At first glance, Georgetown’s Red House, nestled a stone’s throw from Lauinger Library on 37th Street, seems like just another town house. But inside, a mix of students, professors, faculty and administrators are rethinking the world of higher education.
The Red House opened in June as a central gathering location for the Designing the Future(s) Initiative, a program that the university launched in November 2013 with the goal of improving university education. The initiative aims to engage students in complex problem-solving of today’s global issues and discussion about the future of education and curriculum. The 25 student representatives in the Red House, who were selected as the Board of Regents Future(s) Fellows in a competitive application process, work in collaboration with university administrators at the house.
Vice Provost for Education and professor of English Randall Bass said that the Red House emerged as an ideal space to house the new initiative.
“It really evolved a little bit by accident in that, at the end of the spring, after we came out with the pump priming ideas, we knew we wanted to start incubating projects. We just needed a space where that design work could go on in its own space,” Bass said.
The initiative will challenge the traditional staples of university education, such as the four-year bachelor’s degree or the format of the college transcript, and consider alternative formats such as four-year master’s degree programs.
A major goal of the initiative is to unite the university community in looking at the challenges that higher education currently faces and how Georgetown can improve its courses and programs through experimentation with innovative ideas.
The idea for the Red House originated in summer 2013 when Provost Robert Groves pulled together a group of faculty to discuss how Georgetown could improve as a university and to generate ideas about how the university’s future could progress. Faculty members came up with five ideas to improve higher education: flexible curricular and teaching structures, competency-based learning, expanding mentored research, work-learn and a four year combination of bachelor and master degrees.
Bass said that the five ideas were meant to stir discussion.
“It was just here are five ideas literally to prime the pump or to just start stimulating people’s thinking and in some ways to give them permission to think outside the boundaries of our model,” Bass said.
Kelly Heuer, the head of communications and project development at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, said that the Red House, which is funded by donations, is a great place to get people from different backgrounds together.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity to be able to connect with people who are working in a totally different area subject-matter wise, with people who are working in a totally different discipline, or in a different part of the university, but are engaged in a similar kind of asking the big questions enterprise,” Heuer said.
Bass said he is excited to encourage collaboration between students and administrators.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to put together the two pieces — faculty being the prime movers of the curricular piece and the students being the prime movers behind some of these meta curricular pieces,” Bass said.
The students are currently working on a project called the Georgetown Student Dashboard, an online platform where students can track progress beyond grades.
“What I’ve found to be most rewarding is that students, administrators, faculty and staff are working together with a shared identity and purpose to re-imagine life at Georgetown,” Shane Thomas (COL ’16), who is working on the Student Dashboard, said.
One of the major projects in development at the Red House is the reconfiguration of courses around principles such as studio-based learning.
“We have a wonderful cluster — it’s called a studio collaborative — three self-standing courses that are all connected and they have a studio or studio-based learning at the center of them, so it’s an interdisciplinary approach to ethics and science and communication, but using innovative studio-based and design approach,” Bass emphasized.
Philosophy 105, a pilot studio course, is currently being offered as a bioethics introductory course. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics and the Red House collaborated to formulate the class, in which students tackle real world issues in bioethics and learn in a project-based educational setting.
“Students are driven to the content of the course, not by having it said to them in the content of a lecture, but by being asked to create something, to engage with some contexts, some problems, some puzzles and physically create something for an authentic audience of peers and external experts,” Heuer said.
Another major project in development looks at reinventing how college degrees work, such as blending bachelor’s and master’s programs.
A new minor in writing design and communications based on major projects submitted for review rather than required courses is also in the works.
“This is a pretty radical experiment in liberating, you know, or separating credits from seat time,” Bass said. “In saying that you are only awarded credits based on what you show you can do, not on just sitting in class or spending a certain amount of time in a seat.”
But with change comes hesitation. The Red House, still in its first year, hopes avoid this resistance by bringing in people from across Georgetown who can give full representation to every aspect of the university experience.
“We have to continuously be engaging lots and lots of people who have a stake in this,” Bass said. The program is a forum for creativity and advancement involving individuals from all facets of the university structure. “We’re trying to provide a framework to galvanize the incredible creativity of our faculty and the energy of our students.”