Why 2019 May Provide a Roadmap to the Future of Higher Ed

Higher Ed January / Special / January 16, 2019

-by Thomas Mennella-

I believe it’s fair to say that higher education is rapidly approaching a crisis scenario. The public’s trust in a college degree is fading, while colleges and universities are simultaneously struggling to make ends meet. This crisis will drive a new phase of evolution for higher ed, which should build off of the strengths and lessons of Flipped Learning. 

About two-thirds of all college graduates feel that earning their degree helped them grow, either personally or intellectually, and only 53% of those same graduates believe that their degree is useful for opening job opportunities (source). These are not the statistics of success. Let me reframe these for you: one-third of all college graduates do not feel that earning their degree helped them grow, either personally or intellectually, while roughly half claim that their degrees do not open job opportunities or provide useful skills needed for employment. That is both horrifying and, as a college professor myself, embarrassing. 

But those are the opinions of college graduates. What does the larger public think of higher education? It’s not any better. Only 16% of surveyed Americans believe that a four-year degree well-prepares graduates for a good paying job in today’s economy. That’s contrasted to 26% of Americans feeling that certification programs “in a professional, technical, or vocational field prepare students very well” (source). When the public believes that brief and inexpensive certification programs do a much better job at career preparation than expensive four-year college degree programs, that means higher ed is in trouble. Just see the Pew Research report.

So with the public’s trust in a college education rapidly waning, at least the industry of higher education has its financial house in order and is fiscally solvent, right? Not quite, it seems. Moody’s Investors Service has recently determined that 25% of private colleges are running at budget deficits, and for public universities, revenues last year grew at 2.9% while expenses climbed by a much larger 4.8% (source). And the next generation of college-aged students will be those that saw their parents amass over $1.3 trillion in student loan debt for questionable job-readiness and job-security (source). Do we really expect those future students to do the same? The Washington Post summarizes the effects of these forces better than I ever could: “That means colleges won’t have much of an ability to raise prices in the future, putting more pressure on them to cut costs, develop different pricing models or build entirely new models for the traditional four-year residential college.” (source) Do you believe me now that higher ed is in trouble?

But where do we go from here? Society benefits from an effective higher education system (key word there is: effective). A more well-rounded, liberally educated, and intellectual populace improves the nation as a whole, so we can’t just let higher ed go the way of the dinosaurs; it needs to evolve and adapt. The most likely direction for this evolution is towards online education. Online learning is far less expensive to offer, and so it would take a great deal of financial pressure off of institutions while also allowing them to offer a college education at a much more affordable price for students. But online education, in its current incarnation, is not the way forward. Have you ever taken a typical online college course? I have. They’re awful. Each week, you’re asked to complete an almost impossible amount of reading on your own. You then answer one or two pre-canned “discussion questions,” and you’re required to respond to the answers posted by a handful of your peers. There is virtually no genuine engagement with your classmates, it is far too easy to “game the system” doing very little to get by, and learning retention is negligible. If this version of online education represents the future of higher education, then the future looks quite bleak indeed for my industry.

So let’s don our futurist caps and think big. We already know from over a decade of success with Flipped Learning that effective education requires active, student-centered learning that fosters deep relationships both between students and among teacher and students. This active learning should promote collaboration between all learners, be differentiated to reach every single student each and every day, and leverage the best and most cutting-edge technologies to realize these educational ambitions, even for large classes with many students. In fact, don’t take my word for it. Master educators from all over the world painstakingly amassed a set of global standards for effective education (through a flipped learning lens). Using this lens, let’s imagine a future of online higher education that is rooted in the best educational practices that Flipped Learning has to offer:

We’ll call this iteration of online education Cloud-Based College (CBC) because, indeed, that’s what it will be: a college education in the cloud. Colleges and universities will no longer have a physical footprint because all facets of the college education experience will occur in the cloud, thereby saving colleges and their students’ vasts sums of money. But educationally, excellence will be preserved (if not improved). Each week, students will independently watch instructor-generated videos that cover the basics of that week’s instruction and hit the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (understand and remember). Then the class will convene; not asynchronously like most of online education is handled today, but at a set time like a genuine on-ground college class. However, in this near future, students use 360-degree cameras and holographic projectors in their home to stream into class. If this sounds like Star Trek to you, it shouldn’t. At home holographic projectors that really do project three-dimensional holograms right in your living room already exist! This technology will allow each student, from wherever in the world they are, to join the class. Students will be seated side by side in the virtual holographic classroom, able to interact in real time. And this is where the active, student-centered and collaborative learning takes place, achieving the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy that current online education models don’t come close to reaching. The instructor will present a group space activity, and students will work on and through it together, just like they do today in the best and most effective college classrooms across the world. And it will work because we know it works, already. We have a growing body of research and an entire flipped university proving that this approach to active learning is successful.

Why reinvent a college education when we already have a robust legacy of failures (lecture-based instruction) and success (Flipped Learning) to learn from? This future of higher ed that I described would preserve effective college-level learning, reduce costs significantly for both institutions and students, and make college accessible to a far wider swath of potential students. It would be a win-win for all.

This future is rooted in the very best that Flipped Learning offers, informed and guided by the core components of effective Flipped Learning that have been identified and defined by one hundred educators hailing from over 49 different countries. I am referring, of course, to the Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning (GEEFL), which codify best educational practices.  

Above, I describe a future for higher education that features student-centered, active learning (Ss, Al), and which would promote student collaboration and the building of positive relationships (Cb, R) in an environment that will reach every student, every day (Df). This scalable approach (Bc) leverages high-tech tools (Ct), but remains focused on what students need to learn, and the best ways for learning it (Ep). 





All of that aside, however, what’s most important is that this approach could save higher education and return higher ed to its role of educating the masses in the service of society. 

The landscape of higher education is changing right out from under us. It must evolve, or topple. The future envisioned above is just one possible future, but – from where I stand – it represents perhaps the best and most realistic option. As we enter this new year, reflecting on years past and looking forward to a new beginning and the cusp of a new decade, we must ask ourselves: are we ready to adapt? I certainly hope so, for I deeply believe in this wonderful thing that we call higher education.


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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