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The future of higher education and other imponderables

We will be running an open online course from Oct 8-Nov 16, 2012, addressing some of the concepts in this post. Registration is free (duh). The discussion below is part of a proposed text with Johns Hopkins University Press that I’m co-authoring with Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart.

I’ve been interested in changes in higher education since I was at Red River College in the late 1990′s. Our department was the first in Canada to go exclusively laptop. This change resulted in teachers doing what they always did – presenting content, now with PowerPoint instead of overhead slides. Students, in contrast, suddenly had new tools of democratic information access (and distraction) at their fingertips. While educators and education didn’t really change, the learners did.

That simple example gets at the heart of what’s happening in higher education: What people do with information determines the types of institutions required in a particular era. (I wrote an article with Kathleen Matheos on this topic in 2009: Systemic Changes in Higher Education). Today, we see half of the education equation (the learners) doing fascinating things with content and ideas, while much of the other half (the faculty) is still taking a dissemination approach to curriculum.

Since my experience at Red River College, I’ve spent quite a bit of time traveling and speaking about changes in knowledge, learning, teaching, technology, and by extension, the system of education. At last count, I’ve been to over 30 countries and have interacted with university presidents, VP academics, European Union education ministers, researchers, national research initiatives, faculty, grad students, students, and many others. The patterns of change in higher education are surprisingly similar and global. The narrative, however, has changed significantly over the past several years. The discourse of change is today driven by entrepreneurship , the incorporation of success criteria from business, and globalization of the field.

Educators are not driving the change bus. Leadership in traditional universities has been grossly negligent in preparing the academy for the economic and technological reality it now faces. This failure is apparent in interactions I’ve had with several universities over the past several months. Universities have not been paying attention. As a result, they have not developed systemic capacity to function in a digital networked age. In order to try and ramp up capacity today, they have to acquire the skills that they failed to develop over the last decade by purchasing services from vendors. Digital content, testing, teaching resources, teaching/learning software, etc. are now being purchased to try and address the capacity shortage. Enormous amounts of organizational resources are now flowing outside of education in order to fill gaps due to poor leadership. Good for the startups that were smart enough to anticipate the skill and capacity shortage in higher education. Bad for the university, faculty, and support staff.

I have delivered two presentations recently on the scope of change in higher education, one in Peru at Universidad de San Martin Porres and the other at the CANHEIT conference. Slides from CANHEIT are below.

I’m also presenting on the topic of systemic change at the 2012 Campus Technology conference in Boston in July, so change in education is front of mind these days (actually, the first two years of my phd were on higher education change before I shifted my focus).

This post is a fairly rapid run through the many points of innovation that confront higher education. No clear answer exists at this stage on how higher education should respond, in spite of what the Silicon Valley blinkered, narrow-reality, and simplified view of education suggests. Advice: run like hell from anyone who advocates broad change in a system that they only understand through the lens of a piece of software or an economic opportunity.

Education can be broken down into numerous areas of functionality:

  • Content and curriculum
  • Teaching and learning
  • Accreditation and assessment
  • Research and dissemination
  • Administration and leadership

These five areas are all being impacted by a constellation of change pressures that are unprecedented. In short, the functionality of higher education is fragmenting. But, let’s start by looking at the context of change.

The view that change is needed in education is clear and consistent. Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley (.pdf) state that “Change is as inevitable as the passage of time, but line of movement in the modern world seems to be accelerating and presenting higher education more complex challenges with each passing decade.” In early 2012, the Drummond Report commented on education in Ontario and emphasized the dire nature of these accelerating changes: “The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective”.

The University of Virginia, in removing its president, is similarly concerned about the unnerving pace of change:

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.

The problems of education are mainly economic, but they arise in a context of rapid technological change, so it is hardly surprising that technology is seen as a solution to cure the ills of the system. As I state in the TEDx talk below, the problems of education are not as disconcerting as the solutions now being provided. Many solutions are myopic and lack a systemic focus. More on that later.

Dichotomous narratives

Two dominant narratives exist regarding the future of higher education.

One suggests that universities are obsolete. This narrative isn’t new. In 1997 Peter Drucker argued

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.
Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? And for the middle-class family, college education for their children is as much of a necessity as is medical care—without it the kids have no future.
Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.

