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Higher Education through the Looking Glass (Part 1)

Higher Education through the Looking Glass (Part 1)
Technology, economics and the redefinition of ‘the college experience’ are three forces that will create the most significant changes in higher education.

The following is the first of a two-part interview with David Donnelly, the director of continuing education and special programs at Sarah Lawrence College, on the future of higher education. Donnelly spoke on this topic at the 2013 UPCEA National Conference in Boston, MA. In this first installment, Donnelly shares his perspective on the three forces that will have the most significant impact on higher education space in the coming years.

1. What three changes are most commonly expected to be on the horizon for higher education?

The sheer number of changes we face in higher education distinguishes our present situation from previous periods of change. Narrowing the list down to three changes is a challenge. And they are not on the horizon; they are here.

Technology is an obvious force of change. Technological innovations continue to enhance and extend education. MOOCs (massive open online courses), for example, have made some courses more accessible and affordable. They are a recent example of how technology has separated college from the constraints of a physical space. And since information is now available almost anywhere, anytime, technology allows educators to focus primarily on cultivating knowledge, rather than merely relaying information. However, the promise of technology is continually overstated. And the impacts are not all entirely positive. As educators, we must be diligent but not belligerent. We must make sure selective application of technology improves the quality of education. And the time-tested, low tech, face-to-face education model will remain an important part of the delivery mix. Faculty members still have a central, important role to play and will remain relevant to the educational process. As will the classroom. Nonetheless, technology is becoming increasingly integral to education and will continue to play a larger role in its evolution.

There are many economic changes impacting higher education. Student debt is a growing concern, as is the affordability of education and the actual value of a college degree. Under fire, colleges are engaged in self-refection and self-preservation already resulting in changes and innovations and an increased focus on the cost of delivery. Some cuts are painful, as we grapple with the challenge of providing sustainable, quality education. As colleges assess expenses and priorities, for example, the net creation of new knowledge without a direct commercial application may suffer in the long run — and that has a cost.

What I would add as a third force of change is a little more abstract. Perhaps the biggest change is how we define what college is. College, as we have known it, is being redefined. This is more than semantics; this redefinition process is a major source of friction.

We have some longstanding entrenched perceptions about college. These perceptions are primarily shaped by those who attended as “traditional” students and by those who work on a traditional college campus. College today typically refers to a physical space where young men and women go away for a set period of time at a specific age. That many have not had this traditional college experience has been surprisingly irrelevant. This image of a college has deep roots in America. It emerged in colonial America, was broadly replicated, and it will exist in the future. But many new approaches to postsecondary education are emerging that are outside of our preconceived notion of what a college looks like. Our standard definition of college and all that it entails — the length of time required at one institution, the residential component, the curriculum, the monopoly on credentialing — is being challenged. Options for how, where and what we learn after high school are growing. The journey to postsecondary education and training will take young adults down many paths. People will define college in the future in a broader fashion. It will include today’s model, but will include new and emerging and different models.

Come back next week for the conclusion of this series, where Donnelly discusses the likelihood of these changes coming about and the dangers of speculating on higher education’s future.

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