Published in September of 2021.
Living through in-between pandemic times has made it difficult to think about the future of higher ed. Mostly, we are all trying to make it through our days. Planning for the university of 2030 feels like a luxury that we simply can’t afford at the moment.
Why should we be thinking about the higher ed of the future? One lesson that COVID-19 should teach us is that tomorrow’s institutional resilience is a function of today’s institutional investments.
What should we be doing now to build the anti-fragile university of the future?
One place to start thinking about the future of higher ed is to read (and talk about) books about the future. The Exponential Age is an excellent place to start.
The core argument of The Exponential Age is that 21st-century technologies are changing exponentially, while the institutions that structure our society evolve incrementally.
The difference between the speed at which technology progresses and our ability to change how we think and act leads to what the book’s author, entrepreneur Azeem Azhar, calls an “exponential gap.”
The Exponential Age is full of stories of how this gap plays out in areas of AI and computing, biology, renewable energy, and manufacturing.
Little attention is given to the potential impacts of exponential technological change on higher education. This is not a critique of The Exponential Age, but instead an appreciation that Azhar provides us a framework to think about some possible higher education futures.
What will it mean for higher education that by 2030, computer power will be 100 times as fast?
Today, I would judge online education to be at roughly the same state of development as electric vehicles (EV).
An EV has some areas of superiority to a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE) and many other areas of comparative deficiency.
EVs are quieter and require less maintenance than an ICE vehicle, and they can be charged at home.
EVs, however, are today more expensive than comparable ICE vehicles, owing to the high costs of batteries. Electric cars also cannot travel as far on a full charge as a gas-powered car can travel on a full tank of gas. Charging an EV battery takes considerably longer than filling a gas tank. And the number of charging stations nationwide pales compared to the over 65,000 places in the US where you can fill up your gas tank.
Like EVs, online education does have some advantages over face-to-face learning. For adult working professionals, online education’s geographic and temporal flexibility makes this medium of learning and credentialing superior to residential alternatives.
For many learners, however, online education lacks many of the elements that make residential learning so impactful and effective. Online learning can make it challenging to structure one’s time effectively for students who are not well prepared to succeed in college.
The social element of learning, including the connection between educators and students, can be more challenging for some learners to achieve in a fully online environment. And today, creating high-quality immersive learning experiences that emphasize educator/learner relationships and active/experiential learning is not any less expensive for colleges and universities to deliver than comparable residential courses.
By 2030, the advantages that ICE vehicles have over battery-powered vehicles will likely have disappeared. Batteries may not get exponentially cheaper and faster, but they will drop in price and increase in capacity. By 2030, EV batteries will likely be a third as expensive and enable vehicles to travel twice as far between charges as today.
Will these changes mean that electric cars and trucks will replace gas-powered vehicles at a faster rate than we might comprehend today? I’d say that is likely.
How might online learning change by 2030?
One possible future is that advances in AI, coupled with a continued rapid scaling of online platforms, could fundamentally alter the economics of online education.
What happens when the integration of artificial intelligence into scaled online educational platforms enables the learning experience to feel entirely social, interactive, and immersive?
One of the points that Azhar makes is that exponential technologies make it harder to predict the future. We can never fully forecast how rapidly changing technologies, business models, and external events might accelerate changes in areas such as work, consumer behavior, and even politics. We are not good at thinking exponentially.
The point, however, is that we utilize a framework of exponential change to help us decide which areas we should invest in research, development, and experimentation.
Colleges and universities, even those fully dedicated to the delivery of a bundled residential learning experience, should carve out some time and space to invest in experimenting with tomorrow’s teaching and learning modalities.
Scaled online learning may never be as intimate, relational, interactive, and immersive as traditional online courses and programs. But it may get better much faster than we think, allowing the costs for teaching and credentialing to fall rapidly.
Investing in experimenting with new scaled online learning methods may also reveal new ways that residential education might be improved.
Reading and talking about The Exponential Age might be a tool to help us at colleges and universities to think beyond our day-to-day challenges and to imagine what higher education might look like in 2030.
What are you reading?