Future of Higher Education: Four Models Moving Toward 2030

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Higher education has not experienced any dramatic change for decades, that is until COVID-19 hit. More than twenty years into the 21st century, we wonder what will drive the future of higher education into the next decade.

Education during the 19th century was characterized by an older form of pedagogy; it was emphasized by recitation and memorization with the main approach centered on lectures. Back then, there was a significant evolution in the faculty role. There was an increase in specialization. Academics became professionals and grouped by departments.

It was the time of the First Industrial Revolution which involved mass production. It brought the one-size-fits-all paradigm to academia, which suited the industrial era. It was assumed that all students should receive the same information at the same pace at the same time, pretty much like an automated factory.

There was a transmission model of instruction. The information or content was delivered by an expert on the subject to passive students. After certain blocks of time, the passive students were submitted to standardized tests. The sole role of grading was to rank students and then place them in labeled boxes.

Higher education was preparing students for their class position and their future roles, which were filling out forms. In the second half of the 20th century, middle managers at mid-tier institutions were prepared by taking multiple choice tests.

Online education to reach $350 billion by 2025

The current Information Age has brought a new approach to pedagogy. There is a more personalized, immersive, interactive, self-paced, adaptive, experiential, collaborative, and active way of learning. This all has been accelerated by the pandemic and the additional virtual environments in the blended model. Today, higher education is more inquiry-driven and learner-focused, part of what we call flipped classrooms where the lecturer becomes a facilitator.

According to the World Economic Forum, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed education forever. The overall market for online education is projected to reach over $350 billion by 2025.

Despite the current trends, there is a need to examine closely the latest developments in learning theory, didactics, and digital-education technology against the background of the increasingly digitized higher education.

The study commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), “(A) Higher Education Digital (AHEAD) ––International Horizon Scanning/Trend Analysis on Digital Higher Education” analyzed the current global trends and requirements in the areas of knowledge and competence in order to form the basis for a horizon scanning of higher education in 2030. The analysis is designed to develop future scenarios that would meet future higher education demands by taking advantage of social and digital innovations.

The higher education landscape in 2030

Taking into account technological developments in society not as a sole force but rather in context, the two-phase study looks into the future to reveal what the higher education landscape could look like in the 2030s. According to the first phase of the study, the change that higher education will experience by 2030 will be a result of developments in the following areas:

  • Knowledge and competence requirements from industry and social changes in an increasingly digitalized world
  • New developments in didactics, reflecting current discussions in the field of didactics and learning theory
  • Digital technologies and new ways of using those technologies which are likely to create new forms of learning and environments for learning

To investigate the three areas mentioned above, the researchers used literature evaluations, surveys, interviews, and subsequent discussions with the AHEAD International Advisory Board.

A comparative literature analysis revealed thematic focal points by discipline. The findings are summarized in the following three core statements, central to the research approach:

  • The literature shows that the economic view of the future of higher education is clearly focused on students, in the content of the labor market, and labor-market requirements
  • The educational science perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of learning and the skills and competences that students will need to succeed in the labor market
  • Technology and digitization are central topics only in the field of computer science

Higher education in 2030 must merge all of these perspectives into one single comprehensive view, and this will be the view into the future of higher education. The question of how higher education could look like in 2030 depends on demand, and also the freedom to shape and reform higher education, which is determined by governance regulations including laws, financial methods, and quality assurance.

Digital technologies make flexible learning possible and bring opportunities to learn in different spaces, blurring the boundaries between physical and virtual learning.

The second phase of the AHEAD project, which puts students at the center of the concept, identified and developed four learning pathways, all of which provide a view of what we can expect of higher education in 2030.

The elaboration of these learning pathways was based on interviews with experts and initiators of innovative learning opportunities, group discussions, and an international survey conducted by the team during the AHEAD project as well as case studies that show how technology can be embedded into educational initiatives.

The four learning pathways or models briefly described below are named after toys, because who can’t remember toys! The full descriptions can be found in the book “Higher Education Landscape 2030: A Trend Analysis Based on the AHEAD.”

  1. Tamagotchi: Here, the study program offers basic, comprehensive preparation for subsequent employment, with the university functioning as a closed ecosystem that supports and guides students as they pursue a course of study. This model is well-suited to people who go directly from school to university or college.
  2. Jenga: In this model, the first-degree program offers a solid foundation of knowledge and competences. It can take the form of a shortened study program. The curriculum builds on this foundation and is constantly expanded by the student through new learning blocks. These additional blocks are made available by various training providers.
  3. Lego: The course of study is no longer completed as a compact unit at a college or university. Instead, it consists of individually combined modules of different sizes from different training providers. The learners themselves decide which learning phases or units they want to complete. Additionally, the university is responsible for recognizing completed learning phases by providing formal certificates or documentation. 
  4. Transformer: The students in this module do not transfer directly to higher education as school-leavers. They have already acquired their own personal identities and life experiences. They attend college or university later in life integrating their life experience into their studies. They need a flexible course of study that alternates between didactic control by teachers and advisors as well as their own self-determination.

Questions remain for discussion about institutional support, governance, and quality assurance. The suggested learning models are going to have a substantial impact on the organization and activities of colleges and universities. These models can be taken as a founding stone to elaborate and brainstorm on the adoption of the most suitable models for each individual institution.

Lastly, innovation is not exclusively based on technology. Instead, innovation is about the use of new technologies as conductors to achieve higher education goals more fully and effectively for every and each individual.

Join Fierce Education and higher education executives for the Business & Leadership: Summer Edition virtual event on July 14  to learn what some university leaders are doing to alter their business models to accel in this new Education 3.0 world. Click here for more information.