Learning Beyond Four Walls

Today’s students want to experiment, solve problems, engage across disciplines, and take on real-world projects. More institutions are designing educational experiences that allow them to do just that.

Learning Beyond Four Walls

WHEN GEORGE CALHOUN WALKS into the Hanlon Lab for Financial Analytics & Data Visualization Technology—opened last year at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey—he says it’s as if he’s walking into the future of education. With its interactive video walls powered by sophisticated graphics hardware, the lab (known as Hanlon 2) allows students to view and manipulate multiple streams of information simultaneously. Any participants can control elements of the visual display through their laptops or workstations. For hands-free control, they can use a wireless wand-like device developed by tech company Oblong Industries, which provides the software for IBM’s Watson supercomputer. The wand recognizes hand gestures, allowing users to “grab” images and move them from one screen to another, make them larger or smaller, or run different content on different displays from anywhere in the room.

“We can have different channels running at the same time, whether it’s Bloomberg television or side-by-side comparisons of different parts of a student presentation. We can run data visualization software, show a YouTube video, or bring in someone from a remote facility. If somebody walks into a room and says, ‘I have something I need to show you,’ he can hit a couple of touch pads to project that on the screen,” says Calhoun, an industry professor and director of Stevens’ Hanlon Financial Systems Center. “This is a different experience than the audience-lecture format that has dominated academia for 300 years.”

Welcome to higher education in the 21st century, where educators are adopting experimental forms of teaching and where students are poised to ask bigger questions, solve larger problems, and work across disciplinary boundaries. Educational institutions are supporting this trend with advanced technology and innovative facilities designed to make higher education programs that are more creative and collaborative—and that deliver experiences that better reflect the way today’s students want to learn.


Calhoun emphasizes that perhaps the greatest feature of labs like Hanlon 2 is that students can take control of their learning experiences. In addition, by allowing them to take on multiple streams of information at once, it plays to the natural multitasking ability of today’s students, who are well-accustomed to checking their phones, scrolling through social media networks, and playing video games simultaneously, and often as part of a group.

“In the traditional classroom, we tell students, ‘Put away your cell phone, put away your laptop, look at the screen, pay attention to the lecture.’ This approach runs counter to their nature,” says Calhoun. “When we put them in a setting with five different screens, each with a different piece of information, it draws them out. It’s more suitable for the way they think.”

So far, professors at Stevens are using the lab in some capacity for approximately 25 courses, not only in finance, but also in analytics, data visualization, marketing, and decision sciences. The room is flexible enough that it could support activities for any course that relies on digital information or media. The room is especially useful for the 24 students who work on the school’s student-managed US$400,000 investment fund, because it enables them to view data sets related to sector information, company financials, risk profiles, and a macroeconomic assessment of the overall economy all at once.

Calhoun uses the lab as part of an introductory freshman course in quantitative finance. In one assignment, student teams participate in a presentation competition, in which students compare all presentations side-by-side and collectively declare a winner. The simultaneity of these comparisons inspires far more dynamic, powerful discussions than if presentations could be viewed only one at a time—which is one of the best benefits of the lab for teaching and learning, Calhoun emphasizes.

“When someone stands at the podium of a traditional classroom walking through a PowerPoint, students in the back of the room are half listening and half doing other things,” says Calhoun. But in more interactive teaching environments, he adds, faculty have to do less of the “heavy lifting” that traditional teaching methods require, such as calling on students and setting participation requirements.

“This kind of environment stimulates student learning,” he says. “I’m no longer there acting like Pavarotti singing opera while the audience sits passively and listens in silence. The students take over, and my role as professor is to become a resource for them.”


If Hanlon 2 is a physical representation of higher ed’s shift in focus toward more dynamic learning experiences, the new job title for Louise McWhinnie is a more figurative one. Just last year, she was appointed the inaugural dean of the faculty of transdisciplinary innovation at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia. The role of her department? To break down the boundaries between the different departments on campus.

McWhinnie’s team, too, is a cross- section of the entire university. She is a designer and former associate dean of the university’s design, architecture and building department. Her deputy dean is a forensic scientist, and the office’s program coordinators include a novelist, an industrial design engineer, and an accountant—all faculty at UTS. “At many universities, faculties are about silos. Professors think, ‘This is what defines my discipline,’” says McWhinnie. “But here, as a faculty, we’re saying that it’s not about silos. It’s about breaking down and actually understanding what happens in between the silos.”

The department of transdisciplinary innovation coordinates the university’s Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII) program, a transdisciplinary major launched in 2014 to provide opportunities for students and faculty to solve problems and work with perspectives across all departments. The BCII was created in collaboration with faculty from all the university’s core disciplines, which include business, law, engineering, analytics, science, communication, education, design and architecture, health, information technology, international studies, and transdisciplinary innovation.

