Randy Bass stands at a WPI podium and addresses attendees of the Institute on Project-Based Learning.

Q&A with Randy Bass

Keynote speaker on project-based learning

June 20, 2019

For the fifth year, Randy Bass, professor of English and vice provost for education at Georgetown University, and director of the Designing the Future(s) of the University Initiative and Baker Trust for Transformational Learning, delivered the keynote speech at WPI’s Institute on Project-Based Learning earlier this week (June 18–21). Leading up to the 2019 Institute, Bass took a few minutes to discuss his role at the Institute and the importance of project-based learning in the future of higher education.

What is your overall vision for higher education, and what should colleges and universities be doing to prepare students for the future?

I think we’re in a moment where we’re really rethinking a whole set of binaries in higher education. There have been stark divisions between liberal education and professional education, curricular and co-curricular, faculty and staff, theory and practice, classroom work and applied experience. To me, this moment in higher education is very much about transcending those binaries and trying to grapple with the idea that what we know about how students learn best and the best ways to prepare them for the future is really to keep moving back and forth between theory and practice—to engage students from the very beginning in work that feels authentic, work that matters. We need to be working to develop students to be able to operate in conditions of uncertainty through mentoring and communities and practice. That’s the way we need to cultivate the most important qualities for an effective world.

So that’s the mission, really reimagining and remixing the activities that we do, to move between slow thinking and fast thinking, inquiry-based work and action work. All those things have to be in the mix very thoughtfully and intentionally the moment students begin their college careers and last all the way through.

Can you share a little about the pedagogical research you do at Georgetown?

The premise of my work at Georgetown is to lead a university-wide research and development unit that is experimenting with new ways to do project-based learning. It’s not so much pedagogical research as it really is trying to transform the university through boundary-pushing design. So the unit that I lead tries to work with the entire university to create new curricular experiments that somehow bend, or break, the rules, and push on the boundaries of our educational model to see if we can find new ways to deliver the kind of learning that we value.

By breaking the rules, I mean moves such as rethinking the one-size-fits-all semester, what a course is, what a major or minor is, how we wrap credits around experience, the way we can deliver on interdisciplinary education and create novel structures to make high-impact learning that is affordable—those are the kind of things we are trying to do at Georgetown. It’s really trying to ask what are the best high-impact contexts at which students can learn to be effective in the world, and what are sustainable, scalable ways to recreate the curriculum in order to support that kind of learning.

What’s your role at WPI’s Institute on Project-Based Learning?

As the opening keynote speaker, I set the tone for where project-based learning is in this larger landscape of transforming higher education.

What made you decide to serve as the Institute’s keynote speaker for the fifth year in a row?

It’s several things. First of all, if anybody invites you five years in a row to kick off their institute with an inspirational keynote, why wouldn’t you say yes?

I also really believe in the work of WPI, the work Rick Vaz, Kris Wobbe, and their colleagues have done to galvanize their knowledge around project-based learning from so many years of experience. Turning that into a signature of the institution, the Institute itself, and the Center for Project-Based Learning, is all admirable. I believe in that work very deeply. I also think that project-based learning is the epitome of the kind of learning I was talking about earlier. It’s an approach to thinking thoughtfully about how to connect academic learning, inquiry, and reflection with action and authentic problems, teaching students how to work in conditions of uncertainty. Project-based learning is one way to focus on that as a category, and I think the way the Institute goes about it is really great—by finding teams to come together to do real work, to plan a real project-based learning project for their own institution as a way of starting to change their institution.

To me, it’s the nexus of everything I believe in, and I’m incredibly honored that every year they ask me back to help set the tone for that work.

What do you gain from the experience of being part of the Institute?

I really enjoy hearing what each team is working on, seeing the variety of schools that are participating, and really getting a sense of the richness of project-based learning across the entire higher ed ecosystem. That’s a huge part of what I gain, getting reconnected with the breadth of experience. I wrote the foreword for the book Kris Wobbe and Lisa Stoddard recently edited, and reading that manuscript was a great way to get a much deeper sense of the work that it involved over numerous years and see how a kind of vision and framework was coming together. It was very gratifying to write the foreword.

I believe in the work of WPI. I believe that the future of higher education is project-based learning, and I hope it contributes in some small way to tell the participants at the start that the work they’re doing at this institute is really helping, I truly believe, to save higher education, and perhaps even the future of humanity.

- By Allison Racicot