Home Accountability Higher Ed Tech Predictions: 25 Possible Trends for 2021 and Beyond
Higher Ed Tech Predictions: 25 Possible Trends for 2021 and Beyond

Higher Ed Tech Predictions: 25 Possible Trends for 2021 and Beyond


Campus Technology magazine published an article last week entitled “25 Ed Tech Predictions for 2021.” In this article, Dian Schaffhauser solicited various opinions from education and industry leaders for trend opinions and comments.

I don’t believe that these are the 25 that I would list or even the 25 that most of the persons solicited for their opinions would list, but they’re worth discussing and reporting. Below some of these trends are my comments in italics. I’ve also added add wrap-up comments to the end of this article.

Trend #1 – We Will Build on What We’ve Learned

“Students have enjoyed the flexibility of a remote option and faculty have been surprised at their appreciation for and commandeering of many features offered within learning technologies. 2021 will see unparalleled appreciation for education technology – as a facilitator, as the glue that holds campuses together and as an experience enhancer.”

I agree that this situation will occur at progressive institutions that are interested in improving the education experience for their students, faculty, and staff. At the same time, some institutions may focus on rebuilding enrollments first.

Trend #2 – HyFlex Will Provide Flexibility Day-by-Day

“Higher ed has quickly adapted to build or expand a technology infrastructure in classrooms, including workforce readiness, to support HyFlex models where each class session and learning activity is offered in-person, synchronously online and asynchronously online. This will open up new pathways for institutions to reach both traditional and non-traditional students (adult learners), offering flexibility on how to participate for each class and activity.”

It’s a great idea, conceptually, but institutions tend to change slowly, not quickly. If they are not serving non-traditional students currently, adding that student sector will not be easy just because online learning is available.

Trend #3 – Online Learning Will Get More Effective, More Robust

“Effective online learning is about more than posting assignments and Zoom lectures. As higher education institutions prepare for 2021, we will see an investment in technology, training, and flexible curriculum that combines traditional classroom outcomes with certificates, stackable credentials, and digital badges that will help educators reach students in new, exciting ways.”

The majority of educators are now aware of the validity of the first sentence. The second sentence is the goal of many forward-thinking educators. Overcoming the hurdles to accomplish these goals in an efficient and expedient manner will not be easy.

Trend #4 – XR Will Provide New Ways for Students to Explore and Experience

“Extended reality (XR) technologies – which included virtual, augmented or mixed realities – allow us to blend physical and digital worlds, providing opportunities for more immersive learning in which students can explore and create in real or imagined worlds from virtually anywhere. Additionally, XR offers the ability to visualize and engage with objects in three dimensions, visit different eras, observe time at variable speeds and do things impossible or dangerous to do in real life.”

XR and VR are great technologies, and these comments are valid. Unfortunately, I do not see educational institutions accelerating their utilization in higher education in the near future, given the many other priorities.

Trend #5 – The Gap Between Haves and Have-Nots Will Grow Wider

“Despite a heightened awareness of issues of equity, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ will grow wider and ability to pay will become an increasing factor in admissibility. We will also see a greater disparity in access to quality information and guidance for high school students. These are areas where we must focus to find solutions and level the playing field.”

Without state and federal government intervention, the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” will continue to expand. It’s especially important to understand as technology utilization is increased.

Trend #6 – Small Private Institutions Will Gain Traction as Well-Suited for Post-COVID College Life

“I believe applicants will consider schools closer to home and the public institutions in their state. I hope this turns attention on some of the great small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) that have always been committed to trying their best to meet families’ financial need. I think the SLAC’s physical plants are well-suited for post-COVID era college life.”

Sadly, I think this is more aspirational than real. Many SLACs are located in rural communities. If you believe in #7 below, that will accelerate closures due to continued low or declining enrollments at SLACs.

Trend #7 – More Students Will Stick Close to Home

“Fewer students will go to in-person events on campuses in the future even when it is safe to visit. Fewer students will travel far away to attend traditional college campuses. They will stay closer to home. More students will opt for an entirely online degree and forgo the traditional college dorm and residential experience.”

I believe that this statement is directionally correct. Predicting the overall impact will be difficult. If a number of traditional institutions with a great reputation offer online degrees at a price point significantly lower than their price for a campus-based education, that could accelerate this trend.

Trend #8 – Students as Consumers Will Have More Options

“Colleges will likely stay SAT optional; colleges will be more aggressive with merit aid to attract students; and the financial difficulties from the prolonged pandemic will impact the college experience in 2021-2022. With all these issues before us, students as consumers will have more and better financial options as colleges will have to work to enroll you.”

I agree. The question will be how much private university discount rates will increase to attract more students and will they be able to lower the increased discount rate in subsequent years.

Trend #9 – Schools Will Do More Collaboration and Sharing

“I think we’ll see more collaboration between universities and tech partners to provide students and teachers with the necessary technology training, tools, hardware and software to ensure they can thrive in any learning environment. We will also see increased sharing of digital content between universities as they look to build on each other’s work to rapidly develop a high-quality catalog of educational experiences available to their students.”

