ITB Week One, Module two



Inventing the Beyond | Module 1, Week 2

Last week, Invent the Beyond discussed a range of uncertainties that will have an impact on the future of higher education and engaged in a sorting activity by voting on those that would have the greatest impact or were the most uncertain.  This process allowed for some prioritization of engagement across the list.  From this we looked at a range of possible combinations of uncertainties to build a matrix that would provide four productive scenarios.  By crossing uncertainties, sometimes alone and sometimes in combination or as clustered as proxies, a range of candidate sets emerged that could serve as scaffolds for building scenarios for further development.  After reviewing and considering these, the group voted on four candidate sets and identified the matrix that we will use for the remainder of this collaboration.

Overview of the Week

Big Ideas

How do we get the candidate sets?

The list of uncertainties from week 1 represented a pile of forces that were seen as having an impact on the future of higher education, but there was no sense of prioritization or hierarchy.  The voting that took place at the end of the week allowed for a sorting to occur, with some uncertainties garnering greater votes for either their uncertainty or impact. By overlaying those top-ranked uncertainties against one another in pairs, you build out sets of matrices that are the candidates to consider. 

It is important that these matrices are plausible—are the stories that come out of this overlay are believable (without using magic or breaking the laws of physics)? The next question to ask is if the matrix is aligned with the focal question—in this case the future of higher education? Generally this will be the case, but sometimes some of the stories that emerge from this may be unrelated.  Finally, the matrices should, while within the confines listed previously, still take us to interesting places and challenge our thinking and even make us uncomfortable.  Eventually, by overlaying the uncertainties across one another you can arrive at a set of three to five candidate sets that the group then chooses from among to be the one that the future scenarios are based upon. 

In the end, it is not necessary to have the “right” future in the mix but to have each candidate set be “good enough.”  Scenario-based planning, as a qualitative rather than a quantitative process, doesn’t demand a perfect future rather a future scenario that will bring the best ideas to the fore. It is important, then, that the group be happy with whichever matrix is chosen as the one to move ahead with.

From Critical Uncertainties to Scenarios

Creating a scenario from the matrix that is chosen involves a bit of intuition to fill out the skeleton of the matrix into a more complete story.  Just overlaying the uncertainties results in a set of quadrants, but there is not much information to them.  The process of building a scenario colors in the missing parts in this framework, with the best scenarios providing stories that are divergent from one another and have meaning for the focal question.  Because of this it may be that the top ranked uncertainties are not the best ones to use if they result in scenarios that all essentially look similar. 

Once a single matrix is chosen, narratives can be developed and logic applied to the uncertainties as they interact with one another to provide a much deeper sense of what this future holds.  Each quadrant of the matrix is filled out with its own stories to make a plausible, engaging tool for looking at possibilities.

The candidate sets for ITB

From the voting in week 1, the uncertainties that were the most important or uncertain were assessed with their potential future states (e.g., pace of change was arranged with either rapid change or managed change as its extremes).  The uncertainties were then grouped into four general clusters (with some outliers) that could serve as proxies for one another, insofar as they would drive the narrative of the future in essentially the same direction.  The largest clusters of uncertainties are those that comprise our candidate sets.  (A more detailed description of this process is available at 

Highlights from the Forums

For our first week, we asked the forum what force of change
is of the greatest concern and what they thought of the candidate sets. Below is a recap from the first

