08/06/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Higher Education in the 21st Century: Is the Classroom Obsolete?

Traditional colleges insist in treating all students as if they're the same. They're not. Demographics have changed dramatically and the learning experience that working adults need is different from that of our 'traditional' 18-22 year old full-time residential student. Higher education needs to be able to accommodate all these learners, and the traditional model just won't do that. In the 21st Century, we have seen and will continue to see rapid change in how we advance knowledge, how we leverage technology and how we deliver more education, more options and more quality, with less.

As universities evolve, classrooms will not disappear, but what happens in them will change dramatically. In spite of advances in distance education, learners will continue to demand physical spaces where they can interact with other learners and with faculty, where they can put their new skills into action, where they can limit distractions, and contextualize their learning socially. What they will not demand is spaces where they are simply lectured to. This trend, unfortunately labeled flipping the classroom, will have also a profound impact in the role of the instructor, which will inevitably morph from source of content to learning facilitator and outcomes assessor.

While discussions continue as to what skills are learned more effectively online vs. face to face, there remains little doubt that technology offers significant advantages when it comes to processing new content. As Salman Khan (of Kahn Academy fame) likes to say, even the simplest YouTube video can be paused, fast-forwarded, rewound and replayed at one's leisure, functions not available in the traditional lecture. Then of course, technology can add asynchronous discussions, self-assessments, simulations and adaptive delivery, among a myriad of current and future features that are hard if not impossible to replicate with the traditional chalkboard or PowerPoint. Without a doubt the classroom as lecture-hall will become less and less pervasive, and will make room for new formats that incorporate new technologies and pedagogical styles.

Meanwhile we will see online education grow, at times as a complement to classroom-based learning, and at times as a substitute. Online education is already changing how universities carry out their business and how they meet the disparate needs of an increasingly diverse student population. And while it was for-profit providers like the University of Phoenix that pioneered these models at large scale, traditional institutions have finally woken up to online education as a way to reach more students and leverage fixed costs.

The latest wave in online education is, of course, MOOCs, which are making video lectures by some of the best faculty in the world available at no cost. There are still many questions about the viability of MOOCs, and they have not yet found a business model that is financially sustainable. It's possible however that corporate sponsorships, advertising and additional services like certification will generate some revenue to keep them going. There is also some evidence that students will eventually be allowed to earn university credit for MOOCs, which could lead to both revenue generation for providers like Coursera, Udacity and EdX as well as lower costs for residential campuses. It is likely that the most interesting utilization of MOOCs will emanate from efforts in developing countries, as education entrepreneurs figure out ways to leverage this new content in creative and financially sustainable ways.

Competency based models are another way to meet student needs and could be the best option for adult learners who have some college credit, a lot of on-the-job experience and little time to waste. Competency based models measure learning outcomes rather than classroom time, and students take exams that assess whether or not they have mastered the competencies needed for the credential of their choice. Under this model, professors become advisors and guides rather than lecturers. While some learning will take place face to face, this model can also utilize technology to allow for online discussion or Q and A sessions, easing the time and travel burden for students and also some of the cost burden for universities.

We'll also see the continued rise of more specialized degree programs designed to prepare students for jobs in specific industries. This is already happening in the energy industry, and is beginning to be prominent in business schools as well, where one year specialized Master of Science degrees are being offered in fields like accounting and finance, information technology, supply chain management, and data analytics. These degrees can help give students an edge in a very competitive job market.

The classroom is not going away, but we are moving toward increasing the available options for outside the classroom learning that will allow universities to reach more students, particularly the growing number that fall into the 'non-traditional' category. As we move further into the 21st Century, there will undoubtedly be other unanticipated changes that will influence the higher education business model of the future. We can't predict what those will be quite yet, but we must be flexible enough to adapt to change to remain relevant for our students and the economies our institutions fuel.