January is behind us, but there are still 11 months left in 2016. There are several of the higher ed trends we will see making big waves this year:

1. Rapid Growth of CBE, with Further Definition of Programs

The big trend that continues to wash over higher education this year is the growth of competency-based education programs (CBE). According to the Lumina Foundation, there were about 50 institutions that were working on their programs a year ago. Now, it’s closer to 600. This is an enormously rapid rise in interest in CBE.

This is in stark contrast with what happened to online learning in the 90s: when it learning became widely available, the not-for-profit sector of higher ed looked down their noses at it, and as a result, the for-profit industry rushed in to own online learning for a long time—and came to serve 12% of all college students by doing so. What’s happening with CBE is quite different: you have mostly not-for-profits taking ownership, it’s being adopted very, very quickly, and by a variety of institutions from community colleges to 4-year private schools.

There are several reasons for this:

  • A lot of higher ed is in near crisis regarding their business models. They’re looking for new ways to serve students to reach new markets in new ways that could expand their footprint and bring in new revenues.
  • There is so much concern about college prices right now that people are looking at CBE programs as lower-cost models—which most of them are. This is a response to the demand for more affordable education.
  • We’ve seen a growing crisis of confidence from the labor market in higher ed’s product. Thirty five years ago, a college degree was a signal to the labor market that you knew things—you could write well, you could present, use critical thinking skills, etc. Today, most players do not believe that of our graduates. There was a survey that reported 90% of provosts believed their graduates are ready for the workforce upon graduation. Only 10% of employers and only about 14% of students agreed. That’s a big, yawning gap. A lot of institutions are looking at well-designed CBE as a way of ensuring quality of education.

My fear with this rapid rise of CBE is that we would not be well-served if schools are not doing it well. Despite achieving wider and wider acceptance, online education is plagued by a reputation of poor quality. We don’t want CBE to ever get the reputation of ever being poor quality.

Institutions that do CBE well will take the time to build expertise around two critical questions:

  • What are the competencies? In other words, what claims are you making for your students’ learning? That seems like a simple question, but there are a lot of things you need to ask. What are the competencies? How do we know they are the right competencies? Do you have well defined rubrics to inform them?  
  • How do you know? It’s one thing to say, these are things our students are learning. But do you have good, rigorous, valid, reliable assessments to makes sure students have mastered any given competency? If the state of assessment is not very good in higher education, the state of performance-based assessment is usually worse.

We also do not see the kinds of technology systems that serve these new models of education. We’re struggling to get the right kind of financial aid systems that can handle unconventional terms. Registrar systems are not build for competencies; they’re built for credit hours and courses. And our learning platforms were also built around courses. CBE is built on the notion of highly individualized learning pathways—we need platforms that allow flexibility, individual movement and pace and that give us good data and analytics into student performance. There are companies working really hard at providing this, like Motivis, and we’ll see big things this year. It will, however, be a multi-year effort to get where we need to be.

2. Growth and Organization of Micro-Credentialing

There has been a proliferation of certificates and certifications of various kinds; there’s almost a bewildering array of these micro-credentials available to students. Educators have been driven to make them available, meaningful and workplace-relevant. We will see continued interest in micro-credentials in 2016, and part of the focus will be to bring some sort of rational order to this wild landscape. Lumina and others have various credentialing framework projects underway to this end.

There are several drivers of the trend toward micro-credentials:

  • There is a long-time recognition that learners—particularly adult learners—often need education that isn’t the full degree program. It’s a form of just-in-time learning that is commensurate with our recognition that we now live in a world where people will change their jobs frequently and the pace of change is very quick. Say I work in IT, and I’m an expert at X, Y and Z. All of a sudden a new technology emerges, and I need to learn about it, but I don’t need 12 courses for a masters degree; I need a three-course certificate at the undergraduate level in this new technology so that I can stay current and progress in my career.
  • Schools see micro-credential programs as easy moneymakers. The institution doesn’t have to sell a prospective student on a full-blown degree program and the respective cost. Instead, they sell them on a more affordable certificate or a credential. For many institutions, these programs have become good revenue streams.
  • We’re starting to adopt a broader sense of a continuum of learning. As we approach a time when we’re living into our tenth decade, why would we think we only should spend four years of our lives on intense learning? Learning is something that should happen periodically throughout life, and you can’t just keep plugging two- and four-year degrees to meet these lifelong learning needs.

3. Adaptive Learning and Intelligent Tutoring

While not a single-year trend, I think we will see some real breakthrough and important advances in adaptive learning and intelligent tutoring systems this year. I’m seeing development of interesting platforms, from Smart Sparrow and Knewton to an organization I just visited out in Seattle called Enlearn that’s doing impressive work around adaptive learning and consultive tutoring. This has profound implications. We still have a lot of work to do, but I believe that 10 years from now, it will be so pervasive and impactful that we will look back at this time as primitive.

There are a few drivers of this trend:

  • We all want students to be more successful, so we’re in a constant search for more effective pedagogy, more effective modes of content delivery, etc. Solutions like Knewton and Cogni are teaming up with textbook publishers and making claims like, When used in combination with our adaptive learning tool, students learning from ABC text will perform X% better. This is a powerful story and an enticing offering for institutions.
  • We’re recognizing that students come to us less prepared for college work. Adaptive learning can be focused on those basic core skills that students might have learned in high school previously, helping us to address what we used to call the remedial market.
  • With exploration of new educational models comes reimagining the role of faculty. Some institutions have come across the idea that adaptive learning can relieve faculty of the low-level kinds of instruction and deploy them on more meaningful work—in some models, adaptive learning is already picking up some of the traditional work of the faculty member. That can feel threatening to some, but the answer is No, no, no! You want to spend your time on the more meaningful work, not on tutoring someone on basic algebra.

