Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Future of Colleges and Universities

In 2013 Janet Tully and I published Rethinking Post-Secondary Education - Why Universities and Colleges Need to Change and What Change Could Look Like.  Its a provocative look at such institutions in the developed world. This blog continues that provocation.

The goal of this blog is to stimulate an inspired conversation about the future of learning in our post-secondary education system. I want to focus on three things:

  1. The importance of understanding learning and the way students learn;

  1. The importance of access, performance and engagement of students; and

  1. The challenges we face in delivering affordable, mindful and effective post-secondary education which is a great experience for all.

This is really about how we create a new learning environment.  As a sector, we are looking to do this through “innovation” which automatically and logically means we need to be ready to:

  •  Explore new insights;

  •  Take  calculated risks;

  •  Be surprised and to surprise ourselves.

Innovation, by its very nature, is an experiment with unknown outcomes.

So to help us begin the process of creating a new learning environment, let us identify a series of insights, surprises and risks we see based on my experience working with students, colleagues throughout the Canada system and colleagues from around the world.

One other point: students you should not be seen as the recipients of learning or as the “fodder” of the education system but should be seen as co-workers and co-owners of the college, university and training system.   They are investors, partners, allies and the co-creators of the institutions in which they learn.The one overriding way for students to help transform our post-secondary system is for students to be “demanding customers” of the system in five key areas:

  1. Accessibility

  1. Flexibility

  1. Transferability

  1. Recognition of credentials

  1. Affordability

In the 1960s, students campaigned for the right to be at the table and to be engaged in decision-making.  Now they need to champion their right to help focus thinking and investment in the education system we are building together.


  1. Significant change in our institutions will come in response to developments from outside rather than from innovation within them.

Post-secondary institutions are built to withstand demands for significant change.  They have done so well - one paper suggests that the real challenge for educators is Massively Outdated Traditional Education (MOTEs) rather than MOOCs[1].  Emerging new delivery models (MOOCs for example) and new assessment centres offering new kinds of assessment will force change on our institutions as will the growing use of globally-recognized and transferable credits.  Students will make decisions and behave in accordance with the “what is best for me” principle and these behaviours will demand change in the system. Post-secondary educational institutions will likely follow these developments rather than lead – others will be expected to take the “start-up” risk.

  1. The best predictor of student success is student engagement – yet we don’t make systematic attempts to measure this.

Student engagement is not at all the same as indicators of student satisfaction which are usually taken in simple surveys at the end of a course. Engagement speaks to a set of behaviours and attitudes experienced throughout the course.   Not measuring it means it often goes unrecognized and unrewarded for students and instructors both.  Effective pedagogy requires the student to be the focus of the work of the college or university – academic staff is there to enable the student to learn.  We need to shift from instructor-centric to learner-centric forms of learning.

  1. Online learning in 2015 is where online music was around 2005.

Many see online learning as a maturing field – it is not.  It is in its infancy and a lot of things are yet to happen.  A useful way of thinking about this is to compare iTunes in 2005 with iTunes in 2015.  Dramatically different.  Key to this is understanding that, for most students, online learning is not something different or unusual – it is simply part of how learning is done.  It’s the digital tourists who see it as “new” and “different”.  Since 2000, students have seen digital resources, e-learning and the use of the net as a utility – a part of every one of their courses – not as anything “special”.

  1. Canada’s information technology sector is in decline.

It’s not just Blackberry that is in trouble, the whole sector is.  Many medium sized companies are selling out to US based organizations or leaving the field.  We already lost Nortel.   What are the implications of this for our use of technology and for the skills we need for our competitive advantage as an economy?  What are we not teaching our entrepreneurs?  A great many of the emerging resources used for learning are global resources.  We need to continuously scan the world for “next and best” practice so that our students can experience effective, efficient and engaging learning.

  1. Many have a 1950s view of the role of post-secondary education in terms of preparing learners for the workforce. 

In the 1950s, students went to school aged 5-21 and then entered the workforce, with many entering the workforce at 16.  Now students enter education at 2 (kindergarten) and many go through to 24 and return for learning at 31, 40, 50-55 and 65.  Yet we design our system as if it hadn’t changed. With life-long learning now more than a slogan – it is in fact a description of what is occurring – we need to begin rethinking our understanding of our post-secondary institutions.

Lifelong learning is no longer the slogan of a small group of continuing education specialists – it is what the knowledge economy demands. Companies like the Hudson’s Bay, Ford, Stantec, Air Canada all require their managerial and operational staff to be continuously updating their knowledge and skills. Learning is the key to their competitiveness.

  1. Faculty are both the biggest asset and the biggest impediment to the future.

The key to effective learning is the relationship between the student, knowledge and their coach/guide/mentor, aka the faculty.  But faculty doesn’t especially want to change either what they are teaching or how they are doing so.  Adoption rates for online / blended learning are below 30% of faculty even in institutions which are most advanced in the use of technology for learning.  Many of the subjects we now teach need revision, especially, as I will note in my next point, as knowledge is changing and expanding at a very fast rate.  We need to change what we teach, how we engage learners, how we connect learning to the wicked problems we face in society and how we assess students.  Those faculty who “get these” changes will lead the future in partnership with students.  Those who don’t get it will “get lost” as the future overtakes them.

  1. No researcher can maintain full knowledge of development in their discipline

According to figures supplied by James Appleberry, cited by José Joaquín Brunner cited by UNESCO[2], internationally recorded discipline-based knowledge took 1,750 years to double for the first time, counting from the start of the Christian era; it then doubled in volume every 150 years and then every 50.  It now doubles every five years and it is projected that by 2020 knowledge will double every 73 days.  However, we are only capable of giving attention to between about 5% and 10% of that information.  Will this change the link between research and teaching in the post-secondary system?  What will this mean for the challenge faced by learners in their attempt to master an understanding of some key ideas?

  1. Sustainability issues will dominate the world from now onwards. Water, air quality, climate change, environmental impacts of our current forms of economy are all becoming critical issues around the world.

What contribution will our institutions make not just to the research on these issues, but to action?  How will our institutions be role models for the future? Institutions are beginning to develop courses and programs in which the “wicked problems” facing the world are the focus for learning – subjects like biology, climatology, technology, history, psychology and so on are all harnessed as resources so that students can learn, engage in action research and develop applied skills based on sound knowledge aimed at solving these problems at a local level.  Do we need to re-think curriculum, the focus for learning and pedagogy so that communities are enabled through their post-secondary institutions to be better prepared for tomorrow?

  1. The creative economy requires learning to be a creative process.

One measure being considered in a number of jurisdictions for their K-12 systems is known as the Innovation Index – several US states and one Canadian jurisdiction are considering the introduction of this measure.  It asks the simple question “on how many occasions this week did our students have an opportunity to create and innovate as part of their learning activities?”  Our answer would be…… yet we seek to prepare our students for a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy where creativity is key.  What are we actually doing about it? Do we assess institutions and their progress against systematic measures of innovation, creativity and imagination? No. We should.

  1. Quality assessment of institutions, programs and courses focuses largely on inputs.

Yet students can now secure inputs from a range of resources.  Shouldn’t we shift our quality focus to outcomes and student engagement and creativity? As an aside here, most educational research activity focuses on the past and the present – not on the future.  We may need to challenge our research community to look systematically as the future using the tools of futurism studies.

These ten insights suggest that re-thinking what and how we learn is the key to understanding the challenges and opportunities of our system.  Rather than campaigning for “more of the same”, we should all be campaigning for an engaged pedagogy that is based on a better understanding of real-world problems and their solution and makes best use of all available resources for learning.  Technology can help us, but it is not the answer: re-thinking pedagogy is.


There will be many surprises in the medium to long-term future. Here are ten.

  1. Demand for post-secondary education changes in response to the stability and growth of the economy.

As the economy contracts, so demand rises unless the contraction is seen as more permanent.  When this occurs, demand falls.  This is exactly what is happening in Europe right now - 50,000 fewer university applicants in the UK in 2012 than in 2011- and if the global economy suffers in 2015 as most analysts suspect it will, then demand for post-secondary education in Canada will fall dramatically.  Companies are reluctant to recruit when the economy remains volatile –the lack of resolution of the Eurozone crisis, falling oil prices, economic uncertainty in the US, a slowing of Canada’s economy and the challenging situation in the Middle East all suggest a continuing period of economic vulnerability.  Individuals work when they can – learning comes second.

Yet learning still needs to occur. We need to imagine new ways of connecting work-based learning with credit and sustaining an interest in learning for those in work.

  1. It is likely that some Canadian colleges and/or universities will file for bankruptcy before 2020.

Several are already running significant deficits and are reliant on substantial growth in overseas students as well as very moderate faculty settlements for survival.  Both of these look problematic.  BC cut $70 million from its post-secondary education budget in 2012 and Alberta first constrained growth of its spending to 2% and will now start to make significant budget cuts.  If enrolment falls, then many more institutions will find their fiscal situation beyond repair.  We may need to re-think funding at a fundamental level, but one solution needs to be “off the table”. We can’t repair the fiscal health of our post-secondary education system by transferring debt to the student body.  We just need to look to Québec to see what could happen.  A serious, adult conversation about how we re-think the finances of the sector is needed.

  1. The fastest area of growth in demand will be for online learning not for traditional classroom-based learning.

This is already occurring in the US which is experiencing 10% growth in online versus 1% for traditional.  It will happen here too.  It will accelerate if online learning becomes available on-demand, with students calling for assessment when they are ready.  It will accelerate when digital devices – tablets, smartphones and other mobile learning devices become more affordable. It will accelerate even faster when the quality of online learning improves.

  1. Strong demand for access to post-secondary education will come from retired baby boomers seeking to learn “what they always wanted to know”.

Many years ago there was a lot written about The University of the Third Age. Well it is happening.  A significant driver for many uses of open educational course materials, OER, is demand from baby boomers.  This is the wealthiest generation of retirees in history and they are using their retirement wealth to travel, learn and be engaged in projects to help communities.  How can we harness their knowledge and skills as mentors, coaches and guides and see them as more than “just another target group of potential students”.  How can we enable the inter-generational transfer of knowledge?

Continuing education is often one of the most dynamic and creative areas of institutions, showing that it is possible when released from some of the constraints of academe.

  1. New knowledge areas will demand a place in the curriculum. Knowledge is changing quickly both in volume, complexity and in synergy.  New areas of knowledge are rapidly emerging.

Synthetic biology matched with engineering and ecology is one example - real work in the oil sands in “solving” the tailings ponds problem requires these synergies.  We will need to change what we teach more often than we have done in the past.  Nimble curriculum will be a mantra for the future. 

  1. Global credentials will emerge in 2015.

As collaborative arrangements amongst institutions expand, enabling students to take courses from a variety of them so as to “construct their credential”, a form of personalized learning, then global credentials will emerge.  For example, where will a student who studies courses from the Princeton, Stanford, University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the University of Toronto and EPF Lausanne, a technical university in Switzerland, be awarded a degree in computing science from?  All of these or just one?

  1. The World Trade Organization will succeed, eventually, in its desire to have education seen as a service sector and be subject to WTO trade rules.

Since 2000, the WTO has been engaged in a conversation that would see educational services such as courses, programs, etc. as a service sector subject to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs .  The WTO is confident that, at some point, education will be a “settled service”.  This would open the global market to direct competition and see many of the quality assurance mechanisms now in place as discriminatory and anti-free trade practices.  Real competition (on price, on quality, on pedagogy) would arrive.  When it does, it will be a new game in town.  Canada has resisted this development, but the momentum for a resolution in favour of the WTO is growing.

  1. Companies will seek credential arrangements with institutions on a large scale.

As demography challenges firms to secure a workforce with the skills they need for their competitive advantage, they will look to retain staff through support for learning and will demand work-based learning credits, more in house programs and more “purpose built” credentials.  Someone will provide these.

  1. Despite predictions, demand will shift from highly qualified people to trades and skills-based work.

Our economy is changing.  Ontario, for example, is a service economy rather than a primary manufacturing economy.  Will the mix of employment shift to favour more and more skilled service employees and trades?  It is elsewhere.

These surprises suggest that the future will not be a straight line from the past. Several of these surprises are forms of disruption to the status quo.  One option for Ontario is to lead the disruption rather than wait to be a victim of it.  That is the option we should pursue.


When anyone looks in any kind of systematic way at the future, they see risk.  So here are ten risks that I see to the emerging global economy for learning:

  1. In the face of challenge, threat or change, our institutions will seek to constrain innovation from new entrants and third parties.

The adoption of restrictive practices, market protection and related measures will be in response to perceived threats from private sector players, global players and new entrants from the public sector in other jurisdictions.  The risk here is that in seeking to protect existing practices, the opportunities for real change and collaboration across borders and institutional boundaries will be lost.  This would be a short-sighted response. We should learn from competition and thrive on the opportunity the competition provides to improve, change and develop new forms of institution, new pedagogy and new programs.

