New Models for Higher Education

Education systems that incorporate human interaction and multidimensional learning are poised to change what and how we learn.

While the flipped classroom, EdX, and portfolio-based learning all exemplify the tremendous evolution that is taking place in higher education, a whole field of adult learning programs is sprouting up and filling a gap left by even the most-evolved higher education institutions. These new models, which emphasize human interaction and multidimensional learning, are experimenting beyond the capacity of traditional higher education and producing valuable insights into what the future of education will look like.

These learning programs, some of which I detail below, have two powerful advantages: They are small, and they are young. The small size enables agility; their youth enables idealism. They are asking the question, “What is the purpose of education in the first place?” And they are testing alternatives to student loans like crowdfunding, creative methods to demonstrate learning like gamification, and real-world integration through synergistic partnerships with businesses.

These new models are cultivating 21st-century skills, including intercultural communication, systems thinking, social and emotional intelligence, empathy, and social entrepreneurship. They have the freedom to experiment because they don’t have to report to accreditation boards or adhere to concretized cultures. They also have a mandate to produce real, tangible value, because if they don’t, they disappear.

Measuring What Counts

Since learning in these programs isn’t based on traditional metrics like grades, they are creating new ways to make learning quantifiable. One of these ways is through gamification. Producia, for example, created a platform to gamify the social enterprise startup process. Students go on a shared journey of missions designed to support their learning and action. In the process, they connect to a real-life community of support that includes mentors, talent, and if relevant, customers and project funders. As students demonstrate their learning and support the learning of others, they gain “XP,” or “experience points,” which unlock more perks within the community. The integration of gaming not only illuminates the learning, but also fosters a collaborative environment where the learning is interconnected and based on real-world needs and opportunities.

The Power of Human Relationships

The core of these new programs is not technology, but humans. Don Michael Randel, former Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Chicago said in a lecture, "The business of education—which is the business of transforming people's lives—is fundamentally a people-intensive business.” In our own program, Mycelium, each of our students have a personal learning coach; a practice group of peers; a support council created from their personal network; and access to a global community of professionals, experts, and thought leaders. Trained learning facilitators support the entire 12-week experience and guide the program.

The Open Masters, which originated in Washington, DC, is a tuition-free, self-directed learning community where individuals support one another in developing and executing  personally customized learning plans. Since its inception in 2012, students have pursued learning in diverse fields such as art for social change, urban farming, and chair design. These self-organizing learning networks have now spread to San Francisco and the Netherlands as well.

Multi-Dimensional Learning

Systems thinking, complexity, and indigenous wisdom are in the DNA of many of these emerging programs. Rather than simply ingesting data to produce a desired result, the programs are looking at the complexity of humans within the complexity of their worlds. A recent SSIR post written by the team at the Amani Institute, explores something they call the “wound-gift concept,” which is the belief that people can surface a wellspring of insight and innovation by diving into their personal challenges. The Journey Network, a peripatetic learning program based in Europe, is something akin to a gap year crossed with a vision quest where coming of age adults travel, reflect, and pursue life purpose within an interconnected network of support.

By honoring formative life experiences, learning styles, and cultural conditioning, there is tremendous potential to nurture the whole individual in their pursuit to add value to the world in a personally meaningful way.

What we’re noticing is that many of these programs have flexible structures that meet the evolving needs of the student and the world. These programs go beyond focusing on what is and instead look at what’s possible. Hungarian systems scientist Bela Banathy wrote, “Evolutionary learning is about knowledge creation and cultural innovation. It is guided by questions of possibility that expand the edge of what we already know in order to create what we can only imagine.”

Those who have the most rigorously tested answers will not drive the future of learning; those who pursue the most meaningful questions will.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • andro gigauri's avatar

    BY andro gigauri

    ON July 17, 2014 11:01 PM

    I coud not agree more to the spirit of this article. It has been about four years since I started teaching. I think that human centered approach is the key for efficient learning process. Also, I tried “gamification” of the learning process and it certainly works, i.e. students are more encouraged to learn - go into depths.

    You can also teach students teamwork, if you have teams compete as part of the game. Finally, I think whatever we teach, it is key to review the impact of decisions on factors, other than those, in the center of attention (i.e. unintended consequences). I noticed, that while involved in the game, students are becoming radical in their decision-making process for the sake of winning, while leaving behind things that matter.

  • BY Roshan Paul

    ON July 18, 2014 12:35 AM

    The last line is the most important one in this piece. “Those who have the most rigorously tested answers will not drive the future of learning; those who pursue the most meaningful questions will.”

    Well said, Matthew and thanks for the mention of Amani Institute!

  • BY Drew Little

    ON July 18, 2014 01:22 PM

    Wonderful article, Matthew! We really feel gamification and new economics will engage students in taking an active role in their learning. Thanks for the Producia mention as well.

  • Daniel's avatar

    BY Daniel

    ON July 28, 2014 09:46 AM

    “Education systems that incorporate human interaction and multidimensional learning.” Isn’t that just normal classes with less than 30 students or so? How complicated to we have to make this?

  • Technology is great tool for enhancing our learning experience but the human touch is even more important.  I am not a big fan of these online classes.  I think a fun learning environment should be a healthy balance of technology and human interaction

  • BY Brandon Hodge

    ON October 31, 2014 10:06 PM

    I think it is about time that our society breaks free from the traditional 4 years of college with the same grading scale which has been in place for years. The problem is this traditional learning system fails to teach the core of future business and work endeavors which relies heavily on social interaction and relationships. Just because people make great grades does not mean that they will also gain the social skills that are crucial in order to grow and succeed. Having creative learning classes will enable teachers or for better terms “coaches” interact with students to sharpen their human interaction skills on a more personal level with “real life” simulation which cannot be replicated with an expensive course book, time consuming lecture, and material that may not truly help the individual since most schools have follow and meet national and state guidelines…

  • People just need to realize the game has changed in place of the old school curriculum. With the internet and just about any degree you can think of can be learned online. This alone breaks up the usual sit in class, read notes, and listen to a professor for hours. I think it is important to switch up the learning process for future job seekers to come prepared with more “reality” concepts which can be channeled into a real career.

  • Thanks a lot and best wishes for this Wonderful article, Matthew!

  • This is Diwali from . . .

  • BY Ghayal returns

    ON November 30, 2015 07:02 AM

    Thanks a lot for this article on higher education. I am really waiting for ghayal once again, upcoming action drama of sunny deol. This is Sunny from

  • BY Richard

    ON July 9, 2016 05:49 PM

    Great article. I discovered it after hearing that MIT had made all of its courses available online, for free! That’s pretty incredible and just shows how the internet and technology have changed the game.

    As I musician I have used Coursera, which is also another way to take lessons online in an interactive way.

    Jobs will always depend on skills but also life experience. Kids these days are immersed in technology, so we need to mold education to fit that paradigm.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

By Paul Tough

Building on his previous work about the importance of personal traits such as perseverance in student success, Paul Tough focuses Helping Children Succeed on how educators, policymakers, and parents can help children develop those attributes.