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.

Two Roads

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.”

Disruptive Ideas

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.

But others aren’t so sure.

Professor Richard DeMillo is director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. He argues that traditional universities will have little place in a new world, at least as they appear and function today. The technology-mediated education road is the way to go.

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers ed tech behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Culinary experiments, travel adventures, beautiful landscapes.