Written by G. John Cole

The final academic year of the decade is a pivotal moment for higher education. Challenges are being met by increased technical and pedagogical innovation, plus increased revenue from philanthropical sources. So just what does the 2019/20 year hold in store? And what does it mean for students?

The triumph of online learning 

Online learning is no longer new -- the difference is that it has become a mainstream option for students and educators alike. One-third of higher education students take at least one online class, while one in six are enrolled only in online programs. 

Remote online education has now been around long enough for schools to innovate solutions to many of the reservations that students have had about choosing to study online. In some cases, the answer has been to offer ‘taster’ options that count towards a final qualification. 

For example, some offer ‘stackable' individual courses that add up to a full degree, while destinations such as Arizona State University encourage students to complete their first year online and then apply to complete their degree on campus, resulting in a comparable degree for a significantly reduced fee. Arizona’s Global Freshman Academy has a 'try before you buy' policy, too, which is just one example of how schools can reassure students of the quality of their online program.

In many cases, universities partner with Online Program Manager (OPM) organizations who handle the delivery and marketing of the school's content. This means that students can discover and access first-rate resources on secure, reliable platforms.

These developments are likely to lead to a snowball effect: as more and more students consider their online options, the benefits will become better known, and online learning enrolment will soar even further.

The rise of AI

Robot teachers are still a way off, but artificial intelligence (AI) is already changing the campus landscape.

Student services chatbots are taking the pressure off of scholars and schools alike, offering unlimited 24-hour access to information and guidance to resources.

Staffordshire University’s Beacon is such a bot, available as an app that students can utilize to get scheduling information, suggestions for extracurricular activities and groups, or even assistance applying for tax exemption. Beacon is instantaneous and untiring in helping make campus life easier for students.

Institutions are also using AI behind the scenes to help identify, filter, and better serve prospective students, matching them with programs that they might not otherwise consider. And the next step for the bots is to provide study support, helping students to identify problem areas in their learning, guide them to appropriate resources, and coach their study skills.

But the increasing prevalence of AI solutions in the wider world looks set to also affect the emphasis of what is taught in schools: educators will prioritize ‘soft skills’ at which machines do not yet excel, such as certain types of innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.

Virtual reality

If online learning is enabling remote study and AI is revolutionizing study support and services, virtual reality can create entirely new learning environments. One significant use of the technology will be to pair it with online learning and deliver virtual classrooms, labs, and professional experiences to remote participants.

A study at the University of Warwick demonstrated how a VR learning experience can engage a student’s emotions more effectively than video or textbook resources, suggesting the impact of VR will be felt just as keenly on campus as online. Professional skill simulations such as brain surgery and immersive environments such as historically accurate reconstructions will be part teaching aid, part home and group study resource. In this way, students can ‘live’ their lesson rather than read or talk it.

Immersive technology is set to feature, at least in developmental stages, within 70% of organizations by 2022, meaning students won’t only benefit from the lessons they find in VR and augmented reality (AR) experiences but from the very fact of being familiar with the technology and its potential. 

Augmented analytics and data-driven initiatives

Part of the work of augmented analytics -- the use of AI to unearth meaning in data -- will be to assist faculty in pinpointing problems and opportunities in the results and behaviors of their students. 

Career software, also known as career pathing software, can match data and analysis like this with the evolving dreams and achievements of students and graduates to map out paths and aggregate incisive, insightful career advice for individual students and cohorts.

Does college still matter?

As these developments show, higher education at the turn of the decade is in a state of positive transition.

With blue-collar jobs on the decline and college graduates earning twice as much as those educated to high school diploma level, students who can afford to invest in their career at this stage will continue to do so, while those from socio-economic backgrounds who may traditionally have struggled to participate now have a variety of new options. 

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