Higher education must prepare for five new realities (opinion)

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Higher education was transformed in the 19th and 20th centuries to meet the needs of a national, analogue and emerging industrial economy. Today, higher education is transforming again, this time to meet the needs of a global, digital and knowledge economy. However, people fundamentally disagree on what form this transformation will take.

president of Harvard University Laurent Bacow asserts that higher education will gradually adapt to changing conditions, as it has historically done, maintaining its current mission and structure. In contrast, one of its most prominent business school professors, the late Clayton Christensen, argued that the changes will be of such magnitude as to disrupt higher education as we know it, making traditional models obsolete and leading many colleges and universities to bankruptcy.

Which scenario will be the right one?

We can do better than betting on one or the other, as we can already see the first adaptations and seismic changes to come. We can see the future at the fringes or the fringes of higher education now. There are three places to look.

The first could be called the post-secondary sector that exists beyond traditional colleges and universities. It consists of a mishmash of diverse and independent for-profit and not-for-profit initiatives, organizations, programs and services beyond traditional higher education that have abandoned key elements of traditional practice. of higher education. They reject teaching based on time and place, create low-cost degrees, embrace skills-based or outcome-based teaching, emphasize digital technologies, focus on growing populations that are under-represented in traditional higher education and offer pioneering subjects and qualifications.

This sector encompasses knowledge organizations, ranging from libraries and museums to media companies. It is booming, both in terms of registrations and the number of providers seeking to offer cheaper, faster, more accessible and / or more practical alternatives to traditional institutions.

Another place to look to the future is at new colleges and universities. In times of profound social change, innovative institutions emerge as profoundly different alternatives to traditional colleges and universities. During the Industrial Revolution, they included America’s very first research universities such as Johns Hopkins, land granting colleges such as Cornell University which combined liberal arts and practical education, science and technology education in institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joliet Junior College and other community colleges. They defined the contours of higher education as an industrial nation.

Their contemporary successors are advancing an agenda for a global, digital and knowledge economy. Western Governors University focuses on skills-based online education that forgoes measures such as sitting time, allowing learners to progress at their own pace. The People’s University has reduced the cost of college studies. Purdue University Global represents a fusion of for-profit and non-profit higher education that provides accessibility and affordability under the umbrella of a branded institution. And we’re already seeing virtual community colleges, such as Calbright College, specializing in certificate upgrading and retraining programs.

The third place we should look to see what is coming for higher education is in financially struggling institutions as well as healthy university subunits, such as continuing education units which typically provide short or part-time courses for adults after they have left the formal system. educational system. Institutions in financial difficulty are desperate; they are adopting new approaches to distinguish themselves and become competitive in order to survive. Subunits of otherwise healthy institutions are self-financing, so they must generate income and constantly monitor the environment for potential sources of liquidity. Over time, these sub-units become part of the core of the institution and are integrated into mainstream higher education. Perhaps the best known of the breed is the College for America, which was originally the College of Online and Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University.

The three sectors are almost kaleidoscopic in the variety of initiatives they have undertaken. Competency-based programs have shifted the focus from education from seat time to learning outcomes. New calendars have emerged which abandon semesters and uniform time constraints in favor of variable duration education, 24/7 access to classes and “just in time” education. Programs granting micro-degrees rather than diplomas have grown considerably, especially those offering “skills enhancement” and “re-qualification”.

Meanwhile, new approaches to pricing tuition fees – for example, subscriptions or offering the same programs as traditional institutions in much lower prices – have emerged. Non-traditional partnerships between higher education and for-profit organizations have increased in areas such as boot camps, online program management and workforce accreditation, as well as in absorption of for-profit units by universities such as Purdue University and the University of Arizona.

The coming transformation

This is not a set of disconnected changes. Together, they offer a glimpse into what is likely to be the University of the Global, Digital and Knowledge Economy. Industrial companies standardize time and processes like an assembly line, one of the most successful technologies of the industrial age. In contrast, knowledge economies favor standardization results. Time and process are variable. The emerging era university will need to embrace these changing values. It must be anchored in results rather than time and process. It needs to be about learning rather than teaching. It should be student-centered rather than faculty-centered.

The initiatives observed on the fringes and on the periphery of higher education point precisely in these directions. They point to a results-based, time-independent, digital, individualized, inexpensive future available anytime, anywhere.

Five new realities

Combined, these trends tell us that, taken as a whole, colleges and universities need to prepare for five new realities, none of which are the work of higher education.

# 1. New content producers and distributors will continue to enter the market, increasing competition and consumer choice while lowering prices. They will focus on digital technologies, reject education based on time and place, create low-cost degrees, offer skills-based or outcome-based education, and award non-traditional degrees. Those already in the market include more accessible and convenient industry leaders and cultural agencies, offering a mix of skills-based and course-based programs. They’re also cheaper and more nimble than traditional colleges and universities, which are more likely to experience contractions and closures.

# 2. Institutional control of higher education will decrease and the power of higher education consumers will increase. Across a range of knowledge domains – take, for example, the newspaper, film and recording industries – the advent of the global digital knowledge economy has increased the number of content providers and broadcasters and gave consumers the choice between what, where, when and how of the content they consume. It will be the same for higher education. The digital revolution will put more power in the hands of the learner who will have greater choice over all aspects of their own education.

# 3. With near universal access to digital devices and the Internet, students will be looking for the same things in colleges that they get from the music, film and newspaper industries. As they do with these industries, students will seek accessibility anytime and anywhere for accessibility and a personalized education that matches their circumstances. Colleges and universities will increasingly need to unbundle their programs and services so that students can affordably buy only what they need or want to buy.

# 4. A results-based knowledge economy model will eclipse the industrial-age model of process-based higher education. In the future, higher education will focus on the results we want students to achieve – what we want them to learn – and not on how long they are taught. Students are not learning at the same rate, and the explosion of new content produced by museums, software companies, retailers and other organizations inside and outside higher education is becoming so heterogeneous that the academic progress of students can not be translated into uniform. time or process measurements. The common denominator they all share is that they produce results – whatever students learn as a result of the experience.

# 5. The prevalence of time-limited degrees and “just in case” education will diminish. Meanwhile, non-degree certifications and “just in time” education will gain in status and value. There will be a reset between the value placed on diplomas, once highly prized to indicate a level of skill and knowledge to be ready for the future, and “just in time” education, which is oriented towards the present. and more immediate. The growing need for further training and retraining caused by automation, the knowledge explosion and the pandemic will tip the scales towards more educational programs closely aligned with the labor market and providing certificates, micro-certificates and badges – not diplomas.

We don’t need a Ouija board to speculate on the future of higher education. We can see it unfolding before our eyes in the work of new educational providers outside of higher education, the founding of new colleges and the innovations adopted by troubled institutions serving adults. Kaleidoscopic changes will be best highlighted if we take a close and direct look at the margins where major changes are already taking place.


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