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Higher Education Must Keep Pace with Available Opportunities

Higher Education Must Keep Pace with Available Opportunities
As a new crop of students enrolls in higher education, American institutions will have to adapt their education delivery and credentialing systems to respond to student-consumer demands.

Thirty years ago, a friend caught me up on his visit to a remote part of India, where he had stayed with a family. Upon returning, he asked if he could bring their eldest son to the United States for an education. On the way, they stopped in New Delhi. Sitting in a restaurant looking at their menus, my friend observed that the boy did not know what to do. He had never experienced having a choice of what to eat.

Fast forward to today’s exponential upward trend in individual choice and possibility. More and more of us are served up a lush banquet of choice, from the small (What cuisine will I have for lunch? Which of these 25 detergents is best?) to the large (What part of the world do I want to see? Where will I live? What education do I need, how do I want to receive it, when and where?)

The rise of democracies, an increasingly educated global population with access to global markets, the relentless transformational power of technological innovation and the ubiquitous access to information — together, they mean the rise of the free, informed and demanding consumer.

A great challenge to education

Tomorrow’s student-consumer will demand a variety of educational choices and options. We’ll still have traditional degree programs, but there is now consumer demand for a new generation of nontraditional credentials and badges, accompanied by the need to learn in diverse ways. With educational costs reaching record levels, students will be driven to get trained for the workplace more quickly and more cheaply. How will higher education respond?

What will need to happen in order for badges and other nontraditional certifications of learning to enter the mainstream within the next decade, co-exist with traditional degree programs and become the force that both student-consumers and the workforce want and need? Critical elements will have to be established quickly:

  1. Recognized standards of achievement. What demonstrated learning is required to earn a badge in Ruby on Rails programming? Does the learning unit cover the right learning components? How will traditional institutions award credit for non-traditional learning?
  2. Verification of achievement. How do we know that the student mastered Ruby on Rails sufficiently to have the right skills for the job? Is learning in one culture equivalent to learning in another?
  3. Trust between entities. Can one entity trust the verification of achievement of another? Is a badge fake or real? How is trust established?
  4. A mechanism for delivering non-traditional credentials. Institutions don’t even exercise good ways of delivering traditional credentials today! By and large, the printed transcript still dominates the landscape when the electronic means of digitally-secure credential transmission have been established. How will ubiquitous technology rapidly step up to the demand? And, even more than that, how quickly can institutions adapt?
  5. Global exchange. Students are learning in one country, working for a time in another and getting more education in a third. How will a variety of traditional and non-traditional credentials be exchanged globally?

To address these critical elements, educational institutions will have to make a major shift. This will not come easily, but the demand will dictate that it must come quickly.

Threat and Opportunity

The greatest threat facing educational institutions does not seem to be the emergent forms of learning, the new forms credentials are taking, the pace of the technological change, or even the rapidly rising expectations of student-consumers.

As I see it, the greatest threat is to educational institutions is themselves. Our biologists teach us that the environment usually has the last word on the nature of the change required in the species that live within it. The environment an educational institution ‘lives in’ today is transforming at a pace never before experienced. Yet when I speak with educators and administrators, it is rare to find a person with a driving hunger to move quickly and adapt. So the most critical element of all is:

Passion and urgency.

To adapt will require a major effort.

Once upon a time, we built an educational system without parallel. Now, our system feels like it is slipping out of touch. This is the opportunity — to re-energize, make broader connections, work rapidly together in new ways and rapidly deploy technologies that meet the challenges of the future our students will build.