Imagining the Future of Higher Education

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Imagine a student heading to college in 2022. How will her campus experience differ from ours? What changes has digital technology made?

I have been exploring those questions in this space for the past year, probing the future from different angles.1 To wrap up the series, in this final column I'll draw together themes from our very turbulent year. Three scenarios offer divergent stories of that future student's academic experience. Call them science fiction for now, before they become accounts of current events, then history—or myth.

To imagine those futures, we need to identify what shapes them. What are the most powerful forces currently driving change in higher education? An ongoing environmental scan for 2011 reveals a fairly reliable set2 that can be broken down into technological and non-technological drivers.


  • Mobile computing. The number and power of networked portable devices continue to grow. This includes a plethora of devices, multiple network architectures, and a variety of augmented reality (AR) forms.
  • Digitization. The generations-old move to copy atoms in bits continues, from e-books to maps to lifestreaming.
  • Gaming. This global, nearly universal cultural form not only drives hardware and software design, but is infiltrating daily life under the controversial aegis of gamification.
  • Abundance of content. The growing quantity of material shows no sign of stopping. Some is open. Literacy is increasingly a function of coping with post-scarcity information availability.


  • The political crisis over education. Americans are reassessing higher education's value, with the discussion sharpened by chronic economic stress. Questions of accountability and metrics are raised. As then EDUCAUSE President Brian Hawkins remarked in 2010 while addressing that year's NITLE Summit, institutions are competing for a shrinking pool of dollars and being asked to do more with dwindling political backup.3
  • Outsourcing. Shifting institutional functions to external agents has accelerated in recent years, after first impacting American life during post-Cold War globalization.4

Other factors exist, of course, but these powerful forces drive narrative on their own.

Each of the following scenarios is shaped by one or more of these drivers. Each includes an excerpt from an imagined Beloit Mindset List, updated to 2022. The focus is on student experience; to compare with the faculty scholarship experience, see my first column. I endorse none of them, nor do I see one as more likely than the others. They are designed to be provocative, even perverse.

1: Learning at a Distance

It is 2022, and far away is the new nearby.5 Students and workers are accustomed to interacting daily with people they've never met, for projects, meetings, purchases, political organization, and practical services. The Internet mediates most human connections, and schools have been… redistributed.

Most learning is online. Schools are first and foremost aggregators of expert facilitators. Students find instructors and support staff through institutional websites. Classes are scheduled through negotiations between instructor and student, leading to multiple, overlapping timelines. Content is entirely web-based, some in the form of open educational resources (OER); few campuses maintain a physical library anymore. Assessments are outsourced to agencies that conduct them with a mix of artificial intelligence and human proctors. Student-instructor and student-student interaction is generally conducted online through 3D video, both synchronous and asynchronous. The phrases "distance learning" and "commuter college" are rarely used, being redundant.

Face-to-face meetings still happen, but not frequently. They are reserved for curricular instances where physical co-presence adds significantly to learning, such as lab work, meeting with an expert offline, or deepening peer connections. Institutions' physical plants are greatly reduced, consisting largely of office space and one or two stadium-seating presentation venues.

Colleges and universities are not the only players in the education space. Publishers now provide extended experiences around their content, including course management system functions integrated within what used to be textbooks.6 Homeschooling is widespread, especially in demographic groups with high education or unemployment, since abundant online content is so rich and peer interaction is available. Business apprenticeships have rebounded; like on-the-job training, they are empowered by the huge amount of online learning capacity. Colleges and universities compete on this crowded playing field using two new strategies of scale. On the one hand, some states and organizations create huge network systems of institutions, taking advantage of economies of scale. On the other, 2022 is marked by a burgeoning number of micro-academies, academic startups whose small size lets them innovate and iterate rapidly.

Educational content emphasizes the practical and applied, following the distance learning tradition. Quantitatively intensive classes are more easily assessed and fit the American political mood well. Certificate- and badge-based learning remain popular.

Beloit 2022:

  • The typical 18-year-old has taken classes year-round since age 10.
  • Deserted malls are a popular setting for ghost stories.

2: The Serpent Digests a Very Large Mammal

It is 2022, and academia has successfully absorbed the digital world. Nearly all of the 4,000+ institutions of higher education operating in 1992 still exist, and their operations are largely the same: lecture halls and seminar rooms, residential and commuter students, admissions teams to diplomas. Faculty conduct research, teach classes, and do institutional service. Lectures are supported by presentation software, which faculty control by voice commands, but lectures are still delivered out loud to large rooms. Discussion occurs around tables, although participants can use devices mounted on walls or passed around by hand. Outside of class, students learn from rich multimedia content—3D gaming and interacting with holographic "films" using hand gestures—but do so according to a syllabus, on which they are tested.

How did this happen, after the confident early 21st-century predictions of institutional metamorphosis? One reason campuses strategic adoption of technology, emphasizing supplemental uses rather than transformative ones, focusing on logistical instead of pedagogical functions. Schools learned to value technology that made learning easier, not technology that made teaching better.

A second reason was America's Lost Decade (2008–2019 or 2008–2017, depending on your econometric model), which drastically reduced educational spending at all levels. Campuses learned to spend precious technology dollars on functions that promise cost recovery, such as accounting and file management. Schools increasingly exchanged administrative staff for automation and saw a net gain from the great 2013 textbook publishing meltdown. Additionally, scarce funds were increasingly allocated to supporting full-time faculty, a major institutional goal since the AAUP strike of 2015 ended that era's great adjunctification process.

A third reason: after the passage of SOPA 2.0 in 2015, campuses also had to devote support to protecting against illicit use of copyrighted material. In short, resources for educational transformation have been scant for years.

