Three Trends in Higher Education That Defy the Status Quo

There are three trends on the horizon in higher education and though I’ve some idea of what they might be, this past week confirmed it. I participated in a series of webinars in week two of the open online course, Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12#).  Leading educators shared their insights and innovative programs – three dominant themes emerged, 1) competency based learning, 2) personalized student learning and 3) the changing role of the instructor. Each presenter shared extensive research in an area of his or her expertise and details of an innovative educational program; programs that provide a non-traditional education that defy the status quo. The summary of the trends follow, with a ‘takeaway’ for each designed to provide readers with practical ideas for application to their own area of study or work.

1. Competency Learning vs. Seat Time
Western Governors University introduced the radical idea of competency based learning in 1997 and was one of the first fully online university’s that did not require classroom attendance; fast forward to 2012 and competency based learning appears to be in the future of higher education. Learning that focuses on measurable outcomes is becoming a reality as technology facilitates self-paced and adaptive learning platforms, and employers lament about the skill gap that recent college graduates cannot fill. Responsive companies are partnering with education start-ups to create competency learning programs that address the skills needed for 21st century employees. The idea of ‘seat time’ is in peril.  Key highlights below:

  • Yvonne Smith of Innovation U: Slide from webinar on ‘College for America @ SNHU’, October 17

    Employers are coming up with innovative ways to address the skill gap. Companies including Google and Microsoft have partnered with Udacity to create classes in 3D graphics, app development and more – needed skills they cannot find even in recent college graduates (Ripley, 2012).

  • Southern New Hampshire University’s [SNHU] Innovations U program puts the student in the center of the learning model. Programs focus on competency clusters, developed in conjunction with employers. A binary rubric with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ evaluates learning. The goal of SNHU is provide affordable quality education, “to reduce costs, increase access and provide transformational experiences for students who have been marginalized by traditional higher education”.
  • Colleges are partnering with employers to create programs that not only provide academic preparation but career skills. The New Community College at CUNY opened its doors this fall with an innovative program designed to link classroom learning to career experiences in the community. The school is an open admissions college located in the heart of Manhattan, New York.
  • Another new university that looks promising is University Now. Its learning platform allows students to progress through course work at their own pace. Students learn by spending as little or as much time as needed to master the content. The school’s goal is to provide affordable education to anyone, anywhere.

Takeaway: Consider incorporating competency based learning within a current course or program by  including one or two competencies in the learning outcomes. Another option is to create partnerships with businesses in the community, either creating a community advisory panel where business leaders can have input into the curriculum or academic program development, and/or by creating internship programs for students from academic majors to gain experience in the work world.

2. Personalized Student Learning
‘Learning, your way’ is the new motto for numerous higher education institutions across the country, and significant ones at that. I wrote a post this past week about the University of Central Florida [UCF] that allows students to choose between five learning modalities, customizing their learning based upon their needs. Students expect to be able to learn anytime and anywhere in their chosen institutions, and numerous schools including UCF are responding.

  • At UCF students customize their schedule from a choice of five learning modalities under the school’s distributed learning model.
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) is student focused giving students a choice by offering several programs. The school’s web page features the options for learning,  “Flexible & Convenient Online, evening, weekend and hybrid classes to accommodate any schedule.”
  • Research suggests that ‘learning is learning’ to students regardless of modality. To students, “a course, is a course, modality makes no difference” (Cavanaugh, 2012).

Take away:  Colleges will need to address the needs of the life-long learner, not just the college student where schools have traditionally told students when and where they need to go to learn. Students of all ages want to be able to learn anytime and anywhere at times convenient for them. Think of all students as life-long learners, and offer students choices of learning when, how and where they want.

3. The Changing Role Of the Instructor
The professor is no longer the only source of knowledge for students. The traditional method of knowledge transfer – the lecture, where the course instructor transfers knowledge [content] to student, is being augmented or replaced by other ‘nodes’ of information. Nodes are content sources, and might be a video, website, textbook, subject matter expert, or e-resource. Subsequently the teaching paradigm is shifting, students can access content, can learn from a variety of sources (Downes, 2012). The instructor role is thus changing, and in some institutions, the instructor role is being replaced with a mentor or advisor. Students in this model tend to take charge of their learning and use mentors, peers and study groups as support mechanisms for their learning goals.

  • University Now,Peer-to-peer learning communities where students share their knowledge and skills, and help each other obtain recognized degrees and credentials“.
  • The program at SNHU’s Innovation U, “won’t have instructors in the traditional sense… Pathways [program at Innovation U] will employ advisors to help students establish goals and set their learning pace“.

