A Serendipitous Learning Experience (SLE)

Perhaps the greatest learning benefit of a residential campus is the collection of people, disciplines, activities and opportunities all co-mingling in the same place with a focus on learning. This environment enables serendipitous opportunities to flourish. In its best form, a residential campus embodies the principles of MIT’s Media Lab as stated by Joi Ito in the Wired article “Resiliency, Risk, and a Good Compass: Tools for the Coming Chaos“:

  1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.
  2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.
  3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.
  4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.
  5. You want to have good compasses not maps.
  6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.
  7. It [sic] disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.
  8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.
  9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

Done well, a residential campus offers a Serendipitous Learning Experience (SLE). Disciplinary studies should provide a framework for enabling this kind of learning rather than being the end of learning (by “end,” I do mean both the goal and the death of learning). Co-curricular options are critically important to the SLE, but only if the learner takes advantage of a broad range of options that pushes him or her to limits not yet explored. Being a guiding mentor(s) who helps the learner make sense of all the experiences is the gift those who work on campus have to share.

SLEs May Exist Outside of a Residential Campus

Just because a residential college campus may be an SLE does not make it the only place where an SLE exists. The idea that this experience only exists on a college campus is one of the fallacies that keeps higher ed from moving forward. Depending upon scale, SLEs exist anywhere an environment supports a confluence of seemingly disparate elements such as a watering hole (e.g., the office water cooler), a culture or alternative post-secondary education. The possibilities are limitless if people decide to create this kind of environment. To be sure, an SLE does not exist just because disparate elements (and people) are around. Learning needs to be a primary focus in order for this to happen.

A learning organization is not a new concept, but creating and sustaining such an environment keeps many consultants employed. This is an advantage higher ed has because it is built around being a learning organization. This may not always be executed well in higher ed, but it is the intent. The point is another entity could decide to make being a learning organization in education its main function, and it could execute a different model than what is currently being done at many higher ed institutions. The end result for the “student” could be as valuable to the learner as a traditional degree. The challenge is if the marketplace agrees.

Alternate Credentialing

Much of my current thought keeps coming back to an alternative credential to the college degree. I feel a college education can be very worthwhile if pursued with abandon (i.e., taking advantage of its SLE nature), and with an eye to the cost especially regarding the debt burden upon graduation. My feeling is many students may be able to handle a debt burden equivalent to a new econo car without too many limitations being put upon what they may be able to pursue for an entry level job, but I may be too generous in this evaluation.

For an alternative credential to work, it must be accepted in the marketplace. This is obvious. Less obvious is it needs to come at a better price point in order to make the case for being a better value proposition. The challenge is to create an environment that is intentional about being an SLE while avoiding the costs traditionally associated with a residential college campus. I am not arguing against the value of a college professor, co-curricular activities or campus life, but I am arguing against the notion that the only valuable learning happens in our current setting.

Why is so much energy spent examining the need for higher ed reform? Higher ed will reform only when a critical mass within higher ed feels there is a need to reform. Currently, there is not a critical mass. Instead, why not put the energy into making something that takes what is valuable about current higher ed while leaving behind its baggage? Although this is a big challenge, it is infinitely more achievable than reforming the leviathan that is higher ed. That is, of course, until higher ed feels a sense of urgency to change. This sense of urgency is likely to come from a variety of external pressures.

To borrow from an ad campaign for a nut I like to eat, let’s get crackin’.