Future Forward: The Next Twenty Years of Higher Education



Our world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In 1997 the internet was still in its infancy with only around 119 million users. Distance education – a concept that began in Sweden during the mid-19th century – was only beginning to transition from analog to digital delivery. Today, we live in a much different world where the Internet has not only radically transformed the way colleges and universities teach, but has greatly expanded access to education around the globe. At Blackboard, we are proud to be a part of this journey.

Today we released Future Forward: The Next Twenty Years of Higher Education, a series of interviews with American higher education leaders. We asked this group of leaders to reflect on the last 20 years of higher education as well as consider what the next 20 years might hold. Forecasting the future is always a difficult affair, especially in this age of rapidly changing technology. Across the interviews, however, we heard several themes emerge time and again.

Our Current System Is Unsustainable & Ill-Suited for a Globally Connected World That Is Constantly Changing.

Interviewees repeatedly brought up the rapidly changing nature of the education landscape and the ways our current higher education system is ill-suited for that world. Pam Quinn, Provost at the Dallas County Community College District’s LeCroy Center, summed it up best when she reflected, “I believe the biggest challenge in higher education has been changing from the centuries old model of classroom-based education to the transformational, growing market of online and digital education.” The leadership challenges these changes present echoed throughout the interviews. Marie Cini, Senior Academic Innovation Fellow at the University of Maryland University College, reflected, “Trying to figure out how to keep moving forward is not as simple as it used to be when you hired faculty and they showed up in the classroom… We have to start reimagining our organizations and our institutions and even our leadership.”

Leadership challenges weren’t the only aspect of our current system that interviewees commented on. Interviewees were clear on the ways in which students and employers are expecting more. Fahad Alahmari, Dean of E-Learning at King Khalid University, observed: “Future job seekers will need to strengthen their skills and gain new ones to keep pace with the demands of the future.” In addition, the ability to create educational systems that can support the development of those skills will rest upon the development of “flexible systems that lay the groundwork for connected and collaborative learning, grounded in a set of design principles that combines best practices in learning science with cutting-edge technologies in a networked world,” according to Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online.

Colleges & Universities Will Have to Change Their Current Business Model to Continue to Thrive, Boost Revenue, & Drive Enrollment.

Another theme we heard interviewees come back to over and over again was the need for colleges and universities to change their current business model, especially if they wish to be competitive in a world of increased competition for declining higher education enrollments. In some cases, interviewees like Robert Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), reflected on how new business models would require an entrepreneurial leadership style more akin to what is found in private industry. Felice Nudelman, Chief Global Officer for Innovation and Partnerships at Antioch University, spoke about the need for colleges and universities to embrace partnerships with organizations outside of academia like businesses, chambers of commerce, or unions in order to create new types of educational programming. Many interviewees spoke about the need for higher education to consider new types of credentials and degree programs more aligned with changing workforce needs. Perhaps Justin Louder, Texas Tech University’s Associate Vice Provost, said it best: “I think the thing coming forward that we need to look for and either embrace or learn how to work with is micro-credentialing and the different groups offering these credentials… Finding a way for ‘traditional’ higher education to work in that space and to work with students to get these micro-credentials or certifications that can stack together is a challenge we will need to face.”

Data & the Ability to Transform That Data Into Action Will Be the New Lifeblood of the Institution.

Our interviewees were unanimous in what would be central to all of these transitions—data and increasingly sophisticated ways of capturing and using those data. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chris Jennings, Instructional Lead at Google Analytics Edu, was the most enthusiastic champion for the possibilities that data brings. Jennings reflected on how data allows faculty and instructional designers to evaluate and understand the success of a curriculum but also goes far beyond just evaluation: “Data actually empower instructional designers to be learning scientists or learning engineers… The more we know about a user, the better we can start dynamically tailoring our course content to individual learners.” This opportunity was echoed by Erin Smith, Northeastern University’s Online Experiential Learning Executive Director, who shared her excitement around data’s ability to identify trends and test hypotheses and make learning personalized for students. The resulting experiences, Smith reflected, would be “transformative.”

