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Learning in 2050 is on our minds.

You might be asking if this is the time to think about the long-run future of learning in higher education. Right now feels pretty shitty. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have been a catalyst for an intense examination within colleges and universities around the role we must play in recognizing, and countering, the persistence of institutional racism. Many of us have failed to do this well.

These difficult but necessary conversations that Floyd’s, Taylor’s and Arbery’s killings have prompted are occurring during the same moment that we are all stretched thin by responding to COVID-19, a pandemic that disproportionately affects members of the black community throughout this country. For all the challenges involved in the near-overnight pivot our schools made to remote instruction, we all know that the fall will be exponentially more difficult. Expectations among students for an educational experience commensurate with pre-pandemic operations will be high. Mixing residential and remote instruction, as schools attempt to both bring as many students back to campus as possible while protecting everyone’s health, will be challenging. Planning for the fall can’t wait.

So why take some time, amid the twin challenges that higher education faces in confronting the realities of entrenched institutional racism, and our ongoing need to navigate toward a new COVID-19 educational normal, to think about 2050? Is thinking about the future of higher education a luxury we can’t now afford?

For us -- and maybe for you -- thinking about the future of learning in higher education is perhaps an exercise in hopeful imagination. When we look forward to the next three decades of higher education, we see improvement and progress. We think that higher education will be better than it is in 2050 than it is in 2020, and we think that we can calibrate that improvement with some specificity.

This belief that the future of learning in higher education will be better than the present runs counter, we suspect, to how many think about academia in the years ahead. Indeed, the immediate future for many colleges and universities looks bleak. Just as we are acknowledging more and more the systematic and institutional racism that pervades higher education -- and understand that any change will require fundamentally rethinking our systems and institutions -- we know we are trying to do so at an incredibly tenuous time in the future of higher education.

An Inside Higher Ed article from April 22 was headlined “Colleges Could Lose 20% of Students.” Writing in Forbes, economist Richard Vedder argues that coronavirus will put 500 to 1,000 colleges at risk for permanent closure. Tuition-dependent small liberal arts colleges, and nonflagship public universities, are particularly vulnerable to the closing due to a combination of COVID-19 related costs and declining revenues. Even for the vast majority of colleges and universities that will survive the pandemic, the negative economic consequences of COVID-19 will be severe and long-lasting.

The last thing we want to do is minimize the difficult and necessary work that is in front of us, or the short-term pain that COVID-19 is inflicting on institutions of higher learning. It is likely that the virus will accelerate trends around institutional closings and mergers, just as we hope this moment in history will require us to acknowledge and work to change the inherent inequities of the system we work within.

Lower revenues and increased costs due to COVID-19 will likely result in significant budget shortfalls for many schools, funding gaps that are likely to lead to hiring freezes, furloughs, program closings and layoffs. Schools that are merging or closing were already fragile. We don’t expect, however, that the pandemic will result in the sort of widespread closing of colleges and universities that some expect.

While it may be difficult to see now, we think that there are some potentially positive developments for learning in higher education that will ultimately emerge out of COVID-19. In the long term, these changes will contribute to the overall trend of higher-quality teaching and learning across the postsecondary ecosystem, a shift that we have labeled as a turn to learning. Among the things we are seeing across a diversity of institutions include:

  • A recognition that good pedagogy is inclusive, and an investment in infusing all teaching and learning with principles of inclusive pedagogy.
  • Greater visibility and understanding of the learning challenges that many students face, as result of difficult home situations and/or unequal access to resources.
  • A commitment to equity and access across all our institutions.
  • An acceleration of trends toward blended and online learning, with a commensurate new focus on the unique affordances of face-to-face teaching.
  • The diffusion of collaborative course development and delivery techniques, with instructors collaborating on course development with nonfaculty educators such as learning designers.
  • The adoption of instructional strategies that de-emphasize content delivery and summative assessment, toward more constructivist pedagogical approaches.
  • Increased acceptance of the role of both institutions and educators as sources of care and support for the whole student.

While we expect that these developments will not happen evenly across all of higher ed, either in degree, timing or kind -- especially in the short term in a context of scarcity -- we do hope the long-term trajectory for teaching and learning in higher education will be positive.