  1. Leaders who try to change their institutions will be left out in the cold by their own institutions.

We have seen this in prestigious institutions like Oxford and elsewhere in the world.  In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit talented people to leadership roles from Deans upwards in colleges and universities.  At the heart of the challenge for our future is the need for courageous, visionary leadership.  We need to enable more courageous leaders, including from the student body, if our system is to thrive rather than just survive.  Courage, vision and commitment will be key.  We need renaissance leadership for our colleges and universities.

  1. Faculty members will become highly mobile.

For years, colleges and universities have been warning of the coming implications of the grey tsunami.  It is now beginning to occur.  Faculty members who are skilled and highly effective teachers and researchers will be in high demand and will trade their skills for pay and time and move more frequently.  

  1. Universities and colleges will lag so far behind the emerging technologies for learning that students will vote with their feet and study with those institutions elsewhere in the world who “get with the technology”.

Many institutions appear “unsure” of their strategy with respect to learning, technology and assessment and in turn lag behind in their adoption of emerging technologies.  As technologies become cheaper and more powerful (Moore’s law) and more ubiquitous, then this issue will become a determining factor in student choice.  This will be enabled by transfer credit and prior learning assessment, especially if the “residency” requirement, usually that 50% of credits for a program awarded by an institution must be taken at that institution, changes.  Imagine a program that has no residency requirements where credits can be obtained from anywhere in the world. You are thinking of new institutions, such as CourseA, which are operating now.

  1. Maintaining government funding through the Carnegie unit, payment for X hours of study in a course, will inhibit innovation.

A major system constraint is the way in which institutions are funded.  If the current model persists, then institutions will continue to offer the kind of programs and choices they offer now. To secure innovation, new funding models are required. Without these, the system may well atrophy.  Those institutions which have shifted to outcome-based funding are seeing more innovation and higher levels of student registration such as the state of Kentucky with its on demand program.

  1. Linear learning paths are not how students will learn in the 21st Century.

Increasingly, students will stop and start, drop in and out of their learning. For them, learning is a personal journey and a life-long one.  But institutions still think of cohorts, program completions and time to complete.  By thinking of personalized learning pathways as the route by which students learn, institutions will change what they do.  The risk is that many institutions will make this more difficult than it needs to be.

  1. Institutions will price themselves out of some communities and some target groups.

Costs are increasing from a student perspective – the costs of post-secondary education constitute a sign cant portion of Canadian household debt.  At some point, we need to recognize the impact of this on a variety of groups and re-think student support and financial aid.

  1. First Nations students will feel increasingly marginalized in expensive systems which focus on forms of learning which are a-cultural and do not speak to their concerns.

First Nations students are a fast growing cohort, yet their success in the post-secondary system is weak.  Many of the directions in which the system is going are counter to their preferred way of learning and many new programs are “alien” to their understanding of need.  We need to build new bridges and adaptive institutions to meet their needs.

  1. The link between post-secondary education and the needs of the fast changing labour market will become more and more disconnected.

We are preparing students in school, college and university for a world that is fast changing and for jobs and roles which are just emerging and are ill defined.  We do so increasingly by competency / skills-based learning.  Yet what we really need is life-long learners who have core skills and adaptive abilities who are intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and resilient.  Do we have the right forms of learning to enable this to occur?

Be the Owners!

We have made twenty-nine provocative points.  You are probably experiencing a mixture of excitement, fear, anger and annoyance with these points right now.  But pause and think of these three things:

  1. The future isn’t what it used to be.

The game is changing.  We need to collaborate and partner with all who have an interest in the system to re-think the system as a continuous process. There are no magic bullets to “fix the system” and we have to learn our way to the next iteration of a great post-secondary system.  Through partnership, collaboration and dialogue we can do great things.  Indeed, “collaboration is the DNA of the new knowledge economy”.

  1. Pedagogy

What we learn, how we learn, how we engage learners and how we assess learning are the core challenges.  While finances, governance, quality, access are important, it is pedagogy that is the driver.  Pedagogy is changing.  Are we changing pedagogy in appropriate, effective and meaningful ways?

  1. Students as the owners

We noted at the outset, as students you need to “own” your education system and institutions.  By own here, we mean that you are more than a “customer” of the system.  You are critical co-owners and co-workers in the system.  You have knowledge, skill and understanding and have experiences which can be key to understanding what we need to do to ensure that Canada continues to have one of the best systems in the world.  Engagement in decision-making is as important as engagement in the classroom.

The hope is that this blog challenges, inspires and provokes.  Don’t shoot the messenger.  

No comments: