Five Challenges and Opportunities

Historical Perspective: Centuries of Success

Higher education has had a wonderful history.  Since developing an academic charter at the University of Bologna over 900 years ago, to creating what would become Harvard College in 1636, higher education has successfully responded to a myriad of economic and social challenges for hundreds of years.    However, with success can come complacency and as we enter the second decade of the third millennium, a plethora of new challenges are staring directly at the 4500 diploma granting institutions across the continent.

Prudent academic leaders must be prepared to challenge many of the traditional assumptions about higher education and to do this, the question that must be asked is: ‘What does it truly mean to be educated in the 21st Century?”.

Future Perspective: Five Challenges and Opportunities

In order to answer this provocative question, I foresee five major issues and opportunities that require attention, particularly within North American higher education institutions supported through public funding.  These include:

  1. Massification and the Quality of Higher Education – While mass participation in higher education has been under way in North America for several decades, without change it will soon reach a critical state of saturation that cannot be ignored.  We must better understand how to preserve equilibrium among Access, Quality and Cost (aka The Iron Triangle)
  2. Moving from College Access to Credential Attainment – Since 1901 when the first North American community college (Joliet Junior College) was opened in Illinois, we have witnessed a noble attempt to democratize higher education through an aggressive access agenda.  However, access alone is no longer the answer.  We must understand the complexities associated with realizing greater success rates for students, particularly those who have not traditionally participated in higher education.
  3. Shifting from an Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm –  It is ironic that in too many instances, educators ignore what we know; that the lecture format where faculty teach and students listen is antithesis to what we know about effective student learning.  Colleges must better understand what makes for effective learning and put in place the strategies to enhance them for the benefit of the student.
  4. Enhancing Student Mobility and Learning Pathways – Too many students in North America have long been frustrated by the lack of transparent learning pathways among higher education institutions.  It is frustrating to observe Canadian and American institutions muddle their way through archaic student mobility philosophies while other jurisdictions around the world are demonstrating student-focused mobility solutions (Bologna, Copenhagen, ALFA, ASEAN, et al).  This is an economic and social imperative that needs political courage to be realized.
  5. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Web 2.0/3.0 – If we can accept the first four driving themes above are legitimate issues that must be addressed and better understood, I would suggest that Information and Communication Technologies and Web 2.0/3.0 tools may help to address these challenges.  We must better understand how ICTs and these emerging Web tools can bring about a better balance between equity and excellence in higher education and if these tools can play a role in addressing the four themes listed above.



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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