For a millennium, universities have been considered the main societal hub for knowledge and learning.1 And for a millennium, the basic structures of how universities produce and disseminate knowledge and evaluate students have survived intact through the sweeping societal changes created by technology—the moveable-type printing press, the Industrial Revolution, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computers.
Today, though, the business of higher education seems to some as susceptible to tech disruption as other information-centric industries such as the news media, magazines and journals, encyclopedias, music, motion pictures, and television. The transmission of knowledge need no longer be tethered to a college campus. The technical affordances of cloud-based computing, digital textbooks, mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming video, and “just-in-time” information gathering have pushed vast amounts of knowledge to the “placeless” Web. This has sparked a robust re-examination of the modern university’s mission and its role within networked society.
One major driver of the debate about the future of the university centers on its beleaguered business model. Students and parents, stretched by rising tuition costs, are increasingly challenging the affordability of a college degree as well as the diploma’s ultimate value as an employment credential.
A March 2012 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 60% of American adults viewed universities as having a positive effect on how things are going in the country and 84% of college graduates say that the expense of going to college was a good investment for them.2 Yet another Pew Research Center survey in 2011 found that 75% of adults say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.3 Moreover, 57% said that the higher education system in the U.S. fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.
This set of circumstances has catalyzed the marketplace. Universities are watching competitors encroach on their traditional mission. The challengers include for-profit universities, nonprofit learning organizations such as the Khan Academy, commercial providers of lecture series, online services such as iTunes U, and a host of specialized training centers that provide instruction and credentials for particular trades and professions.4 All these can easily scale online instruction delivery more quickly than can brick-and-mortar institutions.
Consequently, higher education administrators—sometimes constrained by budgetary shortfalls and change-resistant academic cultures—are trying to respond and retool. The Pew Research Center 2011 study found in a survey of college presidents that more than three-fourths (77%) of respondents said their institution offered online course offerings. Half said they believe that most students at their schools will be enrolled in at least some online classes within the next 10 years.5
The debate about the urgency for change and the pace of change on campus was highlighted in recent weeks at the University of Virginia. The school’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, voted to oust school President Teresa Sullivan, arguing that she was not pursuing change quickly enough. After a faculty, student, and alumni uproar, the Board reversed course and reinstated her. Still, the school announced within a week of her return that it was joining Coursera—a privately held, online instructional delivery firm. That meant it would join numerous other elite research institutions, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others as part of Coursera’s online consortium.6 As of mid-2012, Coursera’s massively open online courses (MOOCs) were provided free to its students—enabling unfettered, global access for millions to engage with some of the country’s most prestigious universities.7 Other start-ups such as MITx, 2tor, and Udacity are attracting similarly staggering, six-figure student enrollments.
Experimentation and innovation are proliferating. Some colleges are delving into hybrid learning environments, which employ online and offline instruction and interaction with professors. Others are channeling efforts into advanced teleconferencing and distance learning platforms—with streaming video and asynchronous discussion boards—to heighten engagement online.
Even as all this change occurs, there are those who argue that the core concept and method of universities will not radically change. They argue that mostly unfulfilled predictions of significant improvement in the effectiveness and wider distribution of education accompany every major new communication technology. In the early days of their evolution, radio, television, personal computers—and even the telephone—were all predicted to be likely to revolutionize formal education. Nevertheless, the standardized knowledge-transmission model is primarily the same today as it was when students started gathering at the University of Bologna in 1088.
Imagine where we might be in 2020. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked digital stakeholders to weigh two scenarios for 2020. One posited substantial change and the other projected only modest change in higher education. Some 1,021 experts and stakeholders responded.
39% agreed with a scenario that articulated modest change by the end of the decade:
In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.
60% agreed with a scenario outlining more change:
By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.
Respondents were asked to select the one statement of the two scenarios above with which they mostly agreed; the question was framed this way in order to encourage survey participants to share spirited and deeply considered written elaborations about the potential future of higher education. While 60% agreed with the statement that education will be transformed between now and the end of the decade, a significant number of the survey participants said the true outcome will encompass portions of both scenarios. Just 1% of survey takers did not respond.
Here are some of the major themes and arguments they made:
Higher education will vigorously adopt new teaching approaches, propelled by opportunity and efficiency as well as student and parent demands.
- Several respondents echoed the core argument offered by Alex Halavais, associate professor at Quinnipiac University and vice president of the Association of Internet Researchers, who wrote: “There will be far more extreme changes institutionally in the next few years, and the universities that survive will do so mainly by becoming highly adaptive…The most interesting shifts in post-secondary education may happen outside of universities, or at least on the periphery of traditional universities. There may be universities that remain focused on the traditional lecture and test, but there will be less demand for them.”
- Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute, wrote: “The timeline might be a bit rushed, but education—higher and K-12—has to change with the technology. The technology will allow for more individualized, passion-based learning by the student, greater access to master teaching, and more opportunities for students to connect to others—mentors, peers, sources—for enhanced learning experiences.”
- Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, predicted that market forces will advance emergent content delivery methods: “Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially. As high-speed networks become more widely accessible tele-education and hybrid instruction will become more widely employed.”
- Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, placed the debate in broader historical context: “Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain…[there is] the idea that our current educational system, start to end, is built for an industrial era, churning out students like widgets who are taught to churn out widgets themselves. That is a world where there is one right answer: We spew it from a lectern; we expect it to be spewed back in a test. That kind of education does not produce the innovators who would invent Google. The real need for education in the economy will be re-education. As industries go through disruption and jobs are lost forever, people will need to be retrained for new roles. Our present educational structure is not built for that, but in that I see great entrepreneurial opportunity.”
- P.F. Anderson, emerging technologies librarian at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, predicted seismic shifts within the academy, writing, “The very concept of what a university is, what academia is, what adult learning is, all of these are changing profoundly. If you think back to the original purposes of universities, what they have been doing recently has pivoted roughly 180 degrees.”
Economic realities will drive technological innovation forward by 2020, creating less uniformity in higher education.
- Donald G. Barnes, visiting professor at Guangxi University in China and former director of the Science Advisory Board at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, predicted, “The high and growing cost of university education cannot be sustained, particularly in the light of the growing global demand for such education. Therefore, there is already a rush to utilize the new medium of the Internet as a means of delivering higher education experience and products in more economical and efficient modes.”
- Tapio Varis, professor emeritus at the University of Tampere and principal research associate with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, maintained that heightened inequalities may arise based upon instructional delivery formats. “The economic reasons will determine much of the destiny of higher education,” he wrote. “Traditional face-to-face higher education will become a privilege of a few, and there will be demand for global standardization of some fields of education which also will lower the level in many cases.”
- Sean Mead, director of solutions architecture, valuation, and analytics for Mead, Mead & Clark, Interbrand, noted that institutions will stratify based upon their respective concentrations of teaching, research, or service. “Forced into greater accountability at the same time as Baby Boomer retirements revitalize the faculties, universities will undergo widespread reformation,” he said. “Some will refocus professorial metrics from running up publication counts to the profession of teaching and delivering strong educations. Others will engage the community in outreach efforts to make learning more accessible. More universities will follow the MIT and Stanford examples of serving the public with free access to course materials and courses…There will be increasing corporate involvement in universities, including better communication of the knowledge that is developed and housed there. Research will increasingly be driven out from behind the high-premium-pay walls of academic journals and into the open, where scholars and the public can more easily benefit from federally funded and grant-supported research projects.”
“Distance learning” is a divisive issue. It is viewed with disdain by many who don’t see it as effective; others anticipate great advances in knowledge-sharing tools by 2020.
- Online course offerings generally fail to mirror the robust face-to-face interaction that occurs within the physical classroom, warned Sam Punnett, president of FAD Research Inc. “On-screen learning is appropriate in some instances, particularly as a supplement to the classroom,” he said, “but it will always be inferior in the quality of information exchange and interaction. In 2020 it is my hope that programs that employ instructors who are ‘in the room’ will be generally acknowledged to be in a separate tier.”
- On the other hand, Peter Pinch, director of technology for WGBH, a public media company, predicted renewed innovation in remote learning platforms will mark the university by 2020. “As communications technologies improve and we learn how to use them better, the requirement for people to meet face-to-face for effective teaching and learning will diminish,” he predicted. “Some institutions will focus on facilitating virtual environments and may lose any physical aspect. Other institutions will focus on the most high-value face-to-face interactions, such as group discussions and labs, and will shed commodity teaching activities like large lectures.”
- Fred Hapgood, technology author and consultant, and writer for Wired, Discover, and other tech and science publications, said, “The key challenge of the next five years—I say ‘the’ because of the importance of education for the entire global labor force and the importance of reducing its crushing costs—will be developing ways of integrating distance learning with social networking. I am confident this challenge will be met.”
‘Bricks’ replaced by ‘clicks’? Some say universities’ influence could be altered as new technology options emerge ; others say ‘locatedness’ is still vital for an optimal outcome.
