Survey probes how ‘whirlwind’ forces will affect higher education

Technology experts believe market factors will push universities to expand online courses, create hybrid learning spaces, and move towards lifelong learning models and different credential structures by 2020, according to a new report. “But they disagree about how these whirlwind forces will influence education, for the better or the worse.”

The views of experts were outlined in a 27 July survey titled The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher ducation, authored by Janna Quitney Anderson of Elon University, and Jan Lauren Boyles and Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center.

The US-based Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon conducted a non-random, opt-in online sample of 1,021 internet experts, technology researchers, university directors, venture capitalists and Ivy League professors recruited via e-mail invitation, Twitter or Facebook.

The report says a major driver of the debate about the future of the university is its “beleaguered business model”, the ballooning cost of higher education and student debt that is now upwards of US$1 trillion. Some believe the sector is as susceptible to technological disruption as other information-centric industries like the media, music and movies.

Future higher education scenarios

The survey results indicated a 60-40 split on the future of higher education, as described by two scenarios.

About 60% of experts agreed with a scenario of higher education that by 2020 will be “quite different from the way it is today.

“There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualised, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.

Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customised outcomes.”

On the other hand, about 39% of experts agreed with a scenario that in 2020 higher education “will not be much different from the way it is today.

“While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.”

Impact of future technology-mediated approaches

Some survey participants thought that the future educational structure would tackle economic stress and educational divides. Online learning and institutions are beginning to disrupt the higher education space, hopefully making education more accessible and affordable in the long run.

“Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially,” Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote in the report.

“As high-speed networks become more widely accessible tele-education and hybrid instruction will become more widely employed.”

Experts also believe out-of-the-classroom learning will inspire innovation that is lacking on campuses now. However, among the majority of experts expecting much more dependence on online learning in higher education in the future, many bemoaned it.

“They are worried over the adoption of technology-mediated approaches that they fear will lack the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Predicted future trends and approaches

The report also pointed out some major themes and arguments that the experts indicated about trends and approaches in higher education in the future. These include the following:
  • • Higher education will vigorously adopt new teaching approaches, propelled by opportunity and efficiency as well as student and parent demands.
  • • Economic realities will drive technological innovation forward by 2020, creating less uniformity in higher education.
  • • ‘Distance learning’ is a divisive issue. It is viewed with disdain by many who don’t see it as effective, while others anticipate great advances in knowledge-sharing tools by 2020.
  • • ‘Bricks’ replaced by ‘clicks’? Some experts say universities’ influence could be altered as new technology options emerge; others say ‘locatedness’ is still vital for an optimal outcome.
  • • Frustration and doubt mark the prospect of change within the academy.
  • • Change is happening incrementally, but these adjustments will not be universal in most institutions by 2020.
  • • Universities will adopt new pedagogical approaches while retaining the core of traditional methods.
  • • Collaborative education with peer-to-peer learning will become a bigger reality and will challenge the lecture format and focus on ‘learning how to learn’.
  • • Competency credentialing and certification are likely. Yet institutional barriers may prevent widespread degree customisation.
  • • Higher education lags in preparing young people for new kinds of futures in which they will have to learn how to learn.
  • • Some predict significant redefinition within higher education in a future packed with choices for knowledge acquisition

Responses to the report

University World News collected the thoughts of experts around the world on the trends and findings identified by the survey.

John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of the office of research at USAID, pointed out that the study would naturally have a pro-technology bias.

“The huge global system of higher education has a great deal of inertia and the utilisation of e-learning actually taking place in the next eight years will probably be less than predicted.”

Daly's opinion was echoed by Richard Gold, an expert in innovation, patent law and policy, a law professor at Canada-based McGill University and director of The Innovation Partnership.

“The participants all work on technology and internet issues and therefore are both more aware of the potential of new technologies and believe more strongly in their transformative capability than most professors and university leaders."

A more representative sample from higher education might have produced “quite interesting” results, he said. However, as a means of generating discussion the survey was useful. “As I believe that this was the primary purpose of the authors, they have done us a service.”

Asked for his views on higher education’s future, Daly said “There is a trend towards standardisation that is making it easier to evaluate the meaning of degrees and grades. There is a related trend towards greater mobility of undergraduate and graduate students.”

Institutions “are being challenged to keep costs down, to keep higher education relevant to changes in the job market, to keep faculties up to date, and to adopt new technologies. While the best-managed of these institutions will rise to the challenge, many will not. Students should be wary.”

Also, the situation will be very different in different countries. “Rich countries with established educational systems and declining youth populations will have a different set of challenges to those faced by China and India, and the poorest nations of the world will face still different challenges with fewer resources,” Daly pointed out.

Gold was skeptical that universities would significantly change their approach to teaching in the coming years, as they “are very slow to change and do not respond to economic pressures in the same way or at the same speed as industry.

“Most universities are somewhat or significantly decentralised, with decision-making over course content and teaching made at the departmental or faculty level.” Given this, Gold would expect some departments – such as communications and media studies – “to experiment more with new media while others do not.

“In particular, science, medicine and engineering faculties are unlikely to be great adopters of these technologies – as they currently exist – simply because access to equipment and laboratories is an essential component of their core teaching. Even in the social sciences, interpersonal interaction is a significant part of the educational process and thus I would expect slow change.”

Where change is most likely to occur, Gold said, will be in outreach by universities to the public. Already, universities offer courses online for free, not as a substitute for traditional programmes but as a means of educating the public and allowing people to participate in important social and scientific discussions.

“While there will likely be some private, for-profit programmes generated, my expectation is that online materials will be largely free of charge and will be consumed on the basis of the reputation of the institutions involved.”

Developing countries should be particularly careful before adopting long-distance learning, said Gold, which is not a substitute for on-campus learning. Networks of researchers and trust among them would be key to building a critical mass of researchers.

“This is best accomplished through working together and learning with one another in person. I would thus concentrate resources on building campuses and shared facilities until at least there exists a critical mass of researchers in the region.”

Kenyan scientist Calestous Juma, director of the science, technology and globalisation project at Harvard University, said: “The future of higher education is going to dominated by debates over the balance between private and public sector support.

“Issues such as the privatisation of higher education and increases in tuition [fees] are already being debated across the globe. Students protests have taken place in countries such as the UK, Canada and Chile, some of which have been violent.”

But two important trends are likely to exert an even bigger influence, Juma said.

The first is the pressure on universities to serve social and economic needs more directly. The rise of the idea of the ‘entrepreneurial university’ is an example. The second is uncertainty over impact of ICTs on learning in general and universities in particular.

“The entry of Harvard and MIT into the open learning space is not an episode but most likely an epochal adaptation to changing times.”

For the first time since the founding of Bologna University, higher education institutions are being forced by external factors to become fast learners. They will not thrive simply by migrating their offspring to new regions; they will need new mutations that recombine DNA from other institutional species such corporations and civic organisations.

“The good news is that universities are repositories of the social genes needed for their own speculation. Many will innovate while others will stagnate or founder. Others may go extinct as corporations start to father their own universities.

“We will see a new age of the rebirth of the university with more direct social and economic missions,” Juma concluded.