future higher ed themes

Predicting the next 20 years in higher ed reveals 5 major themes

In a future-forward interview series, leaders reflect on the last 20 years of U.S. higher ed and consider what the next 20 years might hold.

3. Data and the ability to transform that data into action will be the new lifeblood of the institution.

Interviewees agreed that data would be central to all of these transitions. Google’s Chris Jennings reflected on how data allows us to understand the success of a curriculum but also tailor content for individuals. This opportunity was echoed by Northeastern’s Erin Smith who believes data’s ability to identify trends and test hypotheses will be “transformative.”

Several interviewees raised concerns over assuring the privacy and security of student data, and over the possibility for data to be abused. Quinsigamond’s Schmohl reflected on the risk of manipulating data and the need to ensure that a campus works towards a common agenda. Should the dangers prevent us from embracing data? No, but it was clear that understanding data’s risk and limitations is of critical concern.

4. The “sage on the stage” and the “doc in a box” aren’t sustainable; new technologies will allow faculty to shift their focus on the application of learning rather than the acquisition of knowledge.

While none of the interviewees viewed technology as a silver bullet, several proposed that certain technologies could significantly alter the nature of learning, including the role of faculty and their relationship with students.

Several interviewees suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) would play an increasingly large and critical role in transforming teaching and learning. They also cautioned that such technologies come with a high price and limitations. Myk Garn of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia warned that the upfront investments for emerging technologies would lead to a period of digital haves and have-nots that could cripple smaller institutions with fewer resources.

5. Finally, the heart and soul of any institution are its people. Adopting new technologies is only a small piece of the puzzle; institutions must also work with faculty and staff to change institutional culture.

All interviewees acknowledge the critical role that people play in creating cultural change and the tensions involved in doing so. Several discussed the need to work with institutional stakeholders to help develop new pedagogical practices that will make the most effective use of any new technologies.

Northeastern’s Smith was adamant about the need to clearly define the ways in which technology can assist in developing community. Smith posited that a better framework for technology-enabled community is to consider the ways in which technology can enable human connection.

What will the next 20 years hold for American higher education? It’s undeniable that our old model is evolving as it encounters changing expectations and emerging technologies. This evolution is expanding access as educational opportunities cease to be place- and time-bound.

But even for these leaders who are at the forefront, concerns were raised about equity, access, quality, and culture. Regardless, they all came back to a sentiment that Mike Abbiatti expressed: “If we can, in some way, move higher education into an organization that has a true conversation across the continuum of the organization so there is a real serious student focus, then I think we will be in good shape… My greatest hope is that we restate and refine our mission in higher education to be much more focused on student outcomes.”

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