Takeaway: Higher education still needs experts, and students need role models, leaders and mentors. Acknowledging that students can access content and expertise from a variety of sources is necessary, which suggests that the course instructor is no less important. Now the instructor’s role shifts to one of guide or mentor, influencing, shaping and inspiring students to become educated, life-long learners.

It’s likely these trends are of no great surprise to readers of this blog.  Prior to this week’s session of Current/Future State of Higher Education, I’d read or written about, and discussed each of these trends to great lengths. Yet after hearing from the experts this week, and reviewing their innovative and progressive education programs I realized these are not just trends, fads or a phase – no these are here and now, this is the future.

Photo Credit: Horizons, Dopamind’s photostream, Flickr

References: Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

Ripley, A. College is Dead. Long Live College!, (October, 2012). Time Magazine.

17 thoughts on “Three Trends in Higher Education That Defy the Status Quo

  1. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on
    websites I stumbleupon every day. It will always be helpful to read content from
    other writers and practice something from their websites.


  2. When a student has a question whom does (s)*he turn to? Perhaps the social network, peer group, online communities … do any of these systems incorporating modern AI tools, identify any mistakes and recommend corrective actions? I am not berating the advances made in online learning – we have a long way to go.


    1. Agreed, there is a long way to go. With the several programs mentioned in this post, students have [assigned] mentors to turn to, educators that guide and oversee student learning and development and provide students with answers. In online for-credit classes, where the ratio is usually 1 to 30 or even 40; professors are accessible, usually by email, online chat, or virtual office hours, where students can chat or even have a Skype meeting with the professor. Though not the same as face-to-face, students have access.

      However in massive learning communities such as MOOCs with thousands of students, where does the student go with a question? Peers? In MOOCs I have learned from other classmates by resources provided or through comments, yet I am able to identify which sources are worthy and which are not. The problem with this is that many students do not have the skills to discern what is accurate and worthy information, or how to evaluate content on the web, evaluate [and even source] scholarly content. As you said there is a long way to go if higher education institutions are to use this format. Thanks for your comment.


  3. The expression “seat time” and the fact that you put the term “professor” in quotes are both very revealing: you are expressing utter contempt for what traditional faculty do.

    But you also seem to have no clue about what we ACTUALLY do. Instead you trot out this stereotype: “The traditional method of knowledge transfer – the lecture, where the course instructor transfers knowledge [content] to student …”

    Not only do most of us use many methods other than lecture, but most of us understand that education in the deep sense is not a matter of knowledge transfer. That concept of education was already denounced by Plato in the Republic; instead, he describes education as “the art of turning the whole soul.” Can profound personal reorientation occur in online courses? It seems to me that the online student has less at stake personally than a student experiencing “seat time,” when students have some skin in the game and are interacting, mind and body, with a teacher who is physically there in the same time and place. There is a better chance for souls to be turned in a real-life, real-time classroom.

    Ironically, the role of a lead professor in a MOOC can only be to deliver monologues to students whom he or she cannot know personally. So of course education then appears to be knowledge transfer, and the lecture appears to be an inefficient vehicle for that transfer. Of course the very idea of a “professor” becomes dubious in that context.

    Without the personal attention and engagement that traditional teaching provides, education appears to be merely a means to an end, to be judged solely in terms of “outcomes.” Those outcomes are conceived as “competencies” that will enable the student to plug into the economic system, and a university is reduced to a feeder for the corporate supply chain. There is no sense of the intrinsic value of what actually happens in a classroom.

    That’s fine for a job-training program. It’s death for liberal education.


    1. I have in no way any contempt for professors, quite the contrary, I respect educators, especially those that have obtained several years of education to pursue a PhD or other advanced degree. I respectfully disagree with the points you bring up in your comments. I would engage in further discussion here, but I prefer to engage in discussions with readers that provide their real identities, rather than anonymous individuals, for example ‘A Professor’. Debbie


  4. Thanks for this short list. Trend lists seem to come in 10’s and are in need of pruning right away. I’m particularly attracted to the personalization of education concept. At one time this was seen as the slippery slope to fractionating education and may still be at some institutions. Now I think we can contextualize what we offer to fit the student’s needs which is particularly helpful to someone like me who works across disciplines with unpredictable learning needs.


    1. Hi Scott,
      Glad you liked the ‘short’ list – I too get fatigued with content overload. Number two on the list – personalized learning, as you mentioned is a contentious topic at numerous higher ed institutions. What we are really talking about here is ‘change’, which can cause feelings of resentment, if not resistance. However, as you have alluded to, the role of the instructor is just as important now as it was in the traditional model, but needs to readjust to students needs. Thanks for your comment Scott.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s