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The Education Futures Blog

In 2006, the University of Minnesota engaged in a strategic repositioning process to transform it into one of the top universities in the world. To many, it seemed like a lot of promises, but not much substance.

To Arthur Harkins and me, it seemed we could do a lot better.

In response, we released a series of memos on Building a ‘Leapfrog’ University. The series provides our recommendations plus those gathered from the University of Minnesota community on steps the University may take to realize the dream. We believed the recommendations generated by this activity ran parallel to and complemented the University’s own strategic repositioning process.

I feel that our message on leapfrogging in higher education is more important today than it has ever been. What follows is a 2018 update to the last memo we wrote on October 11, 2006, while I was a graduate student. Minnesota's experience is not unique. The use of the ‘University of Minnesota’ in the text and the slogan ‘Driven to Discover’ may be generically applied to almost any large institution and its marketing language.

This is only moderately changed from our last memo in 2006. I feel this text is still relevant today. Arthur, unfortunately, passed away a couple years ago. I use the words “our” and “we” in this text to help keep his spirit of leapfrogging in higher education alive.

Building a ‘Leapfrog’ University – 2018 edition

To: All Participants and University of Minnesota Community

From: Arthur Harkins and John Moravec

Subject: Building a ‘Leapfrog’ University: Employing the Liberal Skills and Supporting Technologies for Undergraduate Education

Launching a Leapfrog University

A Leapfrog University works ahead of the competition in teaching, research, innovation, and service. It avoids playing catch-up. A hesitant, symbolic step in the movement toward a Leapfrog University was the recently promoted Driven to Discover slogan.

Discovery is about the acquisition of information and knowledge. Others have identified discovery as a Mode I knowledge production activity, based on science and scholarship –often creating knowledge for the sake of creating new knowledge. Mode II knowledge production follows Mode I; it refers to purposeful, applied knowledge. As a Land Grant, the University of Minnesota has been heavily involved in Modes I and II knowledge production. Hence, the logic underlying “Driven to Discover.”

We do not think the singular promotion of discovery will be sufficient if the University is to become one of the top three public institutions worldwide. This updated version of our original memo focuses on the reframing of undergraduate education at the University. Among other approaches, we stress four additional Modes of knowledge production (see our apprendix from Version 4 of this memo for an outline).

At the time of the strategic positioning in 2006, the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning/Academy of Distinguished Teachers released their first newsletter. The document’s contents centered around the question, “what do we want our students to learn?” Arlene Carney’s article in the newsletter lists the directions that she and the Council for Enhancing Student Learning (CESL) believe that the University should move toward:

  1. The ability to identify, define, and solve problems.
  2. The ability to locate and evaluate information.
  3. Mastery of a body of knowledge and mode of inquiry.
  4. An understanding of diverse philosophies and cultures in a global society.
  5. The ability to communicate effectively.
  6. An understanding of the role(s) of creativity, innovation, discovery, and expression in the arts and humanities and in the natural and social sciences.
  7. Skills for effective citizenship and life-long learning.

We feel that these objectives are admirable “download” (or “banking”) approaches for a reasonable learning experience at the high school level. We do not think that such download learning services are going to enhance the status of the University’s lackluster undergraduate productivity, let alone vault it into world leadership and standing. In fact, the goals advanced by CESL are a progressive, yet stale, list of ideas that have been around for many decades. The list promotes images of the student as a passive, obedient, uncreative dependent.

We argue that undergraduate education should concentrate on upload pedagogies, based on knowledge production by students and collaborating faculty, together with augmentations provided by a new category of off-campus volunteers. Using the most advanced forms of information search engines, networks, early artificial intelligence, and the aforementioned volunteers, there is an opportunity to leapfrog the University’s undergraduate education beyond any of the competition. This will require fundamental changes in the mission, structure, and curricula of undergraduate education.

This includes education for:

  1. Novel thinking, adaptive thinking, and taking on a design mindset to better develop desired outcomes.
  2. Transdisciplinarity and the ability to understand and contextualize knowledge across different circumstances.
  3. Transculturalism and understanding that our own cultures change as we engage with and traverse our diverse society.

Pervasive creativity, knowledge production, invention, innovation, and support by advanced technologies must underpin serious efforts to achieve global standing as one of the world’s top three public research universities. We assert that undergraduates must be involved in the production of new knowledge. We believe, therefore, that to achieve global standing in its undergraduate services, the University must balance the liberal arts with what we call the liberal skills. We do not believe that this balance will be effective without expecting and providing for creative behaviors on the parts of students, faculty, and their supportive volunteers.