A fourth reason traditional campus structures are doing well in 2022: many students still desire structured learning and have difficulties with online independent study. The specter of online learners completing programs at low rates drove parents, administrators, policymakers, and students themselves back to bricks, mortar, and schedules. Close faculty support turned out to be a core academic value. As a result, distance learning academies can barely compete in the educational market, since their cost savings are negated by expenses for always-on tutoring and mentoring.

Overall, academic technology followed an S-curve across the 1992–2022 generation. Digital technology's impact was first slow and marginal, then ramped up rapidly, climaxing circa 2005–2012. After that peak technology's forceful impact declined as schools simply integrated what worked and moved on, to the relief of administrators and other stakeholders.7 For years8 students have grown up expecting in-school life to be far less digital than their personal lives. Much like the older promises of radio and television for learning, the verdict of present-day history is that cyberspace was oversold.

Beloit Mindset List, updated to 2022, excerpts:

  • The average first-year student made six PowerPoint presentations by grade 7.
  • Their parents' recollections of life before the web are oddly charming.

3: Campus Weirding

It is 2022, and students face a very different college experience than their elders enjoyed.9 There isn't any one experience, actually. Always famously diverse, American education is even more varied now.

For one, an 18-year-old carries with her a rich complement of portable, often invisible educational tools. She speaks to the air and sees the results on various surfaces: shirt sleeve, a wall, an unrolled sheet of plastic. She accesses the vast riches of the web on demand, sometimes for free. Some of that content is tied to her location: local geographical information, the status of nearby friends and peers, an icon for the nearest instructor she knows, another for the nearest school official. If she dons contact lenses or glasses, all of that information appears superimposed on her field of vision. Sometimes she prefers that—seeing the physical and digital worlds intertwined.

For another, her classes exist in several forms. Some are hybrids of distance and face-to-face learning. Some are games, where quests structure the syllabus and leveling up has become a cliché. Sometimes she gets credit for participating in one of several hundred MOOCs (massively online open classes), based somewhere else on Earth. She rarely follows one for longer than a few months, preferring to follow and contribute only until she gets basic credit.

Her works circulate around the world in various forms and venues, and have done so since she was a young child. She's found her videos and gameplays on servers around the world, making several friends and one bitter rival through conversations springing from these.

Her campus is a wild ecosystem of digital projects and resources. Some buildings have old-style 20-foot plasma screens on the outside, showing class activities within. Other campus structures are ostentatiously bare to the visible eye, a clear indication of the availability of rich AR content. Putting on her lenses, our student can make out campus information (class schedules, campus history, useful offices), along with other students' digital projects, looming over the physical landscape.

Struck by a thought concerning one of her classes, she can post an inquiry to the web by speaking out loud or typing on the air (on an AR keyboard). She shares some audio and video impressions with online friends living in Asia and South America; those friends in turn provide feeds from their lives, which she can experience superimposed on her crowded digital and physical campus.

This student's campus is similarly weird on a curricular level. In 2022 American institutions are more diverse than before, both in terms of branding (community college versus religious campus versus research) and structure (distance learning only, face-to-face mostly, gamified). The deep impact of technology is still being felt, with many new pedagogies and academic fields rapidly growing: computational architecture, AR poetics, and nanotech wet labs. American higher education remains attractive to the world for its quality, but also for this ferment of experimentation and innovation.

Beloit 2022 excerpts:

  • The average first-year student played at least one government-sponsored computer game before age 13.
  • Unmarked physical locations are simply bizarre.

Concluding Thoughts

These three scenarios have some drivers in common, notably teenagers' continued immersion in digital media, the persistence of open web content, and the power of mobile devices. The open web's continued vibrancy is by no means assured, and its demise makes a good premise for another scenario. Likewise, political prediction is famously difficult. Anticipating newer political alignments would be challenging and fine work for yet another scenario.

Creating such future narratives now involves some of the tools and practices they describe. I drew on social media, gaming, distance collaboration, e-books, and simulation. Please share your thoughts through those or other means as we continue to imagine the future of higher education.

  1. "The Future of Collaboration in Education". Volume 34, Number 3, 2011. "This Visible College". Volume 34, Number 2, 2011. "Future of Higher Education: The Future of Scholarly Publication". Volume 34, Number 1, 2011.
  2. My sources include the Millennium Project's 2011 State of the Future, the 2011 Horizon Report, and A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown). I also credit the crowd: players in the NITLE prediction market, audiences from a half-dozen presentations on two continents, alumni from Howard Rheingold's online classes, and the generous social media crowd conversing across Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook. See "A Web Game for Predicting Some Futures: Exploring the Wisdom of Crowds", EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 3 (May/June 2009).
  3. One summary by the author:
  4. David Markiewicz, "'Rural sourcing' offers way to keep jobs at home." Atlanta Journal-Constitution February 11, 2011.
  5. This scenario's title plays on "action at a distance," a powerful phrase describing quantum entanglement. Its content builds on ideas I presented in my third column.
  6. One 2011 example comes from the CIS 471 blog, where Larry Press describes "A 'Post Gutenberg' E-Text for Biology 101" (November 20, 2011).
  7. My thanks to George Boretos for patiently arguing for the S-curve's importance.
  8. One of the earliest identifications of this was from Susan Arafeh, Doug Levin, Lee Rainie, and Amanda Lenhart, "The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools," Pew Internet and American Life Project, August 14, 2002.
  9. This title is a play on "global weirding," the phrase sometimes used as an alternative to "climate change," emphasizing chaotic outcomes from large-scale dynamic systems.