The metaphorical walls and gates that have defined higher education are falling down. The literal walls and gates will require some careful rethinking to avoid a similar fate. For those who view the traditional campus as essential to authentic higher education, this will be a challenging time. The relationship between an institution’s business model and its physical presence is being broken.
We have reached the tipping point in the digital transformation of higher education that has been anticipated for more than a decade. The proof lies in faculty votes that are beginning to be taken around the country. As if suffering through the stages of grief, faculties and administrations have been in denial. Now they have moved to anger. Bargaining and acceptance are yet to come.
If faculties and administrations have been slow to realize the implications of digital transformation, facilities managers are about two steps further behind. Struggling to find money to replace roofs on obsolete buildings, most facilities operations are still in a building mode. More has always been better. This will seldom, and only very selectively be true for a digitally transformed campus.
Change in the conversation – Until recently, conversation and speculation about the digital transformation of higher education was about pedagogical and technological innovation whether in the rapidly evolving form of MOOC’s or the hybridization of classroom experience. Such issues were largely confined to such traditional forums as the Chronicle of Higher Education and its ilk. Only rarely was this rising level of experimentation and adaptation seen outside academic circles. The conversation has moved to the political arena and to the editorial page, and it will no longer be confined to the faculty lounge.
The best indicators of the tipping point are the rising number of faculty votes objecting to the “authenticity” of digital instruction forms and decrying the resultant changes in the definition of degree requirements. In some cases, these votes have prevented institutions from implementing various digital initiatives. Many of these cases may be seen as mere postponements, not prohibitions. In still other cases faculty votes are formalizing legitimate concerns about academic quality and future employment.
If we think we are still early in the process, perhaps we have not been paying attention for the last ten years as iterative cycles of research, innovation and investment have inexorably raised the performance of non-traditional educational approaches, expanded access to underserved “markets” and increased participation.
What is happening now is different.
The questions of public funding are no longer about what percentage of the state tax revenues will go to higher education, or what capital bonds will be approved. Now we are on the slippery slope of legislators actually telling schools how they will teach. Some are going as far as telling schools what types of credentials they will be required to accept for advanced placement and transfer.
Incremental change – In any particular state the changes may come in small increments, but on a national level you can see a rising level of concern about higher education funding and the cost for students and their families. Digital transformation is the answer coming from both the most informed and the least informed. This is a peculiar consensus joining both those who value higher education and those who distrust it.
Whatever the language or the motivation, digital transformation means more credit for digital formats, less seat time per student per degree. It even means less traditional control over what is meant by the term “degree”. The hybridization of credentials has just begun.
Facilities Implications -The facilities implications will be slow to emerge. Some will be subtle: less demand for lecture halls and traditional classrooms, fewer on-campus hours per student, less justification for traditional offices, and increased demand for bandwidth everywhere. Some will be more dramatic: reduced ability to fund research facilities as the “profits” from undergraduate education decrease, less justification to retain obsolete buildings and programs, and more demand for flexibility in space assignments and management.
Economic reality, political discourse, pedagogical innovation and technological development are now aligned to allow – if not require – the rapid expansion of higher education by digital transformation. Some institutions will be weighed down by over-investment in bricks and mortar. If they lack a sufficiently marketable brand involving academic excellence, community or another extrinsic value, the future will be difficult. Those with sufficient endowments and/or public funding will have enough time to make the required adjustments. The rest may well struggle to maintain any relevance as they shrink in subjective stature and objective size.
That’s what happens when a tipping point is reached and the walls that have defined higher education begin to fall down.
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