DENVER — College leaders are ready to try something new, and they’re looking to technology to do it. That much was clear at Educause’s annual conference, held in Denver in the last week of October.
Many college officials have felt like they’ve been treading water for the past couple of years as they’ve battled a health crisis, encountered enrollment challenges and pushed back against doubts about higher education’s value. But they’re using new tools and modalities to improve student experiences and how their institutions operate.
“Things are different these days — they’re different from the way they were before the pandemic,” said Susan Grajek, vice president for partnerships, communities and research at Educause, during a speech at the conference. “We’re seeing that institutional and technology leaders are ready for a new approach.”
Here are three major ed tech trends colleges can expect.
Hybrid learning models are still shaking out
The pandemic forced hundreds of colleges to further adopt virtual learning practices, including universities that already had large online footprints. At Arizona State University, for instance, officials had to convert around 900 classrooms for virtual learning in a matter of weeks when the health crisis started.
Students are now expecting colleges to offer both online and in-person options, according to several speakers and panelists.
“Our students are demanding different ways to learn,” said Jess Evans, who will soon start as chief information officer at Vanderbilt University. “It is now commonplace to be like, ‘Wait, why do I have to physically walk in when I know we’re having a lecture, and I can attend the lecture remotely?’”
But not all higher education experts believe that hybrid classrooms are the best model.
John Baker, CEO of D2L, a learning management system company, says that college officials are burning out from implementing hyflex — a hybrid education model that allows students to attend classes either virtually or in person.
Instead, Baker envisions colleges offering in-person options and asynchronous online classes separately.
“It’s going to be this pivot to investing now to build high-quality online programs to be able to support both on campus and students that are wanting to do pure online experience,” Baker said.
Technology could be one tool to address equity issues
Equity gaps are pervasive in higher education. For instance, only 46% of Black students who entered a public four-year college in 2011 completed a credential within six years, compared to 64.7% of students overall, according to a 2019 report from the American Council on Education. Hispanic students also had a lower-than-average six-year completion rate, at 55.7%.
The pandemic further entrenched some of those divides.
These types of gaps can have serious economic consequences, said Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary during the Obama administration, during a panel.
“We all know that if you drop out of high school, there’s basically no chance to get a good job,” Duncan said. “If you have a high school diploma with nothing else, it’s almost impossible.”
Indeed, a recent report from Georgetown University researchers found that young adults are facing lengthier and more complicated pathways to good quality jobs — and that someone’s race can mean they face higher hurdles than others while on those pathways.
“Too often, education actually exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots,” Duncan said. “When that happens, we start to move from a class system to a caste system.”
Technology can help address some of those divides. Duncan pointed to internet access as one way to provide opportunity. He also said that online education could help meet nontraditional students, typically thought of as those who are 25 and older, where they are.
Colleges are prioritizing microcredentials
The Education Design Lab, a nonprofit aiming to streamline the school-to-work pipeline, has been championing microcredentials for years. The organization has developed several microcredentials to signal to employers that students have mastered certain soft skills, including critical thinking, oral communication and creative problem-solving.
Don Fraser Jr., the Education Design Lab’s chief program officer, argued that higher education often needs to be spurred to quickly transform, such as through a pandemic, tragedy or public embarrassment.
“Higher ed can’t keep doing what they’re doing and expecting the world of work to be OK with it,” Fraser said.
He pointed to the trend of many employers dropping bachelor’s degree requirements for jobs, arguing that they’re looking for clearer signals of applicants’ skills.
“They’re starting to look at other forms of credentialing,” Fraser said. “This puts institutions in a good position to be able to deliver on that.”
Other ed tech companies have recently been promoting microcredentials, including Coursera, an online course platform, and 2U, a company that helps colleges run and manage online programs.
Fraser argued that institutions may have other incentives to offer microcredentials. Colleges facing enrollment challenges may see them as a way to strengthen their bottom lines. And microcredentials could help make the job market more equitable for students who don’t go to top-ranked colleges.
“With this trend where employers are maybe less interested in where you went — but whether or not you have the skills or not — then there’s an opportunity for people who aren’t going to those types of institutions to be able to demonstrate their capability in a different way,” Fraser said.