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2030 & Beyond: Campus of the Future | Relevance is Critical to the Future of Higher Education

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Ever since Uber popped out of nowhere and completely transformed how people get from point A to point B, I have been asking: What will be the Uber of higher education? What disruptive technology will come along and do to colleges and universities what Uber did to taxis?

My thinking on this has recently evolved. Rather than one single Uber disruption, I fear the 'Uber of higher education' will be the perception that college is irrelevant, coupled with the confluence of many disruptive Ubers, all competing for students' attention and interests and all leading potential students away from higher education entirely.

In light of this threat, I believe it is imperative for those working in higher education, especially those senior technologists who are the decision makers on campus and who can bring new technologies directly into the hands of students, faculty and staff to be knowledgeable of the critical role they play in communicating that the college experience in its best forms is relevant and essential to today's students. Those students, and even the faculty and staff now working with them, have grown up in a media- and technology-rich environment that often makes the college classroom seem staid and boring by comparison.

Although challenging, the need to project relevance through a media- and technology-rich user experience on campus is one of the most critical functions for technologists working to support higher education.

Colleges and universities are at a critical juncture to make the case for their relevancy to a population who likely doesn't subscribe to their parents' nostalgia for the college experience and for whom many viable options to career without college exist like never before.

For much of higher education's history, the dominant narrative for why people should go to college has been predicated on prosperity. Higher education was seen as an engine of opportunity for high school graduates to advance their social class, acquire knowledge and skills, and learn what they value and how those values could improve their communities, as well as themselves. People went to college to 'get a better job' and 'have a better life' even if the link between a college experience and that better life was sometimes opaque. Having a college degree meant something to graduates, their parent, and future employers and it is what drove undergraduate enrollment and allowed higher education to flourish.

The calculus for that equation is changing and changing rapidly. According to NPR, undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. for the 2018-2019 academic year is down for the sixth straight year. Colleges and universities are competing against a multitude of interests to keep students' attention and persuade them that a college degree, and the enormous personal cost associated with that degree, isn't worth the return on investment.

To that end, colleges and universities must convince potential students (customers, if we're being honest) that a college education is still relevant and, as importantly, that colleges and universities remain key to a better career and a better quality of life for individuals and communities.

The modern college student lives in a media- and technology-rich environment that is endlessly changing and which demands constant attention. In a persistently stimulating environment, people ask themselves: Is this worth my attention? What are you trying to tell me, get me to look at, push me to read or watch or buy or do? Why should I pay attention to you? What is the next shiny object for me to look at?

Today's media landscape has shaped all of us to be less tolerant of delayed gratification and the ambiguity of the message, whatever that message might be. Past generations might have been more likely to accept vague answers to questions of why things were done in school in a particular way. That has changed with the proliferation of options and competing messages. The pressure to change with the times is more pressing than ever.

I worry for the future of higher education when students ask (rightfully in many cases): What's the point of this? Why am I here when I could get a good job without all of this debt and time wasting?

I think those questions are often asked subconsciously, but I fear that collectively it points to the need for colleges and universities to do a better job mirroring the world outside of campus life to appear relevant to students; and then deliver an important educational experience that imparts the learning and development we know are important for creating good humans.

For colleges and universities to thrive in the future, they must convince students (and parents) that what they offer is unique, important, and relevant to a student's development and future success, usually in a career, but also for 'a better life'.

As smart homes, smart cars, and smart public spaces continue to develop, it is inevitable that university students, faculty, and staff are going to demand smarter campuses and a better user experience that parallels their experience of media and technology away from campus.

Planning for the future has already begun and the user experience of a brave new world is here. People in modern society, and certainly traditional-aged college students, are navigating their social spaces and deciding what those social spaces could and should look like. Classrooms, hallways, common areas, and living spaces are just a few of the many places on contemporary campuses poised to undergo a transformation when AI, AR, VR and wearables become more common and are woven into the day-to-day experience of higher education.

As designers and planners envision the next generation of smart, connected, intelligent buildings and campuses, they must consider the human behavior and user expectations (both individually and collectively) that will interface in their design. To do anything less threatens to confirm that higher education is irrelevant, and to starve future generations of the vital learning opportunities and communities that are key to better employment and enriched lives for all of us.

Eric Anctil, School of Education, Associate Professor, University of Portland
Eric Anctil is a professor of media and technology in the School of Education at the University of Portland. His work broadly focuses on the relationship between humans and their machines and giving people a line of sight into the hidden ways that technology is quietly shaping their behaviors, decisions, and actions.

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