This is not a new idea. I doubt that there will be any significant increase in the number of tech partnerships in 2021. I would push this into 2022 or later.

Trend #10 – Blended Will Help Scale Programs, Expand Accessibility

“In 2021, digital learning will empower institutions to scale courses and programs while starting to relieve the financial burden on students. Armed with innovative online tools and platforms, institutions can chip away at reimagining the education system – expanding accessibility and cutting costs across the board.”

Few colleges and universities make these types of changes overnight. This change should happen, but it will take years and 2021 will not be the year.

Trend #11 – Higher Ed Will More Easily Pivot in the Future

“Widespread, consistent adoption of learning technology will lead to blended learning – the combination of online educational materials with in-person classroom experience – being the new baseline for most courses. This will enable colleges and universities to easily pivot in the event of future health crises or environmental disaster and will deliver the flexibility that students have long desired.”

I agree. This is one of the few highlights to arise from colleges’ and universities’ experiences during the pandemic.

Trend #12 – Attendance Will Drop, Engagement Will Grow

“In the future, faculty are not going to require attendance as much as engagement. Instead, they’re going to find different ways to engage students to the point where you can be at home or you can be there, where you can watch it online or you can come in to work on a group project.”

I agree. At the same time, there are federal financial aid regulations for attendance and distance education that will have to be navigated for institutions to implement a blended learning environment as flexible as the one described.

Trend #13 – Web Conferencing Will Blend Classroom/At-Home Learning

“Accessibility means making sure students have access to the same resources, whether they are attending in-person, remotely or some combination of the two. Higher ed will continue to rely on video communications tools to enable students to safely meet with administrative staff for important services such as academic advising, financial aid and mental health support.”

Accessibility costs money to provide all learners with the same resources. If higher ed budgets are tight, this accessibility could be difficult to implement quickly.

Trend #14 – Chatbots Will Become Critical to Student Engagement

“Post COVID-19, education institutions will have to adjust to the ‘new normal’ – one that is not 100 percent remote or 100 percent analog, but one that takes the best of both worlds to deliver a superior education experience for students. Schools will rely on technology like chatbots and automation more than ever. Once implemented, these tools will help institutions improve teaching models, produced better outcomes for students and ultimately reduce the cost of servicing and teaching students.”

Yes. This can happen and will happen. It will only occur at a few institutions in 2021, likely those heavily invested in online education.

Trend #15 – Predictive Learning Analytics Will Evolve

“Educators will be able to pair AI and machine learning models with the social, emotional intelligence of their students to augment curriculums with learning strategies that resonate most with students. Educators can develop teaching strategies that support developmental strengths and sidestep comprehension roadblocks. Enhanced analytics will further allow instructors to support multiple options for the consumption of course content through process-driven automation, allowing students to take a lead role in how they would like to be taught parallel to outcomes-based objectives. Lastly, advances in automation will also allow for constant instructor availability supported by multiple methods for communication programmed to supply immediate feedback to commonly asked questions related to course structure, resources, and instructor availability.”

The AI and machine learning technology is available today, and it works. I have worked with Civitas and Analytikus software. The difficulty lies with the integration of AI systems with university systems, analysis, and fine-tuning of the AI prediction models based on data collected, and the training of faculty and staff to correctly utilize the software for student interventions. This technology will take years to be widely utilized.

Trend #16 – Data Analytics Will Continue Promoting Retention

“First, universities will seek to implement better tech for online learning to not only avoid any mishaps that occurred in the previous two semesters, but also to improve student retention. Second, data analytics from online learning will be instrumental in helping universities make significant improvements in student outcomes and retention – to identify students who are best-suited for their programs, flag those who might be at risk of dropping courses or dropping out and take steps to intervene and get them back on track.”

My comment for this trend is similar to #15. Implementing AI software to improve student retention takes longer from a systems integration perspective than you might expect (the models have to be tuned once the data is available), and faculty and staff need to be trained to properly use the software.

Trend #17 – 5G Will Spawn the Next Tech Revolution

“5G is the foundation for the next revolution of technology. We will see a new ecosystem of hardware and software to support this underlying technology, and more 5G-compatible devices in the marketplace as new applications and use cases emerge.”

5G is not widely available yet in the U.S., and availability is limited primarily to a few large cities. While I agree that a new ecosystem of hardware and software will be developed to utilize the technology, it will occur after 2021.

Trend #18 – As-a-Service Solutions Will Meet Operational Needs

“Experts are already predicting the number of institutions at risk for closure could reach double-digit percentages. This instability means institutions need flexible and agile infrastructure that enables them to scale up or down as necessary, only using the resources that they require at a given time. I would hope to see a business model transformation – with institutions leveraging IT to help reduce operating costs while increasing efficiencies and performance and reallocating op-ex into research and academic operations, with IT providing leadership as a trusted business partner.”

Aspirational. Institutions operating with a fixed-cost model are not going to be able to transform themselves through technology to a flexible infrastructure that would allow them to scale down effectively and efficiently. Scale up? Perhaps. Scale down? Doubtful.

Trend #19 – Higher Ed Will Embrace the Cloud

“We’ll see colleges and universities expand digital transformation efforts, from front-end remote working tools to the way they run every aspect of their schools. These institutions will create a data-centric mindset and rely more on quantifiable data measurement around things like enrollment, automated processes on the administrative end and increased transparency and accountability for students and employees alike. Business continuity is going to be at the center of all higher ed business strategy in the coming year, and digital transformation is the best way to ensure that continuity. In the coming year, we’ll begin to see institutions adopt cloud products to take incremental steps toward process re-engineering until they reach systemwide digital transformation.”

Changing out incumbent systems at traditional colleges and universities is a project that takes years and is expensive. This “future state” is aspirational, but few institutions will accomplish this over the next five years.

Trend #20 – Hybrid Cloud Will Support Remote Work and Study

“Higher ed is facing additional budget challenges, as tuition costs and enrollment decline. Knowing this, IT departments will look toward cost-effective modernization solutions that can support their remote workforce and students throughout the academic year. Hybrid cloud serves as an ideal model, as public cloud has been proven to draw unexpected costs, and it will be difficult for organizations to reallocate all of their data on premises.”

The definition of hybrid is so vague, I don’t know how I would evaluate the achievement of this prediction. The statement about budget challenges is correct. I don’t believe the first choice of CFOs will be to recommend IT modernization solutions, primary because of the time and money involved in making those changes.

Trend #21 – Schools Will Partner with Business to Close the Gap

“To begin filling the gap between education and the workforce, colleges need to be more responsive to partnerships with business organizations and industries in 2021. Creating these programs will help close the gap and benefit students looking for career success and businesses looking to engage talent and develop their brand. Post-secondary institutions preparing students for the workforce need to react and pivot to feed the industries that are in growth mode, instead of those that are struggling during the pandemic.”

This statement is accurate, but assuming that colleges and universities will make substantial progress in forming partnerships with businesses in 2021 is aspirational. This will take years to accomplish at most institutions.

Trend #22 – College Experience Will Give Way to Greater Career Focus

“A new form of continuing education will emerge that offers students opportunities for more focused career skills growth, subject-specific institutions and programs, and a wider variety of options that are tailored to today’s workforce and economic climate. We will see institutions refocus their efforts on providing affordable, accessible learning solutions rather than on selling an experience.”

Yes, we will see this change. In fact, we already have this, but it is usually available at non-traditional institutions or education companies. Few incumbent institutions will switch from selling an experience to selling an affordable solution.

Trend #23 – First Responders Will Get AI Help 

“Artificial intelligence will make inroads in the emergency notification space. AI has the ability to help manage the barrage of information coming in via phone, text and social media that bombards first responders during an emergency event. Modern recognition software enables mass notifications to be sent as soon as a gun is visible, providing administrators with advance warning before a shot is fired. Once a firearm is validated, the administrator can inform all relevant stakeholders by initiating pre-defined safety protocols, an extremely valuable capability in situations where every second matters.”

Yes, this will happen. I’m not sure how widely implemented this will be in 2021.

Trend #24 – Automation Will Drive a Wave of Spearphishing

“[Colleges] should expect a major increase in spear phishing attacks in 2021 due to automation. On the bright side, these automated, volumetric spear phishing campaigns will likely be less sophisticated and easier to spot than the traditional, manually generated variety.”

The more colleges and universities increase their online presence and access, the more vulnerable they will be to cyberattacks. Preventing successful hacks will require increased surveillance and IT staffing, and it’s an expense that cannot be deferred.

Trend #25 – Colleges Will Face More Scrutiny on Value Returned

“In 2021, there will be three overall trends. First, there will be a continued flight to quality education at a reasonable price. No longer will families be just interested in cost but also what the return might be. Second, consumers are going to be increasingly open to alternative pathways such as gap years, software training boot camps, and shorter three-year online-only programs. Lastly, income share agreements, where the student only pays a percentage of income for college loan repayment, will continue to expand beyond the early adopter schools to a broader set of schools that will need to compete for enrollment.”

I agree with all three trends acknowledged. The unanswered questions are: how much change will occur and how fast? 

I have been involved with education technology since the late 1980s. Institutional usage of computers and education software tools by faculty, students, and staff has increased substantially over the past three decades.

At the same time, many of those changes occurred over a period of years. While I agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a deeper insight into the benefits of online or hybrid classes, most universities will not pivot their business models overnight or maybe ever. The tech changes most likely to be implemented in the next year or two will come through enhancements or add-ons to existing systems.

When I read this article, I tweeted that it would be insightful reading for board members. I still believe that. Even though a number of these trends will not be adopted by many institutions in 2021, they are directionally the right way to go. Major IT changes take years to adopt. If you are a board member and some of these changes are not in your strategic plans, ask why not.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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