Impact on Institutions

What’s a college to do when all the resources that it used to control, that made it unique, become free or very cheap and readily available to the general public? Think about free courses (edX), low cost or free assessments (CLA+), on-line labs (MIT OCW), books available online or printed on demand (EspressoBook Machine), socially-networked learning support (OpenStudy), Career Advice (AARP-Life Reimagined), and a complete lower division curriculum (StraighterLine), just to name a few.

Added to this burgeoning array of competing instructional, assessment, and learning support services is the fact that for traditional institutions, our 18 year old population is declining as far as the eye can see into the future. Remember, all the 18 year olds in 2030 have already been born.  So we know that number and all the numbers in between. This steady decline is not only bad news for Social Security. It’s bad news for traditional higher education as well.

We are approaching the mother of all mash-ups as traditional institutions are pulled one way by demographics (declining youth population and increasing focus on flexible lifelong learning) and torqued another way by services which duplicate their basic offerings at a level of price and quality that most cannot compete with.  I believe that in the post-traditional world, the relationships between campuses, learners, and employers will change dramatically, with the balance of power shifting in most cases to favor learners and employers.

Colleges need to ask this fundamental question: how can we add value to learners’ lives in this emerging post-traditional world? The answer will lie in truly responding to the learners’ needs, great learning support and mentoring, great assessments, and making every aspect of the experience adult-friendly. Institutions’ organizational cultures will need to become learning-centric, not teaching-centric, supported by the intelligent use of big data and IT to personalize the learning experience, thus reducing time and cost to degree dramatically.

At the ACE Annual Meeting last week in San Diego, I heard Candace Thille say that the barriers between non-profit institutions and for-profit vendors and services need to come down. I think she was saying that the days are over when, for most of us, one college or university can control all the resources needed to survive and prosper in a learning-centric world. Partnerships are the way of the future.

Of course, no one can predict the future, but I believe that institutions that simply try to “stay the course,” extending the traditional model, will be in for a rough ride.

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