What does the future of higher ed look like? Leaders from across the education sector dove deep into this question at the annual SXSW EDU conference that was held in Austin, Texas earlier this month. During his keynote session, US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, echoed the need for transformation by stating, “We’re closer to a reset in education than ever before. Let’s not build back something that wasn’t working for everyone.”

So, how should higher ed build back?

As a “learner-centered” ecosystem. Leaders across education agree that we must put students at the center of our design. But what does it look like in practice to be learner-centered?

Across four days of sessions, five key characteristics stood out about what a learner-centered higher ed really looks like.

  1. Viewing Students as Key Stakeholders in Decisions
  2. Inter-Institutional Collaboration, Not Competition
  3. Learning Experiences Connected to Career-Ready Skills
  4. Good Return on Investment for Learners
  5. New Marketplaces of Learner Resources

1 – Viewing Students as Key Stakeholders in Decisions

One way to approach decision making is to take your student’s perspective. Gregory Fowler, President of University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) suggested in one of his SXSW EDU sessions, that when making decisions we must ask: “Are we thinking about what serves students well, or are we keeping ourselves [administration] comfortable?”

Thomas Cavanagh of University of Central Florida pointed out in his SXSW EDU session that most higher education policy and systems are built for a traditional four-year degree and college experience, because that’s largely what leaders and policy makers have experienced. But what about the rest of our students? We need to actually reach out, ask questions, and learn about our students’ needs to design the higher ed ecosystem in a truly learner-centric way.

Working learners, for example, have needs that go beyond academics. President of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell shared a useful story from his own institution in his session at SXSW EDU. Paul Quinn had started a football program, given their ubiquity across major state universities. But they quickly realized their students needed food, not football. They converted their football field into an urban farm that now serves their students and the broader community. A poignant example of listening to students’ needs before taking action.

2 – Inter-Institutional Collaboration, Not Competition

Education leaders at SXSW EDU brought a cooperative and innovative spirit to their visions of the future. Collaboration, not competition is the path to creating a learner-centered future of higher ed.

A prime example of innovative collaboration was announced at SXSW EDU when The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) shared the launch on HBCUv – an online network of HBCUs across the country allowing students to take online courses at other institutions, and connect with scholars and students. “While a single HBCU is strong, the collective genius of us all is stronger.” said presenter Edward Smith-Lewis of UNCF.

A learner-centered future breaks down institutional silos and works in networks to innovate and support students. And with the ubiquity of online learning in today’s higher ed ecosystem, there’s no reason not to collaborate. “There is no possible future in which online education is not an integral part of higher ed.” affirmed Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance, Bridget Burns during a panel discussion at SXSW EDU.

And we shouldn’t stop at only creating connections among institutions, we need to build community partnerships as well. Justin Lonon of Dallas College noted in his SXSW EDU session that the goal shouldn’t be for institutions to provide everything themselves, there are a variety of companies and technologies that we can, and should, be connecting our students with to meet their needs.

3 – Learning Experiences Connected to Career-Ready Skills

Students pursue college and other post-secondary options to advance in their career, but if learning experiences don’t prepare students for the workplace, then we’re not focusing on student needs.

President of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell, recognizes this and has built what he calls is the first “urban-work college”. Rather than students participating in campus work study, students get opportunities with local companies during college, which gives them direct experience building the skills they need in their careers.

Competency-based education models are another emerging solution to get learners the skills they need to succeed. President of Western Governors University (WGU), Scott Pulsipher shared the benefits of this education model for learners at SXSW EDU. “Our curriculum design [at WGU] maps learning outcomes directly to skills needed in the jobs they are pursuing, such that when individuals complete their courses they are deemed proficient in the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.”

And this is good news considering a forthcoming survey by American Student Assistance (ASA) and Jobs for the Future(JFF) presented at SXSW EDU shows that 81% of employers agree that organizations should hire based on skills rather than only degrees.

4 – Good Return on Investment for Learners

A traditional four-year degree is expensive, with the cost more than doubling in the 21st century alone. And students are questioning its value, with 65% of students reporting that higher education is no longer worth the cost.

As more working learners pursue education pathways, it’s imperative that they are getting a good return on investment. But not all institutions hold up their end of the bargain for students. Data shared by Michael Itzkowitz of Third Way during WGU’s SXSW EDU session showed that many institutions are graduating students with four-year degrees who earn less than the average high school graduate. If a primary goal of higher ed is to create economic mobility for learners, then we must focus on ensuring that promise is proven to the students we enroll.

5 – New Marketplaces of Learner Resources

Textbook and course materials costs are an unnecessary burden on students. Now that content can be easily curated and shared online, traditional learning resources are being disrupted by new innovative offerings.

For example, UMGC president Gregory Fowler shared at SXSW EDU that they switched to open educational resources (OERs), which are freely accessible content for teaching and learning. The result? UMGC estimates that the switch has saved their students $17M+ in course materials costs.

Argos Education is an EdTech startup that is also changing the status quo by creating a marketplace of teaching resources for faculty to curate and customize their course materials, at a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks. By putting the power of content creation and curation back in the hands of faculty, learners benefit from reduced costs and may also enjoy benefits of increased persistence.

As WGU President Scott Pulsipher said at SXSW EDU, “Technology-enabled education is here to stay.” Technology has been the engine of disruptive innovation across the educational ecosystem that is ultimately better designed to serve students. As the populations of learners become increasingly diverse, so too, will the needs of these learners. To ensure that higher ed proves its promise of economic mobility, we must ensure that the future is truly learner-centered.

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