Published on 2015/07/30

Normal 3.0 in Postsecondary Education: Gazing Into Higher Ed’s Future

The EvoLLLution | Normal 3.0 in Postsecondary Education: Gazing Into Higher Ed’s Future
The future of postsecondary education is student-centered, technology-enhanced and focused on learning, not credentials.

Postsecondary education (PSE) is experiencing a perfect storm and I call this confluence of events “21st-Century PSE: Normal 3.0.”

This perfect storm includes advanced educational technology (simplistically referred to as Online Learning), declining demographics, a world-is-flat distribution model, an Internet of Things, and globally driven industry demands for highly skilled labor. Postsecondary education has not experienced this much upheaval since after World War II, but those changes were about expansion, not rapid market contraction coupled with shifting global influence and rapidly changing technology. Understanding Normal 3.0 means taking a serious look at all of the longstanding norms that shape our space, such as how and when educational technology is used, credentials, educational delivery, the concept of a semester, the concept of a course (just to name a few).

Normal 3.0 means in-time, on-time delivery of education when the student wants/needs it, and where the student wants/needs it. Normal 3.0 means some aspect of online learning and self-study. Think YouTube versus textbook. Normal 3.0 means using technology to delivery and measure education. Normal 3.0 means the credential or degree may not be the ultimate goal, but that gaining specific skills to do the current job is the short-term goal. Long term, the job is always changing, therefore the skills to go with it are changing as well. As a higher education senior administrator, at Northern College in Ontario, Canada, Normal 3.0 is a reality. Information over the past decade on trends and industry needs have prepared us for this. So welcome to 21st-Century PSE: Normal 3.0.


There are significant opportunities in Normal 3.0. Fewer students come directly from high school, but great opportunity rests within the non-direct category of learner. This category of students has grown significantly at Northern College. They will come once, and then again and again, as the job changes. This category of students brings different skills sets, life experience and educational needs. An opportunity to certify these life experiences with prior-learning measures, and fast track their education is an opportunity. The use of online resources, collaboration and evaluation support their ability to navigate through in a timely fashion. Think individual plans versus prescribed courses.

There is also a need to reset the calendar on semesters and create course loads that can be taken out of sync with traditional academic cycles. Numerous non-direct learners require PSE, but without the ability to take 2 to 4 years for full-time school. PSE needs to fit their schedule, not the other way around. Think customized technology delivery versus 9 to 4 class times.

Credentialing will need to be seamless with all “blocks” of learning—past, present and future—incorporated to count towards that credential. Where specific subject matter expertise is necessary, those blocks of learning are tailored in time and space to the needs of the learner. Think Lego blocks versus credit courses. Industry will drive this change. Microsoft and Google are already in the game with education for their staff. They define the skills required and establish in-house programs for staff to learn while they earn. Is there another delivery opportunity for PSE in this model? Think certification versus certificate. There are endless opportunities if we rethink traditional delivery, harvest the educational technology in a manner that supports good pedagogy, and use authentic measures of learning, versus just the facts. Think how you have learned versus what you know.

Educational technology is the cornerstone to this, a fabulous opportunity and a contextual nightmare. Think technology infrastructure versus new buildings. Learning with supported technology still requires sound pedagogical approaches, albeit different approaches than traditional face-to-face. The technology itself requires dedicated maintenance and support with an operational plan for refreshing.


Traditionally, educational technology has been described simply as Online Learning, but this concept is simplistic and misunderstood. The biggest challenge to capturing and capitalizing on educational technology is the preconceived ideas it is easy and cheap. Faculty dedicated to PSE teaching need to understand the impact of Normal 3.0 and how to manage technology-enhanced delivery. It is not easy and it does not mean simply taking traditional material and posting it online. Faculty have to engage students they may not physically ever see, or talk to. Think cyberspace not personal space.

The realities are technology infrastructure is expensive to obtain and maintain. And it is changing and updating daily. But this is less costly than building and maintaining huge physical infrastructure. PSE can’t afford to try to expand both the technology infrastructure and the physical infrastructure. Think what’s inside the box rather than making the box.

Future Forward:

Creating engaging curriculum delivered in multi-modal formats while working non-traditional academic hours will be Normal 3.0. At Northern College, we host more classes in multi-modal delivery than in traditional face-to-face. Multi-modal education at Northern College includes web- and video-based conferencing while employing technology platforms to push out interactive tools for the learners.

Where will Normal 3.0 take us? If you read the tea leaves, Normal 3.0 will take us to a highly integrated learning and working model. Postsecondary education will become a continuous process as opposed to an event in a person’s life. Learning will be measured in authentic real-world settings and not by exams. Education will be determined not by degrees, but by accumulated skills. Think the value-chain model versus one-stop shopping.

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Readers Comments

Erin Samuels 2015/07/30 at 10:11 am

I think the author is spot-on in the statement that soon institutions will have to choose between being in person or online. We won’t have the resources for both and the need to specialize and differentiate to survive will mean we’ll all have to stick with what we know best.

Cindy Daniels 2015/07/31 at 1:02 pm

Funny how so many things seem to be both fantastic opportunity and contextual and logistical nightmare  There is still a lot that will need to shift in terms of values and attitudes as we move toward this learning-over-credentials model, but I like where it’s headed.

Kyle Peck 2015/08/16 at 8:56 am

Nice “wake up call,” Dr. Prenner. Rapidly evolving technologies are enabling us to meet with students, individually or in groups, via video-conferencing with real-time screen sharing, creating an environment that surpasses most face-to-face classrooms. And, these technologies also allow learners to collect the micro-certifications (certificates and digital badges) from a series of institutions rather than devoting years in long-term contracts with institutions. Your insight that “Value chain model” will overtake the “one stop shop” is interesting and I believe that few realize this at this time. Investing in technology infrastructure and in transitioning existing faculty and staff and training new ones seems a much better investment than investments in buildings and grounds. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

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