Imagine it is the year 2030 and the former student centre at Big University X is full of people dancing to a new comeback tune from an aging pop star named Psy. Twenty years ago, the place would have been full of young college students playing video games, working on an assignment, or simply chatting with friends.
People will find it hard to recall at this point that something really big happened to universities two decades prior, which completely transformed the higher education landscape. And that something is called online learning. Technology for digital learning improved considerably over a short period – it had soon become highly sophisticated, with classes being made available on a global scale within seconds.
People from all over the world have embraced and gotten used to the idea of easy access to high quality education online. Getting a credential on just about any subject on the face of the Earth is now possible at the tap of a mobile screen.
When that first began to happen, brick-and-mortar colleges and universities started not to make sense any more.
Ordinary citizens are now able to take courses from the best academics in the world, many of them former Ivy League tenured professors, who are basking in the glory of being global celebrities and, at the same time, getting paid huge sums of money based on CPM (count per thousand) numbers measured by online audience survey companies.
The many educators who followed the aurora borealis of online learning thrived in the wake of the demise of the traditional higher education model.
Others had to find employment elsewhere.
Meanwhile, many universities with bloated budgets and unwieldy bureaucracies closed or have downsized operations to focus on key specific value propositions as a way to survive in this new world order. One of the common strategies used was to convert student residences into assisted living centers for the "pig in the python" generation of retired boomers. These retirees are living longer, have relatively deep pockets, and are attracted to the walk trails and indoor exercise facilities, coffee shops, plus lifelong learning opportunities available at the sprawling campus. All good 'ancillary revenue streams,' as any university administrator would say.
Because online courses focus on information and acquiring knowledge, universities adjusted to this reality by putting energy and resources into implementing active learning, providing real-world experience, harnessing subject expertise, promoting innovation and problem-solving skills and, most importantly, helping students find gainful employment as soon as they graduate.
The situation became tough for a while though and so universities made a conscious decision to cut costs by shortening the time to get a credential, say for example, a bachelor's degree is now obtained within two years as opposed to the four, seven or eight years about two decades ago.
And when it comes to job security for professors, only the truly exceptional teachers and subject experts are being retained and awarded tenure. And they have to go through a rigorous development and winnowing process.
Because class sizes are small and the preferred learning method is more of a hands-on lab work or seminar type, large lecture halls are no longer needed. Similarly, residence halls and the high-end entertainment facilities that go with them became a thing of the past. These building facilities were sold or leased to companies offering services to the young and the elderly. The athletic arenas were also sold or leased to financial companies or professional sports leagues.
The biggest thing that changed, however, when talking about face-to-face teaching in 2030 is really the inclusion of real-world learning. After intense preparation, students are placed with companies or organizations so they can have an opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom. In addition, the surviving universities have retrofitted some of their physical facilities to become much like a "teaching hospital"– a place where students can log in the necessary hours required to master knowledge and to gain meaningful expertise.
Finally, and much to the delight of parents, universities converted some of their buildings – like the library – into a massive human resource facility where students can obtain a slew of excellent career and job placement help with an eye toward landing a good job right after graduation.
It is hard to imagine that 20 years have now passed since the seismic shift in higher education began in earnest around the time when MOOCs (massively open online courses), as they were called then, became popular as a place for people to go to learn from the best professors in the world – for free.
It fostered a revolution in higher education. And in the midst of this revolution, new models emerged in the form of for-profit and not-for-profit companies running online education operations and earning revenues through various revenue schemes such as advertising, subscription fees, micropayment, licensing, among others.
History is replete with lessons of once seemingly invincible institutions that suffered a precipitous fall due to a disruptive innovation. The transformation of the communications industry a few decades earlier should have served as a useful guide for universities. The rise of online music and videos (think iTunes), for example, led to the demise of companies such as Tower Records and Blockbuster.
The disruptive impact of digital technology forced some large research-intensive universities to do niche programming such as focusing on graduate work or as a research and development arm of corporations or both.
The teaching and learning-focused universities, meanwhile, now try hard to make sure students have fun learning while on track to complete the credential in due time. They try to keep costs low and help students to avoid taking out a loan. They try very hard to inspire students and to imbue in them a sense of meaning and purpose to the profession that they have chosen. Most important of all, universities try to make sure that students get a job soon after graduation.
The end of higher education marked the beginning of a meaningful one.
Rey Rosales is an associate dean at Centre for the Arts and Communications at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta.