Feature: A Call to Consider Technology and Future Trends

By Bryan Alexander, Futurist, Researcher, Writer, Speaker, Consultant, and Teacher

As we look ahead to 2019, it is imperative that higher education leaders think strategically about the unfolding future of technology. We are just starting to grapple with the macro effects of emerging technology on the global economy. Innovations in 3D printing, mobile devices, and social media are rapidly changing workplaces, supply chains, jobs, and ultimately cultural values. 

The potential impact of automation (both in hardware and software forms like AI) looms even larger, with some futurists predicting a new industrial revolution and others forecasting mass under- and unemployment. However, while we can offer predictions based on past examples of major technological and societal evolutions, the actual outcomes of these developments are still unclear, which is one reason why higher education must pounce on the issues. Our scholars across the disciplines can beneficially contribute to public debate and policy development concerning the effects of new technologies, from privacy issues to psychological changes to how code works and how we use it to mobilize politically. Additionally, because part of the responsibility of American postsecondary education is to prepare students for a lifetime in the labor force, we have to carefully rethink our curriculum and service offerings for a future unlikely to resemble the present in most ways.

Moreover, emerging technologies and practices are felt within our institutions in complex ways. IT already constitutes a significant force on campuses. Faculty and students are consumers of the vibrant app world. New devices (especially mobile ones) and their network demands proliferate. Sometimes, they are useful tools for learning and other times, distractors. Now we are realizing new possibilities. Data analytics, implemented well, can offer new ways to support students, an especially important theme as more first-generation and other traditionally underserved student populations grow and debt anxieties soar. On the downside, big data also has the potential to cause major privacy concerns. Open educational resources (OER) and open access to scholarly publications offer the possibility of reducing costs to students and libraries, respectively, while expanding the audience for scholarly materials. Automated tutoring services may assist both faculty and students in the learning process, but also risk decentralizing the value of human to human relationships. We
cannot discuss emerging innovations without considering the corporations that fund them and how their missions in some ways overlap with—and are also quite distinct from—the goals of colleges and universities. Finally, the ways in which these technologies are supported and deployed look very different across the educational landscape, depending on the resources and mission of institutions and their silos.

These issues, both on the macro scale and the campus scale, are already being discussed across American higher education. However, they deserve promotion to the strategic level, since the issues are so interdisciplinary and cross administrative boundaries. They ultimately involve critically rethinking the structure and purpose of higher education so that both are not only concerned with the challenges, opportunities, and learners of today—but also of tomorrow.