In line with Drucker’s argument, Peter Thiel has initiated the 20 under 20 challenge: drop out of college, get $100,000, change the world. These are only a few examples, but almost daily “change in higher education” headlines (I’ve tagged many articles over the years on Diigo: reform and highered) present the message that the current higher education model is no longer relevant, or at minimum, badly broken.

The counter narrative to “burn down the institute” is one that states higher education is now more important than ever. The Rockefeller Institute released a report in 2012 (.pdf) emphasizing the critical need for universities to help revitalize and improve regional and state economic activity. For all the declarations of lack of relevance, higher education enrolment globally (.pdf) continues impressive growth:

In 2011 report, TD Economics emphasized (.pdf) that “Investment in post-secondary education remains the single best investment that one can make.” This remains relevant given the enormous global economic challenges where wealth is being rapidly transferred (.pdf) north to south and west to east:

Although fast growth in world trade is not new, we do not expect more of the same this time. Rather, the change we expect over the next forty years will be little short of transformational. What is new, at least since the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, is the prominence of today’s emerging market economies (EMs) in world trade.

A greater portion of the cost of education is being pushed to students. This chart from CAUT (.pdf) indicates that many countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia) rely heavily on private (including tuition) rather than public funding of education.

This chart is from 2007. Public support for higher education in many countries has eroded since then, largely due to the 2008 financial meltdown. In the current year, the California system lost $750 million in state support. UK is in the middle of a large and dramatic shift of education costs from the state to the student. Not all countries are adopting the aggressive UK model, but tuition patterns internationally (.pdf) are consistent:

Even in those countries where governments have maintained or increased higher education
funding levels, however, the trend towards more private investment continues unabated. In
virtually every region of the world, given increasing enrolments, rising costs and the ongoing
competition for public resources from other critical public sector services, higher education
institutions are being pushed to increase their income from sources such as student tuition fees,
donations, faculty consulting and facility rentals.

As indicated below, a few countries (8 in OECD) don’t charge tuition. The same report (.pdf) indicates diminishing public support: “For the 19 OECD countries for which trend data are available, the share of public funding in tertiary institutions fell from 74% in 1995 to 67% in 2008.”

Technology, as stated earlier, is a significant driver of change in education. The adoption of the internet and mobile technologies (read the whole Meeker Report if you want a good sampling of the scope of technological change) continues at a frenzied pace. For many universities, cloud computing is becoming an attractive cost savings/functionality increasing option.


Finally, if the broad context of enrolment changes, economic pressures, and technological advancement isn’t enough to force higher education to change, entrepreneurial activity is ramping up quickly. I addressed entrepreneurship in higher education in more detail in a previous post.

So that’s the context; change pressures so substantial that even the long established and conservative university system will be unable to staunch the impact.

Let’s dive into a bit more detail in the five functions of higher education and how they are being influenced by the changes mentioned above.

Content and Curriculum

Universities have three key economic value points: curriculum, teaching, and assessment/accreditation. All three are facing pressure.

Openness in education has been an area of concern for many academics for many decades. The open university movement of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s reflects this concern. Initially, openness referred to giving anyone a chance to get a degree, not openness as is “free content” or free cost. The cost input of an open university model required content, printing, teaching, and assessment. The internet, in contrast, made duplication a low-cost activity. In response, David Wiley began advocating for open content in 1998. In early 2000, Stephen Downes and I started an Open Education initiative that produced several articles, many discussions, but only limited uptake. Our goal was to promote open content and open teaching in education. Apparently timing and influence are important in creating movements!

In 2002, MIT announced the OpenCourseWare initiative. This was a seminal development that raised many questions about the economic value point of education. Since content can be easily duplicated, with low or no costs, it doesn’t seem reasonable to compete on the basis of superior curriculum. Since 2002, other universities and colleges have announced open education initiatives and openness is now a significant area of research. Rory McGreal of Athabasca University, for example, holds the UNESCO/COL chair in open education resources.

Creative Commons for content licensing has been a substantial driver of the open education movement. A small ecosystem of companies such as FlatWorld Knowledge has developed to improve the quality of open content.

