change. While many US stu­dents strug­gle to cov­er the cost of high­er edu­ca­tion, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are strain­ing to cov­er the cost of pro­vid­ing that edu­ca­tion.” In oth­er words, what MIT decides to do after its pan­el makes its final report could eas­i­ly have vast reper­cus­sions in the US (and, real­ly, world­wide).

The pres­i­dent empha­sised that the panel’s work is as much about imag­i­na­tion as fact-find­ing. As he states in his charge let­ter, “We must seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reimag­ine what we do and how we do it.” It is always amaz­ing how many groups I encounter that are search­ing for their future with the idea that the only way to do so is through research. To be sure, nextsens­ing respects and requires fac­tu­al data; it involves obser­va­tion of cur­rent trends as well as organ­i­sa­tion of those trends into pat­terns and insights. But the third step in the nextsens­ing process is the key one: orig­i­na­tion of a nov­el point of view, one that lists any and all ways that an enter­prise can move in order to suc­ceed in the future. That last step requires imag­i­na­tion. So, con­grat­u­la­tions, MIT: from what I can see, it has its process focussed just right.

Because this is such a major, pub­lic exam­ple of nextsens­ing, I plan to write anoth­er blog or two about some of the nuances in this ini­tia­tive that could be help­ful in your own efforts. Whether you work in a bank, a fac­to­ry, a store or an office, what MIT is start­ing to do will affect you. Make sure you keep their work on your atten­tion screen.

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