On Sept. 20 a group of experts did their best to predict the seemingly unpredictable during a panel discussion on the delivery of higher education five years from now.
The discussion, held before a capacity crowd at the I Hotel and Conference Center, was sponsored by the Illinois Board of Higher Education's Faculty Advisory Council, chaired by Abbas Aminmansour, a U. of I. professor of architecture and a member of the Urbana Academic Senate's executive committee.
"We are in the midst of monumental change in higher education," said IBHE Executive Director Harry Berman prior to the discussion. "We know that the postsecondary credential is the new minimum for entry into the middle class."
Even so, amid the fast-shifting global economy, he said that value is being called into question as far as affordability, underemployment of recent graduates and calls from the highest levels of government for more accountability and better academic outcomes.
"These criticisms have merit and should be addressed," he said.
The Urbana campus's Charles Tucker III, the vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation, gave the opening remarks and Nicholas Burbules, the Gutgsell Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, was on the panel.
Tucker said student learning has to be at the center of whatever changes occur, and for the U. of I. in particular, the outcome must lead to positive impact outside of university walls.
"It's not only a private, individual good," he said. "It's also a public good. It touches on the very future of humanity."
Panelist Lynne Haeffele, the senior policy director for Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, said four simultaneously occurring forces have left higher education struggling to prove its merit: the global economy, the technological revolution, shifting demographics and student cost.
The changes have affected the kind of knowledge students want to acquire, "which are different skills than just accumulated knowledge from experts on campus," Haeffele said.
She said the fact that 140,000 high-skilled jobs go "perpetually unfilled" every year in Illinois proves there is "a pretty serious skills mismatch" when it comes to the qualifications of the state's workers.
Gov. Pat Quinn has issued a call to state education leaders to develop strategies to have 60 percent of the state's residents possess a college-level credential by 2025.
Haeffele said leaders should embrace new technology and look at new ways to better prepare students in an effort to reach that 60 percent goal. She said doing so could also address some of the student cost issues as well.
"Delivery models have not changed that much," she said, but technology "has changed everything. I'm not sure that the (classroom) model fits the modern world."
She said solutions must be student-centered, involve quicker credentialing and a greater reliance on community colleges for basic courses, be geared toward helping the regional economy of a college or university, and address costs.
"The greater the contribution (to the region's success), the easier it will be for communities to support the institutions," she said.
Burbules challenged the terminology of "delivering" content, saying educators must rethink their approach and consider how students are "accessing" it.
Having the ability to access content anytime, anywhere "changes certain expectations of the learner," he said. "It's a different kind of teaching/learning model" where learning becomes "more situated, more contextual."
With online learning, blended classrooms and massive open online courses becoming more popular, Burbules said professors must consider the information and knowledge they possess, with the challenge being how best to make it available. The "chunks" that make sense to them may not be the format that best reaches students.
Even the modern MOOC movement, outside of its vast reach, falls short of a content-access revolution, he said.
"It has lots of potential," he said, "but it's still a very traditional model" that in most cases relies on videotaped lectures and automated quizzes.
He said recouping costs for some of the high-tech options still pose a challenge, though several models are emerging. He also noted new research possibilities, driven by the vast amount of student data being collected from online course-takers.
Sylvia Manning, the president of the North Central Association's Higher Learning Commission and former UIC chancellor, said the online movement "has its promises and has its risks."
She suggested "embracing it enthusiastically" but not throwing the traditional model completely overboard.
She said there are still concerns of how to measure student competency and she worries about "machine teaching" leading to "phony personalization" at the expense of face-to-face exchange and discovery.
"Taking human interaction out is questionable," she said. Regardless of the device, at the most basic level, "people still want to learn things by sitting in a chair."
There also are gray areas on how online course work fits into the traditional credit hour system and how those credits should be considered for transfer students.
She said there also may be unintended consequences in the "unbundling of faculty roles," and that universities should resist the urge to outsource online course work construction to cut costs.
Ultimately, it's the universities who have to make those judgments, and whose reputation is on the line, because accreditation is based on an institution's "capacity to (academically) regulate itself."
For the "elite institutions," she predicted some kind of blending of face-to-face and technology-based learning in the next five years.
"What we need to be alert to is what will happen everywhere else," she said.
Mike Baumgartner, Complete College America's vice president of finance and special projects, said institutions have to find new ways to reach out and provide students with options to navigate a host of challenges to attain a degree and better invest in their success.
According to his organization, 41 percent of students who start college aren't ready for credit-bearing college-level work, resulting in discouragement, delay and dropouts.
He said that could be remedied with a greater emphasis on remediation instruction, even requiring it in some instances, and using a system of "proactive advisers" to target students more prone to academic stress, such as first-generation students.
Beyond accessing high-tech classroom content, Baumgartner suggested universities look at expanding scheduling options to students with family and work obligations or other impediments.
He said they also should consider bundling content under new and inventive program structures rather than course by course. Such programs, or "meta-majors," could be designed to serve redefined student cohorts and would decrease the number of unclassified students.
Any new structures should include the preparation of "academic maps" for individual students, he said, which include "milestone courses" to ensure they are learning prerequisite material before advancing.
"(The maps) allow students to see exactly where they are," he said. "Students don't 'discover' the right path - the academic map is the default schedule."