All students who earn the BCII earn two degrees—the BCII and a bachelor’s degree in each student’s chosen major—in four years, one year more than it would take to complete a traditional undergraduate degree at UTS. In each of the first three years, students take courses toward their disciplinary majors during the regular semester; then, during breaks between semesters, they complete weeklong intensive courses. These intensives—or “subjects” as they are called at UTS—are focused on creativity, innovation, and real-world problem solving. They have titles such as “Creativity and Complexity,” “Envisioning Futures,” “Leading Innovation,” and “Problems to Possibilities.” Students complete two intensives a year for the first three years of their programs. Every BCII subject brings in industry and includes real-world projects, so that students learn by doing, McWhinnie explains.

So far, companies have been eager to provide projects for students to tackle. Google, for example, asked students to analyze the challenges involved with introducing an internet search engine to populations in rural India that were generally unaccustomed to conducting library searches. Representatives from the City of Sydney challenged students to create a plan to mitigate alcohol-related violence in the region.

During the fourth year of the program, students work solely on activities related to the BCII. Students complete internships and capstone projects with companies. Or, in place of the capstone, students can opt to work on their own startups. McWhinnie describes students who apply to the BCII as “curious risk-takers,” who want to know “how, why, and what-if.” And if the number of students applying to the BCII is any indication, their ranks are growing. In 2014, the program enrolled approximately 90 students; this year, the school received 3,800 applications for just 250 spots. For those who cannot get into the program, UTS has set up a diploma in innovation, which also can be completed as students work toward their core degrees but does not require an additional year of study. The faculty of transdisciplinary innovation is in the process of creating electives so that even more students can have opportunities to work across disciplines within an innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum.

The number of business students participating in BCII subjects has risen steadily, from 12 in 2014 to 64 in 2017, says Roy Green, dean of UTS Business School. Green, who was closely involved in the BCII’s design, emphasizes that from a business education perspective, the BCII was a necessary addition to the UTS curriculum.

“We saw that 21st-century corporations were integrating design thinking and business analytics. At the same time, we anticipated that many of our graduates would not even look for jobs in these corporations, but would create their own entrepreneurial ventures,” Green says. “In either case, we wanted to put an increased emphasis on ‘boundary crossing’ skills as well as specialized knowledge, because we knew our students would require different mindsets. The BCII enables them to take ideas from concept to reality in a transdisciplinary context.”

The university created BCII not only because of changes it saw in its students, but also because of a call from industry. “Employers told us they wanted innovators—people who could bring about change, who were comfortable working across borders with multiple disciplines,” McWhinnie says. “They identified the necessity for different graduates for a fast and vastly changing world.”

It seems that educators are moving in the same direction. McWhinnie points to her recent experience at a conference sponsored by Times Higher Education, attended by vice chancellors, deans, and executive vice chancellors from 31 different countries. “They all were saying, ‘The way forward is transdisciplinary,’” she says. “The world is changing so fast that students need this breadth of thinking. We can’t rely on the idea that everything is going to be produced the way it has been during our lifetimes.”


As industry pushes higher education to deliver richer, broader curricula, some business leaders are taking matters into their own hands to design learning experiences that develop all the skills they’re looking for. When the Center for Global Enterprise (CGE) launched in 2013, it was with the idea of creating just such an alternative educational experience that complemented current business education. Based in New York City, the nonprofit is the brainchild of former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano. He created the CGE to deliver courses that were more global, collaborative, and diverse.

In 2014, the organization began offering its Global Scholars program, a direct reflection of Palmisano’s vision. The hallmark of Global Scholars is its six-week “alpha team” projects. These alpha teams can include up to 21 globally distributed team members, who usually comprise 50 percent students (mostly MBAs) and 50 percent faculty and professionals. With the help of two assigned mentors, they collaborate virtually using technology such as the Zoom video conferencing platform to solve large-scale business problems for companies.

The term “alpha teams” arises from the idea that these teams go a step beyond traditional business student consultancies, says Ira Sager, a vice president at CGE and director of Global Scholars. “Almost every business school offers some kind of consulting operation, but these operations often do not pull together cross-functional teams across different departments, countries, and generations,” says Sager. “Many times, they are made up of a group of students who all have a particular view of the world. With Global Scholars, we widen that aperture. Our program helps students think globally, sharpen their leadership and communication skills, and assess business problems from different cultural perspectives.”

Although CGE’s alpha teams involve participants from all ages and backgrounds, seniority does not confer leadership privileges. In fact, team leaders are always business students, selected based on interviews about their past leadership experiences. All team members are chosen through an application process based on how well their skill sets, knowledge, and backgrounds suit a given project’s parameters.

So far, CGE has run five alpha teams, which collectively have included 55 participants from 28 different countries. This year, the CGE received 400 applicants for just 21 positions. Companies pay the CGE US$150,000 to submit a problem to an alpha team; participation for team members is free.

