I recently had the pleasure of sharing KnowledgeWorks’ latest future forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, with the Union Institute in Cincinnati. In applying the forecast’s insights with a higher education institution with a long history of innovating to make higher learning accessible to working adults, I found myself particularly intrigued by the question of whether small liberal arts institutions can expect to continue thriving.
It looks as if current models of higher education will crumble in the face of freely available, blockbuster-quality content (for example, Gautam Kaul’s Introduction to Finance course and other MOOCs) and do it yourself credentialing (for example, Degreed). Some of today’s universities will probably survive intact. Some will probably close their doors. Many will be faced with reinventing themselves.
They, and other learning providers, will have to think anew about what makes them special. About what particular value proposition will draw students to them instead of other options. As learners exercise more and more agency in seeking out precisely what they need and want, there will be many answers to such questions. Where tuition is high, the need to distinguish value beyond what is freely or inexpensively available will be especially pronounced.
These same questions will apply at the K-12 level. Probably not as soon. But Recombinant Education forecasts that education is facing the same kind of deep disruption and reconfiguration that Amazon brought to bookselling, and then to retail more generally, and that iTunes brought to the music industry.
We expect to see learning resources and experiences fit together in a much more modular way than we are used to thinking of it, the way we now purchase individual songs more often than whole albums. To see learners develop what we might think of as individual learning playlists to meet their specific needs and goals. Some learners’ playlists will mainly or only involve a brick and mortar school. But the range of choices will go far beyond today’s spectrum of in-person, blended, or digital. So far that some learning playlists might involve learning agents accessed directly from the talent cloud but no formal organization.
For an institution to remain viable in a world of free-flowing learning experiences, the question of value will critical. Quality could be part of the answer. So could specialization. Opening boundaries might be necessary too. Because even for those students who say “yes” to a particular value proposition, their engagement with it might not be an exclusive learning relationship.
Katherine Prince is the Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. She is excited about the future of learning, transformative leadership, and building resilient solutions for a sustainable world.