What will the University look like in the future? Amid the potentially disruptive innovations of online education, open education, media blasts about the cost of higher education, blended learning, MOOCs, and a variety of educational technologies; more people are wondering about the answer to this question. I prefer a different question. Instead of wondering what they will look like, I am more interested in what they could look like.
In an era that some are calling the Wild West of higher education, there is no shortage of innovation and experimentation. This has been true in global higher education for centuries. We’ve seen experimentation with grading systems, technologies, the role of professor/tutor/GA, methods of teaching and learning, financial models, levels of access to diverse learners, core curricula changes, distance education, the role of research, and various forms of competency-based education. Some of these terms may be new, but people have been experimenting with them for quite some time.
When we look at higher education institutions today, it is deceptive to simply refer to the whole of higher education as the “University” as if that were one thing. We have research Universities, teaching Universities, alternative Universities, online Universities, small liberal arts colleges, large state schools, faith-based schools, for-profit, and open Universities. We have schools that are highly selective and those that accept 95% or more of all applicants. We have portions of Universities that emphasize undergraduate education, graduate education, continuing education and professional programs. Within Universities we have schools of arts, sciences, business, education, healthcare, and various applied sciences. There are resident-based schools where everyone lives in dorms, and others where the majority (or all) commute. There are Universities that use grades and credits, others that use narrative feedback and portfolio assessments, others that emphasize a culminating paper or project, and many that use a blend of these. Then we can look at the role of extracurricular activities in Universities. I will not even venture to list the variety of clubs, organizations and sport teams associated with Universities. Consider, for example, the seemingly endless list of student organizations that Harvard has for students. There is an immense amount of variety in higher education.
All of this points to the fact that the University is not one thing. People who turn to higher education are not simply looking for one thing and those within Universities are not offering or promoting one thing. When someone asks me what I think about the future of the University, I often join the crowd in discussing the influence of a current innovation like MOOCs or distance education. However, I’m sometimes tempted to reply, “Which one?” By that, I mean two things. Which future? Which University?
The first question, “Which future?” is a challenge to the idea that there is a single deterministic future to the University that is fundamentally at the will of larger economic, technological, and social influences. It is an invitation for us to twist the conversation into dreaming and imagining which future we want to create, how we can imagine the University being an agent of change and influence in society. Sometimes this is through direct engagement with the world through research, scholarship, and various forms of service. Or, it might be imagining how the University can be an agent of change and influence by the quality and type of student that comes out of this future University. Either way, it is inviting a conversation about what we want to strive for or what we want to become. This is and has always been a vibrant part of the concept that we call “University.” This “Which future?” question eventually draws us back to a conversation about the second question, “Which University?”
By “Which University?”, I mean to draw attention to the fact that the concept of the University is a wonderfully diverse concept. This question asks us to consider and distinguish between the many functions, aspects, and types of University life and culture. To ignore such details is the equivalent of trying to have a conversation about the future of relationships. While it can make for an interesting and enlightening discussion, at some point it might be helpful to explore the future of different types of relationships or even specific relationships. This is true for the University as well. What is the future of various forms of distance education in higher education? What is the future of credit hours and courses? What is the future of the resident-based liberal arts institution? At some point, to make meaningful progress in our conversation, we need to focus our attention on the details.
What is the Future of the University? That is a good question. Which one?