Learning management system giant Blackboard recently published a series of interviews concerning the future of education (pdf). It’s a useful look into some key ideas and trends.
I’m not sure how Blackboard assembled these people, or by what criteria, but it’s a good set: Mike Abbiatti, Susan Aldridge, Marie Cini, Myk Garn, Robert Hansen, Chris Jennings, Amy Laitinen, Justin Louder, Darrell Luzzo, Felice Nudelman, Pam Quinn, Pat Schmohl, and Erin Smith. These includes researchers, a campus president, two vice presidents, a dean, a provost, a chancellor, a chief global officer, a director of experiential online learning, an association CEO, a Googler, and a foundation director.
The white paper (that’s what they call it) begins with a note from Blackboard’s chief strategy officer, Katie Blot. She highlights several trends of importance to her, and presumably to the company: analytics; student success; mobile, AI. Given Blot’s role, that’s a useful glimpse into where BB might be headed. Some of that is unsurprising, given the firm’s existing services and strategy (analytics, mobile); the rest points to possible offerings and/or purchases to come.
The rest of the text features Abbiatti, Aldridge, et al answering a battery of questions.* Let me identify the trends and ideas that seem most popular among the team, and also most salient for the future of higher education.
Access We have had some successes in expanding access to higher ed, according to some respondents. Jennings reflects: “We are, essentially, democratizing education and enabling those who are sufficiently motivated to educate themselves with a virtual community of collaborators for support.” Luzzo agrees: “digital learning opportunities have increased access to educational opportunities for many individuals who, heretofore, may not have been able to access higher education opportunities”. The consensus idea is for more access to come.
Adaptive learning As Louder puts it, “the ability for the course to work with the student to make sure that they’re successful” is an important service for campuses to offer. Hansen is very similar:
almost guarantees successful learning. If you have a well-designed adaptive learning program, it is going to be hard to fail as long as the student sticks with it. And adaptive learning guarantees competency-based learning because it’s going to be based on demonstrated competencies, and more and more employers will demand this.
Schmohl approves of a related development, “real-time assessment” which triggers human assistance.
Artificial intelligence Some excitement bubbles up among some respondents. Abbiatti: “AI-driven bots are going to take a lot of that tutoring piece off of the table for the professional faculty” . Luzzo is really interested in this for the for-profit education sector. He also makes an interesting call for AI to “mak[e] asynchronous learning synchronous” by providing on-demand student help.
Blended learning This seems to be implicit in the general discussion. For example, Abbiatti thinks that over the next twenty years “[a]ll brick-and-mortar campuses will have… electronically delivered content”.
Campuses in trouble Many saw post-secondary education facing serious problems. Laitinen foresees “a recognition that higher education, as it is structured, just isn’t cutting it for huge numbers of people.” Schmohl sees institutional consequences: “I think colleges and universities are going to be around, but some are probably going to go away.” Laitinen is also concerned about some schools in particular:
I definitely see closures. Whether it’s 20 percent of existing institutions, I’m not sure. But it certainly seems clear to me that the private, not-forprofit schools that aren’t the elites, the midtier schools, are going to struggle, and we’re going to see some of those institutions start to close.
Hansen’s on the same page:
when you get into the directional schools at the public level, the Eastern Illinois or the Northern Illinois, they’re already struggling so mightily to maintain their business model. Regional comprehensives are in deep trouble. If you are tuition dependent and you haven’t figured out how to serve the adult market yet, you’re in trouble.
Resource differentials are key here for him:
I think that’s going to be increasingly difficult as the more resourced institutions develop successful and competitive online programs, precisely because they will be well resourced and quality online programs are expensive to develop. How do the small private institutions compete? It’s going to be extremely difficult for them, so I do think some of them will go out of business…
Louder, too: “in 10 to 20 years, we’re going to see some schools that are no longer relevant and no longer able to keep their doors open. You’re going to see some smaller regionals that may not be able to keep their doors open because state and federal support has dropped so much.”
Nudelman draws attention to the queen sacrifice as an option, seeing campuses as learning “how to best revitalize programs or let go of programs that are beyond their relevance” [emphases added].
On the other hand, Quinn thinks overall demand for higher education is just fine. “Our society as a whole needs to be educated or retrained. It’s no longer the world where some are going to need an education and others won’t. Everybody needs some higher education.”
Competency-based education Garn and Smith see this rising.
Data. Quinn observes that “Business intelligence and predictive analytics are giving us a lot more information about our students than we’ve had.”
