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From Pedagogy Innovation to “Breaking China” with Georgetown’s Randy Bass

 “Most of the really transformational ideas are actually breaking china now.”


Education Design Lab Founder Kathleen deLaski interviews Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education at Georgetown University – one of the few vice provosts given time and scope to run an innovation engine, called Designing the Future(s), that is now touching the whole university.


Kathleen deLaski: Let’s start with the trajectory of your career at Georgetown University. You started CNDLS, which was an innovation in itself. What year did you start?

Randy Bass: 1999-2000, so this is the 15-year anniversary.


KD: When you started CNDLS, why was it needed and what were the biggest innovation challenges in teaching and learning?

RB: I deliberately did not want the word “teaching” or the word “technology” in the title, so by calling it the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), as you can see, was echoing the idea of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. And I did not want to run a center for “teaching excellence”, etc. I wanted to run something that was about reinventing the university. We saw ourselves, and I always tried to embody this mission, that we were both just trying to help people do something better on Monday. And helping people really reimagine what it could be like to teach their discipline.


KD: Are those two ends of the continuum of your scope and services?

RB: I think so. One of the members of the advisory board [at the time] said he thinks that CNDLS should help the university imagine versions of itself that it wouldn’t see on its own. But I understood like, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – people can’t think about how to reinvent the university, if they can’t get the projector on, or if they can’t digitize the images that they love that they’ve been carrying around in analog form for 20 years. You’ve got to meet those needs first. So, as we built community in the first few years, we kind of ran the gamut.


KD: Interesting. So let’s fast-forward not quite 15 years, because that took a couple years for this to start to percolate. What was essential that you did in that community building? What helped make possible what you’re doing now in the Vice Provost role, and you’re being asked by your Provost and President to design the future across the university?

RB: Well, I think we’ve built a community of people who understood that innovation had many different faces, a community for whom innovation didn’t feel like it was at odds with their daily rhythms… I mean, we worked with hundreds of faculty in those first twelve or thirteen years before we launched The Future(s). So I think there was both a large community of people, but also just an ethos in which innovation wasn’t some giant flashing billboard of which there were winners and losers.

Part of the evidence of this is that when we launched the ITEL (the Initiative for Technology-Enhanced Learning) three years ago, during the first rise of the MOOCs, and we joined EdX, and at the same time announced that we were making this $8 million internal investment, of which a third was going to launch this thing called the Initiative for Technology Enhanced Learning, which was going to be a three year grants initiative to help faculty accelerate the pace of change around technology and learning. Our goal when we launched that was to reach 100 faculty and change 100 courses, and by the middle of the second year we were well over 200 faculty and probably 100 courses at least.


Randy Bass Georgetown Futures Red House
Randy in front of Georgetown’s Red House – The Future(s) initiative’s home base.

KD: And what accounts for the rapid adoption of that? Was it the incentives?

RB: Well I think partially it was well-incented in various ways, including that we actually built in incentives for collaboration, so you could apply for 50% more of the grant total if you partnered up with people not of your department. So, people found friends pretty fast [laughs]. But I think that that is evidence for how much of a community who saw themselves as engaged in the work of innovation that we built. Because I think the community was ripe for that…

But then, I think that the Future(s) work, (now affectionately referred to as the Red House after the 200 year old off-campus house where Randy and colleagues had makeshift offices during a 2014 renovation) actually initially pulled a different group. And in part, those were people who came out of interdisciplinary immersion fields who were already chafing against the large curricular structures in trying to do what they wanted to do.


KD: So they were people who had visions of the future and found the system getting in their way?

RB: Yeah, or basically had a kernel of an idea. I mean, literally, it feels like the first 30 conversations that [we] had with different potential partners, somebody would say at some point in the conversation, “You know, I’ve had this idea for X number of years, but I just kept getting told it couldn’t be done. But then I saw your Five Pump Priming Ideas document and I thought, ‘Well now they’re talking about what I’m talking about’.” Which is thinking beyond one-size-fits-all semesters, and re-thinking the 9-month calendar, and creating more interdisciplinary opportunities and giving credit for experience, or whatever it was, was that it was some version of, “That’s what I have been thinking about for years!”

