Vision of GEF for higher education challenges and developing the future of higher education

Richard J. Light, Harvard University

This Global Education Forum (GEF) is built around a series of challenging questions that many university leaders now ask about the future. GEF sessions will offer develop and expand ideas for moving forward, as each university continues its ongoing journey toward excellence.

GEF believes that simply asking certain important core questions, at any university, can lead to systemic and sustained improvement for students, their academic learning, and their overall experience as more and more universities strive to become outstanding.

One core question for the GEF is how to promote a culture of innovation. This is easy to say, yet maybe not so easy to do. Most everyone at any university can support good spirited innovation. Yet each university needs to decide for itself, how to effectively build such a process into its ongoing institutional culture.

The GEF plans to develop several ways to do this. Nearly every campus leader will trumpet their college or university’s novel programs and initiatives. We believe the overall ‘spirit of innovation’ is often dependent on the way that rewards and incentives are structured.

A second core question for GEF is how to most effectively gather information from students about their university experience. What is working well for students? What is NOT working so well? These findings, from what students themselves report, can be synthesized and acted upon when appropriate. What better way to respect and honor your students than to ask them about their experiences, and then to take what they say seriously? Then, when appropriate, to even act on some of their ideas.

A third core question is how a great university can best emphasize the importance of what is going on outside the classroom. It might be helpful to remember some simple arithmetic about the college experience. A week has seven days with 24 hours per day. So, there are 168 hours that residential students spend on campus per week. Undergraduates typically spend 12-15 of those hours in the classroom, which leaves 150 remaining hours. What does that imply? The GEF will develop concrete suggestions for deepening and enriching the quality of ‘residential life’ on campus for students. Not all universities have a significant level of residential life. For those that do, GEF will develop suggestions and how to implement them.

A fourth core question is how the concept of ‘assessment’ is defined, viewed and organized at a university. For many faculty members, assessment is viewed as widespread standardized testing given to evaluate each student’s academic performance. Increasingly, several leading universities in several nations, are defining assessment differently. They are choosing to focus instead on understanding what students as a collective are actually learning by being members of the college or university. The next step is for GEF to ask how information from assessing students’ experiences can be acted upon to provoke sustained, campus-wide improvement.

A fifth core question is how any university defines what it means for its students to have a ‘successful’ experience at that campus. Is it salary earned after graduation? Is it students’ basic happiness while at university? Is it what fraction of a university’s graduates pursue further study of some form after they finish their undergraduate experience? Is it some other outcome? These are judgments where universities may have different goals. The GEF welcomes a broad variety of goals.

Those are five core questions for the GEF. In every case, and with every suggestion, the GEF will work to offer several actionable, low-cost ideas for a university to implement. Many universities world-wide have experimented with different methods for teaching, for advising students, for creating knowledge. The GEF presents a special opportunity for many participants to share what they have learned, with ‘the rest of the world of higher education.’ In this sense, the GEF provides a valuable ‘world wide university convening function.’

We will consider the GEF endeavor a great success if it helps university leaders, to enrich both learning and the overall university experience for many of the world’s students.

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