For a millennium, universities have been considered the main societal hub for knowledge and learning. And for a millennium, the basic structures of how universities produce and disseminate knowledge and evaluate students have survived intact through the sweeping societal changes created by technology—the moveable-type printing press, the Industrial Revolution, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computers.
Today, though, the business of higher education seems to some as susceptible to tech disruption as other information-centric industries such as the news media, magazines and journals, encyclopedias, music, motion pictures, and television. The transmission of knowledge need no longer be tethered to a college campus. The technical affordances of cloud-based computing, digital textbooks, mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming video, and “just-in-time” information gathering have pushed vast amounts of knowledge to the “placeless” Web. This has sparked a robust re-examination of the modern university’s mission and its role within networked society.
One major driver of the debate about the future of the university centers on its beleaguered business model. Students and parents, stretched by rising tuition costs, are increasingly challenging the affordability of a college degree as well as the diploma’s ultimate value as an employment credential.
A March 2012 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 60% of American adults viewed universities as having a positive effect on how things are going in the country and 84% of college graduates say that the expense of going to college was a good investment for them. Yet another Pew Research Center survey in 2011 found that 75% of adults say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. Moreover, 57% said that the higher education system in the U.S. fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.
This set of circumstances has catalyzed the marketplace. Universities are watching competitors encroach on their traditional mission. The challengers include for-profit universities, nonprofit learning organizations such as the Khan Academy, commercial providers of lecture series, online services such as iTunes U, and a host of specialized training centers that provide instruction and credentials for particular trades and professions. All these can easily scale online instruction delivery more quickly than can brick-and-mortar institutions.
Consequently, higher education administrators—sometimes constrained by budgetary shortfalls and change-resistant academic cultures—are trying to respond and retool. The Pew Research Center 2011 study found in a survey of college presidents that more than three-fourths (77%) of respondents said their institution offered online course offerings. Half said they believe that most students at their schools will be enrolled in at least some online classes within the next 10 years.
The debate about the urgency for change and the pace of change on campus was highlighted in recent weeks at the University of Virginia. The school’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, voted to oust school President Teresa Sullivan, arguing that she was not pursuing change quickly enough. After a faculty, student, and alumni uproar, the Board reversed course and reinstated her. Still, the school announced within a week of her return that it was joining Coursera—a privately held, online instructional delivery firm. That meant it would join numerous other elite research institutions, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others as part of Coursera’s online consortium. As of mid-2012, Coursera’s massively open online courses (MOOCs) were provided free to its students—enabling unfettered, global access for millions to engage with some of the country’s most prestigious universities. Other start-ups such as MITx, 2tor, and Udacity are attracting similarly staggering, six-figure student enrollments.
Experimentation and innovation are proliferating. Some colleges are delving into hybrid learning environments, which employ online and offline instruction and interaction with professors. Others are channeling efforts into advanced teleconferencing and distance learning platforms—with streaming video and asynchronous discussion boards—to heighten engagement online.
Even as all this change occurs, there are those who argue that the core concept and method of universities will not radically change. They argue that mostly unfulfilled predictions of significant improvement in the effectiveness and wider distribution of education accompany every major new communication technology. In the early days of their evolution, radio, television, personal computers—and even the telephone—were all predicted to be likely to revolutionize formal education. Nevertheless, the standardized knowledge-transmission model is primarily the same today as it was when students started gathering at the University of Bologna in 1088.
Imagine where we might be in 2020. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked digital stakeholders to weigh two scenarios for 2020. One posited substantial change and the other projected only modest change in higher education. Some 1,021 experts and stakeholders responded.
39% agreed with a scenario that articulated modest change by the end of the decade:
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.
60% agreed with a scenario outlining more change:
By 2020, higher education 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 individualized, 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 customized outcomes.
Respondents were asked to select the one statement of the two scenarios above with which they mostly agreed; the question was framed this way in order to encourage survey participants to share spirited and deeply considered written elaborations about the potential future of higher education. While 60% agreed with the statement that education will be transformed between now and the end of the decade, a significant number of the survey participants said the true outcome will encompass portions of both scenarios. Just 1% of survey takers did not respond.