- An anonymous survey respondent noted, “The age of brick-and-mortar dinosaur schools is about to burst—another bubble ready to pop. The price is too high; it’s grossly inflated and the return on investment isn’t there. Online learning will be in the ascendant. There will be more international interactions; I believe we will see somewhat of a return to a Socratic model of single sage to self-selecting student group, but instead of the Acropolis, the site will be the Internet, and the students will be from everywhere.”
- Another anonymous survey participant wrote, “Several forces will impact this: the general overall increase in the levels of education globally, the developing world using Web and cell technology to jump over intermediate technologies, the high cost of face-to-face instruction, the improvement of AI as a factor in individualizing education, the passing of the Baby Boomers as educators in the system, the demand for Millennials and beyond for relevant learning models, China will develop a leading learning format, first to educate its population and then expand it to teach the world.”
- Matthew Allen, professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and past president of the Association of Internet Researchers, visualizes 2020’s ivory tower through a socio-cultural lens: “While education is being, and has been already, profoundly influenced by technologies, nevertheless it is a deeply social and political institution in our cultures. Universities are not just portals where students access learning, they are places in which people develop as social beings, in some quite specifically institutional ways. Therefore technology will change the way learning occurs and the way it is assessed, and it definitely means there is more blending of learning activities on- and offline, but it will not—for the majority—change the fundamental locatedness of university education.”
- There were also people who said technology should never drive change. An anonymous respondent wrote, “Technology is no substitute for traditional education. ‘Vir bonus dicendi peritus’ or the good man who can speak well will not be brought about by techno-based thinking.”
Frustration and doubt mark the prospect of change within the academy.
- Numerous respondents bemoaned higher education’s historically glacial rate of change. An anonymous respondent said, “From the 1960s book The Peter Principle, the system exists to perpetuate itself. Regrettably large universities lack the nimbleness to be able to adapt to rapidly changing realities. The system of higher education (as someone who has spent the last 20 years at major universities) is already broken, but instead of changing to make a university education more relevant, we herd students into larger and larger lectures and ask them to regurgitate esoteric facts.”
- Hugh F. Cline, adjunct professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, noted, “Higher education is one of the most resistant social institutions ever created. Many of the innovations you mention are under way in universities around the globe, but it will take a long time before significant numbers of students in colleges and universities will have these advantages.”
- Mary Starry, an assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy of the University of Iowa, similarly explained, “Research has provided us much information on how people learn and what approaches to education are best to produce critical-thinking, lifelong-learning graduates. Yet, we continue to describe as ‘innovative’ the different techniques and approaches that we’ve known about for much longer than ten years. Technology now provides new and exciting ways to incorporate these approaches into the classroom, but our education system structure is too mired in historical lecture and ‘brain dump’ methodology.”
- An anonymous survey participant wrote, “The ‘university’ has not changed substantially since its founding in about 800 AD or so. Other than adding books, electricity, and women, it is still primarily an older person ‘lecturing’ to a set of younger ones…There will be both a large number of largely traditional universities and an ever-expanding range of alternatives in both technology and organizational form.”
- Another anonymous respondent complained, “Universities are awfully slow to adapt. And why should they? At present they have a lucrative monopoly. In what other industry do you see such runaway price increases? They’ll ride that for as long as they can and only change when on the cusp of irrelevance.”
Change is happening incrementally, but these adjustments will not be universal in most institutions by 2020.
- Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, observed, “Institutional inertia should not be underestimated, so whether 2020 will see ‘mass adoption’ of the features described above could depend on how one defines ‘mass.’ But it has, of course, already started to happen.”
- Many survey respondents, including Mark J. Franklin, director of computing services and software engineering for the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, do not anticipate massive upheaval in the academy by 2020. “My gut reaction is that in 2020 higher education is entrenched in its current format,” he predicted. “I believe teachers and textbook companies will resist—and even now are resisting—modern technology that could be helping students. When I see iPads and Kindles in every student’s backpack instead of fifty pounds worth of textbooks, I’ll know there has been a change. When I see every campus completely and speedily wired—or providing wireless—for the Internet, I’ll know things have changed. When I see computers in the libraries and assistants helping students navigate to computers and libraries around the globe, I’ll know things have changed. I just don’t think it will happen by 2020. Maybe 2050.”
- Steve Jones, distinguished professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a founding leader of the Association of Internet Researchers, echoed that thought. “It’s commonly and rightly believed that universities change slowly,” he said, “and in a difficult economic environment, particularly for public institutions, change comes more slowly than usual. Simply put, few universities can afford to change from the way they are today. While a riposte is that they cannot afford not to change, inertia is powerful, and taking the long view is hard. By 2020 not much will have changed.”
