What Higher Education Will Look Like In 2020

Is the era of the ivy-walled college coming to an end? How much will technology reshape what we think of as the college experience? See what the experts had to say.

Higher education is rapidly changing—you don’t have to even be paying much attention to see that. Universities have started streaming lectures en masse, schools like Harvard and MIT are teaming up to create content tailored for the web, startups like UniversityNow are creating reasonably priced online universities, and startups like Udacity offer online-only classes from renowned professors. None of this existed 10 years ago, and the field isn’t done changing yet. A new report from Pew Internet looks at what higher education will look like in 2020, based on survey responses from over 1,000 "Internet experts, researchers, observers and users."

Below, highlights from the survey, including notable responses from those who were polled.

  • Just 39% of respondents believe there will be modest changes by 2020, represented by the following scenario outlined by Pew: "In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now."
  • Far more respondents—60%—believe there will be more substantial change. Pew outlines this scenario: "By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to "hybrid" classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes."
  • Many of the people polled think that opportunity, efficiency, and student and parent demands will lead to new teaching methods. Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future theorized: "Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially. As high-speed networks become more widely accessible tele-education and hybrid instruction will become more widely employed."
  • At the same time, respondents believe that the increasingly inaccessible economic situation in higher education will bring on changes. Tapio Varis, professor emeritus at the University of Tampere, explained his thoughts: "Traditional face-to-face higher education will become a privilege of a few, and there will be demand for global standardization of some fields of education which also will lower the level in many cases."
  • Some respondents don’t take distance learning seriously, but others recognize that tools to make online education more accessible are rapidly emerging. One anonymous respondent believes that location-based higher education is a bubble that’s about to pop: "I believe we will see somewhat of a return to a Socratic model of single sage to self-selecting student group, but instead of the Acropolis, the site will be the Internet, and the students will be from everywhere."
  • While higher education is already changing, don’t expect it to look too different than the way it is today, say many respondents. Steve Jones, professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a leader of the Association of Internet Researchers, had this to say: "Simply put, few universities can afford to change from the way they are today. While a riposte is that they cannot afford not to change, inertia is powerful, and taking the long view is hard. By 2020 not much will have changed."

Of course, it’s just traditional universities that can’t afford to change. Newly emerging online universities and certification programs already are circumventing barriers like cost and location. It’s still hard to get a well-paying job without a college degree, and that probably won’t change by 2020. But there may be many more paths to that degree than there are today.

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  • Lewiscwm

    The technology we have available to day to assist with  and deliver teaching are just tools in much the came way a chalkboard and chalk was back in the mists of time. What is important is that the correct tools are used at the correct time in the most appropriate manner.
    With regard to traditional teaching I ask myself would we develop the 'traditional' method if we were designing education today.? I think not.

  • Irtrivedi

    University required to play two roles: To increase the body of knowledge and to transfer the knowledge to young generation. In my view the first role will need the present system of on campus learning and researching. It is time tested and intellectual property rights will sustain the present system.The technology will change the complete scenario of second role. All the countries are interested in increasing the reach of higher education for economic development.2020 will be a fight for research enrollment and less enrollment for graduation because technology will increase the reach.

  • Guest

    No offense, but it seems like frats are something that those pursuing distance education wouldn't entirely hate to see go by the wayside. That said, a frat house of business professionals in the Financial District would be pretty incredible. 

  • CitizenWhy

    Forgot to say it, but frats can buy in-city condos as their new "frat houses." Certain condo buildings could become the a new version of "fraternity row."

  • CitizenWhy

    Yes, there will be changes. But right now, for the traditional college student, college is really an institution for the transition from adolescence to early adulthood. That is, college is primarily a social experience. Will parents continue to pay for what often turns out to be "Camp College"? Sure, many will. Others won't.

    There will always be an attraction to campus clubs. But many of the disconnected students (no activities, skipping classes) will start to choose online alternatives.

    Nothing dies. The traditional "college experience" and the "prestige" of degrees from certain schools and the lure of campus activities will continued to be bought my many students and parents. But fewer.

    You are already seeing it, but you will see year long "apprenticeships" at many businesses. The businesses will charge tuition and get empowered to grant academic credit. These educational apprenticeships may even grant Associate's degrees with easy transition to traditional colleges. Of course many assignments will be online, many in teams, some alone, but the assignments will relate to actual projects at work, and they will be evaluated/graded by a work supervisor.

    The really burning question is, "Can fraternities find a way to take in members who are doing online degrees?" They could open frat houses in business districts. Their members could hold internships and apprenticeships and then go home at night to the bros and have wild weekend parties.

  • Willard Van De Bogart

    Everyone is a student in some sense. The rate of change seems to require a newer approach to assimilation. Socializing could be reArranged into learning cliques as a substitute to frats.
    Willard Van De Bogart
    Bangkok University