Repurposing the college experience

I was having coffee with the always fascinating Grant McCracken last week, and we got into a digression on the function of the university in the world today (part of what I love about talking to Grant is that our conversations end up in such interesting places). It stemmed from a discussion about whether my MIT physics education provided me with skills relevant to my current job in business strategy and operations. And I said no.

So he asked me what I did learn at MIT. And I responded that MIT taught me valuable meta-skills, including learning how to learn quickly, and a structured approach to problem solving. But that wasn’t what was taught by MIT – those were the skills I had to learn for myself to survive in that fast-paced environment.

But I said that the true value of MIT to me was not in any of the classes I took, but in the communities I became a part of by going there. I’ve often said that other colleges and universities have the same classes, but very few other places have the concentration of amazing people that MIT had. Many of my best friends continue to be people I met in college, and they continue to inspire me and challenge me to this day, long after I have forgotten everything I learned in my classes there. Being part of that community is one reason I continue to be fascinated by the question of what makes communities work and how we can do better at creating them.

Once I said my answer, though, it struck me that if the most valuable part of college was the friends and communities that I found through that institution, then wouldn’t it make sense to repurpose the college experience to focus on that as an explicit design goal? (assuming my experience is at all generalizable) In other words, what if college was less focused on the classes being taken (or, more cynically, the research being generated), and more on providing the ingredients for encouraging community formation? What would such a college or university look like?

Grant and I tossed ideas around for a few minutes, but I’d love to get more people’s thoughts on this. Beyond the normal activities at a college (sports, clubs, etc), what would it take to make it easier for like-minded people to find each other and create bonds? In that post I linked to, I mention the idea that what makes a community long-lasting is selection and commitment – the community members have to select each other and commit to making the community endure. Part of what made my TEP experience so deep was that we had a physical location to call our own – perhaps providing more community-specific locations might be a potential ingredient?

Another question is what kind of communities such an institution should support? I was flipping through my old posts on community and came across this one on community media usage, which observes that there are many types of communities and each community facilitates different interactions. Just because I prefer the deep community from my college experience doesn’t mean everyone will – perhaps others prefer being a social butterfly where they flit between many groups.

And that gets back to the design challenge of facilitating community formation at a college would look like. How can an institution provide an appropriate trellis for communities without also dictating the types of communities that will emerge? A lot of the tools I can think of would be double-edged swords – a “facebook” listing interests to facilitate interest groups could be repurposed for stalking.

So it’s a tricky challenge, but one that seems relevant. Many companies are also trying to facilitate communities among their users, but only a few have figured out how to do it. From my observations, it seems like a couple key components are to have an active community manager to provide thought prompts and do moderation, but also to push community ownership to the users as much as possible. I’d love to hear from my friends who have been involved in such community creation what they learned from their experiences.

P.S. I updated my WordPress theme, because the old one was kind of breaking and wasn’t mobile-friendly – let me know if you notice anything broken.

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