This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

There are two major drivers of change in higher education (HE) and continuing education (CE). They are the inexorable advance toward universal access to education and the technological imperative that enables that advance. Understanding these two concepts provides a useful structure to describe the many changes that HE and CE are facing today. They also point the way to the future, to the students and instructors of the future, and to the new structure of HE institutions and their CE units.


Universal Access

In 1973 Professor Martin Trow of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a series of papers that established a framework for the study of HE for the next four decades. He described the worldwide movement from elite higher education (10% of secondary school graduates going on to college) to mass higher education (30% or more). This helped explain and place in context a complex of changes that were sweeping through HE around the world. In these essays Trow also described the beginnings of what he called “universal access,” a concept that was growing quickly, descriptive of what was happening in the realms of both formal and informal education. Universal access anticipated the expansion of motivation for learning, an increased diversity of educational providers, a decrease in the distinctions between education and “life,” a decrease in the cost of education, and a real-world orientation toward learning that ultimately would compete with formal HE and its institutions. Trow believed that technology would be a driver of universal access through the “use of videocassettes and TV’s and on computer and other technological aids to instruction.”1

This essay will extend Trow’s concept to today’s world where universal access is defined as the opportunity for anyone to learn anything, any time, anywhere, for free. Technology is pushing us closer to that goal. Universal access is even more visible as the headlines discuss MOOCs and new, more efficient formats to help people learn. True to Trow’s prediction, these innovations appear threatening to formal education, open the door to new educational providers, require shifts in faculty roles, and portend a major shift in the roots of HE finance. But more important, these innovations hold the promise of educating nearly one billion people who otherwise would not have access to a meaningful education.


Technology as Imperative: A Break with the Past

New technology and its application are and will be the most important drivers of change in HE and CE. After more than twenty years of experience with online education and its continuing increase, there are still those who dispute this hypothesis or resist the evidence to the contrary (MOOCs, for instance). Until the 1990s, no major technological advance had much of an impact on the way education was carried out.

Trow described the relationship between universal access and the technological imperative:

information technology now forces a revision of our conception of the conditions making for universal access. It allows, and becomes the vehicle for, universal access to higher education of a different order of magnitude, the courses of every kind and description available over the Internet in people’s homes and workplaces. That involves profound changes in both institutional structures and attitudes regarding higher education.2


How to Think about the Present and Future of HE and CE

Understanding universal access and the driving influence of technology provides a lens for administrators to view and filter the daily onslaught of both encouraging and discouraging news and events and, importantly, a method of placing the present in relationship to the future. Universal access is both a goal and a driver of all change. The imperative of technological change and developments in teaching and learning are primary enablers of universal access. While it can and is being used by many institutions for higher-quality education and expanded access, technological advancement has a life of its own and is not controlled by HE and CE administrators.

What follows is the application of this structure to four major issues facing HE and CE to show the validity of this framework for analyzing and understanding what is happening. For each issue the problem is identified, its general dynamics are analyzed, and then the concepts of universal access, open educational resources (OER), and the technology imperative are used to place the problem and its possible resolution in context.


Understanding the Dynamics of Higher Education and Its Publics Today

An interconnected set of dynamics exists among the major issues facing HE. Authors have exploited these dynamics, writing about the problems of HE, how HE needs to change and why, and who should lead those changes. One major strand of criticism is that, unlike many other sectors of society, HE has not become more productive on any measure, including, for instance, graduates produced or the quality of the education graduates are receiving. This lack of increased productivity, so the logic goes, leads to higher costs. Higher costs, in turn, expose a failure on the part of administration to accept change and innovation, produce calls for greater accountability, and open the door to nontraditional provider competition, including global competition.


