What’s on the horizon for higher education?

It’s the question that nonprofit association Educause poses annually to college faculty, staff, administrators and researchers from around the world.

This year, 57 such experts identified social, technological, economic, environmental and political trends influencing the higher ed sector. And unsurprisingly, their reflections underscore dramatic shifts in teaching and learning either instigated or sped up by the pandemic.

“Higher education likely will never be the same again,” the report says.

Trends, Tech Tools and Teaching Practices

One of the top technological trends for colleges is the collection of student data, according to the report, although it notes that few institutions are using that information to bring about meaningful change. Artificial intelligence tools have the potential to help process big datasets, but privacy, ethics and equity worries about the use of data remain unresolved.

An economic trend that the research identifies as significant is the growth of the digital economy. More specifically, it predicts that colleges will need to respond to increased interest in cryptocurrencies among consumers. The report also suggests that institutions may face challenges associated with maintaining their “digital identities,” as well as navigating the fact that each student and employee is more and more likely to have their own personal digital identity.

The spread of hybrid and online learning was named one of the top social trends. The report says that institutions will need to focus on developing strong teaching practices for these modes of instruction and do more to support students learning online or in hybrid courses. One possible difficulty the research identifies is getting faculty buy-in—not to mention adequate training—for changing their teaching practices to accommodate hybrid and online instruction. And even though online education makes higher ed more accessible for some students, it throws up barriers to other students, including those who have limited access to the internet or to relevant devices.

The pandemic changed the way students, professors and staff use campus spaces, according to the research, which names rethinking physical environments as a top environmental trend. That involves prioritizing human health (think social distancing) as well as accommodating people who are learning and working remotely. The report notes that it’s a big challenge to obtain, install and use the kind of audio and video equipment it takes to effectively teach and learn when some students are in a classroom and others are online.

In the realm of political trends, the report notes that the increasing polarization of American society is fast encroaching on higher education. It predicts that, “at those institutions with stated political allegiances, the idyllic vision of a university classroom alive with free thought and open debate will give way to classrooms with constrained discussions and narrow definitions of what counts as legitimate knowledge and truth.” It also forecasts that faculty teaching will be “brought in line” with institution values and standards.

Overall the forces described in the report will likely affect both community colleges and research institutions, although not necessarily in the exact same ways. An essay in the report by Carlos Guevara from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hostos Community College notes that students at his type of institution don’t all have access to adequate tech tools for learning, and that declining enrollments may limit the resources colleges have to invest in the tools and supports needed to train instructors and students to use technology.

Meanwhile, universities will need to put in time, money and effort to integrate their physical and digital learning offerings, argues Lee Skallerup Bessette, assistant director for digital learning at Georgetown University, in an essay in the report. And to continue to attract tuition dollars and state education spending, Bessette writes, universities will need to be able to better make the case for why the education they offer is worth it.

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