Futures Thinking in Higher Education – A Faculty Perspective

By Luke Lara, Ed.D.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, I participated along with about fifty students, faculty, staff, and administrators in a year-long futures thinking academy at MiraCosta College, Oceanside, CA. The sessions were led by Parminder Jassal, founder of the Work + Learn Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. She is now CEO of SocialTech.AI, an organization the provides Practical Futures Advisory, to support development of “futures mind-set” in the education sector.

Several articles have been written about MiraCosta College’s involvement in this effort (see CCDaily and Insider Higher Education). As the Academic Senate President from 2020-2022, I was involved in shaping the faculty participation and narrative around futures thinking. Despite the volatile and disruptive pandemic during this timeframe, we recognized that developing a futures mindset would help us to better serve our students. I also had the honor of presenting MiraCosta College’s efforts around futures thinking at the annual American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) conference in New York, NY, in May 2022. Our goal was to encourage and invite other community colleges to join a collective and learn how to implement futures thinking.

At our fall 2022 all-college-day event, I was asked to present my perspective on futures thinking to all faculty, staff, and administrators. The following is adapted from my speech:

Buenos días, good morning. My name is Luke Lara, and I am the past Academic Senate President. I had the privilege last year to participate in the Futures Academy, along with other community members as a community of learners. To help you understand my perspective as a faculty member, I present you with the following image.

Photograph of a classroom with individual desks. Many desks have open laptops on them.
CC IMAGE VIA PIXAPAY

What does this image make you think of? I remember when I started teaching at MiraCosta in 2009. As many new faculty members do, I adapted elements of the syllabi of other faculty who had successfully taught the course for years. This included their classroom policies. One of the policies that I had on my syllabus was to ban or limit the use of computers and other electronic devices in the classroom. I believed, much like my colleagues, that these devices were a distraction to students and their learning. Look where we are right now. Computers, cellphones, and other electronic devices are ubiquitous in and outside the classroom. Now, many of us would agree that technology is necessary for the learning process. Had we used futures thinking, we would have been better prepared for this situation more than 10 years ago.

As faculty, we are lifelong learners. We are driven by curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. Futures thinking allows us to harness our perception of what is on the horizon: what new behaviors, new services, new technology, and new ways of knowing of being. We call this in futures thinking: Signals. Futures thinking is not about forgetting about the past or living in the future. Futures thinking is about being in the present: understanding and being more perceptive about what is happening now that will impact our possible futures.

As faculty, we want to be proactive, instead of reactive. For example, in my experience, the week before classes start, I am scrambling to put together my syllabus. Maybe I’ve taught this course previously, and I already know what I am going to do. But, when we get into the classroom, as equity-minded educators, we must meet the students where we are at. We are always adapting. Could we have adapted before getting into the classroom? A futures mindset asks questions such as:

  • What is currently happening in the K-12? How may this impact us down the line, 5, 10 years from now?
  • How is climate change impacting our way of life and the pursuit of education?
  • What signals surround us that could help us see the possible futures?

Exploring the answers to these questions reflects the power of a futures mindset.

Futures thinking allows us to be collectively prepared for the student that will come through in 5, 10 or more years, instead of catching up on where we ought to be. For example, it feels like the equity movement in higher education is about catching up to where we should be. Had we used futures thinking, we probably would have been able to meet the needs for our students now and close the equity gaps that we have created.

Futures thinking allows us to develop curriculum and adapt our teaching and pedagogical approaches before we need to, not after.

Futures thinking allows us to engage as a diverse community of perspectives and lived experiences. This work is done as a collective, not individually. For example, faculty typically do their work independently with some opportunities as a collective, as a department, to think about and reflect on data. However, futures thinking requires a collective approach. Each of us has a different perspective. A futures mindset asks: What am I observing right now? What is happening in other industries that could impact how I do my work in the future? What do my colleagues see going on and what do they think? What do others see that may be interesting that I didn’t notice? As a collective, we bring together all these different observations (i.e., signals) and perspectives to inform a collective understanding of possible futures to help us move forward.

Lastly, at MiraCosta we are contributing to futures thinking globally. We are the first community college to have gone through a collective training and application to our planning processes. Our unique perspective of higher education, our deep understanding of our diverse communities, and application of equity will also benefit other industries’ use of future’s thinking.

Futures thinking is only a tool, one of many that we have in our toolbox. It is enhanced when it is used along with equity, racial, and intersectional analysis. It is important that we not abandon the tools that we are already using and are helpful. We must apply all our tools to enhance our work and what we do for our students.

This semester, we will be launching a Canvas course to facilitate the development of futures mindset and application of futures thinking to more members of our college community. I’ll be serving as one of the course facilitators. The course modules will be self-paced over a period of five weeks and culminate in a one hour zoom meeting to engage learners in a live community discussion. The hope is that a futures mindset will enhance our collective ability to be present-focused and future-oriented, as we not only meet the needs of today’s students, but are also prepared for the students who we will serve in five to ten years from now.