In 2009, President Gordon Gee of Ohio State University said that colleges and universities must reinvent themselves or face extinction. Three years later, those words seem more prophetic than ever.
A dramatic set of challenges, both familiar and daunting, threaten public higher education: declining state support, which in turn drives up tuition costs and access; growing concern about student progress and success; free or inexpensive courses, such as the massive open online courses (MOOCs); and increased competition from private organizations with sophisticated ways of reaching students.
The challenges grow out of technology advancements that have profoundly changed other industries: book publishing, music, newspapers, photography and many more. For higher education, the business model, the delivery model, indeed the very notion of a university is under siege. Gee's stark warning is particularly true for public institutions. Either public colleges and universities will reinvent themselves in radically new forms, or they will slowly disappear.
Some broad trends are already emerging. Faculty work will change, particularly teaching. The individual course, created and delivered by a single faculty member, will probably remain, but will no longer be the norm. Instead, faculty will work in groups to deliver courses and embrace new ideas, such as the flipped classroom and blended courses. Some institutions, to lower costs, may even use some of the free courses appearing now. All courses, whether for resident or nonresident students, will use more technology. For resident students, colleges will have to focus more on the total experience, not the course-focused model that prevails today.
$429 million The number of dollars invested in education tech start-ups in 2011;
this compares with $146 million in 2002
SOURCE: National Venture Capital Association
Colleges and universities will also harness the power of data and learning analytics. For the administration, analytics can help explain costs, predict demand for specific faculty and courses, and produce reports for operations, planning and compliance. Analytics are also very powerful tools for informing faculty about student performance. Finally, analytics can help students track their own academic progress.
As college costs rise, students, parents and government funders will force an increasing focus on student learning outcomes. To achieve better outcomes, new business models will emerge. As the new models emerge, public universities face difficult decisions. In the 21st century, what is a college? Are colleges primarily designers of learning environments? Facilitators of learning? Aggregators of learning credits? Assessors of learning outcomes? Certifiers of degree completion?
In the midst of turmoil and rapid change, success will depend less on technological change and more on institutional culture. Universities must acknowledge a dramatically altered and rapidly changing landscape. Powerful and effective leadership will be required to create a welcoming attitude toward change and experimentation. With so much at stake, colleges must create their own futures, or be swept away by the tidal wave of change.