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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