The liberal skills defined: The liberal skills are the applied derivations of the liberal arts and related areas that may be applied in transdisciplinary contexts in new knowledge production and innovation. Such skills support students to succeed today and into the future. The core liberal skills encompass virtual time manipulation through simulational thinking, knowledge production, technology, communication, critical and multi-paradigmatic thinking, focused imagination, developed intuition, emotional intelligence, and systems design.

In this memo, we associate the liberal skills with new modes of knowledge production. We continue by identifying core components of the liberal skills through a virtual speech in the next section. Additional links are provided to permit selective attention to these components. We further continue to invite involvement and contributions from the University community.

What we must do, and how it can be done: An achievable scenario

The following services are some of the basics of the liberal skills that apply to a Leapfrog University, rather than to a University playing “catch-up.” These services are not definitive but serve as a starting point for open source development of the liberal skills in a world-class Leapfrog University. Their focus is on undergraduate students and the futures they will create, individually and socially. This scenario describes the Leapfrog University’s grouping of services as they may be introduced to the freshman class of 2021, who in 2018 were sophomores in their high schools. Speaking to this class at convocation, the President of the University of Minnesota declares:

It is the task of the University to provide the services that will enable you to become a generative source of new ideas and knowledge. It is my hope that the services you require of the University of Minnesota, which aspires to become a Leapfrog University of increasing stature among its global peers, collaborators, and rivals, will place unprecedented demands upon us. You must make your life as a productive individual, and the University must be committed to changing itself to ensure that productivity, as well as your opportunity to become a source of global leadership. Therefore, while it is your responsibility to request that the University’s services help you to do what I am about to suggest, and more, you must be the source of energy and will to make these things happen. Here is what you can do, with the help of this University:

  • Generate the means to maximize an evolving self, because you are the ultimate source of your own realities and what you set out to accomplish within them.
  • Generate simulational thinking, because serious play is arguably a most important tool for surviving this century and for making life productive and enjoyable.
  • Generate divergences, convergences, and syntheses, because they offer you the delight of designing your own meanings.
  • Generate creativity and imagination, because, as sources of the newly invented, the transcendent, and the visionary, they make both life and profession thrilling.
  • Generate a passion for experience, because it helps form the legitimacy of your reality and promotes confidence and resiliency.
  • Generate the best uses of high technology, because, without these, your ability to participate and compete in the emerging century will become profoundly marginalized.
  • Generate systems thinking and systems designs, because the creation of meaning derives from how boundaries and borders define important contexts, including novelty and new choices.
  • Generate alternative presents, pasts, and futures, because the personal manipulation of virtual time confers almost godly powers over the dead hands of pasts, the conformities of presents, and the remoteness of futures.
  • Generate international and global emphases, because you live on a tiny planet that is subject to exponentially growing human opportunities and threats.
  • Generate blended real and virtual experiences, because the gaps between digital and classical realities are closing, creating vast spaces for new cultures, societies, and selves.
  • Generate transdisciplinarity, because as your life unfolds your uniqueness will count more and more for your success as a ‘transdiscipline,’ and thereby a source of social uniqueness.
  • Generate discovery, because “found” meanings, as one of the products of chaos and complexity, offer reasons to anticipate new surprises throughout life.
  • Generate personal knowledge production, which is the knowledge shaped and used for your own purposes.
  • Generate innovation, because it is the knowledge-based meta-product of this century – a newly required contribution to self, organization, and society.
  • Generate intuitional, emotional, and social intelligence, because the practical applications of these resources will help make your life manageable, leaderly, and honorable.
  • Generate multicultural, intercultural and transcultural perspectives on peoples and societies, because, as a species that is dangerous to itself, we depend upon growing familiarity and trust.
  • Generate Leapfrog team cultures, because they are demanded in most professions, ranging from the boardroom to Army squads to personal relationships.
  • Generate trend detection and analyses, because to know how things are changing, and might change, is to shape direction and help evolve purpose.
  • Generate collaborative, computer-based learning and project assessments, because you must know, and be able to adjust, the paths and rates of your progress.
  • Generate the personal and social means to accomplish all of the above outside your classes if the University of Minnesota will not or cannot make the changes required to provide for your global competitiveness, your confidence, and your leadership.

Our Leapfrog University is poised to lead as one of the very top research universities in the world. Our University will create vibrant, visionary, hard-charging, front-running and value-creating impacts that everybody will be proud to variously support, work for, teach at, matriculate to, collaborate with, and donate toward. We shall lead this charge together.

