The first few months of every year bring lists of predictions ranging from scenarios of doom and gloom to those representative of looking through rose-colored glasses. Rather than provide yet another list, this article looks at aspects that might be useful for higher education to focus on as we continue our evolution in a world that is still trying to address the effects of COVID-19 and its new variations, while simultaneously addressing critical aspects related to value, equity, and agility.
While there is significant talk of hopes of an early return to normal, or of the progression to a “new normal,” there may perhaps be greater benefit to using the lessons learned and the experiences gained to re-envision higher education, developing an ethos that is appropriate for the 21st century in a time of increasing convergence of information and technology and the need for continuous upgrading of talent and knowledge levels rather than continuing to move within the confines of structures and strictures that were primarily designed for the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.
1. COVID and its effects will be here for a while: Even though there are signs that the pandemic may soon become endemic, the effects of the past two years in terms of the learning loss on multiple cohorts of students, the additional stress on faculty, staff and students, and the effects of economic losses (real and perceived) will continue to be felt for years to come. These effects cannot be minimized, and steps must continue to be taken to address them. The acceleration in development of technological tools and modalities of interaction could well open new facets for engagement of students and for increasing access and success for populations previously underserved. Further modes of collaboration between institutions forced by circumstances could well be continued for the benefit of students and the community. Hopefully, the new agility and flexibility shown by higher education will continue, albeit with a higher level of institutional planning for the future and with greater support for faculty and staff.
2. Cost of tuition and debt levels will continue to be drivers: Even prior to the pandemic there was significant discussion related to the extremely high cost of tuition increasingly putting the opportunity of a better future through higher education out of reach of a growing percentage of the population. While recent steps by universities and foundations to “forgive” educational loans for some students are welcome, it does not address the real issue. A focus on cost containment within universities, increasing efficiency of operations while focusing on enhancing resources associated with the quality of learning, and the development of new structures and modes of support all need to be assessed. In addition, differences in cost overhead related to online and face-to-face modalities of learning, as well as of infrastructure, need to be reviewed and new financial models put in place based on contemporary drivers. The issue of loans, especially as related to ballooning interest payments that often form a majority of the amount owed by students, needs specific focus, as does the issue of whether a degree as currently structured is appropriate. All these are likely to be of continued emphasis for legislatures, educational policy institutes, and higher education administrators.
3. Consumer-based flexibility: The pandemic resulted in colleges and universities offering students flexibility in academic structures and modalities of attendance, ranging from multiple shorter and more focused terms to multiple start dates; and a palette of modalities of attendance ranging from hyflex and full digital immersion to asynchronous lectures and remote teaching. The continued offering of these options, and the further development of modularity and the carousel concept wherein a student could “jump on and off” as needed in order to pursue work or meet other responsibilities, assured that they could rejoin without negative consequences, would go a long way in meeting the diverse needs of an increasing percentage of learners and would decrease the level of “dropouts” for non-academic reasons. While the forced uniformity of the past ensured ease of operation to institutions, the ability to meet the needs of the consumer, especially the “Real College” student, through flexible and innovative practices will go a long way in enhancing equity of access and opportunity.
4. Integrated career development: The perception that intellectual preparation through a rigorous academic curriculum and the development of skills necessary for the workforce is a binary choice presents a false conflict. There is an increasing need for graduates to be ready for the fast-changing workplace and this necessitates greater integration of workplace skills and academic knowledge going far beyond the traditional summer internship and even the structured co-op experience. This will need a dramatic re-envisioning of curricula to enable greater incorporation of work-integrated projects through the curriculum rather than only in capstone courses, increased use of internships that continue side-by-side with associated relevant coursework, enhanced use of experts from the field coming in as “guest-lecturers” linking academic knowledge to its application, and the integration of industry-recognized credentials into courses, such that academia and the corporate world become true, ongoing, partners in assuring the intersection of knowledge and relevant job skills, addressing simultaneously the need for learned citizens and a highly skilled workforce.
5. Continuum of knowledge: While degrees have been the presumed sine qua non of opportunity and upward social mobility for decades, rapid changes in the workforce accelerated by automation and artificial intelligence potentially necessitating the reskilling and upskilling of substantial segments of the workforce, as well as the critical and growing need for specific skill sets, have created the need for institutions (either academic or corporate) to provide a continuum of knowledge from basic to advanced to ensure a highly skilled and technologically advanced workforce. The future lies in dissemination of knowledge over a continuum, both through modules that can be earned separately and stacked, as well as through degrees with a focus on enabling not just degree-based education, but also to reskill/upskill employees on a continuous basis. While the use of credentials and certifications continues to draw attention as a means of addressing these aspects as well as providing intermediate employment gains for the learner, there is an increasing need for the development of a system that assures learners/students of the value of these and of their acceptance as evidence of preparation by hiring authorities and those in charge of career advancement. Without this assurance, the credential/certificate becomes confusing at best and irrelevant at worst. Further, the ability to truly stack these, leading to a degree without waste in time or finances, will be critical inevitably forcing greater integration of the previously separate credit and non-credit options.
