Designing The Future Of The University

Education fiction

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 28 · 9 min read

Digitization has a huge impact on how we live, work and learn. In all work areas, people are getting to grips with how to best leverage the possibilities of digital. In some areas, digital-first companies, companies that create whole new ways to do business based on technological innovations, are disrupting the status quo. In education, this is a little bit harder than in the taxi or the staying overnight business. Although there are a lot of new companies introducing new ways to learn that are more attuned with the digital reality we are getting accustomed to, universities still are the dominant force when it comes to getting a valuable education. But in this science fiction — or education fiction — I want to take a peek into an alternative future of education in which the current model of the university is disrupted. For that reason, I am going to disrespect the university a little bit by imagining a different future, a future that is digital, a future in which the quality of education is determined outside institutions. I like the institution of the university a lot. If I criticize it, it’s only to help :)

A University Of One, Education Fiction

The year is 2032. The last two universities in the world have just declared bankruptcy. Harvard and Stanford were the last ones standing. They were the ones who could sell the institutional seal of approval the longest. One by one, all other universities fell victim to the new reality that digitization created. Because they were the last ones standing, entrance fees rose through the roof. Only the richest of the richest could afford to attend. But the elite class system was no match for the new ways of learning that were on offer outside the university systems. The students that got their education outside university institutions outperformed the traditional students by such lengths that whole systems collapsed in the end. The ballast that was created by the large, static, bureaucratic organizations of the universities prohibited innovation. The institutions were no longer too big to fail but too big to move. The perverse incentives surrounding research, that resulted in irrelevant publications that even researchers themselves did not read anymore, created so much waste that it clogged the arteries that were supposed to bring new insights into education. The tenure tracks that were designed to ensure academic freedom, created power structures that resulted in insurmountable barriers to change. Even when the sense of urgency was so high no one could ignore it anymore, the ability to change was too small to react.

It was not like the change came very sudden. The overnight downfall of the university was decades in the making. Students wanted personalized learning paths for years. More and more courses were getting digitized but teachers did not develop the required digital literacy. More and more education programs were bought instead of developed. The demands in the job market changed so fast that the people in the ivory towers of the university could not keep up. Even when education hit the point that it was useless for universities to compete with commercial parties that developed far superior education programs, the inertia prevented universities to act. So when the tipping point was finally there, the ivory towers came crashing down.

From the ashes, a new educational system arose. A system that was built on the possibilities of digital technology. A system that was in a sense a return to the pre-university system of master and apprentice. But this time it was a much-improved version, a scalable version, a digital version.

The new system was, obviously, built around e-learning. The barrier to entry to developing online courses is close to zero. Anyone who has developed a skill and wants to teach others, can fire up his laptop and have a sellable training up in no time. And there is a lot of upside to this. Because you have a potential global audience for your training or course. Next to entertainment, the market for education is the largest growth market in the world. And with people from the entertainment industry moving into education and people from education moving into entertainment, the boundaries are blurring. A powerful trend emerged that if people want to relax, they just as easily watch an entertaining lecture as a movie or play a video game. In a time where AIs and bots are taking over more and more jobs, lifelong learning has become a primary need. And because education uses skills and techniques developed in the entertainment industry and theatre, learning has become more fun than ever.

The problem with e-learning is knowing what to chose, where to start. The offer became so immense, there were soo many platforms and courses available that it became impossible to find the right course. The trust in algorithms evaporated because of the filter bubbles they created and popularity biases that limited creativity rather than spark it. The was a pressing need for human judgment, creativity, and guidance. This is where the mentorships developed. Based on the pre-university model of master and apprentice, a new type of master, a mentor popped up. A mentor is an example, someone you looked up to as a student, someone who you would like to become. A mentor designed his path and can help you find yours. Most of the time they also develop their own online courses and they operate in a network of other mentors and know their way around educational content. They are the guides in the jungle of e-learning content. The mentors are the new seals of approval. If you want to succeed in a field, you want to be mentored by the expert in that field. Just like if you wanted to become a great painter in the style of Rembrandt, you had to study under Rembrandt in the 17th century, you want to be mentored by Elon Musk if you want to build a colony on Mars today.

