Pew Survey Examines Higher Education in 2020

Over 1,000 education experts, researchers, university directors, professors and venture capitalists participated in a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey predicting the state of higher education in 2020.

Thirty-nine percent believe that by 2020, higher education will not be very different. They acknowledge that classrooms will feature large screens, wireless devices, and perhaps teleconferencing, but the traditional model of in-person attendance of students in lecture-based courses will remain solid.

Sixty percent believe higher education will change drastically. This group believes colleges and universities will adopt distance learning methods and transition to hybrid classes that combine online learning with few on-campus class meetings, if any at all.

One major driver of the survey is the state of higher education’s business model.  The survey’s intro observes, “Students and parents, stretched by rising tuition costs, are increasingly challenging the affordability of a college degree as well as the diploma’s ultimate value as an employment credential.” It’s fitting to once again bring up the fact that American student debt is upwards of $1 trillion.

The amount of people questioning the value of higher education has undoubtedly encouraged growth among competitors. The survey’s intro mentions the growth of for-profit universities, increased attendance at trade schools and also factors in online ventures like iTunes U and Khan Academy. The survey also acknowledges the impact of massively open online courses (MOOCs) offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX, which attract six-figure student enrollments.

So, what are higher educators thinking? Let’s take a look at some of the responses:

  • Alex Halavais, Quinnipiac University associate professor: “There will be far more extreme changes institutionally in the next few years, and the universities that survive will do so mainly by becoming highly adaptive … The most interesting shifts in post-secondary education may happen outside of universities, or at least on the periphery of traditional universities. There may be universities that remain focused on the traditional lecture and test, but there will be less demand for them.”
  • Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future: “Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially. As high-speed networks become more widely accessible tele-education and hybrid instruction will become more widely employed.”
  • Peter Pinch, director of technology for WGBH, a public media company: “As communications technologies improve and we learn how to use them better, the requirement for people to meet face-to-face for effective teaching and learning will diminish,” he predicted. “Some institutions will focus on facilitating virtual environments and may lose any physical aspect. Other institutions will focus on the most high-value face-to-face interactions, such as group discussions and labs, and will shed commodity teaching activities like large lectures.”
  • Veronica Longenecker, assistant vice president of information technologies for Millersville University: “If higher education wants to survive, we cannot stay the same. We are no longer meeting the needs of today’s learner. Higher education needs to transform and we need to start today.”

Ms. Longenecker’s imploring calls to mind Sugata Mitra’s point of view. Mitra is a professor of educational technology who was featured in a short documentary covered on Technapex last week. He focused much of his commentary on K-12 education, but it is easy to apply his thinking to the higher education model as well. When considering a five-year-old child, he asks “Can any teacher say that they are preparing that child for 2031, for an unknown world?” Though university learners are adults, they are nevertheless students who face an uncertain future. By making an effort to anticipate tomorrow by observing the lessons of today, an adapted higher education might better prepare students for the future.

What do you think about the future of higher education? Sound off in the comments below.