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New Audiences, New Concepts, Same Questions

An incremental approach to change may seem like the right call, but some students have immediate needs that need to be met outside the traditional framework.
An incremental approach to change may seem like the right call, but some students have immediate needs that need to be met outside the traditional framework.

A perfect storm of trends could be pushing higher education forward, but, for some, the same questions around public support that have been asked from the beginning remain unanswered.

Getting through to a broader range of students—and supports—will be what makes a difference.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What trends do you feel will most significantly impact higher education over the next five years?

MJ Bishop (MJB): It feels like a perfect storm of environmental impacts, market trends and internal pressures at play right now for higher education. First are the demographic shifts, enrollment drops during the COVID-19 pandemic and, of course, general attitudes toward higher education, which have not been as positive as they were in the past. All this points to fewer students in the pipeline.  Second, we’re seeing workforce disruption at a level we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries—and that’s been changing the nature of the education market as well. Both students and employers are expecting different things from postsecondary education than they were even just a few years ago. On top of it all, the third trend is that we’re continually being asked to do more with less. Budgets continue to be cut, particularly in public higher education, while we try to hang onto the students we do have by dramatically improving quality, personalization, inclusion, articulation, transfer, and so forth. All these things combine into a perfect storm of factors that are forcing higher education to make some very significant changes.

Evo: How can we as an industry move forward with more advanced concepts around equity, inclusion, expanding accessibility and serving new audiences when we’re still dealing with these foundational questions around whether public support for education in general is a good thing?

MJB: We need to do a better job of demonstrating our worth, our relevance, to a broader population of potential students. Some very legitimate questions about whether we’re educating students for the right things have been raised. Are we clearly articulating the knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions our graduates have when they leave our institutions? Are we creating the opportunity for all student populations to access higher education in the ways we should? For my money, I think we should get better at understanding our students’ goals while taking a hard look at the ways in which we modularize our curricula … begin thinking about the curriculum as a portfolio of content that we can make more customizable, more personalized for learners to meet their needs and allow them to advance in their careers. We need to understand more about what their goals are and the ways in which we can accommodate what they’re trying to achieve.

Evo: How can postsecondary institutions better communicate those values while reinforcing the capacity for students to succeed as they leave the institution and enter the workforce?

MJB: I struggle with this. I graduated from a liberal arts institution. I value the liberal arts. And I think there’s a great deal to be said about the continued need for that right-out-of-high-school opportunity for a young adult to explore lots of different topics in meaningful ways and have the coming-of-age experience we traditionally have thought of as the higher education experience. That’s still important, and I’m not sure how we build that back into a skills-based approach to the curriculum design and personalized learning experiences I just described—or how that factors into the ways in which we offer learning experiences in the future. Increasingly, our role as higher educators is going to be about helping our students connect those dots through advisement and mentoring—creating that curricular coherence they’ll need to tell their stories.

I love that termfrom AAC&U: curricular coherence. It suggests that, through the intentional design of our curricular portfolio, we can provide the support students need to reflect and think about how they’re growing as individuals as they’re going through these learning experiences—and help them understand how all this is relevant to their career and life goals. I’m not sure we’re doing such a good job of that now, and it’s going to become even more important for the future of higher education.

Evo: What role do you see Continuing and workforce education divisions playing in realizing this vision for a more accessible and flexible postsecondary ecosystem?

MJB: When you think about who our customers have been in the past, we’ve largely relied on the individual student to come to us either for the traditional residential experience or whatever else it may be. All our marketing materials, publications—the way we advertise who we are and what we do—our admissions and orientation processes are all aimed at the individual. Increasingly, we’re going to need to also consider a customer base of corporate partnerships, whether they’re companies, nonprofits or government agencies—that will be coming to us to purchase in bulk. They’ll be looking to upskill or reskill employees, and they’re going to be looking for some customized version of what we do. The workforce and Continuing Education divisions at our institutions will to need to help us figure out how we do that and accommodate those kinds of customers.

Evo: How is the transition to thinking about learners as customers shifting postsecondary institutions’ focus toward being more responsive to market needs and forces?

MJB: Prior to my current role at University of Maryland Global Campus, I was Director of the University System of Maryland’s Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation. Back in 2013, when we launched the center, we struggled with what to call it. We decided not to use the term student success as part of the center’s name because that was something student affairs did, not academic affairs. We’ve come a long way in our thinking since then. We now understand that student success is everyone’s business on our campuses.

Fast forward just ten short years, and thankfully the focus has clearly shifted to being more learner-centered and geared toward accommodating learners’ educational goals and delivering learning experiences using the formats and vehicles they’re expecting. It’s more of an Amazon approach to the transaction: search for what you need, get recommendations on the best product, pay with a credit card and start your class right then. These are things we weren’t even dreaming of back in 2013. So, we’re very quickly moving in this direction. Clearly, the confluence of some of the pressures I was mentioning earlier, while coming to terms with how many populations of learners can’t easily access a higher education, has driven this conversation forward. I don’t think it’s going to be that much longer before everyone is thinking about learners as customers and the learning opportunities we deliver as products.

Evo: How can institutional leaders adapt or work to ensure their teams, their institutions and the divisions within them are prepared to start this shift toward flexible, modular, student-centric approaches to learning and learning support?

MJB: We have a lot of hard work to do at the infrastructure level to make this pivot. That’s not going to be much fun, unfortunately. Wearing my instructional design hat, it boils down to thinking differently about our curriculum design, as I mentioned before. To get to the place where we can deliver learning opportunities in a more modularized fashion, we’re going to first need to understand exactly where we’re addressing and assessing specific skills—and I’m not just talking about hard skills. I’m also talking about higher-order skills like critical thinking, problem solving. The kinds of things we claim our graduates leave our campuses with yet never really explicit in our teaching or assessments.

Once we have that skills map or “curriculum map,” we’ll better understand what the puzzle looks like on our side and better accommodate things like prior learning assessment and credit transfer, just as prospective students bring us the learning puzzle pieces they’ve accumulated along the way and seek ways to complete their own puzzles.  Having these curriculum maps will also help create the kinds of comprehensive learner records and alternative credentials that will both help learners connect the dots and do a better job than the transcript currently does of signaling to employers what our graduates know and are able to do.

So, a lot of hard work needs to be done initially, but from that can emerge many things that will allow us to create that learner-centered, personalized approach to helping our students find a path through opportunities that get them where they want to go.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how you see the postsecondary landscape shifting and how you expect to see colleges and universities adapt to keep pace with those shifts, especially when it comes to demographics?

MJB: As higher education makes this transition, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the traditional higher education market is still the biggest slice of the higher education pie, when you look across the U.S. Education Market. It’s not growing very fast. In fact, that growth is decelerating, but it is still our bread and butter for at least a while longer. But the two fastest growing areas are corporate learning and the boot camps/alternative credentialling space, which is largely dominated by OPMs.

Given that I’m an advocate for taking an incremental approach to the changes needed, how do we make sure we’re meeting immediate needs to reach more populations and retain more students in our more traditional higher education environments, while ensuring we can meet future demand? It’s going to need to be both/and for higher education institutions for a while as we make this pivot. If we keep one foot grounded on the traditional side and improve it, we can begin really exploring some of the new opportunities that lie ahead.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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