Needing Disruption: Four challenges that higher education needs to solve soon


I recently was asked to give the keynote address at the 3rd Annual Digital Campus Forum in Singapore on a seemingly common topic these days: What will be the “new normal for higher education” after this COVID-19 pandemic finally subsides? Instead of offering my thoughts about what will happen and strategies to get there best, I decided to take the opportunity to share the four most significant challenges I thought that higher education needs to work on immediately.


My top 4 questions: “How are we going to…”

  1. Balance educating students for today vs. tomorrow?
  2. Evaluate students for competency, not just knowledge?
  3. Create more models for students to access higher education?
  4. Use data to educate our students better?


1. Balance educating students for today vs. tomorrow

A frequent complaint that I hear about higher education is that our students are not well prepared to work in our modern workforce; that companies still have to train our graduates to get them ready to do their jobs. In response, our schools rush to hire instructors that can teach our students the latest computer language or statistical program, so their graduates can put this skill on their CV. Without some of these skills, many of our graduates won’t even get an interview at their desired (usually high tech) companies. Students (and their parents) criticize schools because they don’t offer enough courses on what these businesses are seemingly looking for.

Companies’ short-term interest is to want employees “ready to start on day 1,” but higher education institutions must fight the urge to just train students for these jobs. Instead, they need to avoid adopting a tunnel vision approach toward dealing only with immediate outcomes and also thoughtfully consider what skills these graduates need for their second and third jobs as well. As opposed to earlier generations when people spent their entire careers in one company, today’s generation of workers will likely over their lifetimes have multiple jobs in multiple industries, using skills that haven’t even been invented yet.

In this rush to prepare students for the modern workforce, there hasn’t been enough consideration of how to train for the core skills (commonly called 21st Century skills: collaboration, communication, critical and creative thinking, how to learn) as well. How many courses do our current students take where the learning objectives include these skills? In the past, schools also played a significant role in building the moral character of their students. Universities need to set and honor specific role models for our students to emulate.

Many believe that these skills just develop on their own. I beg to differ; they should be explicitly taught and nurtured.

2. Evaluate students for competency, not just knowledge

Universities are no longer the only organizations that teach learners. They now compete with many other bodies that are often very innovative with their teaching: MOOCs (such as Coursera, EdX), large businesses have their own “universities” for their employees and let’s not forget there are internet sites such as YouTube or Pinterest where considerable learning occurs. And some would argue that these other organizations do a better job in teaching skills than our universities.

While Universities should continue to strive to teach better, they need to move up the “value chain” and take responsibility for more than just good teaching. They should be the organizations trusted by society to certify knowledge and skill acquisition. Unfortunately, we need to dramatically improve the way we assess learners for competency. While our course examinations typically measure memory, what is more important (and more challenging to do) is to measure learning (the ability to process, apply, create using what we have memorized). It is our graduates’ ability to use what they have learned that matters, not their ability to repeat to others whatever facts their professors have told them.

Also, as I stated above, we need to teach and evaluate our students not just on the skills required for that first job, but on how well they can learn and think, collaborate with others, and communicate on many different platforms and their character development. How often do our schools provide feedback to their students on their competency in these skills? We need our academic institutions to innovate and develop better assessment measures. How do we expect students to improve (or even value) these skills if we don’t measure them in some way? How do we expect our schools to improve how they educate unless they know how well they are doing? (Liu, 2011)


3. Create more models for students to access higher education

In the past, almost all of those enrolling in higher education had just graduated from high school/junior college. They were carefree and willing to put out the cash for tuition and accept the opportunity costs of attending school full-time for several years. Those who didn’t have the money could easily borrow money to learn with others their age. It was a chance for many students to delay their entrance into the workforce and have fun. To attract even more students, our college campuses improved their campus environments (almost as if competing with country clubs). They seemed to sell the increased cost of tuition and fees based more on improvements in these amenities rather than improving what the students were learning. Unfortunately, many students couldn’t afford the cost of education and dropped out or left with tremendous debt.

Today’s learners are increasingly diverse: they may be from poor backgrounds unable to easily pay for their college education. They might be young parents raising children and wanting to finish their education at the same time, or working adults needing additional training to keep up to date. Students might find the need to take longer than usual to complete their education, perhaps mixing their formal education with their full-time careers. What should affordable education look like for these diverse student needs?

Our educational programs range from high-cost institutions such as the elite private universities, where small groups of students meet face-to-face with brilliant professors who question and shape their thinking, to low (or no)-cost MOOCs (massive online courses), where thousands of learners anonymously and passively listen to lectures on video.

We need to create different models of education that fit in-between those two bookends. These models need to accommodate our diverse learners seeking other goals with their education with varied willingness and ability to pay the cost to attend and devote the time necessary to graduate from school. And how can we incorporate the learning that students achieve outside of their universities (either in high school or informally in other learning settings) to allow them to graduate in less time and cost?

All learners are questioning the return of investment of higher education. One strategy is to offer different models for students to choose from in order for them to make informed choices. We need to solve what high-quality/low-cost education looks like.


 4. Use data to educate our students better

Education (and unfortunately, even educational change) is mostly driven by tradition rather than science and data. We teach students using instructional strategies used when we were taught and are comfortable with, rather than what the evidence says works best. If we are told that didactic lectures aren’t a good way to transmit large amounts of facts to students, we think we are the exception to the rule, and that statement applies to everyone else but us.

We mostly depend on our student’s perceptions about who is a good teacher or what are the best ways to teach. But we exhaust our students with endless requests for feedback, and the quality of that feedback suffers. And we know from research that this approach is fraught with problems. While students are in the best position to assess their experience with their learning environment and experience (for example, the teacher treated me with respect, was easy to talk with, or the classroom was too cold and uncomfortable), learning researchers have established that students frequently do not accurately assess how much they learned. You could be a great teacher in the eyes of your students, but that does not mean your students learned anything. The reverse is true as well.

While it is easy to ask students for feedback, it turns out that the real test of learning requires collecting data on what the students learned, not what they perceived they learned. We need to take greater care of how we evaluate our teachers and the learning experiences they create for students. Since we increasingly have the data that can help with that, we need to turn to data as the best way to enhance our educational programs. Universities can also use data in areas such as the early identification of students who could use additional assistance. Perhaps someday, they’ll even be able to suggest personalized help to individual students guiding them on the best way for them to learn.

The most insightful schools are only now starting to capitalize on their data to benefit student learning. This task is not trivial and requires considerable time and effort to develop the infrastructure to support this challenge.



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