These 10 trends are shaping the future of education

Innovation in the space likely won't create an all-new landscape, but it will be markedly different

It's an exciting time to be in education. The longstanding operating models for both higher ed and K-12 are both in a state of flux, and while demands for innovation probably won't create an all-new landscape, the resulting product of ongoing changes is likely to be unrecognizable compared to that of the last several decades. And while some challenges and changes are exclusive to one sector, a few see some overlap between K-12 and postsecondary learning.  

From alternative credentialing and changing demographics to testing concerns and the rise of STEM, here are 10 trends currently shaping the future of education.

1. The rise of alternative credentialing necessitates shifts in business model

Just a few years ago, MOOCs were heralded by many as a force that would disrupt higher ed, upending traditional colleges and universities in a new age of massive, open online learning. Though that's not quite what happened, their impact on the space can't be understated. As early for-profit providers like Coursera and Udacity have discovered, there is a demand for the model — though not as it was originally proposed.

Following lackluster completion rates and underwhelming institutional pilots (such as Udacity's partnership with San Jose State University) in their attempts to expand higher ed access to underserved students, Udacity and Coursera have increasingly shifted focus to professional learning microdegrees. Udacity's nanodegree programs focus largely on tech skills and feature courses built by the likes of Google, Facebook, and AT&T. Coursera's Specializations, meanwhile, offer certification following a series of courses on topics ranging from digital marketing to cybersecurity, pairing many with capstone projects in partnership with companies like Instagram, Google, and Snapdeal.

Additionally, alternative credentialing models are gaining traction beyond MOOCs, with bootcamps like Galvanize, Skill Distillery, and other similar programs, offering key skills like coding in shorter time frames and at an affordable price. Not only are these models giving traditional higher ed's continuing education programs a run for their money, but they're proving particularly attractive to female students wanting to enter high-demand tech fields. 

2. Changing demographics causing further strain in higher ed

College enrollment saw a spike during the onset of the Great Recession, but those numbers are now retracting as the economy improves. Meanwhile, the post-Millennial generation is projected to be smaller than the one preceding it. Simply put, America's 629 public four-year institutions, 1,845 private four-year institutions, 1,070 public two-year institutions, and 596 private two-year institutions will soon be competing over a smaller pipeline of potential incoming students. 

Of course, that competition will only be tempered by increasing competition from the aforementioned alternative credentials for those on the fence about traditional higher ed.

3. For-profits coping with regulation, enrollment issues

A longstanding rival to traditional colleges and universities, the for-profit higher education sector has seen its star on the wane due to increasing scrutiny from state and federal policymakers. Several smaller operators have shuttered in the last few years, but the most notable blow in recent memory is the shutdown of Corinthian Colleges under the pressure of U.S. Department of Education regulations that restricted its access to federal student aid.

The reliance of for-profits on that aid for continued operations has been a major source of scrutiny from lawmakers, particularly as the value of degrees from certain institutions in that space has been called into question. Several operators have also faced investigations over their marketing tactics, accused of aggressively targeting and even misleading specific student populations, like those in the military who receive GI Bill funding.

Negative impressions created by these scenarios, as well as the economy's improvement since the recession, have also led to enrollment woes for the space. Declines for several operators have been in the double digits, with DeVry, for example, seeing its enrollment fall 20% year-over-year from spring 2014 to 2015. Still, some predict a comeback for these companies, potentially facilitated by an easing of regulations in the space by the Republican-controlled Congress. 

Nevertheless, as detailed in April with a closer look at the space, expect to see a number of for-profits make the transition to nonprofit or benefit corporation status. Herzing University, Keiser University, Stevens-Henager, CollegeAmerica, California College, and Remington College have all gone nonprofit so far, and Grand Canyon University — the only for-profit with a Division I athletic program — has looked into doing so. Others, like Kaplan Inc. and the Apollo Group's University of Phoenix, are looking to ride the wave of success among the aforementioned coding bootcamps and invest in those types of programs.

4. BYOD, BYOA, and the growing importance of campus device management

The average traditional college student brings a handful of devices to campus, including a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet or e-reader, and perhaps a gaming system. That influx of devices has necessitated that colleges and universities (and even some K-12 schools) prepare accordingly by providing adequate bandwidth and access to WiFi, and ensuring that network security measures are in place for a variety of platforms. 

Most importantly, though, it has required institutions to institute Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies detailing the amount of support they'll provide for specific devices. But that approach may be too macro.

As it turns out, a "Bring-Your-Own-Application" approach may be more effective, as the apps in use could have greater implications for key factors like security and bandwidth than the platforms they're being used on. "The applications that run on those devices are potentially more important than the fact that these devices are showing up on the network. That's the landscape of the problem," Chris LaPoint, vice president of product management at Texas-based IT management software developer SolarWinds, told eCampus News earlier this month.

Regardless of whether you're managing things by the device or application, getting a good grip on the issue now is critical — the "Internet of Things" is only going to make the issue more complex as smart watches, thermostats, locks, refrigerators, and other Web-connected gadgets find their ways on-campus.

5. Open educational resources gaining popularity as textbook prices rise

Textbook prices are ballooning, with Inside Higher Ed recently calling attention to a $400 pricetag on 400-level chemistry course's text. The topic has received particular attention as of late due in part to additional attention on the rising cost of tuition and the nation's massive student debt load. The issue isn't exclusive to higher ed, though — K-12 schools have long grappled with the issue of investing in updated textbooks that have to last for years at a time, at the risk in some cases that they could become quickly outdated. 

Digital textbooks have solved some of those issues to an extent, carrying a lower price point on average and being capable of receiving updated content. But many in higher ed and K-12 are looking beyond the traditional-textbook-gone-digital, and private publishers have lower incentive to digitize upper-level college textbooks that fewer students actually need. Many are looking to open educational resources (OER) to solve the problem. 

With OER, educators can promote collaboration and provide customized resources to students. Educators must still, however, take copyright concerns into consideration. But in K-12, educators are compiling custom resource databanks. And 15 Virginia community colleges are using OER to pilot a "zero textbook cost" program that is expected to save 50,000 students $5 million in its first year. According to eCampus News, OER publisher OpenStax College at Rice University estimates its catalog will save students $25 million in the upcoming academic year. With the U.S. Department of Education also backing OER, it's definitely an area to watch for cost savings in the space.

6. Push for innovative school models continuing in K-12

A recent ranking placed the U.S. at No. 28 in math and science, bested by nations including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Finnland, Switzerland, and Canada. Low standing in international rankings have been a chief concern leading to calls for innovation and reform in America's K-12 schools. 

Most notably, the traditional school model has been challenged by charters and magnet schools that take varying approaches to educating children. Some focus specifically on classical education, the arts, or science, while others target English language learners or those interested in, say, coding, learning outdoors, or even equine programs. Charters, however, have also been contentious, with some bad actors in the space breeding concerns of private business interests taking precedent over students' educations, as highlighted recently by ongoing issues in Ohio.

Still, not all are bad, and many have seen significant success in providing personalized educational experiences — something that's in high demand across the space at large and of particular interest to U.S. Department of Education officials. Due to funding concerns, however, doing so isn't always easy. Traditional public schools, for example, often struggle with large class sizes. As a result, technology is playing a bigger role across the board, with many districts deploying tablets and Chromebooks, equipped with digitized learning materials, and implementing "flipped" classroom models that see students engage with video lectures at home while completing classwork and receiving individual help during class time. 

Of course, the influx of tech has come with concerns. Many schools, particularly those in underserved urban or rural districts, face outdated or even nonexistent broadband and wireless Internet infrastructure to adequately support these rollouts — and that's not even including the additional training needed for teachers. Thankfully, the FCC's E-rate program has been modernized and given extra funding to help with the cost of bringing reliable high-speed connections to many of these schools (though many students still lack connections at home). The ongoing struggles with school innovation are far from over as the nation moves from a model designed to preparing most students for factory work to one focused on college and career.

7. Testing moving online as opt-out movements gain steam

The aforementioned infrastructure concerns have been highlighted recently by issues with the moves of many states' standardized tests to an online format. Nevada, Montana, Oklahoma, Indiana, Florida, Kansas, and Ohio have been among states experiencing disruptions during online testing in the spring. While not all of the issues were solely due to sub-par infrastructure (some landed at the feet of vendors), several, like Minnesota, were certainly exacerbated by a lack of bandwidth to handle the number of students taking tests.

Of course, glitches aren't the only thing impeding mandated standardized exams. The usefulness of the exams in the larger picture of a student's education has long been questioned, with critics decrying the massive amount of time and energy now placed on preparing for high-stakes assessments and its impact on everything from critical thinking skills to time for the arts and physical education. Efforts to tie student performance on the exams to teacher evaluations have only complicated things further, leading to scandals where educators have doctored tests to save their jobs.

In the most recent school year, several states had to contend with a growing opt-out movement that has seen parents refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing process. New York notably saw 20% of students statewide opt out and is now reportedly working on a response plan. Following similar opt-outs in Colorado, the U.S. Department of Education demanded that schools with particularly large numbers be held accountable. Some states, like Kentucky, refused to allow students to opt out, but they may not be able to ignore the movement for long — especially if its supporters aren't satisfied by the greater testing agency given to states by a proposed rewrite of No Child Left Behind. Forced participation, however, may not sit well with those involved.

8. Student data use remains controversial

As controversial as testing, if not more so, is the use of student data in K-12. Concerns include vendors using personal data for commercial uses, the federal government assembling a national database, and a weakening of existing laws like FERPA or COPPA by the federal government to allow these scenarios to occur. While these fears are largely unfounded, a number of states have still made moves to abate them by passing their own privacy measures, in addition to a number of proposals at the federal level and further guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

That hasn't, of course, stopped parents' lack of trust in the ability of districts or third-party vendors to protect that data from leading to abandoned initiatives or, in the case of Gates-funded InBloom, total closure. Those in support of using student data argue, however, that the opposition, including laws further restricting how data can and can't be used, could harm students who would benefit most from its insight and accountability. The back-and-forth over how data could and should be used isn't likely to die down anytime soon.

9. Increased demand in tech field driving STEM focus

Calls for more skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields have driven an increased focus in those areas across K-12 and higher ed. That drive will only increase as STEM jobs become a larger pillar of the U.S. economy.

Math and science are particular focuses of new systems of standards like the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, respectively. And computer science is increasingly finding its way into earlier grades in K-12, with 25 states now requiring it for high school graduation. STEM instruction has even been found to be beneficial to students with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

That said, despite the additional critical thinking components accounted for with STEM, expect concerns to also be addressed regarding the potential for the expanded focus to detract from a well-rounded education including the arts. It's an issue that some schools and districts have already addressed by expanding the acronym to "STEAM" and emphasizing the connections between the arts and science and math, as well as many companies' desires to hire workers who can think creatively in addition to being technically skilled.

10. Districts moving away from zero-tolerance disciplinary measures 

The recently reignited conversation around race in America has many schools and districts moving to address the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon resulting from harsh "zero-tolerance" disciplinary measures that push many students into the juvenile justice system. The ensuing loss of class time ultimately leads many of these students to drop out, with a significant number ultimately ending up in the criminal justice system. Recent studies show a disproportionate impact on minority and special education students. 

According to an essay for the Arkansas Law Review from Western State University law professor Tracie R. Porter, the pipeline is exacerbated by prison lobbies pouring funding into advocacy efforts for zero-tolerance discipline policies that see students suspended or worse for committing minor infractions like dress code violations or stealing a soda from a teacher lounge. The attention to the issue, however, is leading many districts to fight back by doing away with such policies and adopting less-punitive alternatives. Though the school-to-prison pipeline is far from being dismantled, such moves are a start in what's sure to be a long and arduous process.


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Top image credit: Wikimedia user Hoodr