One 20,000-student university would have to be constructed somewhere in the world every week for the next dozen years to accommodate the projected 50 million new students expected to pursue higher education.

educationHigher education attendance is expected to grow by a whopping 25 percent over the next 12 years, according to the New Media Consortium’s (NMC) Horizon Report 2014 that ranked challenges higher education will face in the coming years.

None of the challenges are considered intractable by those who have examined the problems and potential solutions, though the college student population boom — from 200 million today to 250 million in 2025 — is labeled a “wicked” challenge in the NMC report.

This jump will be driven in part by the job market requiring postsecondary degrees, and almost two-thirds of the student influx will come from outside the United States.

NMC report authors were hardly the first to point to online education as the only conceivable way to meet higher education’s projected spike in demand. The authors did, however, point to massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a possible solution — a suggestion many in education are loathe to make.

NMC authors pointed out that Queen Rania of Jordan, in a partnership with MIT and Harvard, created a foundation that will translate edX online courses into Arabic.

Rania “believes MOOCs have the potential to democratize education, especially among young women,” the report says. “In Africa, MOOCs are seen as a low-cost solution to providing college educations to countries with low college degree attainment rates.”

The potential for online courses to satisfy the expected explosion in demand for a college degree could be stunted by a lack of access to basic technologies in some parts of the world.

MOOCs won’t matter, in other words, if countries with the greatest growth in college students don’t have reliable internet access.

“Exacerbating the challenge is the digital divide where access to opportunity increasingly calls for access to technology,” the authors wrote. “In both the developed and developing world, this gap continues to widen, and the technology-based solutions for providing greater access to knowledge, such as MOOCs, have little effectiveness if the proper infrastructure or connectivity are not readily available.”

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