Visit Modern Campus

The Newcomers: Opening an Institution to More and More Learners

: The thinking around credentialing needs to evolve to keep up with changing institutions and student expectations.
The thinking around credentialing needs to evolve to keep up with changing institutions and student expectations.

An institution is only as good as its students, and providing access to more students is critical for long-term success. Getting faculty to think beyond tradition to welcome more diverse learners will spearhead change for the institution and community.

Evo: What are the trends you see most significantly impacting higher ed over the next five years?

Stephen Harmon (SH): There are a handful of trends that are definite and a couple of maybes. The first one is demographics. We know that in the U.S. (at least), the demographic cliff is set for 2025. We’ll see how it plays out when the number of 18-year-olds drops by 15%. Couple that with the drop we’ve already had—during the pandemic, I think there was a 9% drop in undergraduate enrollments across the country. Larger, well-established places like Georgia Tech see our enrollments going up. We’re getting more applications than ever and intend to increase undergrad enrollments by about 5%. Other smaller or not as well-established places are in more trouble, but I think we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out because the population is aging.

So, we have more and more older people. Older people are working longer and are in greater need of professional development. Georgia Tech Professional Education’s Nelson Baker and I wrote a chapter for a book called The 60-Year Curriculum that discusses this phenomenon. It really seems like it’s happening more and more in the U.S., but worldwide trends are a bit different. Worldwide, from what I can tell, we see the population growing for another 50 years, then plateau and begin to drop. Almost all that growth is likely to occur in Africa and India. While many universities across the globe will have a capacity surplus, that surplus won’t match the number of seats in places where growth is happening.

Another big trend is policy. We’re seeing this right now with the Biden administration student loan debt forgiveness program. Policy often switches back and forth in higher ed, and we’ve all come to appreciate just how much it impacts what we do. Sometimes, the more you take an institutional view, the more you realize it makes a big difference. So, the policies enacted by both local and federal governments are going to have a huge impact.

At the heart of that discussion is an older question of whether higher education is a public or a private good. And the time of the GI bill in the U.S., higher education was seen as a public good and as something that improves the nation. But over time, largely beginning with the Reagan era, that view shifted among half the population, and now it’s seen by many as a private good. Whether you see public education as a private or public good probably says where you come down on student loan debt forgiveness. Is it a bad thing or a good thing? Public perspective will have a big impact in the U.S. now.

Higher ed’s reputation has certainly suffered in the U.S. among conservatives. Many studies have noted that. And it points to part of what higher ed needs to do better: We need to get people to understand what it is we do and why we do it. There are certainly bad actors in this market, like for-profit, fly-by-night places that have damaged higher ed’s reputation. But I think we must do a better job of telling our story to make sure everyone understands the benefits of higher education.

Another trend is the increasing automation or augmentation of skills. There are a lot of workforce skills we’ll see being automated. Predictions vary, but as much as a third of jobs could see some impact. Even jobs that aren’t replaced by automation will be more highly augmented. New technologies are continuously coming in, changing the way jobs operate in potentially drastic ways. That trend has immediate implications for higher ed in terms of reskilling and upskilling existing employees. If your job is replaced, if you’re automated, then you need re-skilling. If your job is augmented, then you’ll need upskilling. We need to think about how we approach this upskilling and reskilling more than ever.

Other trends are a bit less certain. We’ve seen a big shift to online education during the pandemic. I think that’s sticking around and we will continue to see value in online education. People realize that it can be good, but I think more people also realize it’s hard to do well and that you must approach it in a very studied way. But overall, we’ll see continuing growth in online offerings.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to have a major impact as well. We have three national AI institutes at Georgia Tech, and one of them is focused on Adult Learning and Online Education (AI-ALOE). We are making progress in realizing the benefits of AI for higher education, but it’s still early in the process, and we can’t say for sure what the scope of impact might be for a while.

Evo: How do you start shifting an institution steeped in centuries of tradition toward being more flexible and more accessible for folks the institution historically hasn’t served?

SH: The traditional view of higher ed is not going away. The idea that higher ed is intended to serve 18- to 24-year-olds will stay. There will be progress in expanding that view, but higher education is a big ship to turn, so it will be slow. However, we’ll see higher ed focus more on nontraditional learners, adult learners but also branch out into the K-12 space. Some of the reasons for that change are the demographics, the fact that people are living longer and job augmentation. Like I said, with automation and augmentation, people need more rapid upskilling and reskilling. Continuing and professional education units will increase in prominence and importance.

These units will also expand more rapidly because of flexibility. It’s sometimes easier to effect change in professional education organizations because they are more agile in terms of governance. At the same time, we see professional and continuing education units becoming more closely tied with the traditional academic aspects of universities, as universities embrace the nontraditional learner.

The hardest part of this shift, though, is capturing faculty mindshare because most faculty do not come into higher ed thinking they’re going to work with 50-year-olds. They come in thinking they’re going to work with 20-year-olds. Getting faculty to understand that there is a big need for adult education is difficult.

At Georgia Tech, we have been successful in moving this way at the administrative level. We have a new strategic plan, and one of our goals is focused on lifelong learning. And it’s important to note that that goal is not coming from the organizations within Tech that already deal with lifelong learning, mainly Georgia Tech Professional Education and the Center for 21st Century Universities. This goal is coming from the university as a whole. The central administration is saying, “Hey, everybody, we all need to think about how we do this.” You must build a structure to be able to move the entire university toward a greater emphasis on lifelong learning. We are working on that.

One approach that can help with the shift to lifelong learning comes from the recent emphasis on learning engineering as a discipline. We have my discipline, which is instructional design and technology, which has been around for a long time. And then you have learning sciences, which came into being in the late 1980s. And now in the last five to ten years, there’s been an increased focus on learning engineering, which is trying to establish the same relationship between theory and application that engineering has with science. If we take learning science as understanding how people learn, then we look at using engineering techniques to make that knowledge broadly applicable.

How do we solve the problems revealed by the learning sciences? We’re a STEM school with an engineering mindset, so learning engineering is quite relevant. We can start there and get faculty to consider, “What if you thought about education the same way you think about engineering?” Many of the same techniques are involved. And most faculty say, “Oh, you know what, I never thought about that. I just teach the way my professors taught me.”

Evo: What are the major roadblocks that higher ed leaders across the board should be looking out for when starting to realize this vision for the future of higher education?

SH: One is the fact that you’re dealing with adults more in this future of education, and adults are different than 18-to-20-year-olds. The younger students are more willing to just accept that whatever they get is what they get. Adults are pickier, a little more demanding. We incorporate user experience design, user interface design, parts of industrial design and many other disciplines. We really need to begin focusing on learner experience design. What is the learner’s overall experience? Are they just sitting in their virtual class, listening to a lecture, taking a test and getting a grade? What’s their entire experience of the lifelong education process? Adults are less willing to endure a poor experience at any point—whether it’s when they’re learning about the program, registering for classes or participating in the program.

We must start thinking about learner experience design geared to the audiences we want to reach. And that requires a different mindset. We need to avoid saying, “Hey, here’s what I’m teaching you. Come take it. And you’re going to just do whatever I say.” Instead, let’s meet learners where they are, especially adult learners, and try to develop things that help us get them to where they want to be. So, it’s a much more student-centered approach. We hear about student-centered learning all the time, but this is more of a comprehensive approach to it: not just the curriculum, instruction and assessment, but everything the learner encounters from the beginning to the end of the experience.

Another thing we are thinking about is the increased need to reach down into the K-12 side of education. We don’t want to just wait and see if we get the pool of learners we want, with whoever shows up randomly to apply. We really want to increase access to our programs without changing program standards. So, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure our learners succeed. We should look at the learners we want to teach, like underrepresented learners, and ask what we can do to make sure they can succeed at Georgia Tech. It’s reaching both ways. It’s about both focusing on the adult learner and helping prepare learners coming to us.

And the third aspect is getting students into that lifelong mindset. So, you think that after four years you’re done. After my undergraduate degree, I never wanted to walk into a college again. Well, it only took a couple of years for me to change my mind. But now the mindset we try to inculcate is that you’re a lifelong learner. It’s a metacognitive aspect we’re trying to impart to learners saying, “The expectation is that you’ll always be learning and that we are (by the way) a great place for you to come and learn throughout your life.”

Evo: How does our approach philosophy around credentialing need to evolve to keep up with the fact that the institution is transitioning from being a point-in-time actor in a student’s lifetime to a consistent partner in that student’s lifetime?

SH: It definitely needs to change, and we are working on that. We’re part of the Digital Credentials Consortium, which is out of MIT and includes twelve founding universities who have been working on this for several years now. What we’re really looking at is how to first give learners more agency in choosing their official credential. 1EdTech has been working on a comprehensive learner record, and we’re trying to do a similar thing but make it incredibly easy to use and very targeted. We’ve got to be able to incorporate credentials that learners can easily share and create a way to verify those credentials for whomever needs them in the future.

The blocky transcript type of credential we have now is not well-adapted to the future we think we’re going into, one where you’ll need a much more focused set of skills. We’ve developed a new learner wallet to hold those credentials, a way to enter the credentials into the wallet, a verification method, but we need enough people to adopt it before it really takes off. You need a critical mass of learners to achieve widespread diffusion and adoption. We’ve got the structures worked out and a lot of the technology worked out, so we’re asking, “How do we open this up for a broader consumer group?”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Author Perspective: