Profound transformations have reshaped the higher-education landscape in roughly 50-year intervals. During the early 19th century, the colonial colleges were joined by several hundred more religiously founded institutions. The mid-19th century saw the rise of public colleges, culminating in the Morrill Act of 1862. The turn of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of the modern research university as well as the articulation of the Wisconsin Idea, that public universities should serve the public, as well as the appearance of extension services. The 1960s saw the transformation of normal schools into comprehensive universities, the rapid proliferation of community colleges, the end of legal segregation in higher education, and sharply increased federal aid to colleges and universities.
We are, of course, in the midst of another higher-education revolution. Many of the forces affecting colleges are well known: economic, as various revenue streams lag behind rising costs; demographic, as colleges enroll more part-time and nontraditional students who struggle with financial challenges, disabilities, inadequate preparation, and work-family stresses; and market-driven, as for-profit and aggressive nonprofit institutions compete for the most rapidly growing student sector, working adults.
As The Chronicle's Jeff Selingo has suggested, an equally serious challenge is ideological. Now regarded as a private rather than a public good, higher education must address a host of criticisms: that graduation rates are too low, that levels of student engagement and learning outcomes are unacceptable, and that a college education does not provide good value for the money.
But the most important challenge involves a shift in the way students consume higher education. Instead of attending a single institution, students receive credit in multiple ways, including from early-college/dual-degree programs, community colleges, online providers, and multiple universities. Students are voting with their feet, embracing online courses and undermining core curricula, which served as a cash cow, by turning to alternate providers, and pursuing fewer majors that require study of a foreign language.
As a result, colleges must become more nimble, entrepreneurial, student-focused, and accountable for what students learn. I am a historian and far better at interpreting the past than forecasting the future. Nevertheless, I will go out on a limb and predict 15 innovations that will alter the face of higher education over the next 36 months:
Innovation 1: e-Advising
Why do only half of college students graduate? Noncognitive factors seem pivotal, and social disconnection appears to be a crucial factor. When students feel alone, they withdraw and eventually give up. Conversely, students who feel part of a community persist. Another key factor is a lack of direction: Many students accumulate wasted credit hours. Sophisticated e-advising systems will monitor student engagement and degree planning, send out automated warnings, and signal faculty and academic advisers about impending trouble, thus helping ensure that students remain on a path to graduation.
Innovation 2: Evidence-based pedagogy
Instructional design will be increasingly informed by the science of learning, with a greater emphasis on learning objectives, mastery of key competencies, and assessments closely aligned to learning goals. Courses will incorporate more social learning, more active learning, and more real-world assessments.
Innovation 3: The decline of the lone-eagle teaching approach
Rather than designing foundational courses on their own, faculty members will work with colleagues and instructional designers to develop simulations, animations, and assessment collaboratively.
Innovation 4: Optimized class time
At Stanford's medical school, 70 percent of formal instruction now takes place online. This shift will become more general as Web-enhanced, blended classes become the norm.
Innovation 5: Easier educational transitions
Too many students who performed well in high school hit a wall when they enter college because their courses did not prepare them for college-level work. Jointly, high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions will create early-college/dual-degree courses better aligned to the college curriculum.
Innovation 6: Fewer large lecture classes
These traditional pinch points and bottlenecks in undergraduate education will be delivered in a variety of models, including Web-enhanced hybrid classes, fully online courses, accelerated courses, and competency based modules.
Innovation 7: New frontiers for e-learning
Student engagement in online learning will be encouraged by much higher levels of interaction through collaborative learning, as well as animations, educational gaming, immersive-learning environments, and hands-on simulations.
Distance learning will bolster a sense of community through social networking, team-based projects, and frequent student-student and student-instructor or -coach interaction. Student assessments will be based on digital stories, collaborative Web sites, student-written annotated texts and encyclopedias, and multimedia projects like virtual tours.
Innovation 8: Personalized adaptive learning
Embedded remediation, personalized learning pathways, and instruction that responds to students' prior knowledge and misconceptions will become a key component in more and more courses.
Innovation 9: Increased competency-based and prior-learning credits
Pressure to accelerate the time needed to get a degree and to demonstrate greater accountability for student learning will encourage institutions to provide credit for learning that takes place outside the regular curriculum, whether from MOOCs or from "real world" experience.
Innovation 10: Data-driven instruction
Data analytics and learning "dashboards" will become commonplace, allowing faculty members to focus instruction to better meet student needs and to improve courses over time. These tools will also allow students to better monitor their own learning.
Innovation 11: Aggressive pursuit of new revenue
We will see a proliferation of online-degree programs, virtual universities, and corporate training programs. Today, most online programs serve an institution's existing students, but over the next three years, a significantly higher number will pursue nonmatriculated students at all levels. This rush will result in bone-crushing competition, so only a few of these efforts will succeed.
Innovation 12: Online and low-residency degrees at flagships
This could prove to be severely disruptive to many less well-known institutions, while prompting resistance from traditional-classroom students and alumni.
Innovation 13: More certificates and badges
Alternate forms of credentialing will become increasingly common. Some students might prefer a certificate in business, for example, from a more prestigious institution, rather than a business minor from their home institutions.
Innovation 14: Free and open textbooks
One way to trim the cost of higher education is to embrace free online textbooks and online instructional environments.
Innovation 15: Public-private partnerships
Success in online instruction requires a stack of support services, including strategic enrollment plans, marketing and academic support, and software, which most institutions can't deliver on their own. Already, campuses that want to rapidly ramp up their online offerings have proved willing to trade 50 percent of tuition revenue for a decade in exchange for such services.
These changes are, quite rightly, already provoking a great deal of anxiety and alarm. There is a danger that higher education will become even more stratified and bifurcated than it already is. The fear is that less-well-financed institutions will displace faculty with low-quality correspondence courses and forms of machine learning that poorly serve at-risk students. But the next three years also hold out the prospect of transforming the higher-education experience in positive ways.
Public higher education will change fundamentally, whether we like it or not. The forces driving that change aren't simply financial; they reflect a changing student body and shifts in student demand. If a brighter future is to materialize, it is essential that faculty members, working together, take the lead in designing an education that will truly serve the needs of our 21st-century students.