Keeping Pace with the Changing Face of Higher Ed.


Dr. Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium

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Whether we engage a retrospective and look back 20 years or fast forward 20 years, either direction the higher education landscape changes. What will the higher education institution of the future look like? How will the learning experience morph? What challenges or opportunities will learners of the future face? Over the past two decades the internet has made it possible for anyone anywhere to pursue an education, increasing access to time and place bound learners.  

While no one can guarantee the future, scanning for trends every day is an important ongoing activity of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). It is our goal to provide you with relevant insights and perspectives that will help shape thinking, provide direction, and jumpstart strategic planning action plans. Today OLC is officially releasing an infographic entitled “Keeping Pace with the Changing Face of Online Learning”. It’s a very exciting time to be in higher education especially if you can keep pace and embrace change.

Here are a few highlights for you to consider:

Higher Education is Expensive – Rising tuition rates have been outpacing inflation and learners continue to shoulder greater amounts of debt. It is estimated that the outstanding US student load debt is hovering around $1 trillion with an average loan debt of college graduates of $28.5K. Calls for increasing affordability are prompting innovative approaches (e.g., $10 K 4-year degree programs, competency-based learning models, tuition free online colleges). We have also recognized for years the value of credit for prior learning models to jump-start degree completion. What other innovative strategies is your institution deploying or investing in to rise to the affordability challenge?

Enrollments will Double – It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 50% more college/university graduates. Where will they go, especially in light of capacity issues on many campuses? Colleges/universities will continue to go online. Is your institution planning to increase online course offerings and/or degree programs going forward? If so, at a rate that is measured or unbridled? In a recent study, 70.8% of chief academic leaders indicated that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy (that’s up from 48.8% in 2002). But digging deeper into that statistic are the underlying questions of pace and positioning. With more online providers, how do you differentiate your program from others especially in an environment with ‘search and shop’ consumers of education?  

Student Expectations are Changing – At every grade level, we’re seeing changes. Elementary students are learning keyboarding skills over cursive writing. Increasing broadband access for high school students changes the learning landscape. And as many of us are aware, we’re increasingly seeing changes in the learners we serve. Of today’s college and university learners…35% switch institutions, 24% attend three of more institutions, 42% will be 25 or older, and only 14% attend full-time and live on campus. In what ways is your institution planning for these changes and other changes at each grade level? Are traditional institutional systems and processes keeping pace with these changes?

The Workforce Will Evolve – Whether the focus is on employers, employees or institutions, realize that by 2020 over 60% of jobs will require post-secondary education and many workers will keep learning throughout their careers. It’s not surprising that certificates, degree programs, and stackable credentials are being developed by today’s colleges and universities to train and retrain the workforce of the future. Some institutions have specific workforce initiatives while others simply align with workforce needs and trends and/or programmatic accreditation standards. What is your institution doing to realize and/or capitalize on these training and retraining opportunities? On the flip side, how do we ensure both a breadth and depth of learning balancing professional education outcomes with liberal studies or general education learning outcomes?

Evolving Learning Opportunities – Now Jet Blue and Virgin America are offering in-flight video college lectures from Coursera and the Great Courses series allowing continued learning even in the air. As we think about the future, what other new educational providers and/or delivery opportunities will unfold? It’s about ‘just-in-time’ learning and not only colleges and universities will serve as content creators and distributors. As you think about the future, how is your institution preparing to unbundle and rebundle learning experiences? Historically our thinking has aligned with the credit hour, but what’s possible if we crack the credit hour?

To access the full infographic, visit: We’re providing these and other relevant trends to engage your thinking, strategizing, and planning. We also recognize that we’ve only scratched the surface of the evolving online learning environment with this infographic. So what are you reading, listening to, or participating in that is informing your thinking? Feel free to email me at these additional insights or resources so we can continue to shape our collective thinking about the changing university. If you want to engage in the conversation, consider your own blog post to continue this conversation.  

Karen Pedersen


Dr. Karen Pedersen recently stepped into the role as Chief Knowledge Officer for the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). Prior to joining OLC, Pedersen served as the Associate Vice President for Extended Campuses at Northern Arizona University. In this role she was responsible for leading a system-wide enrollment management transformation as well as managing marketing, technology, and academic operations. Previously, she served as the Vice President for Professional Studies at Southwestern College (Kansas) for eleven years. Her responsibilities included envisioning and building an online program from the ground up (including seeking regional accreditation approval) and launching over 25 innovative online programs. Additionally, Pedersen had responsibility for expanding military partnerships, engaging in strategic infrastructure projects, as well as positioning the institution in an enrollment growth trajectory. Pedersen also held the academic associate and dean roles at Upper Iowa University’s Extended University. In these roles she was responsible for curriculum development, supporting academic issues, learner success, as well as faculty hiring, training, and evaluation. She also built the foundations for an online operation and traveled internationally to develop partnerships in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia while at UIU. Prior to starting her administrative career, Pedersen served as a faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Pedersen holds bachelor of science and master of science degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a doctor of philosophy degree from Oklahoma State University.

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