Pushing the Boundaries of Traditional Classrooms: An Interview with Randy Bass

by Amelia Old
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Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Salesforce.org 

I went to Georgetown University to look at how the university is reimagining the future of education and leveraging Salesforce.org Education Cloud to do so. This is one of my stories of transformational impact. 

I was extremely nervous when I arrived at Georgetown University. I’ve never worked on any campaigns involving a university. I didn’t attend a major university. In fact, the only occasion I’ve spent time on a major campus is when touring schools with my children. During those times, I remember thinking to myself how impressed I was. I even felt a desire within my own self that I wish I could go back in time. A time where opportunity, access, and knowledge were there for me.

There are some pretty incredible alumni that received their education from Georgetown University and I was really uncertain as to what to expect. I guess my nerves getting the best of me could also be blamed on absolutely unnecessary anxiety about the situation. I have traveled the world and met with leaders of major nonprofits and even leaders of villages in other countries. Yet, here I was, worried about how these people at this prestigious university would react to me coming to tell their story. To tell the true story, I really had to be honest about my own background. That’s what made me nervous.

It was truly unfair of me to think this way. Unfair to those at Georgetown, that I now consider friends, and unfair to myself for thinking I was less than. I was treated with nothing but kindness and the utmost respect from everyone I met on campus. In fact, I had many that have since asked me for advice regarding social media. As they navigate technology on campus, it’s important they learn how to use tools available to help their own projects. This helps spread their own changemaking stories.

Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education and the founding director of Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS)
Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education and the founding director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS)

The day I arrived on campus, my first meeting was with Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education and the founding director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). I had the opportunity to sit down with him and his team at The Red House. The Changemakers coming out of this building are outstanding. 

Of course, he’s incredibly intelligent, but my impression of Randy goes beyond that. He truly loves what he does. How many people can say that out loud? Randy took time to answer a few questions and I think you’ll see the same love for technology, innovation, and his students that I saw.

What inspired you to follow a career path in the field of Education?
My field is actually American literature and culture, which is what brought me to Georgetown, after finishing my degree in English and American Literature at Brown. But in graduate school I got involved with some of the earliest work on interactive multimedia and learning. I brought that interest with me to Georgetown, where I increasingly became involved in teaching, learning and technology innovation. After I received tenure I was asked to found a center for teaching and innovation for Georgetown. I was the founding director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) for 13 years. Now I’m Vice Provost for Education and my career has really shifted to learning innovation and transforming higher education. 

How has the University evolved since you arrived?
I am just beginning my 29th year, so the University has evolved quite a bit. I think the two most salient changes are that the University has significantly grown up and into its identity as a top-flight research university, with aspirations for national and global prestige. That has upside and downside pressures but it means, at base, that we ask a lot of ourselves, think ambitiously about who we are the kind of model and imprint we can have on the world. The second major change, over the past 15 years, but five or six especially, is that we have come to embrace innovation as an institutional trait. The leadership at Georgetown, and increasingly the faculty, are coming to see that innovation, especially restless innovation in the name of social justice, is in our DNA, going back through our Jesuit heritage.  I think that is finally reaching the top level of our identity and institutional “brand.” 

Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education and the founding director of Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS)

Why does a place like Georgetown need to constantly up its game? 
I believe every selective private school in the country has a moral obligation to ask the most of itself for both excellence and equity. But Georgetown has a particular obligation because of our values. We talk about a Jesuit, or Ignatian, term, the magis, which is Latin for “the more.” And it means that you are always searching for how you can give more of yourself, extend yourself further, in the name of your most important values. When you look at the big picture, higher education is underperforming nationally both on elevating college attainment and preparing the next generation for the existential threats that lie ahead in the next few decades.  We also know now that selective higher education is in some macro sense contributing to, not solving, economic inequality. So, the moral imperative to seek the Magis is one reason. 

With that in mind, we also have self-interested reasons to up our game: to find new and innovative ways to deliver high-impact learning, but also look at long term affordability, sustainable financial models, and equitable approaches to learning. Selective private higher education is a “mature market.” You have to keep finding ways to differentiate yourself if you want to keep attracting the very best talent–students and faculty–as well as philanthropic investment.

We can’t live out our values or our self-interests without upping our game; and we can’t up our game educationally without innovation and creativity. 

While Georgetown competes to attract the most talented students and faculty we also seek to make a Georgetown education accessible to anyone. And we seek to make a Georgetown education relevant to the challenges and existential threats facing people and communities around the world. The challenge is no institution can serve all students. Our mission is to make sure we give our students the most dynamic and enriching experience we can, while also creating models and sharing lessons with other schools trying to make education more accessible and impactful. We’re trying to do more and help others do more too.

Can you tell me about your work at The Red House? The Red House is basically the R&D unit for Georgetown’s impulse to keep upping its game educationally. It is an incubator for new boundary-pushing ideas that help us reimagine ways to deliver a transformative education that serves the whole person, the common good and helps ensure a human future. 

What has been one of your favorite programs to come out of The Red House? I would point to Core Pathways, a novel way for students to take part of their Core Curriculum by taking 7 week modules from different disciplinary lenses on the world’s great challenges, such as Climate Change and Humanity and Technology. I can say more but there is a great website here: http://corepathways.georgetown.edu/ 

Higher Ed always replicates so how can traditional schools push boundaries? Naturally, I believe that the most important action is to make a space for innovation–to approach change as open-ended, a matter of inquiry, even surprise. Borrowing from a famous book called Thinking Fast and Slow, I argue that institutions need both fast change and slow change strategies. The Red House provides the fast change strategies for Georgetown.

During our time together, you said ‘It’s not about what Georgetown can do for the kids. It’s about what the kids can do for themselves.’ What does it take to make a student believe they are capable of changing the world? Well, I think many of our students come to us believing they can change the world; our job is to give them knowledge, skills, voice, experience, community and a sense of agency so that they can be effective in the world. I think we need to be relentless in believing that our job is to empower them, let them loose, give honest feedback, and let them loose again. Applying themselves to the world, testing themselves in the world, but in the context of a caring and critical community, thoughtful and challenging mentors–that’s what we’re trying to provide. 

Any new plans for the 2019/2020 school year? We have tons of new plans. Expanding the Capitol Applied Learning Lab, our new venture in downtown DC. Launching a bold new series of experiments with the Core Curriculum. Asking big questions about the vision and strategy driving education over the next ten years. Continuing to reshape how we support experiential and applied learning, and how it links to career education and preparation. Seeking to create new programs that connect alumni to undergraduates and start to reshape how the University supports the lifelong learning of our graduates. And finally, to really push our efforts at extending a Georgetown education to new and deserving populations to the next level. 

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