For the many universities that didn’t see the internet coming or at least assumed it wouldn’t impact education or were just generally delusional, companies such as Embanet and 2Tor now offer outsourced content and curriculum development services. They’ll even pay universities up front and take a percentage of enrolment revenue. Lack of vision with regards to capacity building in higher education, it seems, has a cost.

Openness of content is a spectrum concept and goes well beyond openly licensed resources. YouTube, blogs, and anything accessible in a browser is quasi-open. Educators can link to a YouTube video or a lecture delivered and recorded at a conference, even if the video is not available for remixing.

Teaching and Learning

Open content as a value point in education is suspect at best. When MIT announced OCW, many educators responded by arguing that the real value of the university was in the teaching and in the networking that happens on a campus. As such, open content really wasn’t a threat to the university or to faculty. In 2008, together with Stephen Downes, I offered an open online course on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08). Our goal with the course was to communicate how individuals learn in distributed networks and to do for teaching what MIT’s OCW did for content. In response to the number of learners, the term MOOC (massive open online course) was coined by Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander.

CCK08 was a fully online course. Over the past four years, online learning has turned a corner – it is now recognized as a valuable learning format. The chart below, taken from this GSVAdvisor’s report shows the significant growth of online learning:


Online learning still has many opponents, in spite of report (.pdf) after report after report detailing the equivalence of online learning with in-class learning. In spite of the differing views of the value of online learning, college and university presidents are starting to recognize (.pdf) that online learnig is an important and growing aspect of higher education.

I’m personally past the stage of looking for evidence of the effectiveness of online learning, and technology in education broadly. The argument for adopting technology and teaching online, for me at least, is based on the reality that businesses and society are moving online and using technology extensively. It’s silly for classrooms and education to be time capsules of the 1970′s.

The MOOCs that I’ve been involved with are designed to reflect the distributed, global, and networked structure of the web. We don’t expect students to do their learning in our spaces – they can post/participate/create where ever they like. We’ll stitch things together technologically (grsshopper) or through social interactions. We expect course participants to create, make, remix, improve, and generate new knowledge (i.e. Scardamalia and Bereiter (.pdf)) through participation in our MOOCs. A more detailed discussion of the theory underpinning our MOOCs is available.

A question that I’ve frequently encountered about teaching in open courses is “how do you teach 3,000 students?”. You don’t. They teach each other. Wiley and Edwards article on online self-organizing social systems captures this process well: the development of networked technologies “allows large numbers of individuals to self-organize in a highly decentralized manner in order to solve problems and accomplish other goals”.

Open online courses provide new affordances to teaching, learning, and interacting. In a traditional course, the educator is the primary agent driving learning. In open courses, as detailed in the image below, the educator is a node in a broader network that includes peer learners, other faculty, and a range of content and information sources:

While we thought our courses were fairly large, “massive” took on an entirely new meaning in fall 2011 when Stanford launched an open course in Artificial Intelligence. Enrolment numbers seem to vary by source, but more than 100,000 learners registered for the course. This put MOOCs on the radar of many university presidents and venture capitalists. Since that time, close to $100 million has been invested in MOOCs: Udacity, Coursera, and edX. It’s a brave new world: the internet is officially happening to higher education.

Accreditation and Assessment

Accreditation and assessment is arguably still the most solid of the three value propositions in higher education. While open content and open teaching have called into question, to some degree, what learners pay for when they go to university, the value of accreditation is broadly acknowledged.

A few recent projects, notably badges, aim to chip away at the third value proposition. Arne Duncan, with the help of in-the-know speech writers, proclaimed that:

Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings.

Two additional interesting developments: Udacity partnering with Pearson testing centres and Western Governors University partnering with McGraw-Hill for “pay for performance” education. At this stage, badges and partnerships between open courses and testing centres are not significant. We’re very early in this game. However, it’s clear that entrepreneurs and educators are exploring ways to improve accreditation and assessment, even if it means divorcing it from higher education.

Research and Dissemination

Research, and its dissemination, is still at an early stage of impact in higher education. Change in this area will likely not be as pronounced as it has been in teaching and learning. This is largely due to the nature of research. Research has always been a global activity in higher education. New findings are shared at international conferences and published in journals. While content development and teaching have been silo’d and constrained, research has been open and global.