Throughout their conversations on the importance of data, our interviewees were also clear on the dangers associated with data. Notable among these conversations on security and privacy risks was the warning articulated by Pat Schmohl, Dean of Health Care at Quinsigamond Community College. Schmohl reflected on the risk of manipulating data and the need to make sure that a campus community works towards a common agenda. He ended with the admonition that “we have to assure faculty that all of this technology and assessment data is not going to be used against them.” Should the dangers prevent us from embracing data? No, but it was clear that everyone involved needed to be aware of data’s risk and limitations.

The “Sage on the Stage” & the “Doc in a Box” Aren’t Sustainable; New Technologies Will Allow Faculty to Shift Their Focus on the Application of Learning Rather Than the Acquisition of Knowledge.

Some of our most passionate conversations were around how new technologies will make it easier for faculty to provide more interactive and personalized learning experiences for students, especially as institutions become more sophisticated in collecting and analyzing data. This will allow faculty to focus less on the task of transferring knowledge and more on helping students with the application of knowledge. Though more than one interviewee warned against the danger of institutions treating learners like autodidacts. Amy Laitinen, Director of Higher Education at New America, cautioned that institutions must find ways to make sure that all of the supports students need for success are embedded in digital learning environments. Perhaps most pointed was the admonition of the University of Technology Sydney’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Shirley Alexander who cautioned, “I think it’s an interesting time to be in the learning science industry. I have a mantra, ‘Any university that can be replaced by technology should be.’ We have to be offering something spectacular… Learning could be a solitary activity and that would be fine if you are trying to improve your spreadsheet skills or something like that. But if you are trying to become an electrical engineer then you need more than skills.”

When asked to reflect on the technologies that make learning spectacular, time and again interviewees reflected on the promises of adaptive learning and personalized education, especially as driven by artificial intelligence (AI). Darrell Luzzo, Laureate International University’s Senior Vice President of Educational Product, Technology and Innovation, best encapsulated the excitement around AI when he reflected, “Utilizing AI to provide expanded support to students and help them when they are struggling in a course could be a real game changer. You could take something like IBM’s Watson to evaluate student data and offer opportunities to support student learning… It’s very early but I think there are extraordinary possibilities in this space that are worthwhile.”

Finally, the Heart & Soul of Any Institution Are Its People. Adopting New Technologies Are Only a Small Piece of the Puzzle; Institutions Must Also Work With Faculty & Staff to Change Institutional Culture.

The one thing that all of our interviewees came back to, though, was the critical role that people played in creating cultural change and the tensions involved in doing so. As Myk Garn, Assistant Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models at the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, observed, “The cultural challenge is one that we realize is incredibly significant, and the challenge for innovators who are at institutions trying to change that culture is tremendous. What we know is, as they say out in Silicon Valley, technology eats culture for breakfast. Actually, I think they say strategy, but in truth it’s culture, and we know it does that. Technology doesn’t care about culture; it just keeps moving.”  For Northeastern’s Erin Smith the technologies should become tools to help us map, understand, and connect all of the human conversations and interconnections because regardless of any other changes, “the need for connection and the desire for sharing and learning and advancing our global society” will only increase in importance.

What will the next 20 years hold? More than any other time in higher education’s history, the stakes are high but the possibilities feel limitless. Perhaps Mike Abbiatti, Executive Director of WICHE’s Cooperative for Educational Technology, summed it up best when he opined, “If we can, in some way, move higher education into an organization that has a true conversation across the continuum of the organization so there is a real serious student focus, then I think we will be in good shape… My greatest hope is that we restate and refine our mission in higher education to be much more focused on student outcomes and less focused on where we’re going to find the next dollar. Failure to do so will mean that the big campuses get bigger, the small campuses get smaller, and diversity at every level will be less instead of more.” At Blackboard we’re looking forward to working with higher education leaders to shape these next 20 years as we collectively work towards improving student access and success.