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15 Trends Shaping the Future of Higher Education

The Educause 2020 Horizon Report has identified 15 social, technological, higher education and political trends that are influencing teaching and learning in higher ed today — and will have a lasting impact on tomorrow.

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"Anticipating the future is human nature …. Anticipating the future is risky …. Anticipating the future is necessary." Those bold statements opened the latest Educause Horizon Report, an annual forecast and analysis of education technology trends in higher education. Its goal: "to inform decision makers and help learners, instructors, and leaders think more deeply about the educational technology choices they are making and their reasons for doing so."

For more than a decade, the Horizon Report organized its predictions according to an adoption timeline: time-to-adoption of one year or less; time-to-adoption of two to three years; and time-to-adoption of four-to-five years. The 2020 report has broken from that format, in the "first major revision of the report's methodology, structure, and content." It cited criticism of the report's prediction track record (see, for example, The Horizon Never Moves" from Hack Education), moving away from the time-to-adoption structure while recognizing that "our thoughts about the future are rooted in the present and how it has changed from the past." The result: a focus on the evidence, data and scenarios behind the ed tech trends that will inform decision-making today and in the future.

The 2020 report named 15 trends across five categories: social, technological, economic, higher education, and political. In the social sphere:

  • Well-Being and Mental Health. Colleges and universities "need to support the increasing numbers of students who report experiencing anxiety, depression, and related concerns," the report said. "Faculty and administrators will need to navigate more frequent encounters with students seeking well-being and mental health help, since students who do not have effective intervention services or treatment available to them will likely be less successful in academic and social activities."
  • Demographic Changes. These shifts are "leading to a new outlook on how higher education must serve students in the future." In particular, "increasing numbers of nontraditional students and changes in the concept of the 'typical' student will continue to force institutions to consider alternative approaches to higher education."
  • Equity and Fair Practices. Here, the report pointed to the increasing prevalence of equity and diversity goals, including institutional goals for equity completion outcomes that are tied to funding.  

In the technological category:

  • Artificial Intelligence: Technology Implications. The report predicted that AI will increasingly be used "by human instructors for providing feedback on student work and for helping with other 'virtual teaching assistant' applications," noting that the technology "may also have applications for refining language translation and for improving access for students with visual or hearing impairments.
  • Next-Generation Digital Learning Environment. The NGDLE is "creating a transformational shift in how institutions architect their learning ecosystems for learners and instructors," with an emphasis on open standards, the report said. As a result, both learners and instructors will have more freedom to experiment with new approaches to education.   
  • Analytics and Privacy Questions. The growth of analytics in higher education has, in turn, let to student privacy becoming an increasingly important consideration. Here, the report advised that "institutions will need to be more proactive in protecting student and employee data and must make careful decisions around partnerships and data exchanges with other organizations, vendors, and governments."

In the economic category:

  • Cost of Higher Education. Of note here: rising tuition costs, decreased funding from public and other sources, and expanding student debt, the report said. "Institutions need to demonstrate their value and/or adjust to economic realities with new business/funding models."
  • Future of Work and Skills. "Institutions will need to adjust their courses, curricula, and degree programs to meet learners' needs, as well as the demands of new industries and an evolving workforce," the report asserted.
  • Climate Change. Here, the report predicted that "sustainable living and learning will become a higher priority for higher education institutions," with more institutions focusing on online learning.

In the higher education category:

  • Changes in Student Population. Dropping college enrollment rates combined with increased student diversity "requires institutional leaders to rethink how to achieve their teaching and learning missions and will demand a new emphasis on holistic student success," the report noted.
  • Alternative Pathways to Education. Among the new learning models that institutions will have to contend with: nano- and micro-degrees, competency-based programs, expanded online options, portable and standards-based credentials, and institutional collaboration and partnerships, the report said.
  • Online Education. "Online education is increasingly seen as a scalable means to provide courses to an increasingly nontraditional student population," the report said. That means faculty "must be prepared to teach in online, blended, and face-to-face modes."

And in the political category:

  • Decrease in Higher Education Funding. In the face of this trend, institutions will need to pursue alternative business and funding models, the report said, such as "privatization of the industry, microcredentialing, establishing partnerships with other industries or organizations, and other more sustainable models."
  • Value of Higher Education. Public perceptions of the value of a college education are varied. "As overall enrollments continue to decline, institutions will be forced to identify alternative education or business models," the report noted.
  • Political Polarization. Differing political worldviews are leading to heightened tension on campus, but perhaps more important for institutions in the United States, "legislation that could benefit higher education will become more difficult to pass through an intensely polarized Congress and entrenched political positions."

Ultimately, keeping track of these big-picture developments is key to navigating the future of teaching and learning. After all, the report said, "Teaching and learning doesn't take place in a vacuum … and understanding the trajectories of such large-scale trends can only help decision makers and professionals build more responsive and sustainable environments and practices at their institutions."

The full report, including analysis of each trend's impacts along with supporting evidence and links to further reading, is available on the Educause site.

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