It is also possible to do real-life projects with your mentor to learn in reality. This usually starts out as simple tasks but can become more advanced once the student picks up the required skills in e-learning courses. The mentor will also encourage you to do real-life projects in other businesses. The fundamental difference with the university model is that you only learn what you need and want to learn. If you pick up real-world experience in business projects and want to continue down that path, you develop the required skills to advance to the next level. If you want to test out other areas of work, you switch business and mentor and continue there. You can test the hypothesis that you have about your own talents and desired career. In small iterations, you find your way through career opportunities, educational content, and self-reflection. You learn when you need to learn and you learn what helps you to get to the next level. You pivot when you find a new path. The business challenges teach you about the work and point you towards the things that you need to learn in order to be successful.

A typical learning path starts on a challenge board. This is a digital platform where businesses post challenges they need to be solved. You can sign up for a challenge and if you are selected you can work on it for a while. You can pick an area that interests you to find out if it is as nice as you think. If you want to go further, higher-level challenges require you to develop certain skills through online courses. You can also get in contact with a mentor in the field of your choice to help you along your path. If your field of choice doesn’t suit you after all, you just go back to the challenge board and pick a new challenge in another area. This allows you to check your assumptions with reality from the get-go. If you need a skill, you go and develop it and return to your work. The length of the periods of work and learning can be variable.

Because people have to learn their whole lives, the intervals will be shorter in the beginning and longer once you progress further. But the alternation of picking up challenges and learning remains. Because work also evolved. Work no longer requires you to sit in an office for 8 hours. You can pick up the pieces of work you want to do and complete them in your own pace. If you work fast, you are done early and if not, late. Learning and working are totally blended. You can invest in learning to become faster in your work so you have to spend less time on it or be able to do more work in the same amount of time. This systems has revolutionized the workplace and boosted productivity exponentially. In this system, developing yourself has direct benefits. If you work faster or better, you earn more money in the same amount of time or earn more free time with the same amount of income. The traditional workplace with 8-hours-sitting-on-chairs-behind-desks and fixed salaries had very few incentives for people to learn. But the new system, that already starts after high school, does.

In the new system, there is also a role for research. New knowledge has to be developed and transferred to workers. Research is creating new knowledge. So fundamental research can be the basis of online courses. Research is also necessary for new inventions, innovations. But this type of practical research is now done by corporations. Instead of sponsoring research at universities, they found it much more effective to do their own research. So corporations just hired the researchers.

In the new system, there is also a huge role to be played by peers. In any educational system, you learn as much from your teachers as you do from your peers. Digital technology allows for totally new ways to connect to peers. You can find peers that are interested in the same subjects, that live in the same geographic area or that you can relate to in totally different ways. Every encounter is a chance to learn something. This goes for offline as well as online meetings. Digital technology allows for new kinds of meetings, new crossings of paths.

Most mentors advise you to take some liberal-arts-type-of-classes in the beginning just after high school. A broad basis in arts and science is the best platform to build skills on.

So in a way, the fall of the university gave birth to the renaissance of the master-apprentice model on steroids. Digital collaboration tools enable you to work on projects all over the world. Digital learning platforms allow you to study from anywhere in the world at any time. Digital communication platforms allow you to connect with anyone in the world. Together with the fall of the bureaucracy, of the scientific management models, the digital transformation in education has revolutionized the way we work, learn and live. We now live in a more distributed system. Centralized systems failed to guide us through the complexities of our society. It’s up to our own personal leadership to find our way. Personal mastery is everyone’s own responsibility. We can no longer hide behind the institutions of the university and the bureaucratic organization. Digitization put the power where it belongs: back into the hands of the people. Now it’s our job to use it to design the life we desire. The ones that are able to leverage the power of the new digital systems are the winners of the future. All communication, all tasks that need to be done can be done with standard proprietary applications in the cloud. The playing field is level. It’s not the tools that will provide you with a competitive advantage but the skills you have to leverage them.


As I mentioned in the introduction, I love the institute of the university. I’m only criticizing to help. I’m imagining an alternative future in order to help create it, to help innovation education. At this moment, I am working on the technology that will enable the revolution I imagined above.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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