Summary of Candidate Sets Discussion
  • Four candidate sets have been presented, each outlining four distinct, possible futures for the future of higher learning.
  • The set involving Sources of Learning/Cost of Education provoked discussion about dystopian futures in higher education.  However, a counterpoint is that the costs and the sources of learning will be factors no matter what the pace of change turns out to be. 
  • Another issue of interest has been national focus on education, particularly a shift in the U.S. from education as a strategic investment with national security and state competitiveness implications to an individual asset that benefits the student.
  • One respondent suggested a third possibility between "national priority" and "individual asset":  corporations and other large entities acting to support their own interests.  “Ultimately, business and industry suffer if the education system fails to perform.”
  • Another respondent expounded upon the notion of education as “individual asset” to comment that interest does not extend beyond the current financial aid cycle for many students concerned about refunds from financial aid.
  • Referencing again the set involving Sources of Learning/Cost of Education, one respondent noted its relevance to the student perspective by posing three overarching questions students tend to ask:  1) What do I need?, 1) How much will it cost? and 3) Where can I get it?
  • Another respondent agreed with this assessment of Sources of Learning/Cost of Education and its relevance for students, who similarly ask, a) What courses do I need to take in order to get where I want to be?  B) How much is this coursework going to cost me? and c) Where is the best place to achieve my goal, can I take all my classes here or should I look somewhere else?
Summary of the Discussion on “What change are you most concerned about—either because it is unknown or because of what you see as the outcome?”
  • Why students select a particular college, and what their expectations are:  “Are they choosing a small college because they desire small classes with face to face instruction?”
  • Although not right for all students, some learn quite a lot in online classes—frequently, the students who have the life challenges that make face-to-face classes difficult.  For some course, the online milieu has distinct advantages: all students must write (usually a lot more than they would have to in a face-to-face class) and all of them must respond to questions or risk being unnoticed.
  • Commodification of education as yet another way for private corporations to gain profits from what was formerly mainly a public good (at public universities).  In addition, there is concern over the motives of influential corporate groups driving education policy and funding, and the lack of faculty or student voices in these decisions.
  • We are still expecting the college-ready, full-time, traditional student of decades ago. While we can question the quality of outcomes of many online for-profit institutions, we cannot doubt that they understood their customers and how to market to them: “I sometimes feel that we are stuck in the ‘denial’ stage of grief. We want to stubbornly believe that if we just hold on to ‘the way we’ve always done it’ that the glory days of the past will return.”
  • Seeing fewer and fewer students each year who are emotionally and academically ready for college.  Also of concern is the “new” college student who is not prepared for success in college (e.g., does not understand computers, cannot write simple essays, or does not possess time management skills).

What happened? 

The four clusters for this discussion were:

  1. US competitive position; public funding of education; national focus on education; funding sources for education; and regulation of education
  2. Paths to learning; credentials/certifications; measurement; sources of learning; and skills development
  3. Necessity of education; economic policy making; and cost of education
  4. Pace of change and innovation

Outliers included Economic pragmatism and environment for learning. While these are not exact proxies for one another, they often represent related forces and influences at work.  Because so many of these uncertainties were so closely tied to education, in order to get a bigger picture, these were overlaid with more global or national ideas to get a fuller range of options.

For the voting, four possible candidate sets were developed out of the multiple options available:

  1. Sources of learning (open/co-created or closed/within the academy) vs. pace of change (rapid or managed/slow)
  2. Pace of change (rapid or managed/slow) vs. two complementary axes—national focus on education (strategic or self-reliant) and US competitive position (US leading or US waning)
  3. Sources of learning (open/co-created or closed/within the academy) vs three correlated axes—economic policy making (redistributive or pro-growth); cost of education (out of control or accessible); and the necessity of education (luxury or a necessary good.
  4. Sources of learning (open/co-created or closed/within the academy) vs funding sources (disciplined or opaque) and national focus on education (strategic or self-reliant).

Each quadrant within these matrices has a strong narrative tone that helps to tell a distinct story.  Where two or more uncertainties are aligned together, that is typically done to help flesh out a limited range of narrative options to give the best option for telling the story of the future.   

After the votes were cast, the group selected Candidate set A (sources of learning vs. pace of change).  Moving forward, we will be using the results of this vote to further refine our future, creating a scenario outline that helps us to “live in the future” and begin to layer over the other uncertainties onto it to more fully realize the nuances of this future. 

Scenario Matrix for Higher Education in 2030

Critical Uncertainties
Pace of Change: Will the overall pace of change be fast, chaotic, and unmanageable, or will change happen in measured doses, slow and controlled over predictable periods of time?
Sources of Learning: Will institutions of higher learning — “the academy” — remain the primary source of learning, or will open learning and communal, networked experiences become the new norm?