Published on 2013/03/04

Reflecting on Higher Education’s Most Significant Changes

Technology’s impact on higher education, the industry’s move to meet the needs of adult learners and the challenges created by declining budgets are the three biggest changes in higher education in modern times.

Last month, The EvoLLLution asked higher education stakeholders to share their opinions on the top three changes they have observed in the industry. The respondents — who ranged from institutional administrators to association heads, from educators to students, from corporate learning directors to instructional designers — had a number of different perspectives.

Based on the responses, we have developed our own list of higher education’s top three changes:

The EvoLLLution’s Three Biggest Changes in Higher Education

1. Technology has fundamentally changed higher education

Technology, and its role in the learning process, was the number one change spotted by survey respondents. In fact, 60 percent of respondents said technology has fundamentally changed post-secondary teaching and learning. Another 20 percent of respondents delved into more detail to point out that personal electronic devices, such as tablets and smart phones, are changing the way students and instructors alike approach education.

Examples:

  • “Technology has greatly altered the way we interact with students, from technology in the classroom to hybrid/online courses, e-mail and chat interaction and the flipped classroom,” said William Badke, associate librarian at Trinity Western University.
  • “Today I can teach courses that are completely based in a learning management system,” said Wilda Smith, adjunct faculty member at the Central Texas College. “By doing this, I can stage written items, PowerPoint slides and other lesson materials or I can have a synchronous session where I have students meet me at a specific time.”

2. Higher education is better meeting the needs of non-traditional students

35 percent of respondents indicated that colleges and universities are more responsive to the needs of non-traditional students today than they were in the past. This is notable given recent increases in the number of adult and working students enrolling at higher education institutions across the United States.

Examples:

  • “In recognizing we are no longer dealing with children, but adults, we now have instruction that is based on participative learning and not lecture,” said Lindle Grigsby, dean of career and technical programming at Eastfield College. “This means an open learning space, modular furnishings and an instructor who is a mentor guiding the learning.”
  • “One of the largest changes that I have seen is, larger universities have recognized the need for non-traditional student programs,” said Crystal Trotter, a student at Eastern Illinois University. “I have also seen colleges and universities expand options of how a non-traditional student can become involved at universities and have special occasions to recognize the non-traditional students on campus.”

3. Declining budgets

Declining budgets for public institutions was a topic of concern for 30 percent of respondents. They pointed out that tightening purse-strings have created a new array of challenges for higher education institutions.

Examples:

  • “The decrease in provincial funding to universities in Ontario is creating immense pressure on faculty and departmental budgets. For continuing education, a cost-recovery model is essential, and providing a substantial return to the institution is more important than ever before,” said Carolyn Young, director of continuing studies at Western University
  • “Institutions are in the position of having to rethink their financial models based on funding cutbacks,” said Tina Grant, director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service at the University of the State of New York. “Some of that rethinking involves considering massive open online courses as a viable option for providing learning at a reduced cost.”

The Runners Up

There were several other changes noted by large numbers of survey respondents that did not make our top-three list, so below is our list of the three runners-up.

1. Professors and instructors are focused on teaching

30 percent of respondents noted that educators have become less focused on publishing in recent years, and more concerned with instruction, competency and relevance.

Example:

  • “Professor roles are changing and have changed considerably,” said Jodi Robison, director of assessment at UniversityNow. “‘Publish or perish’ may be becoming a thing of the past.”

2. Degree programs are becoming more student-centric

25 percent of respondents noted that classes and degree programs have become markedly more self-paced and flexible in recent years.

Example:

  • “Student-centered is taking on a new focus,” said Rosa-Fay Milnar, associate professor at Ashford University. “Individual customization is being tried many different ways such as competency-based credentials, credit for experience and requiring faculty to do more than just teach the class. [There is] more awareness that retention is only possible if students feel a sense of belonging to a larger whole they respect and are proud of.”

3. Declining recognition of the value of higher education

10 percent of respondents noted a change in the popular attitude towards higher education credentials. They pointed out that, over the past few years, the value of higher education degrees has been subject to increasing criticism from the public and from governments.

Example:

  • “Americans are questioning the value of getting a higher education,” said Julia Dozier, executive director of economic development and contract education with the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District. “Having a college degree no longer means that one will get more than an entry-level job, if you get a job at all; and the cost of getting that degree can be a debt that must be carried for years after graduation.”

In conclusion

Ultimately, the survey has shown that this has been a period of significant change for the higher education industry. Non-traditional students are gaining more recognition on campus, and having their needs better met by new programs and advances in technology. However, the costs associated with higher education and ever-decreasing support from government bodies are posing dire threats to the industry.

Outliers

Here are a few interesting points made by individuals that didn’t fit into any of the overarching themes, but that we wanted to share with the wider community.

1. Role separation is harming the quality of education

  • “[One worrying trend is] separating the tasks of instructional design from instructional delivery and maybe even not recognizing the need to evaluate the impact of instruction and the total impact of a series of courses for a program of study culminating in a degree or certificate,” said Susan Farber, online instructor at the University of Cincinnati. “If each of these related tasks are completed by different individuals, how can these tasks be effective?”

2. Students are not learning the soft skills they need to succeed

  • “I find that higher education is not fully addressing some significant social inadequacies,” said E. Beverly Young, director of certification and administration for the Pennsylvania State Police’s Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission. “Many students in our classrooms, virtually and traditional, present marginal ability needed for writing  and interacting with other students, skills needed to experience the social aspect of learning.”

Throughout this month’s Special Feature on the Future of Higher Education, The EvoLLLution will be publishing articles and interviews sharing an array of viewpoints on how these changes will impact higher education in the coming years.

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Readers Comments

Patricia Bowman 2013/03/04 at 7:58 am

There are lots of connections between the top three changes noted by higher education professionals; for example, fiscal constraint has led the charge to develop and incorporate new technologies that make learning more accessible, thereby better serving non-traditional students.

I hope this Special Feature explores some of those linkages and I look forward to reading the articles this month.

Dan Jones 2013/03/04 at 4:24 pm

I agree for the most part that these are the major changes one can observe in higher education in the last decade. However, one significant change I think you’re missing is that community colleges and universities are becoming more similar in programming.

There are now lots of community colleges that have degree programs that universities have historically offered. More universities are starting to offer credentials traditionally associated with community colleges (certificates, professional designations, etc.)

What will distinguish these two types of institutions from each other in the next decade? I think that’s worth looking at.

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