Higher education has a rough patch ahead. I say “patch” because the rich, global history of higher education is sufficiently long that even a fifty-year period of change will, in the end, be nothing more than a patch in time. As is typical with change motivated primarily by external forces, reactions and planning necessarily move from the general to the specific—from talking about student access, student debt, faculty tenure, contract faculty, class size, online/blended delivery, student segments not served, certificates, badges and whatever else pops up (e.g., MOOCs), to changes within a particular discipline.
Because programs and disciplines achieve educational goals through their own unique pedagogies (i.e., the “sage on the stage” has always been a poor-fitting stereotype), the next step will bring program and discipline specific change. But change can be hard, especially when it involves unfamiliar technologies, colleague skepticism, unknown student expectations, and uncertain success. With twenty-seven years as a full-time faculty member and administrator, the last nine as dean of a top 100 undergraduate business school, I feel qualified to offer an educated guess regarding the future of undergraduate business education.
If we fast-forward to 2038 what will we see in a business course syllabus? I predict the following four components will be much more prevalent: 1) seamless technology, 2) a resource-rich environment for students, 3) embedded practitioners, and 4) content integration.
Instructional designers go to great lengths to show the power of current course management systems. The not-too-distant future will make this software look like a tricycle compared to a high-performance automobile. Rich content from various sources in various formats will be common. Faculty will become source and content experts, which of course has always been the case but not always explicitly recognized. Content and assessment will be integrated and individualized—one student’s performance will trigger learning modules different from another. And as always, faculty will scaffold the content and serve as invaluable guides and mentors.
Because student preparedness, skills, experiences, and attitudes vary, a resource-rich environment will backstop student learning. Adept at accessing resources from elementary school, students will expect to find and benefit from resources that refresh, remind, and fill in the gaps. While that happens in 2018 in a haphazard way, such resources will increasing become linked to course-specific content and skills (e.g., writing). Throw-away comments on the first day of class that students might want to refresh themselves on statistics, calculus or a prerequisite will morph into links to appropriate, high quality course-specific resources (think Khan Academy on steroids). The best examples will be shaped by student input such that alumni will remember fondly their contributions to what is essentially a jazzed-up, student and faculty- created Wikipedia-type resource molded to the curriculum.
Moats and bridges might best illustrate the relationships between highly specialized full-time business faculty and business practitioners. We hire faculty who are subject matter experts. In fact, we literally pay them to dig even deeper in their respective areas of research. While the discovery of new knowledge provides numerous benefits, the rigor of conducting sound research provides the greatest benefit to undergraduate students. In the evaluation of student work faculty implicitly translate that rigor into meaningful, specific feedback. At the undergraduate level, concepts are foundational and transferrable. Yet students struggle to connect them to what happens in their internship or in pursuit of the first job. Practitioners make content context specific. Though no undergraduate student can know for sure that practitioner experiences will reflect the challenges they will face, the practitioner conveys a form of connectivity not easily accomplished by a faculty member intent on the learning of foundational concepts. Some faculty have become very comfortable with guest speakers and some less so. Adjunct faculty have long been part of the business school experience. However, the near future will see a more systematic, coordinated, and measurable approach to involving practitioners in the classroom.
Content integration has long been an unachieved goal of undergraduate business curriculum. Untold hours have been spent in curriculum committee and department meetings discussing the potential and promise of content integration. And then, once the meeting ends, most faculty returned to doing what had been done before. Why? Lacking a champion who can incentivize change, content integration goes wanting. This, despite that virtually every faculty member sees at least a few connections between their discipline and another. After a hundred years of developing business education few curricula build in content integration. Mapping concepts can help and current tools can illustrate the point. While PowerPoint efficiently delivers content in a linear fashion (with hyperlinks, etc.), Prezi was designed for a more complex set of connections. Without endorsing either product, content integration requires a Prezi-like approach created through cross-disciplinary conversations and meaningful course connections. Moving forward, failure to do so will disadvantage the undergraduate business student.
There will be other changes that profoundly impact business schools, such as the addition of programming geared to meet the needs of alumni and other business professional committed to career-long learning. The mix of tenured, tenure-track, contract, and adjunct faculty will also change, regardless of the initial position of accrediting bodies. Change will also bring clarity in meeting the needs of different students that, in the end, will help provide what every educator sets out to achieve, meaningful learning experiences.