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Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem–With a Lot of Help from Private Business

By Cait Etherington
October 27, 2018

In Spring 2018, the Office of Educational Technology proposed a challenge to postsecondary institutions–remap the higher education ecosystem. In early October, the winners of the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge were announced, but surprisingly, few colleges and universities were listed among the winners.

Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge

Technology is disrupting how we live and learn. With automation, some jobs are disappearing and others are taking form. But to date, higher education has largely failed to rise to the challenge. As stated on the Office of Educational Technology’s website, “The changes ahead are likely to hurt most those who can least afford to manage them: low-income and first generation learners already ill-served by our existing postsecondary education system.” And this is precisely why the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge was launched.

Last March, the Office of Educational Technology put out a call for bold ideas exploring how postsecondary education can be reimagined to “foster equity and encourage learner agency and resilience.”  In the end, 164 teams submitted visions for a future education system that surveyed the higher education landscape, future workforce, and need for lifelong learning. On October 11th, 10 winning teams were announced.

The Proposed Solutions and Maps

The proposed solutions address ways to use new technologies to capture people’s interests and help them identify potential career paths, competencies, and next steps. Most of the winners lean on AI or machine-learning solutions.

“APoll01” is described as a “user-centric identity management system” that enables people to capture, organize, and manage their data “while enabling the websites they visit to curate personalized work and education experiences based on the information contained in those profiles.” In essence, APoll01 proposes to turn one’s search history into a goldmine of information that can be leveraged to point them toward future careers. Another winner, Competency Catalyst, proposes an automated approach to mapping and linking competencies to content to save instructor time and allow for a host of new competency-based education applications. Inspire! (JetBlue Scholars) proposed to develop a college degree completion program using alternative credit sources, delivered free to employees on their mobile phones.

The Winners Included Few Colleges or Universities

As reported in Inside Higher Education, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attended the event and announced the winners of the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge. As DeVos noted, “Washington doesn’t have all the solutions. New approaches to education will come from people in this room — entrepreneurs, philanthropists, teachers and parents. Solutions may well come from students themselves.” What DeVos did not note is that teachers and more specifically, postsecondary educators and administrators were not necessarily in the room. In fact, with the exception of Southern New Hampshire University and Paul Quinn College, the winners were predominantly tech startups and established tech companies.

So, what can we conclude about the future higher education ecosystem? If the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge is any indication, the future of higher education will focus less on ideas, more on training and jobs, and involve a lot more direct help from private business.  In many respects, this shift is already in process. Companies like Trilogy Education have taken off in recent years because colleges and universities are increasingly looking for outside partners to deliver in-demand skills, especially technology skills, to students across disciplines. A survey of the winners of the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge, however, suggests that in the future, these private-public partnerships will gain ground and may even play a key role in reshaping higher education.