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Re-Imagining Undergraduate Education: The Red Balloon Project

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

As many of you know AASCU has launched a national initiative to re-imagine and redesign undergraduate education for the 21st century. Public colleges and universities are facing a complex set of challenges: transformational changes in technology, reductions in funding, shifting student demographics, growth of the private sector in higher education, demands for greater accountability, and more. The Red Balloon Project will help institutions restructure to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances of the new century. I am in Orlando, Florida attending AASCU’s Winter Academic Affairs meeting and Red Balloon is the animating theme of the conference.

“The initiative is named the Red Balloon Project in honor of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which sponsored a contest to find 10 red weather balloons randomly placed throughout the United States. The purpose of the contest was to explore the way that the Internet can use social networking tools to achieve an outcome. The contest winner, a team from MIT, found all 10 balloons in 8 hours and 52 minutes. For more information about the contest and its outcome, visit this website.

The Red Balloon contest serves as a metaphor for the newly-networked world. This new way of generating, aggregating and disseminating information has profound implications for higher education. It challenges long-held practices of teaching and learning, institutional organization and structure, and the very notion of expertise. The Red Balloon contest also serves as an analogy for how a community of higher education institutions and their national association can work together to promote and support change in higher education.” (Excerpt taken from the Red Balloon website.)

In the ramp up to the launch and initial management of this initiative, George Mehaffy (VP of Academic Leadership and Change, AASCU) and I have challenged the steering committee to find ways to connect the work of ADP to our efforts in Red Balloon. ADP drew much of its success from restructuring the undergraduate experience so that students would acquire greater civic outcomes. Red Balloon in many ways can be seen as an extension of ADP and begs this question: If we are re-imagining undergraduate education, what are we re-imagining it for? Put differently, how do we adequately address the forces confronting higher education while preserving the civic and public mission for higher education?

To better understand how we might answer these questions, I convened a group of AASCU provosts and professors at the Orlando meeting. We had a discussion about how Red Balloon and ADP might fit together. Two themes arose for me. The first was the importance of collaboration. It is a well-known fact that higher education is about silos – both locally and nationally. If we are going to address the problems posed by Red Balloon, we must learn how to collaborate and break down these silos. We must work with people throughout the university and higher education broadly to develop strategies for addressing these forces.

I know this can be done because much of the success of the American Democracy Project has grown out of the use of networked knowledge and collaboration. Take, for example, our Civic Engagement in Action Series. Each initiative within the series convenes a group of engaged scholars for a number of years to experiment with translating content (for example: voter education, global trends, political engagement pedagogy, etc.) into a variety of strategies for educating informed, engaged citizens. Through the course of each initiative, the scholars meet together, communicate using email and social networking platforms, and develop tools together. At the conclusion of each initiative, a product has been created that captures the best practices that we can use to engage students politically and civically. This product is then shared with all universities within ADP. Indeed, we’ve found that much of our work has been relational – that faculty members do very well when networked with their colleagues of different disciplines and from around the country who are trying to tackle the very same set of issues.

The second theme that arose in our conversation was the need for higher education to define and claim a public purpose. For me, the most important public purpose of higher education is the maintenance and improvement of American democracy. As Larry Gould of Fort Hays State astutely pointed out, though, there are additional and other public purposes of higher education including ensuring access and equity for underrepresented students, educating future professionals, and strengthening the American economy. I still hold on to my definition of purpose, but I think these other purposes can be included in a larger civic purpose of higher education. In our discussion, it became clear that it is time for higher education to have a conversation about purpose that is tied to the challenges we are confronting.

The goal of our conversation was to create a set of recommendations for university leaders who want to continue their work in ADP and start grappling with the issues posed by Red Balloon. What follows is a short list of these preliminary recommendations. Over the next few months, I will work with leaders in both ADP and Red Balloon to continue to develop this list so that we can work – in concert – to create meaningful experiences for undergraduate students while addressing the challenges facing American higher education.


1)    Start a conversation with faculty members and students on your campus already engaged in ADP about Red Balloon topics. Have them read George’s Red Balloon paper, or books like DIY U, Academically Adrift, and Our Underachieving Colleges.

2)    Be deliberate about seeking student involvement and leadership in any discussions or projects you launch.

3)    Start a campus-wide conversation about the purpose of higher education. Ask faculty members and students how well higher education is fulfilling this purpose, and how we might improve.

4)    Experiment with collaborative courses and blended courses (using both technology and face-to-face interactions).

5)    Seize the occasion of the primary season to network with other universities throughout the nation who are grappling with these issues. Host candidate forums in which your students engage people running for office on these topics.

This is a short (but growing!) list of recommendations. Please send me any other recommendations you might have.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’d add that we need to carve out new “space” for communities of interest and new purposes for “old” on-campus facilities which would allow creative and new ways to practice and appreciate civic engagement. For example, FHSU is heading toward ADP 2.0 by “mashing together” the functions of the library with our Center for Civic Leadership. Both directors and their constituencies are brainstorming about unique applications of technology (e.g. telepresence) to facilitate these communities of interest and better model 21st century learning about community. If you will, call it “structural edupunk.”


    February 17, 2011
    • Virginia Horvath #

      That’s a good point, Larry, about re-imagining the physical spaces as well as the more philosophical ones. Even the term “restructuring” can cause considerable anxiety and suspicion, as people tend to think of fixed, isolating institutional structures. But it is useful to think about the “mashing” you mention and all the ways that our structures can support new approaches and connections. In a time when all of us have fiscal constraints that prevent building one more of anything, I’m interested in hearing others’ ideas about how doing things differently allows us to do things better.


      February 23, 2011
  2. Great addition, Larry. Thank you!


    February 17, 2011

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