The year 2050 is on our minds because this date represents the same number of years into the future that separates both of us from our time as undergraduates. Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed (and hopefully made small contributions) to the advances in teaching and learning that brought us from 1990 to 2020. These advances have many sources, a story that we attempted to tell at some length in our book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. Given all of higher education’s changes over the past three decades, it seems to us a reasonable task to try to project what will change over the next 30 years, particularly during this moment in our nation’s history and the impact of global pandemic we are all affected by.

For many readers, a 30-year time horizon to project the future contours of a system as varied and diverse as U.S. higher education may seem simply too long. Over the past 30 years, we have seen widespread adoption of student-centered pedagogical approaches. Because of the internet, we have seen less of an emphasis on knowledge transmission and more of an effort to help students develop the skills and tools necessary to understand and work with this knowledge.

We have seen the growth of experiential and community-based learning. We have seen strides, too small, too slowly, too infrequent in change toward equity and access. We have seen the adoption technology help support innovation in teaching and learning, and we have seen a growing investment in intentional learning design.

We have seen the adoption of assessment and evaluation to help us better understand how our students learn. We have seen the scholarship of teaching and learning spread the conversation about teaching and learning in higher education and have an impact in the classroom. We have seen classroom design follow pedagogical practices. And we have seen the impact of learning science, as active, adaptive, and personalized learning have become more prominent.

A lot can happen in 30 years.

Colleagues such as Bryan Alexander and David Staley, among others, have spent a good deal of time imagining futures for higher education in their book-length investigations (as well as massive amounts of other scholarship). Mindful of the warnings from professional higher education futurists about the dangers of projecting current trends into the future, we do think it’s worth imaging a picture of what higher education might look like in 2050 from the perspective of student learning.

Where might we be in 2050? As we said, a lot can happen. We might see changes in how we use technology, and how students use technology engage in both curricular and co-curricular activities. We might see radical alternatives to the traditional college model, along the lines of what Staley has envisioned, or we might see fundamental shifts in how college is funded. Or environmental challenges might force a different relationship to physical campuses. Experiential learning and lifelong learning relationships with schools might become the norm rather than the exception. After a great deal of difficult work, we might see the emergence of a more just educational system.

How might these things happen? How might higher education evolve? As we suggest in our recent piece in this space, one possibility is that the next 30 years might follow the discoveries of learning science. New information about how students learn might influence our entire pedagogical enterprise. In this context, learning science can be thought of broadly, inclusive of both the literature in the scholarship of teaching and learning, as well as the findings of a broad swath of interdisciplinary research on cognitive and brain science. Between now and 2050, we hope that colleges and universities will in fact continuously evolve their teaching structures to better align with research on learning. In part, we think that aligning our teaching with the lessons and ideas from learning science will lead to a more inclusive, more equitable, more just learning environment for our students.

Over time, schools might move away from transactional methods of instruction toward a more relational approach to learning. A steadily increasing proportion of educators might be trained in, and adopt, inclusive pedagogical methods for their teaching. The proportion of foundational courses that are designed around lectures and high-stakes exams might begin to give way to courses designed around blended delivery methods, with greater emphasis on formative assessments and active student engagement. By the time we get to 2050, the fixed-seating tiered large lecture hall will hopefully have been fully supplanted by a combination of flat and flexible classrooms paired with ever more robust and immersive virtual environments.

Between 1990, when we were undergraduates, and today, higher education has changed dramatically. Some of these changes, such as the increase in student costs and educational debt, as well as growing levels of faculty adjunctification, have been negative. Other changes, such as changes in the support structures and resources for faculty and students around teaching and learning, have resulted in significant improvements in higher education over the past 30 years. Some things, such as our commitment to equity and access, have not changed enough.

There are numerous known (demographic, funding, costs) and unknown (technological, competitive, black swans) challenges that higher education will face between now and 2050. Whatever the future looks like, we hope it will be led by a commitment to understanding and adapting our institutional structures to how our students learn in an equitable and inclusive environment that enables all our students to succeed. In these difficult days of 2020, the ability to look forward to a better future for our students and for higher education is more important than ever.

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