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Re-designing a learner-oriented university with Dr. Cameron McCoy

Elena Galán-Muros
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What vestigial structures are standing in the way of creating a more learner-oriented institution? Dr. Cameron McCoy (Provost of Shenandoah University) joined UIIN at our Future of Universities Fireside Chat to rethink the design of education and carve a pathway forward to meet the needs of the future student.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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A new social contract

Though universities are beginning to show initial signs of adaptation beyond the agricultural-driven world from which they were borne, Cameron opens the Fireside Chat citing the seminal work by James Duderstadt (1999), claiming there is a strong argument for a refreshed ’social contract’ between higher education institutions and society. This change would better position universities to address the myriad of crises and isomorphic pressures they’re currently facing. Today, there is a shift towards a need to serve a more diverse population of learners. Higher education is now a consumer product – an industry, rather than a public good – and with that comes a greater expectation for universities to provide a more market-responsive, higher return on education.

“I do think it is time for a refreshed social contract, and that would help us be better positioned to address the collection of crises we’re currently facing.”

The challenge of being both ’timeless and timely’

The education landscape is saturated with both online and physical knowledge providers each vying to meet rapidly developing societal needs. In this regard, Cameron adds, one of the failures that higher education has yet to actively address is that not all universities are the same, nor should they be. Universities have a timeless historical depth to them that should be valued, but the activities within it, by contrast, should be regenerative, disruptive, and timely to a pool of learners constantly in flux. Cameron gives the example of the strict credit hour as one of the major hurdles to this; how the entire accreditation system, tuition pricing, faculty contracts and workload is structured around the idea of seat time. As such, he claims the greatest adaptation universities could make would be to find mechanisms that create more flexibility in their education design.

“One of the failures that higher education has yet to actively address is that not all universities are the same, nor should they be.”

Education as an infinite game

A further challenge in this new burgeoning social contract takes inspiration from Carse (2011) and the notion of higher education as an infinite game. Most of higher education is designed around finite games – you complete several steps towards your degree and then the ‘game’ ends after you complete your PhD. Cameron proposes, however, that education is actually an infinite game, with new players, skills and competencies to be attained and refined throughout the life course.

The advent of ’Web3’ promises to disrupt the current modes of resumes, transcripts and degrees. Cameron posits that there is room for the provision of those finite pieces as a part of the infinite education game. These innovations, such as the immutable ledger technologies of blockchain, can safeguard that credentials are accurate and easily verified. An example of this is the LearnCard, an open source digital and physical wallet designed to share knowledge in a verifiable and machine-readable way. In order to build an equitable and learner-oriented university, institutions today need to be able to recognise learning where it occurs – whether that is in an internship, in life experience, or in our institutions. This data allows universities to understand who their learner is beyond test-scores, and how they can best serve them as an individual as opposed to the current one-size-fits-all structure.

“In order to build an equitable and learner-oriented university, institutions today need to be able to recognise, and verify learning where it occurs.”

Fostering innovations

This fundamental shift towards a new business model often meets resistant from faculty, however, without rethinking that structure, it will be even more difficult for universities to be market responsive. Christensen (2011) describes three types of innovation (efficiency, sustaining and disruptive), which Cameron adapts to the context of innovation in higher education:

  • Efficiency innovation: How are you, as an organisation, becoming more efficient?
  • Sustaining innovation: How do we continue to adapt and develop new degree pathways to sustain the current number of students and assess them in such a way to accurately attest to their capabilities to employers.
  • Disruptive innovation: How do we address the issue of ‘non-consumption’, i.e., design education to serve those who are choosing not to enter higher education and be willing to take that design risk.

“Some of the greatest industries of today would not have been possible without our universities or  innovation and research activity in higher education”

Considerations for restructuring

Cameron outlined the below process as a recommended baseline for universities to reach in order to become a more learner-oriented institution:

  1. Equity: Faculty need a comprehensive and shared understanding of equity and a recognition that our systems today are not designed to serve certain populations, and why or how that is.
  2. Leadership development: University leaders need to adopt a growth mindset and move away from being rejective of new ideas
  3. Problem definition: Faculty should be able to first define a problem to then bring in the necessary problem-solving tools.
  4. Utilising technology: Understanding technology to then consider how it can support our institutions to become more regenerative.

Once this baseline is achieved, universities can then consider the different kinds of tools they can utilise to support their transformation. Cameron highlighted the following: the development of a modality matrix, the creation of a robust learning taxonomy, and the implementation of a formative assessment to measure student’s growth through their time at university.

As a final word on the topic, Cameron adds that faculties are already tasked with a heavy workload across research and teaching, and the cost pressures of society make it difficult for universities to be competitive from a pay standpoint. Despite this, and in order to increase the flexibility and responsiveness of our institutions, discussions should turn from cost of education to investment in education. Only when leaders can invite and affirm new ideas in the design of education can we achieve an institution that fosters sustaining innovations.


Carse, J. (2011). Finite and infinite games. Simon and Schuster.
Christensen, C. M. (2013). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press.
Duderstadt, J. J. (1999). The future of higher education, new roles for the 21st-century university

Interested in more insights like this?

You can listen now to Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University, imagine what the Future University looks like and learn more about how IE University is working towards that in this podcast.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.

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