I recently gave a talk on the future of higher education for “Technology Learning Conference” at the University of Houston-Downtown.
Much of the material came from a project with a foundation exploring the future of higher education to provide context for developing a strategy for achieving its vision of significantly increasing the percentage of adults earning degrees.
We used the scenario archetype approach, which crafts scenarios using four archetypes or common patterns of change. (The system is the higher education system)
- Continuation: The system moves forward along its current trajectory. This is the “official future” and usually considered most likely.
- Collapse: The system falls apart under the weight of “negative” forces.
- New equilibrium: The system reaches a balance among competing forces that is significantly different from the current balance.
- Transformation: The system is discarded in favor of a new one with a new set of rules.
Continuation is possible, that is, between now and 2020 that present trends continue and there are no major surprises in higher education. Not sure I’d bet on that. In any case, that future has been researched to death. Dozens and dozen of reports on the future of higher education pretty much assume a continuation model. So, that one’s covered. Collapse is also possible. We’ll define collapse as graduation rates plummet and higher education is for the elite, like the old days. Yes, possible, but not so interesting to study. Best to look at it in terms of what to avoid.
Change from “Within” or “Without”?
So that leaves us with two interesting archetypes to explore: new equilibrium and transformation. New equilibrium is a scenario in which the higher education system is “challenged” and is able to successfully adapt. Transformation is one in which developments outside the system effectively transform higher education. It reminded me of the old Beatles song called “within you without you.” As someone working to change higher education, should you assume that the system can save itself and adapt to the challenges ahead? In this scenario, system is “shocked” and responds to save itself, most likely via a strong regulatory intervention that gets better results through focus, standardization, and mandates. Technology is important, but plays more of a supporting role than a lead. If you believe this scenario, you work within the system.
Or do you believe that the system is too far gone and will be unable to meet the challenges ahead? In this scenario, the system is transformed by pressure from the outside as new competitors using advanced technology and instructional approaches provide students, business, and society provide a model for traditional institutions to adapt to. Technology is a key driver and leader of the innovation that transforms the system. If you believe this scenario, you work with the players on the fringe that innovating and likely to lead the transformation of the systems.
Or, of course, pursuing a hybrid approach of working both within and without. It is unusual in my experience for there to be such a clear choice ahead. These two archetypes really capture the essence of the strategic choices ahead for those concerned about the future of higher education. You are at the fork in the road – take it! Andy Hines