And that was an invitation for people to think outside the box. Then I had like 80 conversations in two months, and then we announced the first few projects. And now, other projects have been pulled into the vortex. And it continues to grow. Now we have about 20 projects going, and counting.


KD: 20, wow.

RB: You know, maybe a dozen of them are really active, and the others are people who every few months say, “Where are we?” [laughs]. Well we’re still here. And what we’re trying to do now – and we’re getting close – is we’re trying to put out a sequel document. So April was the anniversary of the Five Pump Priming Ideas, and June is the anniversary of the announcement of the first group of projects. So just one year in, we’re trying to put out a progress report to let the community know what’s happening. We want to update the university to say, “Here’s four big ideas that have come out and all the players around them.” And we’re trying to write that in such a way that extracts the core elements of each of these four big ideas. We want folks to see here are your colleagues who have started to imagine, and here’s what these models look like. And we’re trying to bring people into the fold.


KD: I think this will be really useful for people to hear. A sort of step-by-step of how it’s coming together.

RB: Especially given a university’s speed, the fact that we went from just basically issuing an invitation, to now proposals are actually moving their way through faculty governance committees to launch project pilots in the fall.

So, I have two big meta-thoughts that probably anticipate what you’re going to ask:

One is, I think what is interesting about the work, and what feels valuable about my perspective from having gone from 13 years at a center for teaching and learning to now doing this Red House work, is that I was really feeling the last couple years running the center, the necessary but insufficient nature of just doing pedagogical innovation. For the most part, centers for teaching and learning are just banging away at people trying to make innovations inside the restrictions of their 15-week semester and they’re spending most of their time on the people who are already teaching above threshold, and you’re rarely reaching the people who really need to be reached.


KD: It’s also deep but not necessarily wide, right?

RB: Yes. I think depending on how you do it. I think we were hoping that ITEL would do some of that by saying, we’ll give you 50% more if you get three different faculty, all of whom are teaching gen psych, to like really reinvent gen psych – not just you make your gen psych better than anyone else’s gen psych [laughs]. So some of that was going on. The CNDLS narrative is one of pedagogical innovation, which can exceed the course, and starts to gesture toward the curricular where it’s looking at program goals. And what we’re doing out at the Red House is not pedagogical, but curricular in the sense of structural.


KD: Okay, so that’s meta number one: the necessary but insufficient nature of just doing the pedagogy without the structural.

RB: Right. And vice versa. So I have two other meta things to say, I’m sorry [laughs].

The second meta thing is that what you need to do the kind of work we’re doing is at least three different things: you need authority from the top to break rules and to really do some restructuring; you need grassroots creativity of faculty; and you need some kind of an R&D space where that can happen. So CNDLS is a certain kind of R&D space… think of it as the R&D space for the course-level curriculum. But if what you’re trying to do is to really reinvent the university, not just improve teaching and learning, then you need an R&D space where literally the authority to lift constraints—and problem-solve—is as much embodied in that R&D space as the grassroots creativity.


Randy shows Kathleen student design projects in his on-campus office.

KD: I want to underline that insight. So, authority for this R&D space means that it’s not just sanctioned by the president and the provost…

RB: Right, or patted on the head, you know. I think what’s unique about what we’re doing at the Red House is that it’s run by someone in this position [i.e. Vice Provost]. And, you know, our job is to bring people together with creative ideas with the people who run the systems who would otherwise say “you can’t do that.” So, we’re trying to create projects that actually run headlong into the way we do business.

You know, this 4-year bachelor-masters is basically a collaboration between one of our interdisciplinary liberal education programs on the main campus and our school of continuing studies. There’s like 50 things “wrong” with what we’re doing – how do we figure out pricing, how we figure out tuition flow. Right now all Georgetown main campus students are forbidden from taking even a single class from the School of Continuing Studies…

So, it’s the authority to operate at the grassroots level, and to operate with lifting constraints of the structures with the grassroots creativity. Because people talk a lot about you need both “top-down” and “bottom-up”, but I think you need top-down and bottom-up to meet in this middle space. But that middle space can’t just be a safe space, that middle space has to be a safe creative space with the authority to work at the system level.


