The Future of Higher Education

A status report.

September 30, 2014

With a number of leading for-profits beset by legal and financial woes, enrollment in online education leveling off, and MOOCs off the front pages, one might reasonably conclude that the threats to higher ed posed by what was hailed as “disruptive innovation” have abated. 

No so.

At this point, institutions are disrupting themselves from the inside out, not waiting for the sky to fall. True disruption occurs when existing institutions begin to embrace the forces of transformation.

The innovations taking place may not seem to be as dramatic as those that loomed in 2012, but the consequences are likely be even more far-reaching, challenging established business and staffing models.

Let’s begin by looking at ten innovations that are slowly but surely being incorporated into higher ed, and then to five new educational models that are gradually emerging.

Innovation 1:  Learning Analytics
Learning analytics, data dashboards, and predictive algorithms are rapidly spreading across universities and community colleges. These tools offer innovative ways to predict student success, measure achievement of learning outcomes, and drive improvements in admissions, pedagogy, and student support services. And newer endeavors such as Civitas Learning, a leading proponent of actionable analytics, are on the rise, which can alert students to toxic course combinations and provide an early warnings of at-risk behavior to faculty, advisers, and the students themselves.

Innovation 2:  Microcredentialing
Just 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in Fall 2006 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years. Given the fact that over 40 percent did not graduate from that school, universities are increasingly experimenting with alternate credentials with job market value: Badges, certificates, specializations. LinkedIn, the career networking site, has embraced the concept, allowing users to display such new forms of credentialing. It is too soon to tell if employers will take notice, but it certainly seems reasonable to expect that some will use them in hiring.

Innovation 3:  Competency-Based Education
Calls for an outcomes-driven education geared toward 100 percent proficiency are giving traction to competency-based approaches that award credit for mastery rather than credit hours.  Especially attractive is competency-based education’s prospect of accelerating time to degree, since students can potentially receive credit for skills and knowledge acquired through life experience or alternative forms of education. So far, most such programs have been primarily career-focused, especially in areas with competencies well-defined by professional associations or industries, and offerings have been largely confined to for-profits, aggressive, but relatively small, non-profits, like Southern New Hampshire University, or extension programs, such as the University of Wisconsin’s. But with the U.S. Department of Education and accreditors increasingly willing to allow institutions to experiment with competency-based models and direct assessment, such programs are poised to take off. The trend is moving beyond just a few institutions like Western Governors University, as even Harvard Business School, for example, launched its HBX CORe program, a “boot camp” for liberal arts college students who want to understand the fundamentals of business. 

Innovation 4:  Personalized Adaptive Learning

Just-in-time remediation. Embedded learning dashboards.  Individualized learning pathways. Activities and readings tailored to student needs and interests. Alerts and notifications.  Course recommendation systems. Personalization has been the hallmark of contemporary retailing and marketing, and now it’s coming to higher education. So far, personalization has largely been incorporated into computer-based “program learning,” like that offered by the Open Learning Initiative or by companies like Knewton, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading adaptive learning technology provider.” But recognition of the fact that all students do not learn best by following the same path at the same pace is beginning to influence instructional design even in traditional courses, which are beginning to offer students customized trajectories through course material. Students have embraced this concept as well. CS50: Introduction to Computer Science, now the most popular course at Harvard College with nearly 900 enrolled, offers a variety of pathways, catering to those with no programming experience to a “Hacker Edition.” 

Innovation 5:  Curricular Optimization
The controversial 1983 call for educational reform, A Nation At Risk, decried a cafeteria-style curriculum with unlimited course options, claiming that it compromised high quality academics by encouraging students to mistake “the appetizers and desserts…for the main courses.” Convinced that a curricular smorgasbord of disconnected classes squanders faculty resources and allows too many students to graduate without a serious understanding of the sweep of human history, the diversity of human cultures, the major systems of belief and value, or great works of art, literature, and music, a growing number of institutions have sought to create a more coherent curriculum for at least a portion of their student body. At an increasing number of institutions, this has taken the form of establishing Honors colleges or programs; at others, by redesigning the general education curriculum to provide students with a common set of integrated experiences. The University of Virginia, using Oracle’s Hyperion performance management software and services, provides a notable example of an institution seeking to optimize its curriculum.

Innovation 6:  Open Educational Resources
With the average student paying  as much as $1,200 a year for textbooks and supplies, pressure to use free, open-access textbooks, like those offered by Rice University’s OpenStax College project, has mounted.  Meanwhile, companies like Learning Ace are creating new portals that allow faculty and students to easily search for content in e-books, subscription databases, and on the web.  One consequence is that it is becoming easier for instructors to adjust reading to students’ interests and level of proficiency and to identify and take advantage of free and effective learning objects.

Innovation 7:  Shared Services
By promoting system-wide or state-wide purchasing, institutions seek to take advantage of scale in procurement of software and other services. Meanwhile, a growing number of institutions outsource a growing number of services, including information technology as well as janitorial, maintenance, and food services. Most students, faculty, and staff have Google to thank for their email and researchers increasingly rely upon collective efforts such as the Massachusetts Green Higher Performance Computing Center, a state-academic partnership. Across the University of Texas System, the UT Research Cyberinfrastructure, which provides advanced computing capabilities, large-scale data storage, and high bandwidth data access, enables researchers within 15 UT System institutions to collaborate with one another.

