The Future of the University – Part 1 – JEE Academic Bookshelf Revisited

Academic Bookshelf Revisited #2 – The Future of the University – Part 1[1]

Update of Journal of Engineering Education – Academic Bookshelf 89(4), October 2000

In October 2000 then Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Engineering Education, John Prados and I reflected on the future of the university. That was my last column in the series and is the second one in the revisited series. We reviewed several books, including Dancing with the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education that included a marvelous essay by James Duderstadt, Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (a National Research Council report), Academic Duty by Donald Kennedy, and The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Our assessment of the future of higher education was positive although we emphasized that there was room for improvement. The 2000 Academic Bookshelf column is available here

Part 1 of the Future of the University focuses on the impact of and continuing recuperations of the pandemic. Part 2 will focus on a summary of the growing number of books on the current and future state of the university.

The rapid shift to remote learning over three years ago required engineering faculty (and the entire higher education community) to confront long-held assumptions, such as the sanctity of in-person lecture and labs, and many more. Amazingly, it wasn’t a total disaster, which is a testament to the tenacity and resilience of faculty and students. And it may provide opportunities for improvement if we choose to embrace them.

Tom Fisher argued in his 2022 book, Space, structures and design in a post-pandemic world that pandemics:

  1. Accelerate us into the future and magnify trends
  2. Reveal inequities and dysfunctions in existing systems
  3. Bring renewed attention to public & personal health
  4. Create opportunities for those who grasp the change

My sense of the past three or so years is that we experienced the full force of 1, 2 and 3; and now is the time to carefully consider 4, the potential opportunities and affordances.

Fisher also provides examples of the impact of previous pandemics on higher education. He claims that the cholera pandemic (1852-1854) prompted the formation of the Land-Grant Universities via the first Morrill Act (1857-1862). The flu pandemic (1918-20) he claims prompted the creation of junior colleges and the start of the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC) in 1920.

What changes in higher education will be prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic (2020-22)? Perhaps Alternative Universities (Staley, 2019)? Fundamental transformation? Incremental change? Tinkering at the edges?

Engineering education has undergone significant shifts in the past 100 years and they help guide and may help inform us as to how to navigate the current pandemic crisis.  Froyd, Wankat and Smith (2012) described these shifts as:

  1. a shift from hands-on and practical emphasis to engineering science and analytical emphasis;
  2. a shift to outcomes-based education and accreditation;
  3. a shift to emphasizing engineering design;
  4. a shift to applying education, learning, and social-behavioral sciences research;
  5. a shift to integrating information, computational, and communications technology in education.

They further note, “The first two shifts have already occurred, but they continue to have implications for engineering education. The latter three are still in process, and sustained influences on practice are difficult to forecast.”

Two new shifts occurred in the past few years (Chavela Guerra and Smith, 2021):

  1. Shift to (emergency) remote learning due to the pandemic
  2. Shift to emphasizing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in response to murder of George Floyd and other events

Chavela Guerra and Smith (2021) summarized the implications of the major shifts in the following figure, and noted that prior shifts:

  1. Were prompted by outside forces
  2. Were met with resistance
  3. Were eventually embraced (to varying degrees)
  4. Did not change core values/practices

As with prior shifts, the shift to remote learning was prompted by outside forces, was met with resistance, was embraced through various means and levels of quality, and we will see if it changes core values and practices. One of the intentions of this reflection is to help inform and hopefully influence change in engineering education (Smith,, 2004).

The shift to remote learning fortunately benefitted from the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning that occurred in the 1990s. That shift, in part, was built on the fourth major shift articulated by Froyd, Wankat and Smith (2012), applying education, learning, and social-behavioral sciences research. This shift has been gaining traction since the 1980s, especially the steady increase in the adoption of evidence-based instructional practices (Singer and Smith, 2013)

Between the learning paradigm shift that began in the 1980s, the shift to outcomes-based education and accreditation (shift two, Froyd, Wankat and Smith, 2012), and the current shift, I wrote in 2008, “A paradigm shift is taking place in science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) education, driven by the National Science Foundation, accreditation processes (such as ABET), changing expectations of employers, the rapidly changing state-of-the-art of pedagogy, and many other forces. Minor modifications in current teaching practices will not solve the current problems. Teaching success in today’s world requires a new approach to instruction, and an important part of the new approach is the switch to inquiry-based student-centered learning” (Smith, 2008). Frustratingly, this shift has been painfully slow (Smith, 2012; Smith and Felder, 2023).

The majority of the emphasis before the current pandemic was on the cognitive domain, and as noted above, major advances have occurred based on research on how people learn and the importance of interactive learning. The pandemic highlighted the importance of mental and emotional health and well being and an implication is the essential need for emphasis on personal and academic support as well as psychological safety. The importance of social interaction came to the foreground as face-to-face instruction shifted en masse to online/remote instruction. The need to consider educating the whole person will likely get increased attention over time, since well-being contributes significantly to learning.

Perhaps the current shifts to embracing remote learning due to the pandemic and emphasizing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion will influence core values and practices. Will the 2020 to 2022 Covid-19 pandemic period and perhaps beyond prompt the creation of Alternative Universities? Fisher noted that the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the balance between the digital and physical worlds and revealed inequities. We have an opportunity to improve learning in this digital age and continue the long process of minimizing inequities.

