Gazing Through Mud: The Campus and You in 50 Years
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Gazing Through Mud: The Campus and You in 50 Years

Fifty years from now, higher education institutions will be more focused on serving adult members of the workforce than on preparing youth to enter the workforce, as lifelong learning will have become the norm.

When approached to discuss the relationship between the “main campus” and their continuing and distance education divisions over the next 50 years, my first reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

As we know, the higher education landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s difficult to envision the future even two or three years from now. Nonetheless, I accepted the challenge, secure in the knowledge that no matter how far I missed the mark, no one would remember (and I won’t be around even if they do).

That 50 years was proposed as the horizon actually seems appropriate, as that’s the length of time it takes for higher education to fully accept and place new ideas into use, according to former Teachers College president Arthur Levine.

An example can be seen in Harvard University’s adoption of the case-study method of instruction. Its Law School introduced the idea in 1870, then creating such controversy that many students and faculty departed to establish Boston University’s School of Law in 1872. Harvard’s Business School adopted the method 50 years later, in 1920, and the Medical School in 1985 (Harvard Magazine, Sep/Oct 2003). Given this record, we might expect any lessons learned by edX, Harvard’s joint effort with MIT on the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs), to be put into use by 2063. But I digress.

Here are my predictions for the “central” campus and continuing/distance education relationship in 50 years’ time:

1. Physical campuses will still be around, though in smaller numbers

Contrary to Peter Drucker’s famous prediction, the research university and the liberal arts colleges will still exist. In the case of the former, their role in the production and dissemination of new knowledge will remain essential.

As for the latter, we will still want our youth to transition from parent-supervised adolescence to adulthood (and full citizenship) in some form of a “halfway house” that prepares them for life. Even 50 years from now, it is hard to imagine parents wanting their offspring to “attend” college from a computer, or whatever replaces it, from home.

Both types of institutions will be fewer in number as consolidations and closures continue, at an accelerated pace. Those that overcome the academy’s inherent aversion to change and risk are the most likely to survive.

2. Continuing education (CE) must remain relevant to the workforce and be flexible

Continuing education and lifelong learning will not only survive but prosper if those responsible for its creation and delivery pay attention to the changing needs of industries, employers and changes in student demographics.

Let’s remember that the half-life of knowledge is falling at an astonishing rate. What is relevant today, especially in technical fields, can become obsolete within a matter of a few years, if not months. At the same time, there is an explosion in information. It has been noted that we’re now exposed to more information in one year than our grandparents were in a lifetime. The future is likely to see more information with increasingly short periods of relevance. The CE function of higher education will be necessary to help students — young and old — make sense of this phenomenon and to maintain their professional competitiveness. If institutions do not, commercial providers will fill the vacuum.

3. Institutions will focus on serving the current workforce, not the future workforce

In thinking specifically about the campus-extended education relationship, I am reminded of a passage from scripture: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). By this, I suggest that the historic focus on preparing the next generation for employment and citizenship will become secondary to serving those now in the workforce, over a lifetime of different careers.

As the adult learner becomes central to the mission of many colleges and universities, the CE unit will cease to exist. In its place will be specialized programs to help adolescents supplement the tertiary instruction they have started to receive in secondary school. These programs will provide the credentials (perhaps no longer a “degree”) needed for employment, and will coordinate the work, travel and study opportunities available, from sources both internal and external to the academy.

4. Business operations will move from the periphery to the core

The business, marketing and technological savvy that is required of most successful CE units will move to center stage as economic challenges, market competition and the technological delivery of instruction become of ever greater concern.

5. Open learning will become more ubiquitous

With more than half of the world’s population under the age of 25, there is no way education can continue to be delivered in a “brick and mortar,” or even thatch, classroom. It will be necessary to provide access to free education via electronic means (finally, a role for MOOCs!) With such a move, there will be an increased need for the validation of learning, both for purposes of employment and as a foundation for more advanced study. Such assessments, and the credentialing that follows, may move from the academy to various commercial sources if colleges and universities do not take this function seriously.

In summary, the units extending the reach of universities in the future will no longer be on the fringe. Their academic and professional development offerings will instead become central to the institution’s mission.

As learners are presented with a virtual smorgasbord of educational opportunities, the role of the tertiary sector will increasingly become one of aggregating and evaluating the extent to which real learning has been provided. Degrees of mastery will be assessed by a variety of tools. Identified gaps will be filled with formal (courses) and/or informal (independent study) offerings.

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4 Responses to Gazing Through Mud: The Campus and You in 50 Years

  1. Yvonne Laperriere Reply

    2013/03/08 at 9:22 am

    John Ebersole is a voice of reason amid the mass hysteria about the decline of physical campuses. Pay attention to what he says, folks: they will never truly go away. There are just too many physical assets, such as labs and gyms, that can’t be moved online. In many small cities, universities — and specifically their physical campuses — are vital for employing residents and functioning as a cultural and civic hub. People will fight you if you try to remove them. Americans are fanatical about their college football; do you really think we would ever let them get rid of the field?

  2. Linda McAdams Reply

    2013/03/08 at 12:44 pm

    While CE units tend to be self-sustaining — and even profit generating, in some cases — there is little indication they are prepared to become the sort of “central unit” that institutions need them to be. The most obvious example is that there tend to be fewer faculty (particularly those who are full-time) assigned to CE units than to other units on campus; how, then, would an institution be ready for the massive influx of adult students expected in the next few decades? Admittedly, the other units on campus would be expected to absorb some of these learners, but the expertise to work with adult students and the popular programs would likely continue to be in the CE unit. It would take time for some of the practices and processes of the CE unit to transfer to the other units (keeping in mind how resistant the academy can be to change). The lesson here is that universities and colleges need to start building the capacity of their CE units now, and encouraging more information sharing and collaboration between these units and others on campus.

  3. Quincy Adams Reply

    2013/03/10 at 11:59 pm

    My thoughts are similar to the above commenter’s. At present, CE units tend to be smaller than other units on campus (which may be departments or even schools). They also tend to be newer and less well established. As they grow to become a vital part of the campus, as Ebersole says, I wonder how they will adapt to the role, and what is needed to ensure they adapt successfully.

    For example, do they need to be more closely linked with the ‘main’ campus in terms of processes and regulations, in order to truly understand its core mission? Or do CE units need to be more independent of the rest of campus so they can be innovative and find solutions to build their capacities?

    Ebersole raises provocative points in this piece. We would do well to seriously consider them.

  4. Al Powell Reply

    2013/07/03 at 1:05 pm

    I think John is right on target; one important challenge to this vision is the culture of the institution. Right now Continuing Education is only the tail, and a very small tail, on a very large dog. The institution is going to be very reluctant to assign more importance and a central role to Continuing Education.

    However, that may be a Darwinian factor in determining which institutions survive and which do not.

    Don’t miss John’s assertion about business operations moving to the core, either. Generating revenue in addition to mainstream funding (whatever it may be) is going to be increasingly critical to institutional survival.

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