Leadership Insights

What Is the Future of Higher Education?

By K'Lee Banks November 6, 2012

What will higher education look like in 25 years? Will traditional schools cease to exist as online learning becomes more prevalent, or will students have a variety of options to pursue higher education?

When Government Technology magazine summarized the results of the Future of Higher Education survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, opposing viewpoints emerged from those who believed that:

  • Higher education will be about the same as now, with a blend of the traditional university model and integrated technology
  • Higher education will be primarily technology-mediated and universally available.

Traditional vs. Online Schools

California State University history professor Lillian Taiz says technology-mediated education “isn’t a replacement for the kind of learning that goes on where you’re interacting,” but it is merely “an enhancement.” On the other hand, professor Richard DeMillo, who directs the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes today’s universities will no longer exist in their present traditional form, but rather “will be universally accessible, mediated by technology, probably offered through a variety of commercial platforms, and very, very inexpensive.”

Taiz worries that only students with adequate resources will attend prestigious schools, while everyone else will take advantage of technology-mediated schools. DeMillo and Ben Wildavsky, senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, disagree; they pointed out that socioeconomic gaps exist now, unrelated to technology, and the fact that many students choose online education over traditional universities simply for the convenience and flexibility they offer, as well as the savings represented by not having room and board, or commuting expenses.

Online Courses: Only for “Certain Types” of Students?

Regarding online courses, Taiz says they “are only for certain types of students; they won’t meet everyone’s needs” and they allegedly “have a high dropout rate.”  DeMillo countered that the dropout rate, when put in context, is “not exceptionally high” but rather most courses have good retention rates. He further emphasized that many top research universities offer online courses featuring their “rock star professors” who offer exceptionally high-quality courses.

Alternative Paths to Credits and Evaluating Schools

Wildavesky discussed the idea that students will have the opportunity to choose alternative paths to acquire the necessary credits to graduate: traditional course credits, competency-based learning and online classes. He said this blend will give students a variety of learning measures, including the time spent in the learning process, as well as the mastery of skills and knowledge. “We’re going to move to a world where academic results matter much more than how you get there,” Wildavesky said.

However, as Cameron Evans, CTO of U.S. education at Microsoft, pointed out, accreditors will likely have to revise how they evaluate institutions. Instead of the current method that considers individual characteristics of a university or the “inputs” of it, Evans suggested the new accreditation system would have to be based on “outputs” such as “student learning, student success in the labor market and graduation rates.”

Michael Staton, co-founder of Inigral, a private Facebook community for colleges and universities, concurred with Evans. “Students could travel multiple paths to get to academic results,” Staton said. “And technology could play an increasing role in making higher education accessible and affordable.”

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