- Richard Holeton, director of academic computing services at Stanford University Libraries, added, “Change in higher education, as they say, is like turning an aircraft carrier. In eight or nine years we will continue to see incremental changes, but not the more radical transformations described.”
Universities will adopt new pedagogical approaches while retaining the core of traditional methods.
- Richard D. Titus, a seed-funding venture capitalist at his own fund, Octavian Ventures, predicted, “The future is a hybrid of both of the approaches. No one can disagree that higher education needs—no, requires—a complete rethink. Our current toolsets and thinking are over 400 years old and give little regard to the changes in society, resources, or access, which facilitate both greater specialization and broader access than at any time in the previous two centuries.”
- Face-to-face instruction, complemented by online interaction, makes up a hybrid model that many survey participants foresee. Melinda Blau, a freelance journalist and author, wrote, “The future will hold both outcomes. It depends on the course of study and the college.”
- Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who previously served as President Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, wrote that she expects an influx of customized course content will be fused with the traditional elements of a multidisciplinary college education. “We’ve got to move to much more individual, hyperlinked learning experiences,” she said. “At the same time, modeling good behavior and good thinking style remains something useful that teachers do for students…I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way of educating that inculcates the values a true liberal arts education was supposed to support—lifelong learning, lifelong foolishness (hymn to Stuart Brand), and lifelong awe.”
- An anonymous participant wrote, “I expect a huge movement towards knowledge-management tools that enhance the learning practice and focus on each individual path while maintaining engagement at a social level. This could make the learning experience tailored to each individual and at the same time aggregate responses and perceptions from a large group of students in order to direct toward specific learning goals.”
- Another anonymous respondent predicted, “Universities will continue their transition to hybrid classes using online learning components and occasional in-person meetings, while smaller colleges will both adopt online capabilities and technologies to promote access to remote resources while maintaining a focus on in-person, on-campus attendance of seminars and (some) lectures. The length of the learning period (the traditional four-year degree) may change as a result of the focus on combined learning, with integration of more off-site activities with the traditional scholastic setting. I also think that economic factors over the next few years may promote the evolution of educational institutions along the lines of a transition to hybrid learning, while also preventing any mass adoption of just-in-time approaches.”
Collaborative education with peer-to-peer learning will become a bigger reality and will challenge the lecture format and focus on “learning how to learn.”
- Autonomy will be shifted away from the sole lecturer in tomorrow’s university classrooms, maintains Bob Frankston, a computing pioneer and the co-developer and marketer of VisiCalc. “Ideally, people will learn to educate themselves with teachers acting as mentors and guides,” he wrote.
- By 2020, universities should re-examine how technology can enhance students’ critical thinking and information acquisition skills, noted Wesley George, principal engineer for the Advanced Technology Group at Time Warner Cable. “The educational system is largely broken,” he said. “It’s too focused on the result of getting a degree rather than teaching people how to learn: how to digest huge amounts of information, craft a cogent argument in favor of or against a topic, and how to think for oneself. Individuals learn differently, and we are starting to finally have the technology to embrace that instead of catering to the lowest common denominator.”
- Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, said, “Just-in-Time learning is a very important phenomenon that will have a big role to play in the future…Universities should, and I hope will, focus more on ‘how to learn’ rather than simply ‘learning.’”
- Universities should additionally ensure their graduates are poised for 2020’s job market, maintains danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “Higher education will not change very fast, although it should,” she wrote. “But what’s at stake has nothing to do with the amount of technology being used. What’s at stake has to do with the fact that universities are not structured to provide the skills that are needed for a rapidly changing labor, creative force.”
Competency credentialing and certification are likely…
- Rick Holmgren, chief information officer at Allegheny College, said, “Many institutions, particularly large state institutions, will have shifted to competency-driven credentialing, which may not require traditional class work at all, but rather the demonstration of competency.”
- Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, similarly argued, “The deflection point for the more fundamental change will occur when universities no longer grant degrees, but rather certify knowledge and skill levels, in much more finite ways as your scenario envisions. Major university brands will offer such certificates based on their standards for certifying various competencies that employers will be identifying for their new hires.”
…yet institutional barriers may prevent widespread degree customization.
- Scalability may present a hurdle toward achieving personalization, argued David Ellis, director of communication studies at York University in Toronto. “Customizing education is too complicated for large institutions,” he argued. “And if outcomes are made too personal, a perception of bias or unfairness is likely to arise.”
- Joan Lorden, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, predicted, “Customized assessment is unlikely. There is still a general sense in most university faculties that there are certain foundational elements that must be addressed in a high-quality educational experience.”