The Higher Cost of Education

The Problem There is evidence that the inflation-adjusted cost per student has not actually increased in the last thirty years.3 However, the share of the cost paid by students and their parents has risen considerably. Costs in private universities have floated to market rates because most private universities serve the wealthy. In 2012–2013 the number of institutions charging over $50,000 per year increased from 123 in the prior year to 149.4 At elite private universities over 80 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family income distribution.5 In public institutions, higher costs to students are the result of the decrease in state support of public higher education. Between 1982 and 2012, state support of higher education per $1,000 in personal income declined from $10.06 to $5.89 130 centennial conversations (41%).6 While average four-year public higher education in-state tuition for 2012–2013 was a relatively modest (in relation to private university tuition) $8,655 per year, total per year cost including on campus housing was $22,261, still a considerable burden for families even in the upper middle income brackets.7

General Dynamics The increase in costs to students and their parents creates a number of dynamics, which reveal themselves in many ways. One result of higher costs is the rapid increase in student debt, which exceeds $1 trillion (more than consumer debt) and is approaching an average of $30,000 per debtor graduate. This heavy debt burden, combined with a sluggish job market, has placed a huge economic burden on our society. Naturally, HE constituents (board members, politicians, students and parents, pundits and commentators) look to the root cause of this debt, often focusing on the underlying financial structure of institutions and university systems. Since governing boards consist of business people, cost containment and ways to increase productivity are typical responses. Reductions in force, particularly at the administrative level, higher teaching loads for faculty, larger class sizes, and year-round use of the physical plant are all natural business-oriented reactions to cost pressure. Politicians often ignore the root cause of tuition increases at public universities—the reduction in state funding—and blame institutions for rising student costs, offering the same remedies that governing boards are prone to propose.

Analysis By July 2011 the stock of OER and OpenCourseWare (OCW) had increased dramatically. MIT had produced 1,800 open courses, and the members of the OCW Consortium (now the Open Education Consortium) had produced more than 20,000 open courses. YouTube had hundreds of thousands of video-captured lectures, and iTunes U was also accumulating thousands of courses. Open repositories such as MERLOT and Connexions had thousands of open learning objects easily available for downloading. Yet very little of this material was recognized or being used. Then in July 2011, Stanford’s two artificial intelligence MOOCs hit the mainstream media. The overwhelming response to this free and open material (more than 160,000 signed up for the two courses), combined with Stanford’s reputation, caused open education to catch the attention of the public. The notions of free (open), highquality (Stanford), public acceptance, and extensive inventory (OCWC, YouTube, MERLOT) came together and produced some surprising and troubling responses. Symbolic of these responses was the bill proposed in the California state legislature in March 2013 that would require public institutions of higher education to give credit for MOOCs under certain conditions.8 The logic of the bill was as inevitable as the proposal was unworkable; that if the content of a course were free, then the total cost of education should become less. After opposition from institutions, SB520 was not put forward, but the consequences of MOOCs did not end. The possibilities of using online education to reduce costs persisted to the point that the governor earmarked $10 million per year for the University of California budget (with similar amounts for the California State University and community college systems) to produce online courses that students from one campus in the system could take from other campuses.


Resistance to Change and Innovation

The Problem In most industries, increased productivity has come from new technologies and their application. It is clear that new technology has been adopted by higher education to great effect. University libraries are quite different than the libraries of even ten years ago. They serve much more as electronic portals to information and places for groups of students to study than as repositories. There are many additional examples of how the teaching and learning processes are becoming more effective through the use of technology. However, a clear relationship between the use of new technology and increased productivity has not been established.

General Dynamics Measuring productivity in HE is a complex problem. Many measures commonly used are number of graduates produced, time to degree, completion rates, and student satisfaction. Yet the most important outcomes, the impact of the university experience on student’s lives and on society in general, are impossible to measure. The one metric that is measurable is the personal income difference over a lifetime of a college graduate compared to those with only high school diplomas. The aggregate data (which show that there is a significant difference) hides the fact that for many students there is no noticeable economic benefit to attaining a degree, particularly when student debt is factored in. Accrediting agencies are struggling to have institutions define desired student outcomes and then measure them in graduates, often months or years after graduation. However, this lack of acceptable metrics for measuring changes in productivity does not stop those who see change and innovation as the key to productivity gains.

