Published on 2012/10/02

The Time Is Now

Higher education administrators and leaders must look to Massive Open Online Courses and other accessibility-growing mechanisms to actively shape the future of the industry as a whole, before control of the future is taken from them.

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have been embraced by a growing number of higher learning institutions that seek to provide leadership to addressing the very real challenges of access to higher education. Beginning with an open course taught at the University of Manitoba in 2008, open courses are inspired by the connectivist model of instruction.

New models for educational delivery, such as MOOCs, show promise for solving the urgent problems of attainment and affordability that are well articulated by groups such as the Lumina Foundation. Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO of the Lumina Foundation, has described efforts underway in at least 35 states [1] within the U.S. to set challenging goals for higher education attainment. This may help move the U.S. towards the Lumina Foundation’s goal of 60 percent of U.S. adults obtaining a high-quality college degree, certificate, or other credential by 2025. As I have discussed previously, the environment in which higher education operates requires higher education to make this change now. Institutions of higher education must actively engage in the process or have their role changed by the perfect storm of market, political and technological forces surrounding them. The role of higher education institutions must move from simply a facility-based model, rooted in the old industrial model of education, to one that adds value to the student learning experience.

This can mean many things to many people, but there has to be a compelling reason for students to choose to affiliate with these higher education institutions. As higher education leaders work with their institutions to develop strategies to deal with the changing environment in which they operate, they must think critically about the role their institutions play and how they add value to the student learning experience.

Leaders in higher education institutions will need to work with their institutions and governing bodies in order to find solutions to the pressing questions surrounding the role of the university and the faculty in the process of student learning. Higher education institutions are complex, open systems that have multiple stakeholders both inside and outside their institutions. Care must be taken to adapt institutions to the changing external environment, as well as support a planned change towards a new model that will allow institutions to be successful in this new environment. Every institution has a unique culture and unique values, as well as motivating factors that must be considered, but there must be leadership willing to take on the task of working with the institution to develop a strategy to deal with the changing environment. This discussion requires a concerted effort to tackle the big picture questions; questions that higher education institutions must play a role in shaping, or risk having defined for them by others.

Change may be coming to what Ken Salomon has described as the triad of agencies that are deeply connected to higher education [2]: Accreditation agencies, the U.S. Department of Education, and the State Licensing Agencies. A major shift in policies or requirements from these three agencies may set in motion major shifts in how higher education—private and public—operates as a whole. Substantive changes in accreditation could have a ripple effect on where and how programs are offered, as well as determine the institutions that are authorized to offer programs.

The time is now for higher education leaders to actively shape the future of their institutions and higher education as a whole, before others define their role.

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[1] Merisotis, Hamie. “The Future of Public Higher Education: Why States Should Care.” Speech given at the NCSL’s Annual Legislative Institute on Higher Education, Denver, Colorado. August 17, 2012. Accessed October 1, 2012 from

[2] WCET Learn. “It’s Coming: The Next higher Education Act Reauthorization.” May 23, 2012. Accessed October 1, 2012 at

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Readers Comments

Shazia Ahmed 2012/10/02 at 11:28 am

One interesting shift within the triad of agencies mentioned here is the Department of Education’s increasing focus on reducing the number of students defaulting on higher education loans.

They just recently published student loan default rates, and are beginning to hold accountable schools that have particularly high default rates. The question of why students are defaulting on their loans two or more years after completion of their programs is a complex and multi-faceted one, linked to the big question of attainment and affordability that David points to.

This angle offers higher education institutions one window into how their approaches and structures work, how they could be improved, and what kind of changes need to be made going into the future to ensure the success of their students and their programs.

Ian Richardson 2012/10/02 at 3:59 pm

Exciting that the Department of Education is stepping up to the plate in this way to address the incredibly urgent issue of accessibility and affordability of higher education. And the issue, as both David and Shazia seem to understand, goes a lot deeper than simply reducing tuition fees or offering more online courses.

I hope that the decision-makers in this field have a similarly nuanced understanding of the situation, but at the very least it is great to see this discussion taking place amongst some of its stakeholders.

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