Is Higher Ed Future Ready? Six Strategies to Gear Up Now

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Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Future of Learning

Six strategies and tips from higher ed leaders and innovators to prepare for opportunities and challenges in adapting to changing climate and student needs.In May, KnowledgeWorks gathered leaders and innovators in higher education to explore the implications of Forecast 4.0, The Future of Learning: Education in an Era of Partners in Code. The conversation highlighted both opportunities and challenges in adapting – or transforming – higher education in response to a changing climate and student needs.

  1. Clarify Purpose – First and foremost, higher education stakeholders need to be clear about the purpose of postsecondary education. While the answer to that question could vary by type of institution and type of learner and does not have to be singular, a tension between workforce readiness and human development lies at its core.
  2. Redefine Readiness – Recognizing that workforce readiness forms only part of the equation and might not be central to everyone’s definition of the sector’s purpose, artificial intelligence and machine learning will change how humans partner with machines over the coming decade and beyond. Current approaches to career readiness will not suffice. We need to consider new forms of workforce readiness and also take into account the possibility that what it means to work – or to labor productively apart from wages – could change dramatically.
  3. Manage Multiple Paces of Change – As the mix of institutions and organizations in the room highlighted, higher education doesn’t function as a coherent system. It’s more of a regulated market. As students seek higher learning opportunities that match their objectives, meet their needs, and manage cost, consumer demand could move faster than government regulation or institutional evolution. Both incumbent institutions and new entrants will need to juggle multiple layers of influence that move at different paces of change. In particular, currently-existing institutions could struggle to adapt quickly enough.
  4. Fly Below the Radar – While the conversation gravitated toward large-scale transformation – and that may well be needed – stakeholders can start small today. Finding approaches to innovation that fly below the radar of established practices until they are proven can help make space for innovation within existing institutions. Building bridges between new approaches and established frameworks (for example, translating new forms of experiential learning to traditional credit hours) can also help. Even newer entrants and today’s innovative programs need to keep an eye on the horizon and not get bogged down in current operations.
  5. Shift Culture and Mindsets – Higher education tends to self-enforce persistent culture and mindsets that can impede change. At one level, that’s positive, for higher education shouldn’t necessarily change as quickly as some sectors. At another level, that tendency presents a risk. If faculty and administrators advertently or inadvertently penalize or impede colleagues from trying new approaches, incumbent institutions could find themselves increasingly out of pace with the context in which they operate. Finding ways to encourage new forms of practice and provide sanctuary for new approaches could help people feel more comfortable with change.
  6. Reconsider Incentives – Current incentives for individuals and institutions also tend to reinforce the status quo. Sometimes that will be appropriate. Where it’s not, considering new employee incentive structures that correspond with desired future states can help people have the courage to do the deeper work of changing culture and mindsets. In addition, advocating for measures of institutional success that support a broad view of student learning and a wide array of rigorous approaches promises to provide the sector with a stronger platform from which to operate.

In the future, higher learning could mean many things to many different people and could take forms that can be difficult to imagine today. Being open to new ways of creating value for students and society could help current institutions that are struggling financially find effective future-ready value propositions and could help those that are turning away students stay relevant and steward resources responsibly long-term.

This workshop was the last in our series exploring implications of Forecast 4.0. Stay tuned for our forthcoming action guide synthesizing their findings. In the meantime, take a look at the top challenges facing K-12 school-based education and key strategies for shaping the future of informal and community-based learning.