Digital learning leaders forecast the future of higher education


A new white paper on the future of higher education predicts artificial intelligence, analytics, augmented and virtual reality, robotic telepresence and cyber defense will be driving forces in digital-learning at colleges and universities over the next 20 years.

The predictions are based on in-depth interviews with 13 digital-learning leaders at the college and university level as part of report released this week by Blackboard, a leading education technology company, looking at ways higher education will evolve over the next 20 years.

“When we look forward to 2037, we’re especially excited about the ways in which educational technology can help solve some of higher education’s most difficult challenges around student access and success,” wrote Katie Blot, the chief strategy officer at Blackboard, in the report.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to help with learner success, but we do believe that analytics will help institutions better understand their learners and create the personalized pathways that will improve retention and success,” she added.

Blot anticipates that artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and robotic telepresence will play significant roles in the classroom over the next two decades.

The 13 higher education leaders, meanwhile, expect a dramatic overhaul in the current business model for colleges and universities. They think that big data and data interpretation will also become centerpieces of higher education. They also collectively believe that technology advancement will help instructors begin to focus more on the “application of learning rather than the acquisition of knowledge.”

In the interviews, the higher-ed thought leaders — who range from the president of Drexel University Online to the director of higher education for New America to the instructional lead for Google Analytics Edu — were asked what they believe have been the most important developments in higher education in the last 20 years, the biggest challenges facing higher education today, how technology can enable university leaders to meet those challenges, what higher education will look like in 2037 and what is most exciting about the future of higher education, among other questions.

Susan Aldridge, the president of Drexel University Online, told Blackboard she was most excited about next-generation digital learning environments.

“In my opinion, these environments will be contextual, adaptive, role-based, and self-organizing virtual ecosystems that foster learning and engagement, collaboration and community in a way that is both scalable and sustainable. These ecosystems will empower universities to become virtual gateways to continuous education and collaboration, through which learners of all ages and stages in life may move in and out at different times, from different locations, and for different purposes — to support the lifelong learning needs of today’s workforce,” she said in the interview.

The interviewees highlighted learning management systems and online education as major game-changers of the last 20 years while suggesting that artificial intelligence, data privacy and cyber defense will be key in shaping the future of higher education.

Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education at New America, said that technology has the potential to enable access to high-quality education for all, but only if institutions shift their approach.

“It’s not just enough to put something online for autodidacts who already have the time, energy, and prior skills to be able to learn on their own. You really need to figure out how to embed all the supports that a student will need to be successful, and I don’t know if we’ve cracked that yet,” Laitinen said.

“I think we need to make sure that the technology can reach people where they are but also give them what they need, and I think it’s been better at doing the former rather than the latter,” she said.

The full report, titled “Future Forward: The Next Twenty Years of Higher Education” and complete with all 13 interview transcripts, can be read here.