KD: A safe space with authority…

RB: Which, on the surface of it might seem like an oxymoron.


KD: Well, it’s interesting because I know of very few schools that have that. Basically, where the provost’s office is directly running the skunk works. It’s a great model. So, what’s your third meta?

RB: My third meta-point is that what is really interesting to me is, there are certainly some ways in which the Red House work is just what I was doing in CNDLS at a bigger scale, but there is also a way in which that work is totally different. When you’re running a center for teaching, I think, you’re basically asking faculty to do about 80% of the innovation. So you’re teeing up “here are some great ideas”, “here’s some inspiring theory”, “here’s some new technology”, “here’s a great course model”, and whatever, to inspire faculty, and then you put together a team to support the faculty, but it’s still the faculty member who is bringing that change in. This work that I’m doing now, I feel like 80% of the innovation is on our side.


KD: Because it’s structural?

RB: Yeah. So really, we just need partners to help us think through what are the structural things that we need to revise and rejigger.


KD: How much of it, though – I hear this some from other schools – how much of that structural piece actually is NOT within the university’s control? Even if you’ve got the president on board, and the provost on board?

RB: Well… I wouldn’t say a lot of it. I guess it depends what you mean. I’m not sure what you mean by that.


KD: Well mainly regulatory, financial aid, accreditation. Those are the things that get in the way.

RB: Well what I’ve found so far with that stuff, is that four year ago that would have been a huge problem, but that is not a problem at the moment. The Department of Ed, as you know, they’re like totally into experimental stuff if you can even rationalize it under the notion of “accelerating progress to degree.” They let you do all that stuff now, or at least there is accommodation for doing it experimentally that they’ve created that space for.

And I think the accrediting bodies are also of mixed minds. They’re so freakin’ scared of becoming irrelevant, that they still have all their high-minded this and that, but they are pro-innovation.

The other thing is that our approach has to be very evidence based on student learning. We’re very focused on measuring stuff that we weren’t measuring before. So in the end, as a highly selective school, we’re trying to live out a narrative of an assessment culture – I hate that phrase- but the accrediting bodies use it all the time. We can’t do any of our experiments, except inside a culture of assessment.

We’ve been also trying to do – Steve Jobs called it “concurrent design” – somebody else in the Red House the other day called it “agile design”. Basically, trying not to come up with the full idea and send it down the chute and let everybody who thinks there is something wrong with it take a slice of it, but to basically get the creative process to enough of a place where you can then bring the stakeholders in, give input, then they go away and it goes back to the creative team to keep working on their vision.


KD: Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do with our design challenges…

RB: So, to that extent, I mean, it’s a huge amount of work. 80% is on us, because it’s us then trying to figure out what if we did this, what if we did that? So, by bringing the stakeholders in, they’ve suggested all kinds of things, so now we’ve found all these interesting work-arounds… We bring the stakeholders in and say, “Help us think through this problem”, not “Why can’t we do this?” But, “This is what we’re trying to achieve, what are you hearing?”

Now, if you’re working with state authorizations, or with system levels, I’m sure there are lots of reasons that this won’t work…. we’re working in a fairly agile space compared to a public institution. I don’t want to sound preachy like, “Hey, try this! You be a highly-selective private school that can do whatever it wants, what’s your problem?” [laughs]


KD: No, but I think the design principles should be able to work with private or public institutions. People have to understand that there’s going to be uncomfortable space. It’s like the “Theory U”… you’re going to have to go into the depths of despair before you can turn the corner and come back up.

RB: I think the other thing that’s really important is, you have to have the top-down authorization. What we’re not trying to do is change policy. What we’re trying to do is run pilots. We’re trying to create a protective space to run a three-year trial of something, to see how it works. So what I’m seeking from faculty governance is not “Can we use this proposal to change university policy for all time?” But, “Will you vote to approve this controlled pilot in which we’re trying to see what it would look like to do this?” So, it’s a very different kind of permission. People are still bringing scrutiny to it, but it’s just very different. We’re trying to get people to approve that we run these as R&D projects.


