Armageddon for the US public university? Art: ©, 2012

Anderson, J., Boyles, J., and Rainie, L. (2012) The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher Education Washington DC: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The study

This is a Delphi-style study where over 1,000 ‘experts’ in the USA were asked to choose one of two possible scenarios that describe the likely impact of the Internet on the higher education system, and then provide comments or a rationale for their choice (see the full report for more details on the methodology).

The results

39% agreed with a scenario that articulated modest change by the end of the decade: 

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.

60% agreed with a scenario outlining more change:

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.

The Pew researchers grouped the arguments that participants used to justify their choice under the following themes:

  1. Higher education will vigorously adopt new teaching approaches, propelled by opportunity and efficiency as well as student and parent demands.
  2. Economic realities will drive technological innovation forward by 2020, creating less uniformity in higher education.
  3. “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.
  4. ‘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.
  5. Frustration and doubt mark the prospect of change within the academy. Change is happening incrementally, but these adjustments will not be universal in most institutions by 2020.
  6. Universities will adopt new pedagogical approaches while retaining the core of traditional methods.
  7. 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.”
  8. Competency credentialing and certification are likely……yet institutional barriers may prevent widespread degree customization.


This provides an excellent overview of the current thinking about the future of higher education in North America, at least.

I did not participate in the study but I would have been in the 60% who would have voted for the second scenario, but with one caveat: 2020 is too soon, mainly because of theme (5) above. However, I do believe that this is the direction public higher education will go, indeed will have to go.

There was a third scenario that was not discussed in the study, and I believe should have been:

The publicly funded higher education system as we know it will no longer exist in the USA. Elite universities funded mainly through endowments, corporate donations, and very high tuition fees will provide a campus-based education for the very rich and powerful. The majority of government funded research will be allocated to these elite institutions, which will also provide non-credit online free education for the masses. Three or four large for-profit institutions will provide low-cost, tuition-funded medium quality degrees and vocational diplomas using a combination of class-based and online learning, frequently enabling students to transfer in credit from their non-credit certificates from the elite institutions. These for-profit institutions will provide the vast majority of post-secondary education in the USA, helped by Federal and state student grants that require rigorous quality standards from qualifying for-profits. Many states will have either no or at most one of two large, publicly funded research universities. Meanwhile, the USA continues with an accelerated economic and social decline.

Although this last scenario is in my view less likely than the second, I believe that it has a similar if not greater probability than the first scenario, and needs to be treated as a serious threat to the USA’s public post-secondary education system. If my third scenario prevails, it will be because of theme (5) above. Faculty will have only themselves (and the Tea Party) to blame.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project for a very interesting and thought-provoking study.

Your comments, please

How do these scenarios match your view of the future of higher education? Is there one you like but would amend?

Do you have a fourth scenario?

Will it be different in Canada or other countries? Or is the USA unique?

Is this kind of study useful? Or does it just further add to the hype and hysteria around online learning?


  1. Someone (remind me who) said that we tend to overestimate the rate of change due to technology but underestimate the extent of that change. Based on that, I agree that 2020 will be too soon to see significant change. However, also based on that, I would suggest that your third scenario is the most likely outcome in the longer term. Government will fund knowledge creation (research) and dissemination (open publications and open courses) and leave the tedious work of accreditation to others, probably highly regulated private providers.

    However, I’m a little mystified by the last statement about decline in the US. That may well happen for lots of reasons but I don’t see how it is connected to your scenario which describes a more cost-effective method of creating and spreading knowledge, which could lead to a higher general level of education in the workforce, using less public money and incurring less private debt. So what if mediocre public higher education disappears, if it is replaced by something better. (I’m not just saying this because I’ll be retired by then, but it does make it easier to accept)

    • Hi, Brian

      Thanks for your comment. My concern with the third scenario I proposed is that it would concentrate research within a relatively small number of elite institutions. This would lead to a lack of diversity in research and innovation, and would also concentrate economic development around these research centres, which are located mainly on the east and west coasts, thus further gutting the ‘heartland’ of the USA. This would further increase the gap between the very rich and the rest in the USA. Furthermore, the for-profits would focus on what they do best – turning out very competent middle managers and service workers. Thus there would be an overall shortage in the long run of people with critical thinking skills, evidence-based approaches to problem solving, and creative thinking, necessary for building a widespread and in-depth knowledge economy.

      I realise this is mere speculation, and on my part, ideologically driven. I believe that we need a strong public sector higher education system for reasons of social equality. However, I fear the public higher education sector across the Western world is beginning to rot from the inside. The organizational culture of universities is so strong and designed to prevent change. It will need extraordinary leadership at both a political and at institutional levels to bring about the necessary changes, without destroying the many virtues of public higher education..

      These are very high stakes, and it is important to get it ‘right’. However, there are many views on what ‘right’ is.

      • Just a few comments, Tony.

        I don’t think it would be a good policy to support an inefficient function(general courses in higher education) in order to indirectly support another function (research). Design the most efficient system for each separately. If there happen to be synergies, well and good. However, the Economist magazine sometime during the nineties did a series of articles on this and suggested that there were very few synergies between education and research. Despite many claims to the contrary, I’ve seen no research that confirms such synergies.

        It would be nice to think that public education is good at developing critical thinking skills but recent claims (Arun?) seem to suggest otherwise. Either way, if the government believes that such skills are important, they should direct funds to those institutions, public or private, that actually achieve those outcomes. I could add, “if we can measure them” but your comments on private institutions achieving less in this regard would have to be based on the idea that we can.

        I am somewhat ideologically motivated as well, but as an engineer I tend to prefer whatever works. The idea that nobody in the state should be hungry would not lead us to think that all food shops should be run by the government. I would agree that if the leaders of public institutions can do what is required to increase access (and the biggest inhibitor is cost), and maintain if not increase quality, then they will have proved their worth. If they can’t, it is best that they get out of the way.


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