One aspect of research that appears to be a global trend is the expectation that research activity should translate into innovative and commercial results. In Canada, for example, the 2012 budget makes this an explicit priority:

The Government is committed to a new approach to supporting innovation that focuses resources on private sector needs…The global economy is changing. Competition for the brightest minds is intensifying. The pace of technological change is creating new opportunities while making older business practices obsolete. Canada’s long-term economic competitiveness in this emerging knowledge economy demands globally competitive businesses that innovate and create high-quality jobs.
The Government supports an innovative economy and the creation of high-quality jobs through investments in education and training, basic and applied research, and the translation of public research knowledge to the private sector.

The internet, especially participatory tools for communication and collaborative content creation, is impact research. Michael Nielsen captures many of these trends in his book Reinventing Discovery. He begins his book by detailing the Polymath Project – a collaborative activity where mathematicians from around the world work together to solve complex problems.

Open dissemination of publicly-funded research is also at the early stages of a renaissance. The Cost of Knowledge is an illustration of the increased call for openness. Academics publish and review for many closed academic journals. Essentially, the review and publication process is free labour. In response, the Cost of Knowledge, asks academics to discontinue any or all tasks related to: reviewing, publishing, or editing in proprietary and closed journals. To date, over 12,000 academics have taken the pledge.

On a much smaller scale, I’m involved in a distributed research network that launches in September 2012. More information is available here. The research topics are: social networks and media, data and analytics, and systemic change in higher education. Instead of a physical research lab, our project will be a global online research network.

Administration and Leadership

Administrators and higher education leaders face many challenges, as reflected in the scope of the change pressures detailed above. Higher education is changing. Leaders are struggling with how to respond. New entrants such as New Charter University and StraighterLine are competing on price. Some are questioning if higher education is even applicable to everyone. Perhaps some people should just skip the university experience.

In theory I could put a long paragraph right about here about the intractable challenges of academic unions and systemic change. It’s hard to say much new on this front, so just pretend you read it. It is worth emphasizing that leadership in a distributed world is different than what it has been in the past, as leaders in Egypt and Libya can attest to. Similarly, large social movements – occupy wall street or the Quebec tuition protests – are driven by socially connected protestors. The power shift is palpable: connected end users present a significant challenge to hierarchical systems of power.

A few universities have created labs to explore institutional change. Georgia Tech’s C21U is among the more ambitious and better organized centres that I’ve seen. The Education Innovation project at University of Wisconsin-Madison is not as systemically focused as C21U, targeting instead to improve learning and teaching. Numerous universities are also experimenting with startups, labs, accelerators, and other cool-sounding ideas. The goal: improve the innovation capacity of the university. Arizona State University’s Skysong project exemplifies this trend. At Athabasca University, our VPA and CIO have launched an Alberta-based “innovation in education” project, recognizing that universities need to get in touch with innovators both within and external to the university.


Higher education is searching for a new value point, a new narrative that communicates what it offers learners and society. In the past, the integrated structure of the university – content, teaching, research, accreditation – created a system that couldn’t be challenged. Today, with these value points fragmenting as rapidly as the CD did in the 1990′s, alternative educational models are being created that may circumvent the integrated structure of universities. It is still far too early to say that the integrated systems like Pearson will replace traditional universities. At minimum, the functional elements of higher education have been pulled apart and are waiting to be remixed. And whoever integrates these remixed components best, wins.

I find it quite odd that universities, so adept at exploring nebulous and complex phenomena in their labs, have failed to apply similar inquisitive approaches to understanding the changes they face. A researcher in a lab, when confronted with an unknown entity, begins to experiment, form hypothesis, conduct research, engage in dialogue with colleagues in other universities, etc. Today, the university as a system is under the microscope. It is now the entity that we no longer understand. We need to adopt a researcher’s mindset in coming to understand what is happening to higher education and what type of system today’s society needs.

On to the open online course

I get frustrated when I see declarations that this innovation or that idea will disrupt higher education. Education is a system. There are many stakeholders. Systemic change and reform won’t happen through a single idea. Once we start seeing the integrative structure of education, both as a system itself and its broader role in society, we will be getting closer to understanding why the system behaves as it does and what needs to happen for positive change.

