Higher education trends and innovations

Higher education today faces many challenges. Coronavirus forced educators to rethink fundamental education models while pressure on students’ mental health soared. Colleges are experiencing a disruptive era and must find ways to meet the diversified needs of students and industries. The dawn of AI is yet another element likely to threaten and transform education as we know it.

As education delivery evolves, industry leaders bemoan a skills gap, and statistics show a significant drop in student enrollment. According to the National Student Clearing Research Center, 7.5% fewer students have signed up for higher education since 2019. Colleges are grappling with funding shortages which may lead to a further drop.

These are indeed testing times for higher education. This article explores how universities and colleges are responding to multifaceted challenges while introducing the latest educational trends and innovations.

The four main trends higher education facilities must seize for future success

When exploring trends in higher education, there are four main aspects to consider:

  • Social diversification, mental health, and non-traditional student admission
  • Technology and the rise of AI, and the expansion of online learning options
  • Finance
  • Industry-highlighted skills gap shaping future curricula

The following section of this article examines these four areas in more detail.

Evolving social trends in universities and colleges

With declining student enrolment and a rising drop-out rate, higher education facilities must find ways to attract and prepare students for success. According to the National Student Clearing House Center, more than one in every three students never graduates, with drop-out rates among non-white students and over 25s among the highest.

Colleges must create robust environments for students to learn and thrive by catering to the enormous challenges today’s students face.

For non-national and non-white students, higher education facilities must foster diversity and shrink the opportunity gap. Breaking down barriers and creating an inclusive social setting is crucial in ensuring all students optimize their educational benefits.

While on paper, colleges promote inclusivity, campus student figures don’t always translate these intentions. On one hand, the number of colored students attending college rose sharply from approximately 17% in the 1980s to over 45% in 2016, with nearly one-quarter of leadership positions going to non-white professionals. On the other hand, however, the high drop-out rates of non-white students suggest more work is necessary to ensure college is an inclusive environment in which they can comfortably and happily study.

As well as improving support for non-white students, colleges must continue to cater to non-traditional students outside the habitual age demographic. Since the 2008 financial crisis, when 80% of those who lost their job did not possess a degree, higher education has been a popular choice. More and more mature students joined courses to upskill, thus safeguarding against potential job loss. Education facilities recognized this trend and seized it as an opportunity to grow student numbers. The dawn and subsequent exponential growth of online college programs have seen the uptake by non-traditional students multiply significantly.

Today, anyone can harness the benefits of an online MBA or graduate with a degree in any discipline from the comfort of their home while juggling work and family commitments. Reputable institutions such as St. Bonaventure University have a wealth of options for those wishing to further their education and boost their career prospects with the benefits that come with studying in a flexible online setting.

In a social innovation context, mental health concerns became apparent in the decade leading up to the pandemic and have since become what many psychologists term an “epidemic.” Scientists who studied the effects of the pandemic on students concluded that colleges must “provide psychological services for the student’s mental health.” This NCBI study found a sharp rise in students experiencing mental health difficulties, with rates rising as significantly as from 1.3% to 100%.

Colleges have since had to find innovative ways to support students while making mental health care a priority on campuses. Some higher education facilities include mental health awareness in their introductory programs. Other mental health-promoting measures such as support groups and staged discussions, role-plays, and mental health interventions have shown to be very beneficial to students’ mental and emotional health.

Removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and encouraging students to speak about them has been essential in changing attitudes and ensuring students pay attention to their mental health. Some colleges, for example, offer free mental health screening while some have made on-campus counselors available to students in crisis.

A happy student population is essential in securing the success of a college or university. Over the coming decade and beyond, institutions must take great care of their students, especially vulnerable and minority groups. Diversity, the inclusion of non-traditional students, and improved mental health care will continue to be prerequisites for continued campus success, both for the institution as a whole and for individual students.

Technology, the rise of AI, and the exponential growth of online learning options

Advances in technology have brought about significant improvements in higher education. Besides streamlining resource distribution and facilitating learning processes, technology has opened educational opportunities to a far larger demographic. Today, anyone can study online from anywhere, meaning many students who would not have had the means or opportunity to learn in the past, can now do so using the internet.

Colleges can now create easy-to-use workflows for students and professors, while educators can distribute learning resources effortlessly. In multiple ways, technology has been the most significant game-changer in education, but many have warned of the pitfalls, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence.

While AI used to simply function in calculators and spell checkers, today’s AI iterations pose as many critical questions as they provide answers. Students can find research material at the click of a mouse in seconds, but their learning benefits may dwindle if they use technology to produce materials they should be compiling themselves.

The rapid-fire spread of ChatGPT has seen education experts and leading universities scramble to formulate a response. There is one point on which everyone agrees; ChatGPT is here to stay, and higher education facilities must forge a path to harness the benefits while steering away from drawbacks.

Much has been written about this latest phenomenon, with some proclaiming a crisis and others announcing an educational breakthrough. Even Unesco has crafted a paper on the subject, outlining an ethical approach and sketching ways to use the technology for educational benefits.

Since ChatGPT’s noisy launch this spring, colleges, and universities across the globe have had to hatch new AI policies to ring-fence students’ learning. Undoubtedly, all government, business, and education authorities must streamline AI use in the coming months and years.

When it comes to the availability of online higher education, its rampant growth will likely continue for decades to come. The emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has opened higher education to people who do not have access to traditional institutions. Taking standard university tuition as a model, MOOCs have revolutionized higher education.

Lower costs and entry requirements have propelled online higher education to the top, as has the flexibility these courses offer participants. Today, over 100 million students worldwide study with top online educators. Their success has led long-established colleges to provide similar programs, with some partnering with privately-owned e-learning platforms to meet the evolving needs of today’s students.

Coping with funding gaps

Finance remains a thorny issue in higher education. These institutions’ immense reliance on tuition fees is problematic at a time when enrollment numbers are sinking.

Dwindling government funding over the last one and a half decades has compelled universities and colleges to collaborate with corporations and business donors to make up the shortfall. Partnering with industry leaders in research projects to raise money has been an effective way to increase college budgets.

Addressing the skills gap

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce lists multiple industries as struggling with severe staff shortages. Healthcare, hospitality, business and professional service providers, and trade companies are experiencing great difficulty recruiting staff.

The fourth industrial revolution is producing millions of jobs with no one skilled enough to fill them. This trend will likely sharpen, meaning higher education facilities must formulate courses to close the skill gap and deliver staff to expanding industries. To tackle the escalating skills shortage, many institutions are partnering with corporations to devise programs in response.

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is now a proven system for addressing skill shortages. These programs combine theoretical education with skill acquisition in preparation for the workplace. Students advance at their own pace before fully mastering a skill or competency.

These are the trends higher education facilities need to embrace. Let’s look at the main emerging innovations.

The latest innovations in higher education

Advances in technology and educational science have enabled colleges to create more meaningful learning experiences. As well as offering the flexibility of blended learning, colleges now use technology in the classroom while delivering tuition through new channels. Today’s students come with different lifestyle parameters and needs, meaning universities must adapt and innovate.

The flipped classroom

The flipped classroom sees lecturers providing students with the bulk of the content as homework. Students read materials, watch videos, and conduct science experiments at home before returning to the classroom to ask questions and discuss their experiences with fellow students. Instructors using flipped classrooms have reported improved student engagement and bolstered learning benefits. Students develop greater autonomy and ownership over their education. The model is seen as one of the most student-centered approaches to education, as students can manage their time while having the opportunity to delve deep into a topic.

Heavy reliance on technology and the teachers’ heavy preparation workload are among the drawbacks of the flipped classroom. In addition, this model only works if students invest the time and follow through on the given tasks. Nevertheless, as lifestyles evolve and student engagement becomes ever more challenging, the flipped classroom has proven an innovation with a firm footing in future education.

The virtual teacher

Artificial intelligence need not equate to plagiarism and lazy learning. Smart implementation can deliver learning benefits to students and educators alike.

Take this example: At Georgia Tech, virtual teaching assistant Jill Watson is available to answer student questions anytime. Jill knows everything about the syllabus and provides guidance and definitions; students can access her insights 24/7. She supplements the teaching of the professors and amplifies their voices.

3D printing

3D printing delivers several benefits to students in higher education facilities. They can conceptualize, create, design, and print innovative new objects and build prototypes in line with industry needs. The availability of 3D printing empowers students to study and analyze engineering and manufacturing topics and develop real-life applicable hardware and software tools and objects.

The visual and tactile nature of 3D printing makes learning genuinely engaging. Students can build models and create electronics, while instructors can demonstrate the geometry of shapes and objects.

3D printing is actionable across many subjects, including dentistry, medicine, engineering, and manufacturing. Unlike most learning processes, one involving 3D printing allows students to acquire theoretical knowledge while delivering a real-life object at the end of it, making it one of the most powerful tools to prepare students for the workplace.

The VR and augmented reality learning environment

With virtual reality becoming increasingly life-like, adding a VR element to education can be useful. Today’s tech-savvy generation is keen to embrace this learning innovation. Examples of VR in an educational context include its application in healthcare. Labouré College of Healthcare in Boston successfully supplemented 10,000 clinical hours using VR. Nursing students noted how similar the VR environment was to the real world. They completed various tasks in the VR environment, including nurse-patient interactions. While VR education will only ever supplement rather than replace traditional learning, it has enhanced the student learning experience. Most students enjoy VR tasks, such as games, meaning high engagement and retention.

The virtual laboratory

An increasing number of institutions are using virtual labs to provide immersive learning experiences. Simulating the environment, tools, tasks, and conditions of real-life laboratories, students can experience working in a lab without ever setting foot in one. The quality of today’s virtual labs is such that students derive all the learning benefits, including critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making.

The most technically sophisticated virtual labs provide different scenarios, allowing students to tackle different task sets, circumstances, and consequences. The provision of virtual laboratories has increased student engagement and boosted learning outcomes while delivering relatively effortless learning and actionable skills.

Blended or hybrid learning

After lockdowns compelled institutions to open virtual classrooms and deliver education online, higher education now almost always contains an online element. Today’s public and private colleges and universities all offer blended or hybrid learning to students.

In hybrid learning, students can freely choose whether to attend lectures in person or virtually. Blended learning combines classroom work with online resources. Various blended learning models exist, including the flipped classroom, the flex model, the self-blend model, and the enriched virtual model, delivering varying degrees of student autonomy and learning alongside instructor support.

On a course-by-course basis, institutions must choose the best models for optimum student access and success.

Social media integration

Social media is popular among student demographics, and universities quickly utilized this, posting policies, information, and event notifications to various social media platforms. Today, the use of social media for higher education is broad and reaches far beyond sharing resources. Colleges provide 24/7 student support services, lecturers create Facebook groups for added student interaction, and many instructors foster student collaboration on various social media platforms.

For purely educational purposes, institutions can use social media in different contexts such as language learning, post-lecture debates, writing development, community creation, and to deliver curricular elements. Social media has become an essential communication tool among students and between instructors and students.

Final Thoughts

These are indeed challenging times for higher education, making innovations a must. Mental health and AI are the front-runners in the challenges institutions must embrace and overcome. But while the issues are pressing, the opportunities are present and abundant.

Higher education facilities must embrace change and keep pace with technological advancements. They must integrate new technology while ring-fencing traditional educational values and tools. While online learning has a seemingly endless stream of benefits, the wellness of individual students must remain the top priority. Without good mental health, students drop out, making social support and mental health awareness all the more crucial.

Only a careful ongoing analysis of student and industry needs will make it possible for colleges and universities to deliver quality education for decades to come.

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