While most industries have changed significantly over the years, higher education has remained relatively the same. Students listen to professors lecture in century-old universities and tackle tough philosophical questions the way their ancestors did.
But higher education is at a breaking point. Tuition is skyrocketing. State funding is dropping. And online course providers are on the rise.
Cost is a major barrier for accessing higher education. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey on the cost and value of higher education found that 75 percent of respondents said college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. And 57 percent said the U.S. higher education system does not provide students a good return on their investment.
“Technology has to be a big part of the solution to access and affordability,” said Ben Wildavsky, senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation. “The key is to do it in a smart way.”
Futurists surveyed for The Future of Higher Education report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project pontificated on what higher education would look like in 2020. Thirty-nine percent said higher education wouldn’t look much different than it does today. But 60 percent said higher education would be different, complete with mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning. In their written responses, however, many of them painted scenarios that incorporated elements of both.
The stage is set for a shift in how higher education operates — the question is, how exactly will it evolve? Futurists view the coming decades as an opportunity for teacher/student relationships to occur almost purely through technology — an approach known as technology-mediated education. But faculty members look to maintain the university model that’s been in place for centuries, with a sprinkle of technology integration.
These mindsets offer somewhat competing visions for what higher education could look like in the coming years, with each claiming to make college education better, more accessible and more affordable for students.
Lillian Taiz — a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and president of the California Faculty Association, which launched the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education — said eliminating the traditional university experience would be a mistake.
To Taiz, technology-mediated education means no student engagement, no physical campus and no credibility. Universities will be on par with 19th-century correspondence schools, which had little standing because they accepted student work by mail.
Integrating technology into the existing higher education model is a better option, she said. Technology will become a tool in professors’ toolboxes. Universities will still exist and do much of the same things they do today.
“I love technology, but it isn’t a replacement for the kind of learning that goes on where you’re interacting,” Taiz said. “It’s an enhancement.”
Most of the disruptive ideas that could reshape college education over the next 25 years are in the early research stage now or only being used in a few segments of the population, said Cameron Evans, CTO of U.S. education at Microsoft. But over the next five to 25 years, machine learning will have to increase to keep up with the large amounts of data that people produce, Evans said. Machines will learn about students’ behavior, actions, preferences and associations. Then they will figure out how to use this knowledge to create a richer and more dynamic learning context.
Learning also will have to adapt more to students’ needs and preferences, he added. While growth in personalized learning is a given, it needs to step up to the next level so that data is fashioned for individual students and the faculty members who prepare courses for those individuals.
One danger of the pure technology model, Taiz said, is that students who don’t have much money will attend technology-mediated schools. And students with more resources will go to prestigious university campuses such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
But others argue that the divide has little to do with technology. “We have big socioeconomic gaps in who goes to what kind of college,” said Kauffman’s Wildavsky. “So it’s not that this advent of technology is going to create something that didn’t exist already.”
Nor are all technology-mediated models necessarily bad. Older working students especially benefit from the opportunities of online classes. And some students may choose a technology-mediated education because the experience is good enough, Wildavsky said.
For example, former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun taught an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course on campus in 2011 with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research. But they also opened up the course online at no charge to anyone in the world who wanted to participate. As a result, many of the students from the face-to-face class opted to participate online.
As more and more students apply, top universities are becoming more selective, adds DeMillo. They’re selecting students by the quality of their high school education, which means they’re selecting by ZIP code and economic status.
“We’re going through that now, and it has nothing to do with online education,” DeMillo said.
Massively open online courses have been around in some form for at least four years. But their popularity exploded in 2012 after Stanford’s experiments — and these efforts will continue to reshape higher education.
Thrun left Stanford to co-found Udacity, which launched to offer high-quality, low- cost classes. More than 160,000 students from more than 190 countries signed up for Udacity’s first artificial intelligence course.
Two other Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, spun off a company called Coursera. And, in 2012, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to start the not-for-profit edX. These organizations — along with Udemy and other academics — all offer massively open online courses that are available to anyone, with unlimited space and no charge.
“I think not only are they sustainable, as you look at the economics of the cloud,” Evans said,“[but also] they’ve become the norm.”
