Peter Smith, EdD: How is Technology Disrupting Higher Education and Career Paths in the Digital Age?

By Peter Smith, EdD    //    Volume 27,  Number 6   //    November/December 2019

Peter Smith, EdD, is the interim senior vice president and chief academic officer and the Orkand Endowed Chair at University of Maryland Global Campus and author of Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career and Education.

How are the pathways to degrees changing today and why should trustees be aware of this?
Pathways are changing because the demands for the availability of knowledge and the pattern in which that knowledge is delivered are both changing dramatically. Pathways are becoming more personalized and employment oriented and more immediate in terms of turnaround time. What we are seeing is referred to as the 60-year curriculum, in which the participation in formal learning or the recognition of prior learning is cyclical and ongoing, not fixed with a degree at the end.

We are entering a world of older learners cycling and recycling through institutions or through institutional programs that are not on traditional campuses, are more employment or learner friendly, and are ongoing or cyclical.

This is a fundamentally different economic and instructional model than a campus-based model. Disruptive theory tells us that the very strengths an institution has traditionally enjoyed can become its major weaknesses in a changing marketplace. This takes place precisely because the way time, money, and resources are invested to create that strength become obstacles to responding to the changing demands in the environment around the institution.

This disruption can effectively put the business in question—in this case, a college or university—out of business. In other words, an institution’s historic strengths can insulate that college from changing demand.

How has technology disrupted higher education? How will it continue to disrupt it?

These are the $64,000 questions! In an information-scarce society, the traditional university was essential, the only way to organize and deliver a curriculum. The same is true for libraries. Ben Franklin once said that the library was the poor man’s university. This “law of scarcity” remained true, arguably, until about 10 years ago.

The disruptive change that is coming is based on the notion of life-long learning being more than a phrase. Lifelong Learning is becoming a technologically supported, highly personalized and purposeful reality, where learning anywhere, anytime and anything is the norm. Indeed, when this becomes an operational reality, how an institution of higher learning supports, aides, and abets that learning must change.

Technology, artificial intelligence, data analytics, online content being developed by entities like edX or career information created by organizations like eMSI, will change too. The result is that content, validation of learning, and the social, civic, and economic consequences of learning are no longer controlled by institutions. When information scarcity is replaced by information abundance, institutions must reevaluate their operational models and their assumptions about success.

What are the most important things trustees need to know about how higher education institutions can better prepare students to graduate and be competitive in this emerging revolution of college, career and education today?

Trustees can understand the future of their respective institutions by following a straight-line projection (enrollment, costs, and tuition) that starts five years in the past and goes 10 years into the future. If the trends of the last five years persist, what is the story for the institution? This exercise will illuminate the degree of urgency that the institution faces if it does nothing to respond to the changes in society.

Institutions often ignore the danger signs until they are so short of resources that nothing can be done to remedy the situation.

By ascertaining the urgency, you can than think about the desired future and reverse engineer a solution back to what a starting point might be. Next, leaders should seek help and advice—likely not in-house if you are a traditional institution—to test various solutions.

If the solution is something as simple as a weekend program, that is less complicated. However, if a solution is using Open Educational Resources (OERs) in an online program, implementing that solution is more complicated. OERs are free, but then upselling them into a degree program, where the learner is paying for advice and face-to-face faculty interaction and teaching, academic planning, and assessment of learning, is more complex.

Deciding what resources you need will depend on your desired future. That’s why reverse engineering is the right way to go. You know the old saying: If you don’t have a plan, any path will get you there. This is truer than ever in today’s higher education environment.