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(Digital) Disruption in higher education and what the trends mean for you

Like most industries, education is undergoing a serious shift. Extreme connectivity provided by the internet has created a more immediate and extensive way of accessing, aggregating, and delivering content on a scale never seen before. But what do the trends in higher education have to do with the rest of us who are no longer in the market? According to trend-watchers, quite a lot actually. These same trends are likely to affect corporations and the way knowledge is transferred to employees, customers, and other partners. While the actual impact of higher education trends may only be tangential, they do act as a harbinger of the future and give insight into the future customer that most organizations want to serve.

In 2012 in an article titled “The End of the University as We Know It,” Nathan Harden wrote:

“In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology already driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become largely irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.”

So what are the trends bringing about this massive disruption and what does it mean?

  • 1.) Digital Distribution

    Online learning made available through MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses is the most visible trend to be spotted in education. Elite universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley make use of their top-notch faculty and the advent of new and better technologies to offer a wide variety of courses online. While these Universities haven’t stopped charging money for their degrees (nor appear to be creating immediate plans to do so), they continue to pursue their mission of providing the highest level of education possible (but now made available to the masses). The takeaway here is to not be afraid to experiment with new business models – even when those business models “disrupt” your existing one.

  • 2.) Digital Natives

    For years on end, universities have had to compete to attract students. Traditionally, bragging rights went to universities with famous alumni, world-class facilities, or extensive research libraries. Yet the influx of digital natives demand a different set of features – they are interested in how technology on campus will help them learn. This includes everything from available wifi to online research centers to existing (online) collaboration environments that will help them do their work better and faster. The customer of the future doesn’t look at technology as simply a benefit – but a necessary component of helping them achieve their goals.

  • 3.) Globalization

    The traditional university model expected to service a locally sourced student body. While colleges in the US still rely heavily upon “locals” to fill the seats, the worldwide trend towards greater mobility has begun to alter the education landscape. One of the results of this is that English is becoming increasingly ingrained in the language of business – as schools not only in the US but around the world try to compete for international attention. Globalization also has a massive impact on nation-states as they compete for the best talent graduating from the best universities.

  • 4.) Non-traditional Leadership

    Following the model in the private sector, an increasing number of universities are choosing for non-traditional leaders. These leaders are brought in to bring a fresh perspective to a difficult problem set. Currently, over a third of the presidential population in the US is inhabited by “non-traditional leader” – meaning that they didn’t hold a tenured university position before taking over its leadership. What does this mean? For starters, universities have become much more complex businesses, and like the private sector, they are facing down the rapid transformation of the external world. As a recent article by McKinsey argued: “Understanding academic norms and culture remains essential, but intense public scrutiny brought on by 24/7 social media, shifting government regulations, and declining state funding for public universities are all placing a premium on better management…” The challenges have changed, which calls for a different approach.

  • Disruption can be challenging – but understanding the greater trends and how they continue to develop cross-industry can provide considerable advantages.

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