This six-part series will focus on transformation of the traditional higher education system in the United States.  While a topic that causes some anxiety for higher education leaders, there is no choice but to change.  The question is how colleges and universities across the country will go about that change and the role that technology can play in facilitation and accelerating transformation.  This series will focus on:

  1. AM73672The Need for Change
  2. Challenges in Changing the System
  3. Systematic Change and Navigating Culture
  4. Modernizing Teaching and Learning
  5. Scaling Best Practices
  6. Recommendations

Part 1 – The Need for Change
Across the nation, colleges and universities are being challenged to transform their systems of higher learning.  While each institution is different, all share common problems: They must contend with outdated teaching methods, crushing budget pressures, and the need to deliver a relevant education that adequately and effectively prepares the workforce of the future.  As a result, educators are being faced with the need to make significant revisions to less-than-optimal systems, in an environment that is dictating that change needs to be made. Institutions that adapt to these imperatives will thrive, while those that are incapable of change will meet their demise.

While change is difficult, it is also inevitable: It is the only constant in a world that is experiencing exponential population growth, a limited supply of natural resources to meet demand, and accelerating technological innovation.  Higher education institutions are central to the challenge of preparing students to address these challenges, and solve some of the most difficult problems we as a global society have ever faced.

The need to change is a powerful catalyst that often drives new, innovative approaches to problem solving. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has said, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do.  One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” Along with many other sectors in our society, cash-strapped universities in the U.S. are being forced to “innovate themselves” out of some very tight corners.

Cisco customers from beyond the borders of the United States often visit us to learn about our country’s higher education system, because there is a perception that we have the best colleges and universities in the world, and that we are the world’s most innovative nation.  Our visitors routinely ask us how these institutions are using technology to transform teaching and learning, improve administrative management, and drive research initiatives.  Outside of the U.S. there is also a perception that these bastions of knowledge have a lock on the right thing to do, from a technology perspective. This perception is only partially true.

There is a persistent (and inaccurate) belief that the U.S. higher education system is the world’s best. Researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne examined data from 48 countries and territories across different measures. Their findings stated that “overall, the top-five countries nominally providing the ‘best’ higher education were the United States, Sweden, Canada, Finland and Denmark…unsurprisingly, the United States dominates the total output of research journal articles, but when viewed as a percentage of articles per head of population, Sweden is top of the ranking.” (U21 Rankings of National Higher Education Systems 2012)

What many steeped in the system may not know is that our system of higher education is struggling under the pressures of demands that can’t be met, soaring costs, decreasing budgets, a product (traditional education) that some believe is irrelevant, and a lack of student engagement in the curriculum. Some believe our system is literally teetering on the edge of implosion. There will always be a place for well-known university brands. But smaller liberal colleges literally may not survive, and state systems have no choice but to change.

For America, the future of higher education is stark.  Anna Kamenetz, in DIYU, says, “The price of college tuition has increased more than any other major good or service for the last twenty years. Nine out of ten American high school seniors aspire to go to college, yet the United States has fallen from world leader to only the tenth most educated nation. Almost half of college students don’t graduate; those who do have unprecedented levels of federal and private student loan debt, which constitutes a credit bubble similar to the mortgage crisis.” (Kamenetz, 2010)

In many ways, our higher education system, while great, suffers from Clayton Christensen’s phenomena, described in The Innovators’ Dilemma:  It simply cannot change from within its existing constructs.  Some of the most promising advances are coming from outside of the traditional, existing system, with movements such as the Open Education Resources Movement, Massive Open Online Courses, and the edX joint.  Interestingly, these movements are all being enabled and driven by the creative use and application of technology.

Please join the discussion by commenting, below.


Renee Patton

Former Global Director of Education and Healthcare

Global Industry Solutions Group