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Uncertainty Rules But Core Missions Remain

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A recent conversation among academic and corporate thought leaders emphasized the traits required for survival in higher education today: flexibility, adaptability and resilience.

Was it a discussion about students or institutions?

Yes.

Students, the contemporary thinking goes, must become lifelong learners. They will shift jobs and careers, constantly pivoting to face new demands for highly specific expertise that keeps pace with rapidly changing technology.

They will find institutions that can address these needs, or they will turn elsewhere.

The students are not alone. In a way, colleges and universities also are taking on the traits of lifelong learners as they enter the same uncertain territory. Institutions today are striving to adapt to technology-driven change while appealing to market-driven customers.

That's slippery ground, considering that fundamental change to academic processes must be seen through a historical lens, coming only in increments over decades. Trends come and go, a few with lasting effect, but most fail to resist the powerful inertia of how things are done at a four-year institution of higher learning.

Fortunately, there is recent precedent to show that higher education is up to the task. Across the nation, business models have been remade to account for declining state support. Operational efficiencies and public-private partnerships have taken the place of funding for head count. Performance metrics shift the focus from input to output.

Now we must ask if we are just as ready to undergo a rapid and thorough transformation on the academic side of the house.

Some point to MOOCs as evidence not only of how quickly the rules are changing, but also that at least a few institutions are nimble enough to adapt, or even to set the pace. Certainly, students (or potential students, the institutions hope) are responding by the tens of thousands.

Although many of the MOOCs are taught by elite faculty, and even as some universities contemplate awarding credit for course completion, a majority of the participants likely see themselves as bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge.

The point for higher education in general, and for public institutions in particular, is that those taking the courses seek access to learning and understanding -- the very basis of general education. Their specific goals may differ, but their hunger and curiosity constitute common motivations. Their inclination to network their way to knowledge is an instinct that defines a digital generation.

Universities must learn how to become effective curators of digital learning environments. They must consider the overall experience, not just the curriculum, in designing and offering opportunities for students to participate on their own terms, as much as possible, while meeting the expectation of personalized interaction.

Technological tools emerge daily to make this endeavor possible. Yet those tools -- in fact, the explosion of them -- also make the challenge more daunting.

The rapid rate of change can be unsettling, but our core mission remains in focus: to prepare students for productive lives and careers through education. That is the gravity that keeps our feet on the ground even as a world of digital expectations hurtles past.