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Personalization and Quality Assurance Will Be Central to Higher Ed’s Shifts in 2016

The EvoLLLution | Personalization and Quality Assurance Will Be Central to Higher Ed’s Shifts in 2016
Higher education is shifting toward using technology to help scale the delivery of personalized and customized experiences and implementing accountability measures to ensure quality to both internal and external stakeholders.

The prospect of identifying trends that will have the greatest impact on higher education in the very near future does not seem too arduous a task. This is especially so if the focus is on the core function of academic institutions: the practice of teaching and learning. Many of us have done this and we aren’t very far apart in what we see coming down the road. Interestingly, there appears to be a much greater divide in our individual and collective understanding of where we stand today as a field in need of change than there is in our belief about the next higher education trend.

Recently, a colleague and I had the opportunity to present at a conference that was different from those we typically attend. Instead of an education conference with an emphasis on quality, this was a quality conference with an emphasis on education. That seemingly small tweak made a world of difference on the experience set and, therefore, perspectives of the attendees. This was also true of many of the presenters.

One of the event keynotes addressed the issue of the future of higher education. His presentation was a clear attempt to convince a skeptical audience that online learning was here to stay and that there were significant implications for our teaching and learning pedagogy and processes. He said that we don’t necessarily need more research around effective online pedagogy—we already have significant research that provides sound direction. Yes, my colleague and I were nodding agreement that there was much known but not always broadly understood. The real issue, he said, was effectively disseminating what we know and having this research made actionable and broadly embraced. Right—we should congratulate this presenter on his ability to make clear a call to action that we also embraced. And then he said that one day, in the conceivable future, we might actually have entire degree programs completely online.

Wait … what? “One day?”

My colleague and I both work with many institutions that have—and have had for many years—entire degree programs online. While we agree on where higher education is headed, we are clearly not all on the same page about where we are right now. Perceptions about where the higher education “field” is right now seems to be heavily influenced by where one sits.

This is not a particularly profound insight, but it bears stating as a reality check for those of us whose work is focused on pushing the boundaries and following those who are way out there, dangling on the edge of experimentation and creative exploration of ways to improve how we are teaching with technology. We can get so far out in front of the “mainstream” that we can no longer effectively lead towards the future we want to see.

Higher education is being both pulled and pushed to this future. Pulled by the promise of being able to customize individual learning experiences at a scale previously unavailable to us. Lured by the ability to know enough about student learning and engagement behavior that we can stage impactful interventions at very early stages in the process. Motivated to explore alternative pathways, across and even external to our campuses, by statistics that demonstrate the critical importance of a college degree on an individual’s earning potential and the societal benefits that accrue to an educated population.

Higher education is being pushed by a society unhappy with education outcomes and legislators and regulators who want and need to “fix” higher education. Increasing access is no longer enough; higher education needs to demonstrate the quality of its outcomes. Competency-based education, and even initiatives like the Degree Qualifications Profile, are responses to demands for accountability in the demonstration of what a student knows and can do. A push comes in the form of Department of Education “experimental sites” programs, which is less about financial aid incentives to innovate than it is a shot across the bow of both higher education and its regulators that the business of education might be opened up to anyone who can demonstrate quality outcomes. It no longer matters whether or not that learning happens in a classroom. An outright shove, although with a more limited focus, about the need to demonstrate ROI comes in the form of gainful employment legislation.

Amidst all of this pushing and pulling, the trends that appear to be getting the most attention in 2016 are, in part:

  • Competency-based learning
  • Adaptive learning
  • Learning analytics (big AND small data)
  • Badging and alternative credentialing
  • Alternative pathways to completion
  • Non-traditional education providers

What is not so clear is if these trends can move from the boundary to the mainstream, and what it will take for that to happen—or even if it should happen in all cases. We need a better understanding of where we are now to better lead the mainstream of higher education. What I note in the boundary spanning roles I play is that the mainstream does not see an urgency for why we need to change, does not understand what technology can really do, does not value what it thinks technology does, and distrusts what it might be used to do.

Those leading the innovative work in higher education, those far out in front, could benefit from a good public relations campaign to bridge this gap between the innovators and those educators in the skeptical majority. In my view, higher education has become more sophisticated in what it expects from the use of technology. It’s not about technology for technology’s sake — the next shiny object. Isn’t not about the use of technology primarily as a tool for mass communicating — to improve access.

Instead, leaders are looking to technology for solutions to move from an industrialized, factory-model version of education delivery to a customized, personalized one, scaling the gold standard of the faculty-student exchange where educators provide learners the benefits of their expertise.

Technology can help us do that as well as support the measurement of what learners actually do with these gifts. We should be holding ourselves accountable for quality at both ends—what we provide and the outcomes achieved—and be willing to be measured against both. This is what the higher education trends are moving towards now. It seems like an important direction for us to take.

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