4. Quick and Impactful Regulatory Change

A lot of people see the kinds of rapid change in education, driven by technology, as making higher education similar to what happened in the music industry or journalism, which were both completely transformed by online technology—essentially had their business models blown up. I would argue that we are not going off a precipice any time soon. We’re actually more like healthcare, another industry that’s been changed greatly by technology, but that change has come more incrementally. Like healthcare, we are highly regulated, and we’re highly regulated because there’s a third party payor in many instances: the Federal government. Our government provides about $153 billion in financial aid every year, so the Feds, rightly, need to be good stewards of that money. There are therefore sophisticated, complicated, confusing regulations about how that aid money can be used and what you need to do as an institution to be allowed to get access to these funds.

But all of these rules were written for a different era that assumed full-time students on a physical campus some place with credit hours and traditional courses. A lot of higher ed does not work like that anymore. The regulations were not designed to work with new adaptive technology, sophisticated data and analytics or coaching and advising models in education. When SNHU first launched our CBE program, College for America, it was very difficult to figure out how Title IV funds could come to us. The regulatory framework that we live under is very constraining.

The good news is that there is a lot of energy and a lot of important conversations happening in Washington around changing the regulatory framework to support innovation. There are already experimental sites around the country that have waivers to work around restrictive Title IV regulations to explore new educational models. These experimental sites will ultimately inform new policy with data and experience rather than speculation. We’re already seeing a number of bills being circulated on Capitol Hill that would address the issues of Title IV and CBE and various rules that govern institutions—with bipartisan support. If they pass, they will have an impact. Even if they don’t pass, the ideas will still start to inform the reauthorization of the higher education act—the big enchilada where all these rules are laid out.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see progress in the next reauthorization—and this is underway now. It’s not a five-year plan; many stakeholders would love to make it happen this year or next.

5. Mobile Proliferation, Improved Access for Marginalized Populations

Before the Arab Spring, IBM was working with the Egyptian Ministry of Education to put a small tax on the sale of every cell phone. That money was going to build an online educational delivery system designed for cell phones and mobile devices. As a poor country with a burgeoning population, Egypt knew it could never build enough brick and mortar campuses to deliver education to people, but even poor street vendors have some sort of mobile device. You may see a man pushing a cart overladen with sacks of grain, doing tough, physical labor, and all of a sudden you hear a phone ring and he reaches inside his tunic and pulls out a phone. But he certainly does not have a desk and desktop computer at home.

If you are attempting to reach and provide access for more marginalized populations, you’ll need to think mobile.

There is a lot of concern at the start of 2016 about how to get more education in the hands of refugees. We have more refugees in the world right now than any time since World War II—and it’s dangerous not to extend education to all of these young refugees. Malala Yousafzai has been speaking out recently, warning of the education gap for Syrian refugees, in particular, suggesting that without school, they risk becoming a “lost generation.” Mobile has great potential to help fill this gap. We are piloting a program for a refugee camp in Rwanda right now with College for America using the Motivis platform and are excited for the opportunity to expand if successful.

Of course there is also growing concern about increasing wealth and equity in the U.S., especially among poor and often non-white, often urban populations. How do we reach these populations? How are they going to connect to the world? These are really basic connectivity questions, and they connect through their handheld devices.

If you’re not moving your platforms toward mobile, you’re falling behind. This is not only about the ubiquity of mobile devices; you also have to look at where people turn for their computing needs. More often than not, it’s a handheld device.

Looking Forward in Higher Ed

It’s not all roses in higher education right now. It’s going to continue to be challenging from a business model perspective for many institutions. While states are doing marginally better, economically, there has been only modest restoration of funding for education—certainly not meeting current funding needs. There are a lot of schools that are struggling, and I don’t think that’s going to immediately get much easier for them.

That said, it is so exciting to be in this industry today. The energy around innovation, new models and technological developments is huge. The need for an educated workforce with post-secondary credentials—everything from micro-credentials up through degrees—is not abating. We know that we need a more educated workforce. The need is there, and we’re discovering all kinds of new and interesting ways to meet that need. When we figure that out, we will provide new revenue streams and support for institutions that might be struggling.

All in all, I am very optimistic and excited about what is possible in education—in 2016 and over the next few years.

3 thoughts on “5 Big Higher Ed Trends in 2016”

  1. Paul,

    Excellent article. You’ve captured well the trends that I think will have the most significant impact in the years ahead.

  2. This is a thought provoking article from a uk perspective, but I worry about this aspect “…. Adaptive learning is already picking up some of the traditional work of the faculty member. That can feel threatening to some, but the answer is No, no, no! You want to spend your time on the more meaningful work, not on tutoring someone on basic algebra.”
    Universities DID think online learning would cut staffing costs and invested heavily in the platforms with big promises. They then squeezed more administration into teaching facultys’ time. With adaptive learning it seems likely to me that the more meaningful work from our point of view is scholarship, and from the organisations’ point of view, may be more administration so they can cut the number of junior administrators. Faculty are not given more time, nor paid more, as the solutions providers have assured the more naive purchasing managers that the platform will free up faculty time: in the case of elearning it did not do so, but the myth was never questioned

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