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2014: What’s Ahead for Higher Ed

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

At the end of 2012, The New York Times declared it “the year of the MOOC,” as the acronym for massive open online courses became a household term and free online courses for the masses prompted a mix of condemnation, curiosity and fear in higher-education circles.

Then a few weeks ago, as 2013 came to a close, another proclamation about MOOCs arrived in the Times, with this front-page headline: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought.”

From silver-bullet solution one year to campus resistance another, MOOCs are an example of the sudden twists and turns a year can make when changing a risk-averse, regulated industry such as higher ed.

So what trends in higher ed will make headlines in 2014? Here are five:

Blending Learning Experiences. We tend to think of “college” as one physical place that we attend one time in our life, usually around age 18. I call this the Hollywood version of college: It largely exists only in the movies.  Only 2 in 10 undergraduates attend a residential, four-year college full-time—and not all of them graduate on time.

We’re living longer—one-third of children born today expected to see their 100th birthday—so colleges are increasingly seen as platforms for learning over a lifetime, rather than boxes put around as for four years. In 2014, we’ll see more blending of the experiences between high school, college, and the workplace through programs such as Enstitute, Global Citizen Year and Venture for America.

Hybrid Courses. While online education won’t make campuses extinct in the near future, it will play a growing role at traditional schools by giving students more options to take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree, or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course.

Take the University of Central Florida, where each year 60 percent of students take an online or hybrid course, or nearby Rollins College, which is part of a group of 16 colleges in several states where a professor on one campus teaches a course shared through video conferencing with the others.

A  study of hybrid courses at six public universities found that students learned just as much in the hybrid format as they would have in the traditional course. What’s more, the study found that the hybrid students took about a quarter less time to learn just as effectively.

Adaptive Learning. No two students learn the same information at the same pace. Yet in a classroom, professors focus their lessons at the average student. That means some students fall quickly behind, while others are totally bored.

Adaptive learning technology watches a student’s every move—and then adjusts on the fly what it delivers next. The idea of personalizing the educational experience for each student right down to the next question on a test is so potentially powerful because it holds the promise of keeping students focused on concepts that give them the most difficulty, while breezing through the problems that they find easy.

Flexible Calendar. The typical college classroom is used only 40 percent of the time. Classrooms largely sit empty on weekends and summers, and increasingly on Fridays as more classes are packed into the other four weekdays.

Personalizing and unbundling the college experience allows us to rethink long-held assumptions about higher education: Why does college last four years? Why wait until students graduate high school to start college? Why are semesters 15 weeks long?

Adaptive learning technologies adjust to the speed at which an individual student learns, enabling fast learners to move on to the next course and slow learners to take the extra time they might need. A semester restricts both groups right now. Personalization dismantles the academic calendar; students can start a course whenever they want and complete it at their own speed.

Degrees Based on What We Know. More colleges are making the shift from measuring learning based on how much time students spend in a classroom to a system that is based on how much they actually know. The official term for this is “competency-based education,” and this past year, three universities—Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin and Southern New Hampshire—experimented with offering degrees in this way.

Here’s how it works: Students demonstrate mastery of a subject through a series of assessment tests or assignments, instead of following a prescribed set of courses. Faculty mentors work closely with students throughout a degree program to design a schedule and access the learning materials they need to demonstrate mastery and then another group of course evaluators grades those exams, research papers, or performance assessments.

Such degrees have the potential to tell employers about how much an applicant knows, not that they just survived the admissions game to get into college and showed up for classes over the course of four years.

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

Jeff Selingo is a best-selling author and award-winning columnist who helps parents and higher-education leaders imagine the college and university of the future: how families will pay, what campuses will look…