Higher ed needs help--identifying solutions to persistent wicked problems will be challenging, but not impossible.

Can higher ed solve its 7 wicked problems?

Higher ed needs help--identifying solutions to persistent problems will be challenging, but not impossible

The education industry is among the slowest of industries to adapt and innovate, and higher education faces a number of complex, pervasive challenges if it is to survive and meet the needs of students.

WGU Labs, the innovation arm of Western Governors University, has identified seven “wicked problems” facing higher education today. Wicked problems share a number of characteristics, including that they “are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving.” Education policy, public health policy, and climate change are all examples of wicked challenges.

WGU Labs aims to be “an innovation engine driving transformation in higher education.” This transformation is essential given that higher education is facing a sustainability crisis that can’t be fixed by magical solutions or simple approaches.

That crisis is the product of several obstacles: Public opinion of higher-ed’s value is declining; higher-ed isn’t viewed as delivering results for students; and more students are looking for career-aligned credentials, certifications, and other non-academic degrees elsewhere.

In a December 2022 report, WGU Labs offers a look at the Wicked Problems that “are central to our understanding of the challenges and opportunities for higher education, and the lends through which our team of educators, learning designers, education technology experts, and researchers consider potential solutions in the education technology sector and marketplace, solutions in learning design, and solutions in policy.”

Wicked Problem #1: Postsecondary Access. Routes and entry points to postsecondary education unnecessarily limit access for individuals who do not match the historic student profile. Predictions for 2023: In order to meet the needs of new learner populations and increase access to flexible learning environments, we predict the rise of instructional designers as important purveyors of insight about the way students access and absorb tech-enabled content.

Wicked Problem #2: Financial Aid. Lack of transparency around postsecondary education costs and financial support impedes access and opportunity, especially for historically underserved student populations. Predictions for 2023: The federal government is unlikely to ever offer emergency aid at the scale we saw during the pandemic but interest in alternative models of financial support remains high. Researchers and institutions will continue to try to understand the need for, and how to, efficiently dispense aid to students who are caught between paying essential bills and staying in school. Employers, who are looking for ways to both upskill and retain employees, will play an increasing role supporting learners financially, and institutions will need to better understand what that means for their students, their programs, and their relationship to these employers.

Wicked Problem #3: Student belonging. The design of curriculum, instruction, support systems, and organization do not reflect known principles of social psychology and their impact on learning. Predictions for 2023: Research shows the critical role that social belonging plays in student motivation, performance, and persistence. However, as learners demand more flexible learning, belonging is increasingly more complex to measure and sustain. In response, colleges must better understand the role of belonging to attract and retain their students.

Wicked Problem #4: Tech-enabled learning. Technology-enabled learning models have not fully harnessed what is known about the science of learning. Predictions for 2023: In response to the increased student demand for flexible and mixed learning modalities, we predict the emergence of digital tool management as a way of helping institutions focus on the most impactful technologies by uncovering students’ needs; have reliable and systematic process for learning about emerging technological domains and solutions; and develop multi-year roadmaps for layering and connecting relevant edtech solutions rapidly and effectively.

Wicked Problem #5: Diverse learning pathways. Diversity of instruction and learning pathways do not reflect the diversity of learners. Predictions for 2023: We believe that in the upcoming year, competency-based education (CBE) will finally be fully recognized as a central solution to making college ROI clear, improving workforce-alignment, flexibility, skills acquisition, and alleviating workforce shortages.

Wicked Problem #6: Learning-to-work transition. The transition from learning to work is opaque to students and employers, and prone to leaks. Predictions for 2023: As the college ROI conversation continues to dominate national channels, we believe that colleges and universities will invest more heavily in career assistance resources for students, and increasingly embed them within the core learning experience.

Wicked Problem #7: The future of learning. Higher education is not structured to support continuous work-learn cycles that are required in the modern workforce. Predictions for 2023: In 2023, we predict that higher education institutions will continue to diversify their offerings of microcredentials, short term certifications, and other flexible, workforce-oriented skills acquisition programs in order to compete with industry certification and combat declining overall enrollments.

Must-know developments in higher-ed innovation

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Laura Ascione