Analysis Again, boards of directors and politicians often see their role as demanding change and the use of new technologies to achieve greater productivity. Take the case of President Theresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia (UV). In June 2012 the university’s board of regents voted to remove her from office. While at first the reasons for removal were unclear, it came to light that several members of the board were disturbed by the slowness with which the university was adopting new instructional technology and online education.9 With support from faculty and students, Sullivan was reinstated. It is not surprising then that UV was one of the first sixteen institutions to join Coursera and produce MOOCs.

There are echoes of this around the country. In 2010 the president of the University of California was urged by the regents to initiate a system-wide effort to create online courses that could be offered both to UC students and nonmatriculated students. UC, despite its public and landgrant status, had produced less than a handful of online degrees while other major state systems were producing hundreds. To remedy this, the regents authorized a $9 million loan to the project. The project failed to attract nonmatriculated students, but it did change UC faculty attitudes toward online education, opening doors for the slow development of online education.

In the short term, involvement with MOOCs or free education became the means by which institutions demonstrated their willingness to adopt new technology and experiment with new forms of education. While a number of institutions are rethinking their policies and involvement with MOOCs and OER, others are inventing new ways to use MOOCs and OER to serve deserving populations, increase institutional reputation, and serve students. MOOCs or their derivatives are expanding and will become a permanent part of HE.

Belying the criticism that HE is unwilling to change or accept innovation, note that the major player in the OER movement in 2001 was MIT (with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), and the initiator of the MOOC movement was Stanford. It is HE, not the private sector, from which innovation in open education springs. While Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and other private firms have taken the headlines, all these private organizations depend on universities to continue to supply the content that is the substance of the MOOC and OER movements. Since most MOOC business models depend on a free or low-cost supply of content, this will continue to be the case.



The Problem As the efficiency of HE came into question, the demands for accountability rose. Accountability wears many hats—accountability for cost efficiency, for educational and research results, for compliance with hundreds of laws and regulations, for integrity in all dealings, and for contributions to regional economic development. Of course, accountability comes with a cost and is one of the drivers of higher-cost education.

General Dynamics An axiom of accountability is that what is measured is paid attention to. Where accountability does not align with institutional purposes and aspirations, distortions occur: deviation of resources from strategic and aspirational goals toward secondary purposes. The dollars spent on accumulating and reporting data take resources away from the central activities of new knowledge creation, teaching, and learning.

Another axiom of accountability is openness. Data must not only be accumulated and reported, it must be publicly available. This openness, while necessary and logical, places HE and its institutions at risk of misinterpreting the data.

Analysis Openness is one of the levers that pushes OER into the accountability equation. Another lever is the potential that OER has for opening the heart of the educational enterprise to public view. Online and open education requires the expression of the entire learning content for a course or full curriculum. The mistakes, faculty foibles, errors, and chances for misinterpretation that fall quickly by the wayside in a classroom-based course are manifest and evident in online education. If online education can be made open, then why not require such openness of all faculty members? Sound far-fetched? Maybe not. For example, the Texas state legislature passed a law (HB2504) requiring public institutions (except medical and dental schools) to post a public website for every undergraduate course.



The Problem Online education has changed the competitive landscape for HE and CE. This change has several dimensions. First, because the cost barriers to entry are relatively low, institutions of all kinds can now, through boundless online education, expand their market reach efficiently. Second, educational institutions other than those in higher education, including professional societies, museums, and private sector firms, are queuing up for their part of the market share. Third, the power of the brand now pushes high-level competition into every corner of the country. Institutions now have the capability to enroll thousands of students from everywhere to capture large market share in specific subjects, draining potential students from local, less wellbranded institutions. Increased competition has an international aspect as well, with national boundaries no longer the barriers they were to cross-national education. Policy developments in the United States and in Europe with EU coordination are beginning to remove policy barriers to competition. 

General Dynamics The power of universal access is evident in this increased competitive nature of the market. While keeping track of market share is important for examining competitive shifts, the market is growing as people recognize that they have to learn to maintain their standard of living and that learning is available at no or very low cost. The most important competitive elements of HE and CE are content, convenience, quality, and price. Through the use of online education the variety of content and convenience increases and becomes ubiquitous. By removing the constraints of time and place from learners, quality and price become more important as competitive advantages. The brand will continue to be the primary indicator of quality, and the public will rate online education just as they have rated traditional educational programs.

Analysis Prior to the coming of MOOCs the public had mixed reactions to OER, and rightly so. Before MOOCs, the quality of OER was uneven, displaying both the best and the worst of what OER could be. The first instances of MOOCs demonstrated that OER could be high quality, thus opening the door wider to the notion that OER could legitimately begin to address the issue of the high cost of education.

Early MOOCs were developed at very high costs, reported in some cases to exceed $50,000 and running as high as $1 million. Development costs at this level are simply not sustainable, but the public gained an image of what education could be. Early MOOCs set a standard across all types of online education, including instructor-led courses where the quality of the offering is primarily dependent on the instructor. MOOCs have contributed to a sharper focus on what online quality really is as defined by its efficiency in producing learning outcomes. OER and MOOCs have directly influenced the price of higher and continuing education. They have revealed the very high margins produced by normally priced degrees, increasing pressure on colleges to lower their tuition.10

The effect on CE is likely to be greater. Price sensitivity in CE is higher, particularly in corporate markets. These markets are now clearly targets for major MOOC players. In September 2013, Udacity announced the launch of the Open Education Alliance.11 This was followed in June 2014 with Udacity’s announcement of the nanodegree or modularized format for employee training.12 Coursera is also entering this market with its course sequences and its “always open” delivery mode. This turn from degree-based education to workforce development and corporate training reflects a certain desperation among MOOC providers to reach new markets. How can university CE units compete with these very low-cost providers? CE units will have to adopt the MOOC delivery mode, offering free courses but, as with the private MOOC providers, charging for learning assessment and certification. They will have to tie free courses to fee-bearing course sequences, led by qualified instructors and at very high quality. Few of the private MOOC providers of today will last without offering their own learning certification and establishing their own legitimacy independent of their university partners. In this they will act very much like CE units. CE units will have to meet and face down this challenge.


What Today’s Learners Tell Us about Tomorrow’s Learners

For some, in examining the first MOOC participants, a surprising result was their high level of educational attainment. This is confirmation that the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she will consume more education. This holds true at all levels of education. In a reversal of classical economics, demand for education is increasing because of the huge supply of learning objects that are available, quickly, easily, and for free. We are faced with many more learning projects, learning what we need in order to live our lives productively. Most of these projects demand that we learn quickly, efficiently, and sufficiently to achieve at least a minimum proficiency.

Studies of MOOC participants reveal more about today’s learners. First, for many, learning offers intrinsic satisfaction, often dissociated from any practical concern. Very few of the thousands who enrolled in Princeton’s MOOC The History of the World since 1300 expected to use that knowledge in any practical way. When asked, learners say they are taking the course for fun or for a very general purpose of self-improvement. Second, among those taking a MOOC, levels of engagement vary from viewing the video parts to taking the full course with all of its assignments. For traditionalists, this variation indicates a failure on the part of MOOCs to engage students and produce more acceptable completion rates. For those interested in human learning, this variation offers an opportunity to explore the ways in which people choose learning projects and define what they want for those projects. Today’s students clearly want to choose their own level of engagement, from a light review of a subject or deep engagement in only part of the offering to full academic assessment and academic credit.

Third, as Trow predicted, learning is merging with work, family life, entertainment, and other ways we spend our time. The convenience of the learning process is still paramount for most students. The advent of mobile devices and the learning applications being developed for them are a major recent development in this merger. HE institutions underestimate the impact of this. But most online providers are making sure their learning materials are mobile-friendly.

Fourth, this merging is partly the cause of the trend toward chunking of learning materials into shorter segments. Students need education delivered to them in smaller bites or modules to accommodate both shorter attention spans and busy lives.

Fifth, the period between learning and application is being shortened. In traditional education the trend toward project-based education is evidence of the merger of learning and application. Increasingly CE learners have the opportunity to time their learning so that they can immediately employ what they have learned. For instance, Coursera used the cohort model exclusively for its course offerings but has recently added the “always open” or independent study option so that learners can get what they need “just in time.”

Sixth, the social aspects of online and open learning are becoming more important and available. Social learning is central to a new trend in education: learner as creator rather than consumer. Real-world projects requiring group project work with a defined deliverable are being embedded in course assignments. Interaction among students is becoming a part of the instructional design of courses, with social networking employed for group work on projects. Learning social networks are evolving, becoming more sophisticated, and are capable of being monitored and directed by instructors. In open education social learning is accomplished through peer assessment where students grade each other’s work. And now learning hubs, where students in open courses can come together in face-to-face meetings, are sprouting up.13

Finally, instructional design is pushing into adaptive learning and supplemental learning. In adaptive learning the course design automatically discovers gaps in student knowledge and understanding and directs students to the learning materials needed to gain mastery of the concept. This promises the customization of learning to fit individual needs on a massive scale, helping to focus the attention of the student and the instructor on elements of the learning process where it is needed. Supplemental learning takes place outside the normal classroom work and its assignments. It includes what happens in study groups, in studying for tests, and in the individual student organizing the time and methods for learning. Instructional design is beginning to address this important area of learning, providing supplemental material and offering more help in organizing study time. For some this detracts from the need to have students take responsibility for their own learning. For others, this is a natural extension of the guidance students need and deserve to master a subject.

All of the features of today’s learners are evident and can be extended into the future. Soon we will begin to know much more about the learning that will be employed to improve human learning. This research may go beyond current pedagogical practice into the realm of the biological bases of learning and retention, the psychological states necessary for effective learning, and the increasing of the capacity to learn through iterative practice. The infancy of MOOC research gives us some hints at what might be possible. The quality of MOOCs, how students engage, the international character of participation, and the possibility of conducting statistical testing with large populations all promise to yield much information about human learning. The revolution in learning will have its roots in evidence-based examination of human learning rather than institutional change.


The Future of Higher and Continuing Education

The examination of the current state of higher and continuing education leads to some predictions that have a high degree of probability of realization.

Faculty as Learning Architects Change in faculty roles will be at the heart of the changes over the next ten years. Faculty will enlarge their scope of teaching to include more elements of instructional design. It is they who must set the learning context for the learner. They will have available to them and will use more information and methods about learning and technology to foster human learning. They will go well beyond being content experts to being learning experts, possessed of an understanding about how to select content and learning assets, sequence them, tie them together, adapt them to the collective and individual needs of the students, and extend all this into the full life cycle of the learning experience of the student, including supplemental learning and subsequent application. The term architect is appropriate in many ways in that the faculty of the future will be central in building the learning context for students, who often will have quite varied backgrounds. Institutions will have to support this new role through training, infrastructure development, instructional design resources, and, most important, cultural shifts that honor the role of learning architect.

Research-Driven Continuous Improvement As the learning research enterprise becomes more extensive and sophisticated across institutions, it will begin to have an effect on how the teaching role is carried out. Content will become less of a distinguishing feature of learning among institutions as quality, value, and accessibility of learning material increases. Those institutions with the most effective continuous improvement processes will gain a competitive quality advantage.

Quality as Defined by the Market Increased accountability will push all institutions toward quality standards defined more and more by market forces. Where institutional and market standards diverge, the movement will be toward market values. Student employability measures will be a market preoccupation whereas human development will remain an institutionally valued outcome. Universities will likely serve this demand by adjusting curriculum, pedagogy, and programs to create a more workforce-ready graduate.

Technology across the Spectrum “Technology as imperative” will continue, increase, and be expressed in every part of teaching, learning, and institutional life. HE institutions, CE units, and faculty will have to remain open to technological innovation and change, able to employ technology where it truly assists learning, and willing to evaluate new technology for its effectiveness. Administrative and instructional technology will merge to include data about students both collectively and individually. Student life situations will become a part of the equation more directly than is imaginable today. Learning efficiency will be correlated with health, psychological, and attitude data, first for traditional students and then later for adult students.

Institutions as Bundle of Services The traditional services provided by institutions are unbundled in today’s marketplace. The online and OER movements have played a role in this unbundling. Libraries now are portals rather than repositories. It is common for online courses to be produced by outside organizations or for one institution to vend to another institution. The increasing costs and sophistication of online and open courses requires that professionals other than faculty members be involved in the course production process. Open courses of very high quality are available for free or low cost, much lower than the production cost. As MOOCs came into play, the evaluation and certification of learning became the role of the MOOC purveyor or an outside agency (such as American Council on Education). The pressure on institutions to provide some form of credit for open courses will increase, and institutionally acceptable ways for dealing with this pressure will emerge.

Open Education as Norm Current experience clearly indicates that every major university will be both a producer and a user of open education. Institution’s reputations will rest in part on the quality and amount of open material they produce. It has become an expression of public service for institutions to make these contributions that serve their own students and institutional purposes. The production of open material is more consistent with institutional culture than is the use of OER. Universities are burdened by the not-invented-here syndrome—if we didn’t come up with it, how good can it be?—and by the practical exigencies of trying to create a coherent learning context from different sources. But OER and MOOCs (in their evolved state) are a permanent feature of worldwide higher education.



These six predictions are meant as challenges to today’s HE and CE administrators. They may be used as examples for the application of the concepts of universal access and the technological imperative to make predictions. Are these valid lenses through which to view the future? One conclusion should be clear. We are not experiencing a revolution. We are experiencing the evolution of learning and a historical turning point that will determine the future of the world. Will we meet the demands of almost one billion people who want and need higher education? The answer is in our ability to harness the power of that demand to the new technologies and new understanding of human learning. Can we meet the challenge? The answer is simple: we must, and will.



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  2. M. Trow, “From Mass Higher Education to Universal Access:  The American Advantage,” Minerva 37 (Spring 2000): 1–26.
  3. G. C. Fethke and A. J. Policano, Public No More: A New Path to Excellence for America’s Public Universities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  4. “Colleges that Charged $50,000 or More in 2012–13,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac of Higher Education, 2013–2014, 48.
  5. J. Quiggen, “Campus Reflection,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 12, 2014. Accessed at
  6. “State Fiscal Support for Higher Education per $1,000 of Personal Income, FY 1961–2012,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac of Higher Education, 2012–2013, 45.
  7. “Average College Costs, by Institutional Type,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac of Higher Education, 2012–2013, B51.
  8. L. Gardner and J. R. Young, “California’s Move toward MOOCs Sends Shock Waves, but Key Questions Remain Unanswered,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2013. Accessed at /A-Bold-Move-Toward-MOOCs-Sends/137903/.
  9. J. Stripling, “Teresa Sullivan Will Step Down as UVa’s President after Two Years in Office,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2012. Accessed at
  10. G. Blumenstyk, “Starbucks Plan Shines Light on the Profits of Online Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2014. Accessed at
  11. C. Shen, “Announcing the Launch of the Open Educational Alliance,” Udacity Blog, September 9, 2013. Accessed at /2013/09/announcing-launch-of-open-education.html.
  12. 12. E. Porter, “A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job,” New York Times, June 17, 2014, B1. Accessed at /business/economy/udacity-att-nanodegree-offers-an-entry-level -approach-to-college.html?_r=0. 13. T. Lewin, “U.S. Teams Up with Operator of Online Courses to Plan a Global Network,” New York Times, October 31, 2013. Accessed at


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).