As millions of members of the digital generation went off to college for the first time this month, they arrived on campuses largely built for an analog age and not ready for how today’s students learn, communicate, and engage with the world around them. Ultimately, it is these students and those following them within the next 10 years who will drive colleges to reimagine the future of higher education.
These students of the future are in middle school and high school today. Born around the turn of the century, they have always known a world with the Internet, smartphones, and wireless connections. They pick up electronic devices and know intuitively to swipe instead of type on a keyboard. They feel comfortable in a social world that lives online. They text friends who are sitting only a few feet away.
In school, they remain largely uninterested in learning through traditional teaching methods. Two out of three high school students say they are bored in class every day, according to an Indiana University study. Then they go home and fire up Khan Academy to view online lessons to better understand concepts they didn’t get in school.
“Today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” wrote Marc Prensky, a former teacher and author, in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.”
By the time students reach their early 20s, they have spent some 10,000 hours playing video games, on average, sent and received 200,000 e-mail messages and instant messages, but have allotted just 5,000 hours to reading books, reports Prensky.
Adults often complain that these trends signify a move away from learning. Yet Peter Cookson Jr., of Teachers College of Columbia University, observes in a 2013 report on blended learning that the digital world is “alive with ideas, communication and new ways of problem solving,” which allow the youngest of students to learn “with greater speed and more deeply.” John Seely Brown, a computing pioneer who researches learning, believes students read differently now, navigating and discovering materials not laid out by any traditional rules of order. Navigation, he argues in “Growing Up Digital,” is the literacy of the 21st century.
The students who will arrive on college campuses in the next 10 years will want to absorb and apply knowledge on their terms. They will decide when, where, and how they learn and what it means to have a degree. Here’s just three ways these students of tomorrow will help change higher education:
Hybrid learning. Most 18-year-olds don’t want a college experience that’s all online, but that doesn’t mean they don’t expect and even welcome learning online as an integrated part of their overall experience. When it comes to course delivery, too many campuses continue to think in silos: students who take courses online, those who take them face-to-face, and those who take hybrid classes—courses that are partly online. But today’s students don’t operate in such silos and can easily move through all three in any given day.
Take the University of Central Florida, for instance, where each year 60 percent of residential students take an online or hybrid course in any given semester. Or nearby Rollins College, which is part of a group of 16 colleges spanning several states where a professor on any one of the campuses teaches a course shared through video conferencing with the other campuses. While online education won’t make campuses extinct in the near future, it will play a growing role at traditional schools by giving students more options to take classes outside of their home institution, accelerating the pace to completing a degree or serving as a supplement to a face-to-face course.
Personalized education. The American higher-education system is mostly a one-size-fits-all approach, with four-year degrees, 15-week semesters, and residential campuses. But we all learn in different ways and at different speeds, which is why many students get frustrated and drop out of the system.
This is where data analytics—increasingly used in the private sector and behind many of our consumer Internet experiences—can be applied to education. By analyzing the massive amounts of data we are collecting on how students learn, we can tune teaching to the individual needs of the student, not the average student in the classroom. Such adaptive learning practices can personalize learning much in the same way that Amazon recommends products or Netflix suggests movies, and bend the cost curve in higher education by reducing the time to a degree.
Rethinking the calendar. It used to be that we could go to college at 18, graduate at 22, and then remain employed for the next 40-plus years with that knowledge. We still think of college as one physical place that we go to at one point in our lifetime even though we’re living longer and the average worker changes jobs every four years.
The students of tomorrow will demand that the academic calendar become much more flexible than the one we have today. It may start at 18, but not necessarily in the traditional way, as many students simply are not ready for college at that age. They will seek alternative pathways to college, whether through jobs or national service. Once at college, they will come to see campuses as platforms for lifelong learning, not just as a place where you spend four years. They will look for “universities for life,” where they can access education in small chunks throughout their lifetimes.
The question is not whether colleges will embrace alterations to their current 19th century model, but when it will happen. A few hundred colleges have the status and money to remain resistant to the forces bearing down on higher education right now. But the colleges and universities that the vast majority of Americans attend will need to change if they want to survive and thrive.