We are all seeing colleges and universities across the nation experiencing a massive disruption in how they deliver quality learning experiences to their students.  Those that continue down the path of status quo will miss this shift and become obsolete at best and out of business at best.  In his New York Times article, “Innovation Imperative: Change Everything,” Clayton Christensen says, “Like steam, online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”

Changing delivery and business models have become part of the competitive landscape, but they also offer new sources of revenue and expense control for colleges and universities. Education delivery is changing in multiple ways, with increased cross registration in online courses, a growing focus on competency based models, new hybrid and online models, flipped learning, and moves to unbundling educational services, potentially increasing mobility across institutions. The rapid rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has also accelerated the pace of change in online delivery models over the last two years. Over the next several years, navigating this landscape will have economic impacts, both positive and negative. It will also force institutions to become more nimble in their strategic positioning. (Moody’s: 2014 Outlook US Higher Education).

Online learning is just one of several trends and challenges that we are seeing in higher education.  The other is massive disruption being caused by mobile devices. The millennial generation of students—those born after 1982—is driving the demand for technologies that increase engagement and the ability to work wherever they would like, and in a variety of social, collaborative environments. These students expect simple, wireless Internet access, the ability to easily connect and communicate over the Internet with other students and faculty members, on-demand video, and the infusion of other technologies into their classes.

At the same time, the influx of personal smartphones and tablets on campus, and the resulting data deluge, imposes a new set of security challenges. These devices have revolutionized the way educators, researchers, students, and administrators access and share information, on and off campus. This has also presented IT personnel the challenge of implementing network infrastructures with the security, capacity, and manageability to support mobile devices, and training staff to use and support them.

Coupled with these technology trends, the cost of a degree is rapidly increasing at a meteoric rate.  Over the last 30 years, tuition in the United States has increased 1,120 percent; by comparison, even the “skyrocketing” cost of health care only rose 600 percent, and housing costs have gone up 375 percent. Not surprisingly, college loan debt has grown explosively too, outstripping car loans and credit cards as the largest sources of personal debt. Given the 2011 announcement that Americans owed more than $1 trillion in student loans, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Nor should it be shocking that almost one in five families is currently paying off student loans. (Daily Finance, 2013).  In light of these cost constraints, Higher education institutions are using technologies such as data center convergence and cloud delivery models to increase productivity and reduce cost.

Finally, colleges and universities are increasingly the targets of cyberattacks.  A recent New York Times article reported that America’s research universities are facing a significant increase in these attacks, most of them thought to come from China. Universities and their professors are awarded thousands of patents each year, some with vast potential value, in fields as disparate as prescription drugs, computer chips, fuel cells, aircraft and medical devices. Complicating this, colleges and universities pride themselves on creating open environments of experimentation and creation.  It is critical that cybersecurity be an integral part of the institution’s overall vision and plan.

Sun-Tzu in the Art of War said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”  This chaotic environment might feel uncomfortable to higher education leaders, but these shifts offer a rare chance for colleges and universities to offer different, and better, ways of educating students.

To learn more about these trends and challenges for higher education, stay tuned for upcoming #HigherEdThursdays posts, and please visit Cisco’s Higher Education page. Happy #HigherEdThursdays


Renee Patton

Former Global Director of Education and Healthcare

Global Industry Solutions Group