The question isn’t so much whether they can be sustained technologically or economically, he said, but whether people can stay engaged in the course. And that’s one of the challenges these course providers will have to face.
Currently the courses are not as engaging because students don’t build an affinity for the university or make friendships like they do on campus, Evans said. As 3-D technology and 4K resolution displays and video improve, they will help students make deeper emotional and social connections.
However, these courses are only for certain types of students; they won’t meet everyone’s needs, Taiz said. “I worry if we think that this is the way of the future.”
They also have a high dropout rate, she said. Before MIT joined its online course efforts with Harvard in edX, it offered “Circuits and Electronics” under the name MITx. Nearly 155,000 people signed up, according to MIT. Of these students, less than 15 percent tried the first problem set — and fewer than 5 percent passed the course.
The dropout rate is really not exceptionally high in context, DeMillo said. A 20 percent retention rate in these courses is good. In other businesses, an online conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent is considered a win.
Since January, top research universities have banded together to offer courses featuring their rock star professors. Georgia Tech started offering classes through Coursera in July and had 90,000 students registered in two months.
“The high-quality portion of this story is really important,” DeMillo said. “The reason people are flocking to these courses is that the quality of the courses is so high, and it’s such a compelling experience for students that they’re drawn to it.”
Online classes like these will be just one of the alternative paths that students can take down the road, Wildavsky said. Students will choose from multiple options, including online classes, traditional course credits and competency-based learning.
Traditional course credits measure time spent learning, while competency-based learning measures mastery of skills and knowledge. Western Governors University — an accredited online university founded by 19 state governors — follows the competency-based learning path. A start-up called StraighterLine offers online classes a la carte for $99 a month, which is part of a trend called unbundling, Wildavsky said.
Unbundling disassembles higher education into pieces and parcels them off to whoever can provide them at the highest quality for the lowest price. Think of it as contracting out teaching, curriculum, advising and other services. Once companies like StraighterLine can get universities to recognize their classes for credit, this will be yet another option for students to access higher education.
“We’re going to move to a world where academic results matter much more than how you get there,” he added.
No matter how students get there, they need to earn a recognized credential that gets them into the workplace in larger numbers, Evans said. According to a 2011 Pathways to Prosperity project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 56 percent of students at four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. And less than 30 percent earn an associate’s degree in three years.
Students will not complete all of their learning at one institution. But students who currently transfer to multiple institutions end up with more credits than they need to finish a degree. States will need to think about ways to have credits and academic experience transfer to any public institution across their state system. That way, students can finish their degrees without worrying about credits transferring or retaking courses elsewhere.
“As students become far more mobile, their academic experience has to be as portable as the mobility they represent in their own lives,” Evans said. “And that’s where technology can enable that portability to happen in a far greater way than what we have today.”
Because academic results will matter more than how students get there, accreditors will change the way they evaluate institutions. Currently institutions are evaluated by inputs like the size of the university library or the amount universities spend. In the future, accreditors will evaluate universities by outputs, which include student learning, student success in the labor market and graduation rates.
Along with multiple pathways and different accreditation measurements, credentials will change. Over the next five to 10 years, people will get a job solely by earning micro-credentials, demonstrating competency and showcasing their knowledge and skills on the Internet, Staton said.
By placing more value on what people can do, everyone will focus on the actual work of potential employees rather than being hung up on credentials, he said. But that doesn’t mean that a bachelor’s degree has no place. Society may decide that a degree is important because of other signals it conveys about the individual, such as being highly socialized, capable of doing long-term projects or having a supportive family. Either way, this focus on the work rather than the diploma will undercut the skyrocketing prices of undergraduate education and potentially some types of graduate education.
Depending on who casts the vision, higher education could be headed down a road that leads to technology-mediated or technology integrated learning. Students could travel multiple paths to get to academic results. And technology could play an increasing role in making higher education accessible and affordable. “It shouldn’t be [about] funding monolithic technology platforms; there will be no monolithic technology platforms,” Staton said. “It will be about interoperability, not about one solution for the entire system.”
Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.