Garn: “People are doing a lot with predictive data but that’s static; we don’t have good learning-level, real-time data to work with. It’s going to take another five to ten years before we really get into systems that are sophisticated, enable us to do interesting things, and know that what the systems are telling us to do is correct. ”
Respondents also see problems. Garn and Jennings mention privacy. Schmohl fears that “one of the risks is that you can make numbers show anything you want.” Abbiatti: “The real landmine here is the mound of data that we collect every day, all day long, and we don’t have the technology nor do we have the intellectual capital on our campuses to actually turn that data into knowledge and that knowledge into decisions.”
Smith adds this extra data issue: “all of the members of our ecosystem need to be data stewards. How well our peers and fellow members of the university are equipped with data literacy is really, really important.”
Digital divide This represents one social problem in the report. “[W]e’re likely headed to a period where we have digital haves and have-nots and another period following that where the digital have-nots just can’t compete” (Garn). Louder: “You have a lot of students who don’t have access to the internet at home but they have an internet-enabled cellphone or mobile device”.
In response Luzzo calls for “ountries and governments and non-profit entities [to] help address that issue because it’s an important element.”
Distance learning Many saw this (a/k/a online learning) as a huge development. As Louder puts it, “the biggest development [from the past 20 years] is the ability for students to go to school whenever and wherever they are. ” And it is not done yet:
It’s not just enough to put something online for autodidacts who already have the time, energy, and prior skills to be able to learn on their own. You really need to figure out how to embed all the supports that a student will need to be successful, and I don’t know if we’ve cracked that yet. (Laitinen)
Nudelman goes further:
In many cases, we confuse access with quality and success. We err on the side of using technology to build the most cost effective model for the largest number of enrollments, without understanding how to best meet student needs. Those who often get hurt the most by this approach are the most underprepared students.
And listen to how she deepens the critique:
It’s almost like we have developed a class system that provides access to affordable education but it often is isolating, does not have the necessary support systems, and is not student-centered.
Faculty development Several interviewees called for serious faculty re-training. Louder and others recommend more pedagogical training in grad school. Cini thinks refocusing of talent is in order: “The real value of our faculty and our advisors can be for that true value add—the mentoring, the coaching, helping students improve rather than helping them to relearn fractions.”
Gaming Aldridge and Luzzo are both hopeful for game-based learning.
LMS->Next-generation digital learning environments Three interviewees deemed the learning management system to be out of date, and called for a technological revolution to better respond to other trends.
Student-centered education Personalization came up here. Jennings is close to this theme, emphasizing “user-centered design”. Smith goes further: “shared data becomes useful when we think about improving efficiencies in our business process around personalized service, but it becomes transformative when we are able to personalize learning for students.”
Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality Several saw these technologies as potentially powerful for learning. Nudelman sees some good possibilities for VR and the arts.
Some themes received attention from only one respondent:
- Internet of things. Quinn: “linking our physical and digital work through the Internet of Things will really change us.”
- Equity: Laitinen mentions “some stark differences between a completion rate for white students and African American students or Latino students” and draws attention to women of color not getting the best results from higher ed.
- “Academic genome”: Garn mentions this unusual idea that a Georgia collaborative is developing:
Right now we’re working with Georgia State University to begin mapping what we’re calling the academic genome which is the competencies, assignments, content, and assessments in our general education core. Because of the nature of our system where we have transferability, we think mapping that core has the opportunity of really opening up what other people do.
- Demographics: Hansen mentions the rise of the adult learner.
- Economic pressures: fairly understated here. Quinn reminds us of “a new normal in less state funding”.
- Mobile: Louder argues that education isn’t taking enough advantage of mobile devices.
- Eportfolios: Aldridge wants campuses to take better advantage of these.
- Online abuse: Nudelman notes problems of “cyberbullying and intimidation”.
- Libraries – Nudelman cites collaboration and technology as ways to improve library services.
Overall, this is a useful document. It hits a series of major trends, and respondents address them differently depending on their individual perspectives and institutional situations.
Some key pieces are missing. Political and policy pressures are thin on the ground. Demographic factors barely appear. Social changes – income inequality, gender bias, ethnic or religious discrimination, the Trump administration – are largely off stage. And it’s all very US-centric.
Still, there’s plenty there to provoke discussion and further explorations.
*What have been the most important developments in higher education in the last 20 years? What are you most excited about? What are the risks and challenges that institutions should be paying attention to? How can institutions manage the huge cultural shift that technology brings? How do you think AI is going to impact higher education? What will a college or university look like in 20 years? Are there adjacent industries that higher education should really be looking at? Any closing thoughts?