Elliot Gowans, senior VP International, D2L

The world of education is changing. In the face of technological progress and the drive towards flexible study environments, educational institutions are evaluating the way they deliver learning. Where there is pressure on tuition fees, universities compete more than ever for students. Yet securing enrolments is only part of the picture, to maximise course completion rates, universities must monitor student progress and continually evolve courses in line with changing demands and needs.

In the face of this, what will universities look like in the future? Some indicators already exist, one being that technology uptake is influencing how courses are delivered and how students interact with educational institutions.

Another factor is clear, employers are keen to work with universities to meet the skills needs they have now and those they expect to have in the coming years. Indeed, a CBI / Pearson survey among UK businesses found that more than half (54%) of those with ties to higher education increased their engagement over the past year.

With these things in mind, we expect that universities of the future will:

1. Be needs-driven with more flexible delivery of courses

The way we learn is changing. Where content used to be consumed from books and assessments submitted on paper, now learning is increasingly online and on mobile. Learning is collaborative and makes use of a wider range of formats including video and online discussions. Grading and assessment is frequently carried out digitally.

Institutions that undergo a digital transformation will enable further enhancements to be made to the flexible delivery of adaptable learning. This will support our changing relationship with higher education, which used to end in our early twenties but now extends for many into later life. Online degrees will continue to develop to meet lifestyle requirements of career changers; technology affords us the capability to incorporate learning into our lives when we work and have families with learning platforms that can be accessed from a range of devices.

Within universities themselves, learning spaces will promote collaboration and interaction with technological devices, bringing a wealth of additional tools and material to add richness to lectures, tutorials and the learning experience.

2. Have tighter links with employers

Learning should not exist in isolation, separate from the world of work that it supports and which, ultimately, graduates will go on to be a part of. Tighter links between enterprise and education can benefit educators, employers and, most importantly, students.

Initiatives like Degree apprenticeships, already facilitating real-world working experience for students, will increasingly foster close collaboration between enterprise and universities. Technology will enable students to stay on track with their learning wherever they are. Ellen Buck, Head of Learning Services at the University of Suffolk, which already has experience of programmes that deliver at least a third of the content online, says: “We know that learning doesn’t happen only in university, that it happens in the home and, for our nursing students, in their hospitals.”

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3. Support more rapidly evolving course content as skills demands evolve

The lifecycle of skills is getting shorter and this, coupled with the need to meet demands for new skills as technology, and other factors, change the shape of the workplace, will push the need for courses to evolve.

Here again, the importance of employers and educators working together comes to the fore. Worldwide responses to a recent QS/Institute of Student Employers report, which examined the relationship between graduate skills and employer expectations, revealed that the three most important skills perceived by employers are problem solving, teamwork and communication. This highlights the importance of building transferable skills among students so that they are equipped when they enter the workplace to take on all the challenges they will face, not just those that test their technical skills.

4. Be data-driven

Digital-based learning offers many benefits, none with a greater impact than the ability to collect, organise and gain insight from data. As the way in which students interact with their learning content is captured, and the outcomes they achieve at all stages of their course is clear to see in the data, the opportunity exists to harness learning from this insight and use it to make data-driven decisions.

These include rapid interventions that can help address issues we see today of students dropping out of courses. The reasons why this happens may be discoverable in the data and – most importantly – at a time when preventative action is still possible. This action can include arranging more tutorial time or providing access to additional resources to plug knowledge gaps that are preventing students from moving on.

What’s more, data can be used to continually improve courses in both how they operate and how they engage students.

5. Engender a mindset of lifelong learning

Students attending the universities of the future can expect that their learning will not end with the completion of their degree. Rather, learning will occupy a place in their adult working lives, for continuous development, career progression and, when required, reskilling.

Establishing this mindset in higher education will equip graduates for the workplace. Indeed, CBI/Pearson assert that, “businesses will need to incorporate a culture of lifelong learning to provide training and development opportunities that meet the demands of the future.” Graduates entering the workplace with this expectation will push for, as well as anticipate, these opportunities and this will help ensure the process of continuous development is a smooth one.

Elliot Gowans, Senior VP International, D2L

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