6. Connected campus: The ability to combine the physical and digital worlds to create a “phygital” reality that not only enhances the ability of higher education to reach and serve a larger population but also does it more effectively and efficiently, enabling knowledge to be taken to the learner rather than depending on geographical co-location of the learner and source of knowledge, is transformative. It shifts the definition, and focus, of campuses from one built on the concept of physical space to one that combines the best of physical and digital modalities, enabling the implementation of a truly connected campus – one where students and faculty, rather than physical infrastructure, are at the center and are linked through smart networks and platforms enabling a campus to now be defined by global connections and linkages. Student enrollment would no longer be constrained by space because all modalities of offerings, including fully online, could be implemented by design. Even physical infrastructure could be used more efficiently through a better designed set of schedules that used the space almost 24/7/365 through multiple starts, different term lengths, and even online learning across very different global time zones. The ability to constantly be “connected” increases engagement and a feeling of belonging, both of which are known to increase rates of degree completion and student success. A connected campus thus must necessarily be more than just a traditional campus that is now networked. It has to be a purposefully designed combination of physical space and integrated digital platforms focused on people.
7. Corporate-led education: Increasingly, large corporations are finding greater effectiveness in not only expanding their own internal academies for the upskilling of their employees, but are also initiating courses and credentials that focus on creating pools of specially-trained prospective employees. In many ways the existing initiatives could be forerunners of a greater push by corporations to fill by themselves the perceived gap between workforce preparation by institutions of higher education and the fast-changing needs of employers. A question that will need to be addressed in the near future is whether these efforts start cutting into college enrollment and whether large corporations, either by themselves or in collaboration with a few forward-looking mega-universities, create degrees and stackable certificates leading to credentials that better fit their current and future employment needs. Aspects such as competition between these new initiatives and the overall higher education sector, including the for-profit chains, could further shake up the sector.
8. Cross-institutional collaboration: In general, there had been very little, if any, sharing and collaboration at a formalized level as related to primary resources and facilities, between IHEs. The exception has been in the case of very specific consortia primarily among private, or faith-based, institutions. The pandemic caused a large number of institutions to reexamine the advantages of collaboration in areas ranging from sharing of online courses to the supply of IT resources, including computing resources, and core facilities. Aspects such as course-sharing and increased collaboration over curricula and articulation are easy first steps but one could expect to see the increased sharing of facilities and resources, as well as faculty, as institutions search for more efficient ways to decrease costs and increase agility and flexibility. It is likely that there will also be increased facilitation of use of courses, curricula, and faculty training, from well-established universities to institutions without substantial resources, or from mega-universities in the US to those in developing and under-developed countries as a means of catalyzing and accelerating the levels of higher education excellence.
9. Increased use of technology for communication and active collaboration: Developments in IT and educational technology have been catalyzed by the pandemic, making communication and collaboration through digital modalities more effective. Without decreasing the intrinsic value of the face-to-face mode of instruction, there are also significant advantages to the use of specific technologies and features such as simulations, use of AR/VR to mimic real world situations as part of training and to allow for increased critical thinking through the use of “what-if” scenarios, and even chatrooms that enable faculty to divide large classes into virtual groups. The ability to enable student-to-student and student-to-faculty/staff interaction at will across the bounds of space and time enhances the power of interactions, and newer technologies are making this interaction far more effective. Consider the power of students across the globe, some in classrooms and others on computers and mobile devices in their homes or at places of work, synchronously or asynchronously, being taught by the world’s leading expert in a subject from Arlington, Texas, one day, an expert from Sydney, Australia, the next, and from Dubai in the UAE, the third day, or the impact of students being able to listen to a panel of experts from industry in different locations all at the same time, being able to immerse themselves on the manufacturing floor or at an archeological dig through the use of AR/VR technologies. Activities previously not possible because of travel and geopolitical constraints are immediately possible for students, as is the substantial increase in access for learners and the enhancement of equity in opportunity through personalization. Technology and edtech developments will undoubtedly continue, and it is up to higher education to incorporate these for the benefit of learners, bringing down previous barriers of time, space, and location and bridging communities, teachers, and learners across the globe. It should be noted that these will also impact how teaching and learning spaces are envisioned in the future, leading to new ways of looking at the “Connected Campus.”
10. Community connection, engagement, and impact: IHEs have always had a tremendous impact on the surrounding community, not just through the education of students, but also as a major employer in the region. In the future it is likely that the ties between IHEs and the community will need to be stronger as a means of socio-economic development and innovation and as a catalyst for enhancing the vitality and resilience of the local region. Stronger ties between local corporations and institutions, including through rapid development of curricula that meet needs of the local region and ensuring that the local institution actively supported the reskilling/upskilling of the local/regional workforce in order to keep the companies in the area, will be increasingly important. Greater collaboration between all local IHEs with K-12 institutions to ensure that youth stayed in the region and that jobs were brought to the region in conjunction with local Chambers of Commerce and Workforce commissions will be critical, as will the emphasis on the IHE being intrinsically a part of the community and its fabric, emphasizing areas of local and regional need rather than just focusing on national recognition and status and being distinct from the community in which it is located and it serves.
Rather than lose the momentum and slide back into a return to normal, or through minor modifications to a “new normal,” higher education has the opportunity to use the lessons learned through the last two years to re-envision the future, revitalizing its trajectory to serve learners writ large without the constraints of strictures and structures left over from decades in the past, realigning itself with the opportunities of the future. The question is whether we, as a community, want to move forward or just remain in our comfort zones even though we are aware of the tremendous issues that loom ahead – including affordability, access, equity, and better preparation for success in the workforce and life.
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