Imagine what it must have been like in the fifteenth century when Gutenberg’s press was invented. This invention greatly expanded access to religious texts, scholarly materials, books, classics and every form of written communication on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution had a similar impact as the inventions it spawned changed almost every aspect of human existence. These were surely unsettling times, but they were also times full of opportunity.

These paradigm-shifting events permanently changed the way individuals and societies interacted and related to one another. A similar paradigm shift is occurring today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What occurred before 2019 as the “normal” way of doing things, will, ultimately, be changed forever. Across industries, and even our private lives, things will no longer be the same. Of special significance is the impact of COVID-19 on education, particularly higher education.

Understanding the current higher education revolution

What might higher education look like in ten to twenty years as a result of the pandemic’s impact? One need not gaze into a crystal ball to realize that the industry, in all its dimensions, is undergoing significant transformation. COVID-19 produced a seismic shift throughout society, especially in the education space. While some may cringe in fear and frustration, others see this as a much-needed opportunity for positive change.

The seeds for this educational revolution were planted much earlier – the pandemic just increased the germination speed of these seeds to create a now discernible change in the landscape. While the educational revolution now underway is still only in its beginning stages, the roots of the future are present today.

What does the university of the future look like?

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of higher education; however, consumer and environmental pressures to change course had already begun. Combined, these pressures have accelerated the speed at which institutions must adopt a digital-first approach to their campus operations and student experiences to deliver learners more flexible, relevant, convenient and affordable education. To do this, technology will need to underpin and enable every function of the university campus of the future.

To understand what that means and how it will play out, let’s enter tomorrow’s classroom and take a peek at the university of tomorrow – today. What do we find?

  • Students’ individual learning styles are accommodated and prioritized. For example, enrollment/admissions teams “diagnose” students’ learning styles and “prescribe” the curriculum and pedagogical approach accordingly
  • A robust IT highway is ubiquitous
  • Smartboards have replaced black/whiteboards
  • The credit hour is no longer a marker of educational achievement; instead, a degree is based on achieved skills and competencies
  • Undergraduate majors and minors in the liberal arts have disappeared. Instead, the liberal arts are integrated and woven into the professional studies and science curricula
  • The classroom is no longer contained to four walls. Learning takes place synchronously and asynchronously, anytime and anywhere
  • There are multiple ways to garner content
  • Faculty are focused on teaching rather than research
  • Grades and traditional testing are a thing of the past
  • Reading assignments have a social function, rather than being a solitary event at home
  • Tuition is affordable
  • Inter-disciplinary team teaching is the norm
  • The library of the last millennia is a museum
  • Institutions now share resources, including faculty, staff, courses, majors and technology
  • International education has moved beyond student exchanges. Instead, international institutions now collaborate, sharing resources, faculty and curricula and developing together
  • Inclusion is realized – students from all backgrounds and identities now see themselves represented in other students, faculty and, most importantly, in the curriculum
  • Faculty are “guides on the side” and not “sages on the stage”
  • Differentiation is the hallmark of thriving institutions
  • “Mini-mergers” are common, and institutions now share back-office operations and key personnel (HR, CIO, etc.)

Preparing for tomorrow, today

Returning to today, colleges and universities of all types must begin to function in anticipation of the future described above. A famous philosopher once described the present as “the intersection of the past in anticipation of the future.”

While all of the scenarios described above may not come true, many will – and we must allow our anticipation of tomorrow to inform today’s decisions. What do institutions need to do today to prepare themselves for the ongoing revolution spawned by the current pandemic?

Building a strong technological infrastructure is essential

One of the key takeaways from these projections is the need for a robust IT infrastructure that will serve as the highway of tomorrow. Does your institution have the requisite technological foundation to support the university of the future? The presence of a robust technological infrastructure is key to providing the educational programming and services that we have only dreamed about in the past.

Throughout my long career in higher education, I heard promises and warnings regarding the advent of technology. While many of us were fearful of this new dawn, it happened so slowly that it was hardly recognizable. Given the events of last year, it is clear now that we are no longer speaking of the advent of technology; it is now the highway on which the future of education will run. Is your institution ready?

Learn how Collegis can help your institution turn disruption into opportunity and rethink higher education.

Author: William Carroll

President Emeritus, Benedictine University and President, Hunter Global Education, LLC William J. Carroll, Ph.D. served as the 10th president of Benedictine University from July 1995 to August 2015. Carroll is a visible and active leader in the community, serves on many boards and has received numerous awards for his leadership in higher education. Through his leadership and innovative ideas, The Chronicle of Higher Education has recognized Benedictine University as “the fastest growing university in the country since 2000.”