Innovation 8:  Articulation Agreements
Whether mandated by legislatures or higher education coordinating boards or prodded by parents and students, universities are under increasing pressure to smooth the transition for community college transfer students by aligning courses, adopting common numbering systems, and readily accepting credits. As more and more students enroll in community college to save money, a great challenge is to insure that courses at various institutions are truly equivalent, which will require genuine collaboration between faculty members on multiple campuses.

Innovation 9:  Flipped Classrooms
By inverting the classroom, off-loading direct instruction and maximizing the value of face-to-face time, the flipped classroom are supposed to help students understand course material  in greater depth. At its best, this approach allows faculty to devote class time, their most valuable resource, to active learning, collaborative projects, problem solving, discussions, and one-on-one student interaction.  At its worst, however, this approach simply offers institutions a way to reduce costs (by lessening the need to construct new classrooms) and faculty members an opportunity to cut the amount of time spent interacting with students, while many students are as likely to resist watching video lectures on their computers as they are to pay attention during in-class lectures. Institutions like MIT, “Future of MIT Education” and Stanford, “Stanford2025,” aware of such tensions and risks, are taking both bottom-up and top-down approaches to ensure they get the best of the flipped classroom without sacrificing face-to-face interactions.

Innovation 10:  One-Stop Student Services
A growing number of institutions are launching a single contact point for student services, whether involving registration, billing, and financial aid, academic support, or career advising.  The most innovative, inspired by the example of the for-profits, make services available anytime. When it opens in Fall 2015, the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which will serve an expansive 60-mile-wide region, will offer students a holistic student lifecycle management and CRM and support system accessible across the region.

What we are not seeing, so far, is a clearly defined goals-oriented approach to the curriculum or substantial evidence that institutions are measuring value added as a result of the education that they offer. We know very little about what students “get out of” a given major or degree program. Apart from grades, we still have few measures to gauge students’ development. This is not a call for onerous testing, but, rather, for a way to promote  improvement in curriculum design, pedagogy, and student services.

Even as these ten innovations gradually become part of the higher education ecosystem, several new educational models are appearing, which potentially challenge business as usual.

Model 1:  New Pathways to a Bachelors Degree
Early college/dual enrollment programs that grant high school students college credit.  Expanded access to Advanced Placement courses. Bachelor degree-granting community colleges. Three-year bachelors degree programs. All of these efforts to accelerate time to degree are gaining traction. Particularly disruptive is the way students now consume higher education, acquiring credits in a variety of ways from various providers, face-to-face and online. These new pathways, unless carefully constructed, pose risks for universities and students alike.  Accelerated pathways not only trim enrollment in “cash-cow” introductory classes, but the alternative classes are sometimes ill-aligned with the college curriculum, leaving too many students poorly prepared for advanced coursework.

Model 2:  The Bare-bones University
Who needs climbing walls, lazy rivers, or giant Jacuzzis? Or, some ask even more provocatively, intercollegiate athletics or an expansive curriculum, if the goal is an affordable degree? The University of North Texas’s Dallas campus, designed with the assistance of Bain & Company, the corporate management consulting  firm, has served as a prototype for a lower-cost option, with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring, hybrid and online courses (to minimize facilities’ costs), and a limited number of majors tied to local workforce needs. 

Model 3:  Experimental Models
Convinced, however mistakenly, that existing universities are too expensive (ignoring actual net costs and financial aid opportunities), bureaucratic, and burdened by legacy organizational models, entrepreneurs, such as those behind the Minerva Project, seek to reinvent the university experience by combining a low residency model, real-world work experience through internships, and significantly reduced degree costs through scaled online learning. These upstarts may find, however, that the very things they hoped to offload, such as campuses, student services, and even climbing walls, may need to be recreated, as education is more than simply delivery and students (and more important, their parents) may expect, even with lower costs options, some high-touch features. Moreover, the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and other online-only institutions have created physical locations and even MOOC providers stress the importance of learner MeetUps and are focused on implementing hybrid courses on traditional campuses.

Model 4:  Corporate Universities
The phrase corporate university brings to mind McDonald’s Hamburger U. and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. But such corporate training and employee development entities are no longer few in number.  While some corporations partner with academic institutions (GM, for example, offers a MBA through Indiana University), the number of stand-alone corporate universities now exceeds 4,200. Examples include Charles Schwab University, Deloitte University, Disney University, Motorola University, and Oracle University. Although these corporate units do not offer degrees, they may well pose a threat to traditional universities in two ways.  First, by their very existence, the corporate universities infer that existing undergraduate institutions fail to prepare their graduates for the workplace. Second, these entities may well displace enrollment in existing graduate and continuing education programs.

Model 5: All of the Above
While it is a fool’s errand to predict the future, the ‘winning model’ will likely combine new and existing elements, especially as traditional universities have begun to fully embrace new strategies. The optimist in me sees the potential to maximize student choice, improve learning outcomes (meeting both career-goals and soft-skills like critical thinking), and to reduce rather than amplify current stratification, where very few students participate in high-quality learning environments. The irony may be that all the so-called disruption will actually bring higher education back to its core mission. In the words of the public intellectual du jour, William Deresiewicz, “My ultimate hope is that [college] becomes recognized as a right of citizenship, and that we make sure that that right is available to all.”

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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