The projects have been wide-ranging. The 2017 alpha team worked on a project for Carbon, a startup 3-D printing company in Silicon Valley, in which it analyzed the market for spare parts in the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and Germany. In 2016, three alpha teams worked on projects: one for the Nigerian job website Jobberman, which wanted to add online learning capabilities; one for the Tanzania-based software company Rasello, which wanted to expand to other African countries; and one for the U.S. National Football League, which wanted to expand its international fan base using its Game Pass digital platform. In 2015, London Taxi Company asked CGE’s first alpha team to project what the global taxi market would look like in 2025, given the rise of self-driving vehicles and ride-sharing companies like Uber.

Rasello eventually hired alpha team members to work on its expansion in South Africa. A participant on the NFL team, now a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, is mentoring startups on her own. In fact, she recently contacted the CGE about forming an alpha team for a two-year-old startup working on a tool for instant language translation. She’s mentoring the company’s founders, and she’s just 25 years old.

The CGE recruits alpha team members primarily via a network of 179 business schools in 92 countries. As part of CGE’s Global Scholar Schools, this group is the first to be informed when a new alpha project becomes available. Business schools can join the network for free.

“All we ask,” Sager explains, “is that schools identify a member of their faculty as a primary contact for the program. That individual will then pass along any information to the school’s student body, faculty, and alumni, whether it’s about our alpha teams or one of our online courses.” (Read more about CGE’s microcourses.)


One of the more telling trends in higher education is the extent to which students are becoming more willing to take on learning opportunities above and beyond their coursework. At the CGE, for example, no one who works on an alpha team project receives course credit or payment for their work. Instead, they want the chance to work directly with top scholars and business leaders in a given field.

“Students are doing this for the experience, so that when they’re applying for jobs they can say they’ve worked on this type of project and are comfortable working in digital environments, across borders and time zones,” says Sager.

McWhinnie at UTS points to the fact that while companies submit real-world projects as part of the BCII’s intensive subjects and capstone, they also frequently submit projects that do not fit the timing of the formal curriculum. McWhinnie finds these extracurricular BCII projects particularly exciting—and so do the students and faculty who volunteer for them. “We often tap students on the shoulder and just say, ‘A really interesting challenge has come on board. Are you interested in working on it?’” Students do not receive course credit toward their majors for these projects, but view these challenges as valuable additions to their portfolios.

These extemporaneous projects can last from a few days to several weeks. For instance, the office of the governor of New South Wales recently asked a BCII team to design a governor’s diary that would help him achieve his mission objectives most efficiently. The BCII staff assembled a team that included students from communications and design, as well as an accounting professor, who all spent a month designing a new coded digital diary system. A different team took only a weekend to complete another extracurricular project for Visa regarding the future of financial transactions beyond credit cards.

Many professors, too, are eager to volunteer for these projects because they present fascinating problems and new opportunities for research. In addition, faculty do not take the lead on BCII projects, but instead work side-by-side with students as equals. Many professors find this structure a refreshing change of pace from their roles as teachers.

Because activity in the BCII ebbs and flows, the school still is working out how to help faculty manage the sometimes unexpected work demands. The school now tracks when faculty take on extra BCII projects in a given year, so it can balance out their workload accordingly in the next. Because the BCII involves faculty across the entire campus, no one department is overburdened.


As business becomes far more interconnected and dynamic—and as students become eager for more interactive educational experiences—the idea of rows of front-facing students in a classroom, faculty-driven lectures, and linear presentations of information is giving way to different kinds of classrooms and different ways to teach, says Calhoun. (See “Engaging Spaces” at the end of this article.) In fact, Calhoun has found that, far from balking at mastering new learning approaches, his students come to class with highly developed digital skills. “We haven’t had to push them. Rather, it’s been a pull from them. They know how to hop through some of these applications better than I do. They take to it right away,” he says. “We should not be forcing students back to a 19th-century model of learning.”

McWhinnie at UTS has found that fewer students are coming to university expecting to be passive learners and note takers—they’re seeking life-changing experiences. In feedback about the program, for example, one student noted that because of the BCII, he had grown “more confident, resilient, adaptable, and comfortable to take on the most curious and challenging tasks” and able to “mine our failures for lessons and use them to shape our successes.”

Organizations will need more graduates like this, McWhinnie emphasizes, who aren’t just resilient, but also adaptive and ready to communicate, think critically and creatively, engage with diverse groups of people, embrace complexity and uncertainty, and create the jobs of the future. “The world has been through an industrial revolution, and we’re now not only in a technology revolution but also in an ideas revolution,” she says. “Our students are very aware of the fact that while their parents had a job for life, they will most likely have a life of jobs. For them, work is going to be totally different.”

Undoubtedly, higher education institutions now find themselves in the center of this ideas revolution—and that means business schools do as well, as they no longer are places where students simply come to network and collect knowledge from faculty. They are becoming places where students are actively shaping their educational experiences, working across boundaries, and devising creative solutions to change business—and society—for the better.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at [email protected].