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In the year 2034:

  • YouTube is a student’s learning gateway
  • Textbooks have died
  • LinkedIn is an online testing and authentication centre
  • Knowbots  and Siri act as 24/7 teaching assistants and academic coaches
  • Students are using realistic 3-D holographs of lectures on any subject

And more...

Starting in 1990, post-secondary education entered a period of rapid change.  As communication technologies improved, the concept of distance education using audioconferencing, and later, videoconferencing, started changing the way post-secondary was delivered. No longer did students have to leave their home community to get a college diploma or university degree – some distance learners never actually set foot on a college or university campus.

The Internet, coupled with the expansion of broadband connections, escalated the change in post-secondary education by ushering in web conferencing, fully online learning, blended learning and the concept of a massive open online course (MOOC).  More than ever, many students never set foot on a campus, pursued their credentials from institutions around the world, and campus-based students used online learning as way to provide greater flexibility.

Think we have seen a lot of change since 1990? Imagine it’s 2034 – post-secondary education hasn’t seen anything yet.

The 21st Century

At the turn of the 21st century, parents and their adolescent kids still talked about “going to college or university.” Central to this conversation, of course, was the idea that colleges and universities – like schools – were places people traveled to daily or weekly for years to earn their academic and professional qualifications. 

While it doesn’t seem that long ago, it is easy to forget that in 2000, the Internet’s domain name system was only 15 years old and the first web page had been published less than 10 years earlier! The first news story to break on the Internet appeared in 1998 – the same year Google went live – and video gaming was quaint. Even when Apple launched its digital assistant Siri in 2011, or when Google made the computer and phone just another fashion accessory with Google Glass in 2018, few understood how post-secondary education’s thousand-year-old roots would be shaken. 

While the digital revolution quickly transformed university research in science and engineering, post-secondary education was slower to change. Many academics viewed the possibilities posed by the onrush of technologies with skepticism. 

In spite of widespread skepticism, pioneers such as the University of British Columbia’s Murray Goldberg developed digital tools and platforms like the course management system to facilitate learning, enhance student and faculty convenience, and automate the administrivia that always consumed too big a share of everyone’s post-secondary educational experience. 

Through the First 15 years of the 21st Century Students Leaped Online

Through the first 15 years of the new century, post-secondary students leaped online. One in 3 college or university students of that time reported taking at least one of their courses online. By 2015, nearly all post-secondary instruction blended online and classroom activities, and the research was now clear that learning outcomes gained via the classroom or online were statistically equivalent. 

The debate over whether or not to use technology matured to asking about when to use technology, for whom to use technology, which technology to use, and how to incorporate technologies effectively.

And governments throughout the developed world aided and abetted technology’s adoption in education in the hope that new devices, services, and digital resources would fuel student success, lower institutional costs, and stimulate the flow of critical skills into provincial and national work forces.

Technologies Becoming Disruptive

Events didn’t stop with enhanced efficiency, convenience and learning outcomes. Like other revolutions, the digital revolution became disruptive as young people began to use new technologies to organize, deliver, and finance human activities in wholly new ways. 

By 2010, the shift from print-on-paper to digital soon uprooted long-established book and magazine publishers, bookstores, broadcasters, and others. Who, after all, could have predicted that by 2010, Apple would be the largest retailer of recorded music on earth? Digital content was the big story of the 2010s, as printed textbooks disappeared and sales from Apple App Store passed $20 billion before 2020.

In 2008, George Siemens, then at the University of Manitoba, and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, delivered a course online to more than 500 students. The massive open online course (MOOC) was born! Only 3 years later, Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun would offer his online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course to all comers - 160,000 people enrolled and MOOCs became headline news.

MOOCs featured a dependence on a ubiquitous and global Internet, open admissions, social networking techniques to promote peer-to-peer “crowd-sourcing” and a radically different (and unproven) business model that makes it possible to deliver a service for free. While they began inside the academy, MOOCs operated largely outside of post-secondary education’s mainstream using private equity for fuel and the reputation and talents of prestigious educational institutions for branding. In 2012, the New York Times proclaimed “free MOOCs open the door to the 'Ivy League’ for the Masses.”

By 2015, student demand for choice sets off seismic tremor

Despite real start-up issues surrounding quality and completion rates, millions enrolled in MOOCs. This overwhelming interest said as much about student demand as it did about the MOOCs themselves. Early MOOC completers were typically non-degree-seeking adults with existing post-secondary education qualifications. 

Demand did not end there. By 2015, it became clear that digital natives increasingly wanted a post-secondary education on their own terms. Their demand for choice – of teachers, of sponsoring institutions, of mode of delivery, of credit recognition, and of price – set off a seismic tremor that location-bound colleges and universities could not ignore. Stanford President Hennessy called it “an education tsunami.”

And MOOCs evolved. As the MOOC providers mined and assessed data from millions of students, they learned how to balance the benefits of enrollment diversity and open admissions with standards, selectivity, rigor, teaching assistants, and breakthroughs in harnessing online peer leadership networks (crowd teaching).

The 2014-2034 period featured so many breathtaking changes

Between 2014 and 2034, the pace of change in technology and student preferences quickened. The disruptive impacts of those changes intensified. It was a time of post-secondary education’s balkanization, re-configuration, and renaissance. Technology marched on. This period featured so many breathtaking changes.

  • Print textbooks died

Print textbooks died when everyone carried a foldable, parchment-like device that could render holographic 3-D still and moving images. History students could read the Gettysburg address, see it delivered by a holographic Lincoln, or watch clips from documentaries and commercial films on the subject. Physics students could replay the collision and tag the Higgs Boson.

Of course students could also project realistic 3-D holographs of lectures on nearly any subject.

  • YouTube became many students’ learning gateway

YouTube became many students’ learning gateway. Even place-dependent disciplines like archeology, semi-conductor design and fabrication or studio arts were challenged, as 3-D printers became ubiquitous and students could fabricate the physical objects of study in their homes or in lower cost studios and laboratories within easy reach of home. 

  • Technological Coaches and Smart Text Match Themselves to Individual Student Needs

Enterprising institutions contracted with Apple, Google, and others to licence academic content for the technology giants to incorporate into specialized versions of Siri. With 3-D rendering and social profiling techniques, Siri became Dr. Siri, its owner’s 24 x 7 personal academic coach and tutor, adopting persona and teaching styles mapped to the student’s individual preferences, gifts, and challenges. With augmented reality, these “knowbots” created meaningful simulations that came really close to “real life experience”. The Star Trek Holodeck was within sight.

And of course, just-plain-text got very smart. By 2025, all the new digital books and articles featured integrated annotations, explanatory supplements, quizzes, datasets, holographic displays and, of course, communications. Based on a student’s quiz and test performances, learning materials routinely “morphed” themselves to meet their user’s level of mastery.

Students reveled in the expanded educational opportunities that followed in the wake of these new technologies. While there were missteps and bugs in the new systems, tools, and approaches, nothing could cool the demand for technology-based post-secondary educational offerings. 

The Most Unexpected Consequence of this Digital Abundance was the Transformation of Teaching

The most unexpected consequence of this digital abundance was the transformation of teaching. Smart texts, knowbots, and other tools liberated faculty and instructors from the necessary, but less fulfilling, drilling of facts. 

By 2025, filters, digital finding aids, tutors, coaches, models, simulations and other learning tools were easily within reach. By 2025, college and university professors worked with individual students and small groups to help them understand the how people in their academic discipline used and applied knowledge. These educators used methods rich in frameworks and models. 

Students engaged with professors and each other to learn how a biologist, for example, saw the world and how that differed from how mathematicians or historians saw the world. Lectures were rare and practiced by few. But for those with rare gifts of oratory, lectures were organized as town hall events – excuses for the institutions to show off their shining stars. 

The renaissance, it seems, was in teaching as well as learning.

The Emergence of Third-Party Certification of Student Capability

Another innovation to disrupt post-secondary education in this period was the emergence of third-party certification of student capability.

Led by governments and industry groups, academic learned societies and professional societies, bar associations, and others developed and endorsed standards of knowledge that could now be demonstrated through technological assessment of student learning.

While traditional post-secondary institutions had most of the seats at the table, and a running head start on authentic and branded assessment, the emergence of agreement on how to test for “learning outcomes” made it possible for both giant third-party “super certifiers” and a cottage industry of free agent educators to emerge.

LinkedIn is now the official repository of approved standards and assessments, an online testing and authentication centre, and a global e-portfolio

LinkedIn, which had long linked individuals wanting jobs to those having jobs, now became the official repository of approved standards and assessments, an online testing and authentication centre, and a global e-portfolio depository. 

It became “the place” where its members stored, protected, and provided access to their digital certificates, diplomas, credentials, and other evidence of academic or professional capabilities.  LinkedIn, of course, “linked” this information – under member control – with employers across the globe. 

Freedom to Choose – A place, a time, a price, a mode of learning – Became Post-secondary Education’s New Edifice

Through new technology, changing student populations and preferences, and the emergence of broadly-endorsed means of validating and certifying student achievement, disruption became transformation. These forces opened access to post-secondary education throughout the world, liberating learning from its geographic sources. They made learning truly mobile.

In the process, these forces unleashed new forms of competition on the world’s traditional providers of post-secondary education. The winners in this competition were those who could best use big data, predictive models, and their brands to blend their offerings and the preferences of their students into comprehensible, compelling, and sustainable “experiences.” Freedom to choose – a place, a time, a price, a mode of learning – became post-secondary education’s new edifice.

The winners also became ever better talent pumps for their nations’ work forces. Ivy League-calibre institutions now routinely subsidized MOOCs in a thinly-veiled global search for academic talent. Focusing on the student experience led some institutions to re-examine the entire role of the campus. 

Many alliances were formed among schools, colleges, universities, governments, corporations and others to create regional, national, and international learning experiences for students. They understood that competitive success – in the digital age – meant either becoming big and globally connected, or becoming tightly focused and agile, so as to dominate educational niches. 

Importantly, many traditional providers of post-secondary learning once again demonstrated why they had prospered for a millennium. They leveraged beautiful campuses, research facilities, their close ties with, and service, to their communities, and their reputations, and expanded their footprints across the globe. For many students, the new tools and capabilities were the icing on the cake. The campus remained the cake. 

The institutions that quickly embraced the changes and became enablers of student choice were the big winners in 2034. Research universities retained their cachet by hewing close to their research missions, while others invested in facilities and pedagogies that accentuated their person-to-person appeal to students looking for the time honoured post-secondary experience.

Value to students. Enablers of choice. These were the watchwords of the educational revolution of the last decades. 

In a world without borders, students demanded, deserved, and in the end, ushered in an educational system without borders. Freedom to choose – a place, a time, a price, a mode of learning – became post-secondary education’s new edifice.

So many choose what we have already built and so many have become able to choose. A challenge for our adaptable institutions. A renaissance for our students.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of these predictions for post-secondary education 20 years from now? How would you respond to these 3 questions?

1.    Is this a vision for post-secondary you are comfortable with?

2.    If not, what would you like to see instead?

3.    If this vision was realized, what would be the implications for you as a faculty member?