Elaboration on the implications of the major shifts over the past 100 years for learning in and after the time of coronavirus

The first major shift from hands-on practical training to engineering science and analytical emphasis occurred in the period 1935 to 1965 and engineering curricula moved from hands-on, practice-based curricula to ones that emphasized mathematical modeling and theory-based approaches. An implication of this first shift in engineering is that research and theory matter not only in engineering fundamentals but also in the design and implementation of learning opportunities and learning environments. For example, basing our instructional designs on what we know about how people learn (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2004, Smith, Clarke Douglas, & Cox, 2009) and especially embracing the neuroscience of learning. Streveler & Smith (2020) argue that learning requires deliberate distributed practice.

The second shift from an input model of accreditation, i.e., review of courses, curricula, student work, etc., to outcomes-based accreditation occurred in the 1990s and resulted in Engineering Criteria 2000. This shift was prompted in part by pressure from employers who were unhappy with the preparation of engineering graduates. Also, it was part of a broader change in higher education to articulate university-wide student learning outcomes, which was led by regional accreditation organizations. An implication of this shift for remote learning is the importance of identifying and articulating enduring outcomes as a critical part of effective course and program design. Furthermore, the shift to remote learning meant that faculty had to focus on the most important student learning outcomes, given the constraints of time and instructional format.

The third major shift from little emphasis on design to increasing emphasis on design as a major and distinctive element of engineering occurred in the mid-2000s in part because of the sense that the emphasis on engineering science, science, and mathematics has gone too far. An implication of this shift for remote learning is that embracing the engineering design process for course and program design is consistent with using an engineering approach. A key aspect is

the importance of alignment of outcomes, assessment, and instruction; as well as feedback and iteration.

The fourth major shift from traditional lecture, homework, and exams to applying education, learning, and social-behavioral research has been occurring for at least the past 40 years and continues to inform and influence engineering education. This research has been critical in at least several areas of engineering education:

  1. Educational objectives, mastery, and student learning outcomes
  2. Student engagement, especially active, interactive and cooperative learning.
  3. Inquiry-based learning methods including problem-based and project-based learning
  4. Integrated approach to course and program design
  5. Importance of a broader range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes
  6. Scholarly approach to engineering education through the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and engineering education research

The fifth major shift identified by Froyd, Wankat & Smith (2012) or perhaps better described as the continual and evolving influence of information, communication, and computational technologies on engineering education helped facilitate the shift to remote learning during the pandemic. It was not entirely a smooth transition as we’ll address later in this paper. An implication of this shift is that although technology provides affordances to mediate learning, it is not a panacea since education is a human activity.

Another implication is that engineering teaching and learning can be accomplished remotely but there are challenges, such as video conference fatigue, and the shift of human/social interaction from face-to-face to online/remote. The impact of the lack of human interaction during the pandemic is still being assessed. One potential mitigating factor is group belongingness, since “Higher levels of group belongingness are the most consistent protective factor against videoconference fatigue.”


Bransford, J.D, Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (2004). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Chavela Guerra, R., & Smith, K. A. (2021). Learning in the time of coronavirus. Washington, DC: American Society for Engineering Education.

Fisher, T. (2022). Space, structures and design in a post-pandemic world. New York: Routledge.

Froyd, J., Wankat, P., & Smith, K. (2012). Five Major Shifts in 100 Years of Engineering Education. Proceedings of the IEEE. 100. 1344-1360. 10.1109/JPROC.2012.2190167.

Singer, S. & Smith, K. A. (2013). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 102(4), 468-471.

Smith, K.A. (2008). Inquiry-Based Cooperative Learning [Smith-Inquiry-based-CL-1208-3.pdf] Updated article based on Smith, K.A. (1999). Inquiry in large classes. The 1999 Sigma Xi Forum, Reshaping Undergraduate Science Education: Tools for Better Learning.

Smith, Karl A. (2011). Cooperative Learning: Lessons and Insights from Thirty Years of Championing a Research-based Innovative Practice. Proceedings of the Annual ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Rapid City, SD, T3E-1-T3E-7. doi: 10.1109/FIE.2011.6142840

Smith, K.A., Clarke Douglas, T., and Cox, M. (2009). Supportive teaching and learning strategies in STEM education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 117, 19-32.

Smith, K.A. & Felder, R.M. (2023). Cooperative Learning in Engineering Education: The Story of an Ongoing Uphill Climb. In Robyn Gillies, Barbara Millis, and Neil Davidson, eds. Contemporary Global Perspectives on Cooperative Learning New York: Routedge. Draft

Smith, K.A., Linse, A., Turns, J., and Atman, C. (2004). Engineering change. American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference Proceedings. Session 1630, 18 pp.

Staley, D.J. (2019). Alternative universities: Speculative design for innovation in higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Streveler, R., & Smith, K. (2020). Opinion: Course design in the time of corona virus: Put on your designer’s CAP. Advances in Engineering Education, 8(4).

[1] The assistance of Rocio Chavela Guerra and Russ Korte is gratefully acknowledged.