Randy Bass and Kathleen deLaski in front of the Red House


KD: I want to get at what does success look like to you? It sounds like you’re further along than you thought you would be… which is great. But let’s say a new president or a new provost comes in and you have to explain why this work should carry on. Or does it have enough steam and enough broad support that nobody’s even going to ask that question?

RB: No, I wouldn’t say that. What success would look like… I mean we have yet to launch a single new pilot program, so we’ve done a lot in a year but I also feel like we haven’t really accomplished anything yet. We’re getting there, and if we launch stuff 18 months after we cut the ribbon, that will be huge success. But we haven’t even done that yet. We’re still working our way through. I think what success really looks like is that we demonstrate the long-term viability, and that includes financial viability, of entirely new models.


KD: And how long will that take? To have some proof points?

RB: I think we can do something in two or three years. What I’m not clear about is at what point for something to really look viable… at some point, things may not look viable as long as we’re running them in the context of the rest of the ecosystem that’s running on some older paradigm.


KD: That’s a great point.

RB: So, I’m actually trying to do some modeling of that. Like what would it look like if 25% or 35% or 50% of credits were given for credit-bearing experience versus courses?


KD: A mixed model…

RB: Yeah, or what if we wanted every single graduating student to have had one transformational thing that looks like x or y, and we wanted it to come under faculty load. What would it look like if we built the whole thing from there out? We’re trying to create viable financial models for every project at the micro level, on the theory that if we can make that work, then micro times 100 is still viable, right? Then we’re not, as the old joke goes, losing money on every sale and making it up in volume [laughs]. But we’re trying to actually make it viable even on every sale. And some of the things work that way, but others kind of work on “Let’s assume we now operate on this system,” and I’m not really clear about that.

And I guess the other point: in the end, there are a few major structural things that just have to change. Our first victory is we had this course designation passed. There had never been a course number that didn’t belong to a school at the university. So, my first faculty governance was to get passed this course number called UNXP, which is University-wide Experimental, and UNXD, which is University-wide Cross Disciplinary. So there are now these course designations that belong to the whole university that sit under the provost’s office. We now can actually run experiments under UNXP and UNXD. That’s an example of a bureaucratic mechanism that totally opened up this whole space. A second thing would be to start being able to calculate some number of mentorship obligations to count as [faculty teaching] load. That would be a structural mechanism that would really start to tip the scales. And for us, a third would be, to negotiate a transfer pricing deal where if the med center faculty are teaching undergraduate students, some undergraduate tuition dollars go back out to buy out the med center faculty, so we could really do these cross-campus things.

The other thing that victory will look like is if our “as if” experiments turn into structural changes. Because that’s where we could jump to a 10% experiment to opening up the gates to a whole new way of being.


KD: You’re right. And those are the financial constraints, or I guess the core structural constraints. Although, you know, the corporate world had to figure out your undergrad-graduate issue. That’s called “chargebacks,” and aligning your budget with chargebacks is just something that usually comes from the top, right? And you get told to do it.

RB: Yeah. If there’s not the will there, then… the reason we can bring the stakeholders together is that from the top down, Future(s) is a “thing.” People are now talking about it all over the campus. So, to come in to say why something can’t happen, you are now not playing the game that we are playing. And that makes all the difference in the world. If I were just doing this from the edge, or even from CNDLS, then it’s just begging people.


KD: Right. And you’re just having to operate on the power of one idea.

RB: Yeah, or it has to work totally within the lines. But most of the cool ideas that play within the current constraints, we’ve largely reached the limits of those ideas. Most of the really transformational ideas are actually breaking some china now. By that I mean, real change is not based merely on technologies or efficiencies or new pedagogies, but on really separating our core practices from our habitual structures. So, our values stay the same but we have break through some of our constraints to remain viable.


KD: That’s a great last point. “Most of the really transformational ideas are breaking china now.”