Future U.: What will it look like?

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How will the universities future generations attend differ from those we attend today?

In the year 2015, Sarah will take a single face-to-face class, one for which she paid extra just to get on a wait list, with her university’s star cognitive scientist. She is taking four other classes, but those she attends from the comfort of her off-campus apartment. She meets her professors in cyberspace, or not at all.

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How will future university experiences differ from the present?
Sarah began her college education in 2012 with a dream of starting her own blogging and social networking website for other who, like her, share a passion for the Renaissance, art and all things European. She is one of her school’s first Integrated Studies majors, a student who constructs her own degree by assembling pre-approved course modules in her areas of interest.

Sarah and her fellow students and professors currently exist within the imagination of Henry Eyring, author of “The Innovative University.” But Eyring’s vision of a university where students design their own degrees, take online classes and do homework in class is part of an ongoing debate among educators about the university’s role in the future of higher education.

Supplying demand

According to David Wiley, a instructional psychology and technology professor at BYU, the number of people interested in and qualified to attend a university is expected to increase by 120 million individuals over the course of the next 20 years. In order to meet that demand, the number of universities on Earth would have to double, and in certain parts of the world, such as India, a university would have to open every two weeks to keep up with demand.

“I don’t know that we know right now exactly how we are going to serve that many more people,” Wiley said, adding that if nothing changes and supply does not keep up with demand, “not everyone who is qualified would be able to go to school, a recipe for civil unrest.”

Three major changes will come to higher education in the next 20 to 30 years, according to Wiley. With so many more students entering the system, the price of higher education per student must decrease in order for the university to remain a viable means of education. New technologies and pedagogical methods will make this possible while making education a more personal experience and serving greater numbers of students.

Methods of decreasing college costs are already being put into practice. In Washington state, colleges designed state-standard textbooks for popular college classes, and offered those textbooks to students and professors free of charge. Though some might scoff at the idea of paying for the state to create free textbooks, Wiley pointed out that if each student from a population of 30,000 pays the average $1,000 for textbooks per year, about $30 million has been spent by the student body. Washington’s state textbooks cost only $1.5 million to implement, and students are already responding to the decreased costs of these core classes.

“It’s already starting to affect enrollment behavior,” Wiley said. “Students want to pay the lower cost.”

If textbooks can be produced and given away online at a lower cost than printing requires, then lectures could likely be distributed online at decreased cost as well, Wiley said. Lectures could simply be video taped and uploaded to YouTube for students to access. Professors could also be trained to use more online Open Educational Resources — free educational resources that anyone can access online — to supplement the lectures. If students are expected to gain an understanding of the basics from outside sources, then professors could dedicate more of their time to adapting to a new “inverted classroom” model where the professor actually sits down with students and helps them with their assignments during class, rather than lecturing.

“Secretly, every teacher wishes they could spend more time interaction with students,” Wiley said, “but they can’t because they spend all their time lecturing.”

Wiley also said he could see the algorithms used to find new products for customers on sites such as Amazon applied in the classroom one day. Computers could analyze data from a student’s test scores to suggest materials she ought to review, look at past grades to suggest other classes a student might enjoy, or even analyze a combination of academic data to suggest majors for which that student is best suited.

A personalized future

But other professors, such as Randall Davies, another BYU professor of instructional psychology and technology, are unsure these technologies will actually decrease the cost of higher education, or that they will prove as effective as the traditional university model. When television first came out, he said, some believed students would one day watch their lessons instead of attending school. But that never happened.

“It was like a pendulum swing,” Davies said. “At first we thought that computers were going to take over for teachers, but then we realized that computers will never replace teachers.”

Although it may appear at first glance that online classes would remove the cost of necessary buildings and other facilities and therefore would require substantially less funding, Davies said online classes simply require a different kind of infrastructure, one that can be just as expensive.

“[Going online] is a shifting of the cost — the question is who is going to pay,” Davies said. “There is no such thing as a free education, because a free resources still takes millions of dollars to maintain.”

Instead of relying on technology to get information into the hands of students, Davies said future models of education will use technology to aide both student and professor.

“Teachers need help because there is a lot of pressure to individualize learning,” Davies said. “And right now, students are really good at using technology for entertainment and communication, but they’re not always good at using technology to facilitate their learning.”

Davies said he believes something must be done about the upcoming influx of students and the rapidly rising cost of higher education, but he doesn’t believe all education will go online. Instead, he said, a diverse spread of models will be necessary to accomodate the need of a wide range of students.

Although the traditional university model is effective in some areas, such as the sciences, Davies said other fields with more specific learning outcomes could benefit from a different approach. By taking a hint from the video gaming industry, Davies said, schools could create a “little badges” or certification model where students receive certificates to indicate they have completed training in a field by taking a cluster of classes focused on a specific skill, rather than earning a degree to demonstrate they have completed four years of learning about a more abstract concept.

“Both [models] are needed, and to try to stop one or the other is a mistake,” Davies said.

Whatever model is ultimately implemented, it will have to become more focused on student learning, according to Richard Arum, the author of a controversial study and book titled “Academically Adrift,” which argues that one third of college students do not improve their critical thinking skills while attending a college or university.

“The current U.S. model of higher education has been quite successful at delivering a wide range of social objectives,” Arum wrote in an e-mail. ” Unfortunately, organizations … have lost focus on student undergraduate learning. This might have been acceptable when a college credential was sufficient for subsequent labor market success. To the extent that the economic environment facing future graduates has changed, students will need to come out of college with increased competencies, not just credentials.”

Exactly how technology will mold the university is uncertain, and few things about higher education remain clear, Eyring said. But, despite all the naysayers who argue that universities are relics of the past that won’t have sway over the economy of the future, Eyring said he is certain higher education is here to stay.

“Some people reduce education to economics, but it’s more than that,” Eyring said. “And because it’s more than just economics, universities will never go away entirely.”