Key Findings from Pew’s 2012 Report on the Future of Higher Education


The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed 1,021 experts and stakeholders to weigh in on the future of higher education.  The survey asked experts to respond to two proposed scenarios for higher education in 2020 – one which outlined modest change, and the other proposing more substantial change:

1.      In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.

2.      By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.

While 39% of respondents agreed with scenario #1, proposing modest change by the end of the decade, 60% agreed with the more substantial change suggested in scenario #2 – although many of those respondents suggested the future would comprise portions of both scenarios. Just 1% of survey takers did not respond.

Here are some of the key insights drawn from the survey:

-Higher education will vigorously adopt new teaching approaches, propelled by opportunity and efficiency as well as student and parent demands.

Universities will adapt at different rates with changes in technology, regarding information access and content delivery.  Foreseeable economic conditions will make traditional classroom instruction less financially viable.

-Economic realities will drive technological innovation forward by 2020, creating less uniformity in higher education.

Respondents predict increasing corporate involvement, and more accessible education, although traditional face-to-face higher education may come at a higher premium.

– “Distance learning” is a divisive issue. It is viewed with disdain by many who don’t see it as effective; others anticipate great advances in knowledge-sharing tools by 2020.

Virtual environments will increasingly supplement physical classroom interaction.  Many respondents are hopeful for innovations in distance learning and online pedagogy, but not at the expense of classroom learning.

-‘Bricks’ replaced by ‘clicks’? Some say universities’ influence could be altered as new technology options emerge ; others say ‘locatedness’ is still vital for an optimal outcome.

While learning models will change, the social culture of higher education institutions will still rely on some aspect of ‘locatedness’.

-Frustration and doubt mark the prospect of change within the academy.

Resistance to institutional change is markedly observed among respondents.

Change is happening incrementally, but these adjustments will not be universal in most institutions by 2020

Respondents recognize the economic challenges to quicker institutional change, as well as the necessity for transformation.

Universities will adopt new pedagogical approaches while retaining the core of traditional methods.

Respondents predict hybrid models of instruction that incorporate both traditional, face to face instruction and virtual environments – the balance of which may depend on the institution, course of study, capabilities, and economic factors.

Collaborative education with peer-to-peer learning will become a bigger reality and will challenge the lecture format and focus on “learning how to learn.”

Ideally, respondents predict more collaborative, peer-to-peer learning models (due to digital technologies) will foster more autonomous modes of learning (versus “just-in-time learning”), where students will “learn how to learn.”

Competency credentialing and certification are likely, yet institutional barriers may prevent widespread degree customization.

A shift toward competency credentialing and away from degrees is seen as problematic, but likely.  However, degree customization seems less likely due to scalability issues, perceptions of bias, and a prevailing consensus about the importance of a well-rounded, core curriculum.

To read the full Pew Report, go here.

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Ellen Heffernan

President - Spelman Johnson

Ellen Heffernan graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in economics and government. She joined Spelman Johnson in 1996, after a ten-year career in higher education that included positions at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a national speaker and writer on topics related to recruiting and professional development in higher education and serves as faculty for several national higher education association professional development programs. Ellen also currently serves on the executive board of the National Association of Executive Recruiters.