Supportive technologies in the Leapfrog University

The following list is merely a handful of a multitude of technologies the Leapfrog University may employ to enhance learning and facilitate meaningful knowledge production for all members of its community:

  • Provide a continuously exemplary foundation for the development of the world’s leading undergraduate programs, students, and faculty.
  • Ensure that the Leapfrog University’s networking and telecommunications units do everything possible to advance campus-wide wireless, links to department Web pages, wikis, and other knowledge sharing services that can augment student productivity.
  • Help students to create knowledge, share it with other students, and purposefully distribute it to business, industry, government, and the social sector.
  • Reduce to an absolute minimum the requirement to memorize old facts – these should be provided instantly by supportive technologies (e.g., handheld devices).
  • Connect students to open source systems that challenge orthodoxies and place high demands on the detection and use of valid resources.
  • Augment thinking skills with smart programs, including term paper writing software, instant language translation, and ubiquitous cognitive partnering.
  • Routinely provide updates to students on leading-edge developments in selected fields, with special attention to the likely impacts of such developments.
  • Provide faculty with continuously updated assessments of each student’s knowledge production, including exceptional achievements and rewards, and corrective responses to any inefficiencies or difficulties. (See also computer-based learning and assessments.)
  • Provide students with the means to create and continuously update evidence of their professional development, including curriculum vitae, that are presentable for external use at any time.
  • Make the Leapfrog University available as a beta-testing environment for companies developing new hardware, software, and networking tools.
  • Establish connectivity to students that will continue beyond graduation, permitting the development of a subscription-based Leapfrog University able to serve graduates throughout the lifespan.

Our “noble quest” (as suggested by Robert Giampietro, retired VP, Target Corp.)

A new paradigm founded on the convergence of globalization, the rise of knowledge societies, and accelerating change is emerging. This calls for an entirely new mission for all levels of education with a new mindset and vocabulary for action. The Leapfrog Paradigm emerges when societies, organizations, and individuals employ innovative means to surge ahead of the competition. Consider the Leapfrog Paradigm in Minnesota, and:

Imagine a second “Minnesota Miracle”…

  • Where Minnesota is the leader among knowledge and innovation economies
  • Where no Minnesota student fails in schools and colleges
  • Where Minnesota’s citizens are the global standard for leading-edge human capital development and application

Imagine the University of Minnesota…

  • As the leading university in the world within a decade
  • As one crucial link in a chain of free educational opportunities for PreK-17 learners
  • Bolstered with advanced networking technologies to support continuous innovation from the freshman year onward

Imagine Minnesota students…

  • Having completed a University of Minnesota graduate degree by age 21
  • As innovators, leaders, and visionary change agents

Embracing the leapfrog paradigm as a pathway to success

We can achieve a second Minnesota Miracle within a decade. The pathway is through the innovative organizational practices and mindset of leapfrogging. We contend the first nation or state to adopt the Leapfrog Paradigm, bolster it with advanced communications technologies, and apply it in Pre-K through graduate contexts, will either continue to lead or will acquire newfound leadership among emerging knowledge and innovation economies.

In this memorandum, our focus is placed on the undergraduate education required to produce knowledge and direct it toward continuous innovation. We call for an entirely new undergraduate education mission –one that requires a different vocabulary and mindset compared to the now globally-distributed education missions for agricultural, industrial, and information-based societies. We believe that reforming undergraduate education to lead the competition in knowledge production and innovation is accomplishable; that it is appropriate, harmonizes with workforce needs, and better prepares students for post-graduate work. Under the circumstances, it will not do to simply call for interdisciplinarity, which mostly turns out to be cross-disciplinarity. Achieving the Leapfrog Paradigm will require transdisciplinarity (the dynamic creation of new disciplines) and postdisciplinarity (the creation of routinely productive uniqueness at the level of the individual).


The University of Minnesota's strategic repositioning was taken seriously by neither the administration nor the univeristy commenity. As a result, the "U" did not see the upward ticks in ranking that it desired. Yet the world moves on, and I’m really happy our ‘memo movement’ inspired others on leapfrogging in education.

I am especially pleased that the Brookings Institution has taken on our leapfrog approach to promote innovations in educational institutions and government policy. I highly recommend Rebecca Winthrop’s book, Leapfrogging inequality: Remaking education to help young people thrive, to explore their perspective further.

I invite your comments, corrections, and additions to what we have written. I especially request your thoughts on the application of innovative and dynamic design principles for building positive university futures. Contact me at john@educationfutures.com.

Photo credit: J. Nilsson