The Future of Education: University Learning

It seems a bit ironic that at a time when employers are struggling to fill skilled jobs—7 in 10 employers reported talent shortages in 2019—recent graduates are simultaneously struggling to find good jobs. A significant percentage of recent graduates are underemployed—working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Sadly, 40% of college seniors are graduating without the fundamental skills required in today’s workplace–both technical skills as well as soft skills such as critical thinking and complex reasoning.

As the cost of higher education rises, the stakes of the skills gap also rise. Students are expecting universities to equip them with the skills they will need to enter the workforce, but the real value of the degree diminishes when the cost to obtain it is more than a student will be able to repay with two decades of work. And increasingly, employers in technical fields are putting more emphasis on skills than degrees, leading many young people to bypass higher ed entirely.

Universities Are Struggling to Adapt

Administrators answer to multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting initiatives. And the accountability incentives are pegged to variables such as the number of students that graduate, or selectivity of acceptance, but not to more meaningful and practical outcomes such as student success post-graduation, or employer satisfaction with graduate skill levels and career readiness.

This is the state of the skills gap—arguably one of the gnarliest of the looming issues facing students, employers and educators.

At Modernist, we look toward the future with curiosity, always searching more innovative solutions based on emerging patterns—and here we see bits and pieces of a new model emerging. This evolution is being fast-tracked by our current remote learning needs—innovation born of necessity. When reflecting on the changes to higher education in 2020, Dr. Stacy Landreth Grau puts it this way:

“When we really put our minds to it, look what we can do. Universities are not known for their innovation, but lots of universities were completely able to redesign their entire education in a couple of months…We’ve been structured the same way since the 1800s. Things have changed and we can design a better system, a better college experience,  K-12 experience, not just for the students but for the faculty, staff, and institutions.”

It is our role as designers, developers, and strategists to help educators navigate this brave new world.

The Future of University Learning is an exploration into what could be. And as the experiences and expectations of students, employers, and educators continue to evolve, we ask ourselves: how can we work together to design a new model that embraces changes made possible by technology. In some cases, these shifts will lead to incremental changes to existing models. And in others, the shifts will be more fundamental—and more contentious.

This is what the Future of University Learning could look like:

An Ever-Changing Syllabus

The syllabus of the future will not be built by instructors who painstakingly assemble content or cling to reused, outdated course structures. Instead, the syllabus—and corresponding course content—will be created dynamically and will constantly evolve based on student needs, technological advances, and societal concerns. Seeded by student interests and passions, driven by machine learning, and constantly revised based on reporting from a national clearinghouse, the syllabus will draw content from public repositories, private libraries, and from professors who benefit from a “teachers pay teachers” model, receiving profit sharing based on usage of their content.

No More Majors

Degree plans will be organized around the skills and capabilities required in a job—skills that meander through multiple subjects and disciplines. Instead of declaring a major, a student will adopt a “tech tree” showing how individualized skills support unique job opportunities at specific companies—based on scraped and normalized data from job postings on sites like LinkedIn, and constantly updating to match the needs of industry.

A Bite-Sized Schedule

Education will be consumed during the in-between time that students have as they balance multiple jobs, kids, errands, and all of the other realities of life. Students will receive instruction while they stand in line at the grocery store or wait for their baby to fall asleep. Their optimal learning time will be identified and refined automatically, delivering the most appropriate amount of content at the best time.

Variable Cost Credentials

Schools will change the cost of their credentials dynamically, based on the earning potential associated with that course of study. Students will be able to see the average lifetime salaries of people who graduated from each program, and they’ll be able to compare that to the rating and performance reviews from employers who hired people with that credential. Students will pay more to gain in-demand skills—and will expect to earn more as a result of completing their academic journey.

A Partner in Crime

Throughout their academic path, students will find individuals who are moving through the same content—at the same pace—at a variety of institutions. Students will be expected to support each other in this journey and can rate on -another on the quality of their partnership. These public ratings, along with measures of personal academic successes, will drive future pairings.

A Source of Support

Finally, the role of the educator will change drastically. More than ever, students navigating a technology-centric academic journey need access to real people to give them guidance, reframe problems, and talk about their experiences. Students will be able to select from a variety of guides (for a variety of prices) who meet with them and provide advice and support. Some of these guides may emerge from traditional academic routes, like the path towards a PhD, but the majority will start to emerge from industry. In this way, students will gain insight from practitioners who have demonstrated their abilities in the workplace.

Looking to learnings from 2020 and forward into new ways of using technology for education, it’s clear that we need to embrace virtual advances while continually evaluating technology requirements based on the real needs of students and educators. By looking at larger systems and trends, we can reshape outdated models and take back control over how we teach and learn.

Our work doesn’t just look at university-level learning. Check out our Future of K-12 Education and speculative Hands-on Homeschool designs and subscribe to our monthly Design Futures email series (below) to explore other futures!