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7 'Wicked Problems' Facing Higher Education and Solutions to Address Them in 2023

In its December 2022 report, "Solving Higher Education's Wicked Problems," WGU Labs, the research arm of Western Governors University, identified seven areas that need solutions based on the science of learning if higher education is to address the challenges facing it now and in the future. The report predicts steps higher education institutions will and should take in 2023.

The term "wicked problems," coined in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, refers to complex social problems that lack clarity in their aims and solutions. In terms of higher education, WGU Labs believes institutions are not delivering what students need and expect from their education, and they are "seeking career-aligned credentials elsewhere with 220 million learners using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2021, and non-academic providers offering 549,712 badges, course completion certificates, licenses, certifications, and apprenticeships," according to the report.

WGU Labs, quoting statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that three in five students who enroll in a four-year degree spend time, accrue debt, and don't get their degree within eight years. The organization calls these problems "systemic and interconnected" and says it takes a "cross-functional team with broad expertise," i.e., educators, learning designers, ed tech experts, and researchers to "consider potential solutions in the education technology sector and marketplace, solutions in learning design, and solutions in policy." The report highlights their collective progress in achieving their goals.

The seven "wicked problems" outlined in the report are as follows:

  1. Preparation and access to postsecondary education, especially by students who don't fit the traditional model;
  2. Lack of transparency about college costs and financial aid;
  3. Curriculum, instruction, and support systems not reflecting what is known in social psychology;
  4. Technology-enabled learning models not harnessing what is known about the science of learning;
  5. Diversity of instruction not reflecting the diversity of learners;
  6. The transition from learning to work being unclear to both students and employers;
  7. Continuous work-learn cycles in the modern workforce not being supported.

For each problem, the report outlines why it exists, predictions for how education providers will address it in 2023, what WGU Labs did to study and understand the problem, and what solutions WGU Labs has invested in to address it.

The full report can be found on the download page.

WGU Labs says it "seeks an education ecosystem that provides universal access to meaningful learning experiences that enrich individuals economically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. To achieve this vision, we identify and support scalable solutions that address the biggest challenges in education today." Visit its Learning Design services page to learn more.

About the Author

Kate Lucariello is a former newspaper editor, EAST Lab high school teacher and college English teacher.

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