A group of organizations and individuals are hosting an open online course starting Oct 8, 2012. The course is sponsored by Athabasca University, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Desire2Learn, and is organized with EDUCAUSE, C21U, University of Hawaii, National Research Council Canada, The Chronicle of Higher Education, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, University of British Columbia, University of Queensland, University of Prince Edward Island, and the Society for Learning Analytics Research.

Registration is free. Weekly topics are here.


  1. Ida Brandão wrote:

    Thanks for this synthesis of trends in HE. I work at the Ministry of Education in Portugal, and though my activity is addressed to basic and secondary schools, I’m attending a ph.D course that has been reflecting on many of the issues that you mention.
    The reduction of budget support to education has also had terrible impacts on HE portuguese students, scholarships were reduced and with the dramatic unemployement many families can’t afford the fees. Many students are leaving their studies.
    Our education system and health system are under fire with the austerity measures that have been imposed to Portugal (not to mention Greece) and all the other european countries that are on the verge of european/IMF rescue (???). I’d rather support rupture like Iceland and Argentina did.

    For the first time, this year, I’ve participated in 2 MOOCs – Instructional Ideas, Univ. Indiana, already closed, and the First Steps to Teaching and Learning, still going on, and I’m gladly impressed with the level and quality of participation. So, I think that new developments for HE education and Open Initiatives are welcome. How this is going to harm HE institutions financial sustainability is reason for concerns.
    But some alternative to the status quo has to occur, as with the education system as a whole.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  2. Joe Bires wrote:

    Excellent post, please allow me to interject from the K-12 American public side of the fence.

    You state: “Educators are not driving the change bus.” You are speaking of higher education in Canada but it is just as true of K-12 in the states and elsewhere. I think your right, they aren’t driving “the Bus” but at least some of them are driving their “vehicles”…as best they can toward change (through MOOC/blended learning/flipped classroom, etc), slowly and chaotically with a lot of push back and little institutional support.

    Perhaps more has to be done to accelerate/invigorate/energize these innovators (and spread their innovations at a grassroots level), rather than approaching the idea of systemic change. In the short term at least, the prospects for success are less insurmountable when you see the problem as your class and your students rather than as an institutional issue. The ability to be agile is a skill I think you can develop in people in organizations, but not in organizations as a whole. It is easier to teach a person to dance than to choreograph a dance routine with many members (who don’t know themselves how to dance), even though the larger group routine may be more impactful in the long term.

    Also the elements which are impacting on organizations may allow the cream of the crop (the innovators) to rise into leadership positions as the external weight (the technological and economic change ) becomes too great for schools as organizational units to resist in the years ahead and there may be a kind of natural selection of better learning opportunities being offered by the innovators and therefore more motivation for educators to innovate to survive.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  3. Martin wrote:

    George, when you say “A question that I’ve frequently encountered about teaching in open courses is “how do you teach 3,000 students?”. You don’t. They teach each other.” – is it particularly the ‘open’part you are emphasising? Because, as you’ll know, we regularly teach courses with this and more at the OU. I ran a course with around 15,000 students. And while they certainly did teach each other and help each other, this wasn’t the underlying pedagogy. Instead we combined good quality teaching material with small group tutor support. So you have set content but then an allocated tutor and tutor group of about 15 to work with.
    Now, the economics of paying all those tutors means it is difficult to structure open, open courses like this (as opposed to just open ones). But in the rush to see MOOCs as _the_ method for teaching lots of people online I don’t want the supported model to be forgotten.
    But you know all that of course.

    Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  4. Dawn Worley wrote:


    You noted that online learning still has many opponents. I concur with your thoughts as several of the instructors that I am acquainted with prefer a more traditional means of course delivery and are rigid in their stance. However, I choose to embrace online learning and the new opportunities it brings. As an online doctoral student and educator, I see the benefits and conveniences of online education. In my doctorate courses, learning from my peers and their experiences adds value to the course. In this spirit, I can see how MOOC courses are changing the face of online learning. While my courses are much smaller, the idea of having 3,000 students from which to learn and network is a tremendous strength.

    Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink