What will Higher Ed IT Look like in 2020?

The future of Higher Education is a popular topic of discussion among academics and administrative staff alike. But, while there are plenty of differing positions about what will facilitate the most important changes in the next few years, there seems to be a consensus that technology will be leading the charge.

In an attempt to get a better grasp of what to expect in Higher Ed IT in the next 4 years, Optimal Partners is collaborating with eCampus News to survey CIO’s and other IT decision makers at a wide range of universities in the U.S. and ask them about the status of Higher Ed IT.

In the meantime, we sat down with our founder and CEO, Nuno Couto, to see what he has to say about what the future will bring for university technology.

Q: Hi Nuno. It seems like the same few topics for discussion keep popping up when IT professionals talk about the future of Higher Ed (student retention, online-learning, and interconnectivity for example). Do you expect these to change or will the focus shift to how we adapt to them with advances in technology and policy?

Nuno: Some will change. Some will stay the same. Universities are facing pressure from every side. More students and parents are questioning the value of a college education than ever. Many who still believe in a college degree can’t afford it. Less expensive online learning models are becoming more and more popular.

All of this creates tremendous financial pressures for most universities, possibly less so at the large elite institutions. A growing number of colleges and universities are actually closing their doors. Universities have no choice but to continue to do more with less in order to stay afloat. The competitive pressures on the organization are also going to force universities to be more innovative─more innovative in their funding and business models, and more innovative in their use of existing and new technologies—or they will become outdated. Whether it is competency-based learning, flipped classrooms, micro-credentials, or blended-learning, Higher Ed institutions must be open to the possibilities.

Indeed, the ones that will do best are those that differentiate themselves not with new hot trends or technology just for the sake of being progressive, but with a new and different approach that relieves a pain point of their target student niche. Universities must think like entrepreneurs if they are going to survive. They will need to be very clear as to what type of student they are aiming to serve, what those students’ pain points are, and how they can resolve those issues in a way that leverages the university’s strengths. Universities must also have a laser-like focus on the effective use of technology. It is important that technology is part of many answers, but not the single answer to all problems.

Q: As you know, everyone is clamoring to get ahead of the issues that Higher Ed will face in 2020. It’s good to be proactive, especially when technology is concerned, so what kind of changes should we expect from Higher Ed IT in the next 4 years?

Nuno: The trends I mentioned in answering your last question are likely going to result in more IT outsourcing, a continued migration to cloud-based software, and more willingness to have remote workforce—all in order to cut costs. Universities are also likely going to invest more in technologies to decrease costs as well as to differentiate them from other universities. For example, I think the use of augmented/virtual reality will increase at universities. It’s much more educational to have an immersive virtual experience of the wars between the ancient Athenians and Spartans than just reading about it. Administration will be looking to the IT organization to implement and support these technologies. Wearable technology, internet of things, and location-based services like iBeacons will also likely have an impact. More and more people are buying smart watches. It is only a matter of time before university IT departments will be asked to develop and support smart watch applications and other new wearable tech initiatives. This may be an extreme case, but Oral Roberts University is requiring their students to wear Fitbits and walk at least 10,000 steps a day.

As far as IoT, more universities will be looking to implement smart systems using sensors to conserve energy. Another example is using facial recognition systems and location tracking to detect depression in students early on (if a student stays in their dorm room for many days in a row, for example). Further, location-based learning will also be taking off in the next few years. So, IT will be busy trying to implement new technologies at universities, but it will also be under pressure to do more with less.

Q: “Disruptive” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the tech world, but despite all the hype, it seems like Higher Ed is fairly resistant to disruption. For example, instead of flipping the industry upside down, MOOCs have grown to find their place within the established mold of Higher Ed. Do you see anything on the horizon that could be truly disruptive to Higher Ed IT?

Nuno: Yes, I do. The technologies I previously mentioned are disruptive. However, others will be much more disruptive, I think. Believe it or not, artificial intelligence may begin to have a greater and greater impact on how learning happens. AI is becoming more and more capable… to the point that it may be able to “teach” in the not so distant future. Artificial intelligence professors are coming. I’m not saying that these technologies will be fully implemented in the next 4 years, but I am saying that there will be more and more talk about them. Imagine the impact these technologies will have on faculty and students. Does this mean that faculty will focus more on research and less on actual teaching? Time will tell. What is for sure is that Higher Ed IT will be involved in the implementation and support of these new technologies.

Q: I appreciate you taking the time to answer some of my questions. Before you go, there’s one more thing I think CIO’s and directors would be interested in. In general, do you think Higher Ed will be better off in 2020 than it has been so far in 2016? Fingers crossed.

Nuno: It depends on what you mean by “better off.” It will definitely be different. The innovative and entrepreneurial universities will have implemented new business and learning models. More universities will have implemented new technologies like virtual reality. I think those that don’t innovate will become irrelevant. So in those ways, I think students will be better off. Faculty, on the other hand, may start to feel concerned about their teaching positions due to AI teaching. It may not happen by 2020, but it will be happening.

Whatever happens, Optimal Partners is committed to helping university IT departments use technology as effectively as possible to help students and faculty be better prepared to make a difference to the world. This is our mission.

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