This shift that is occurring in higher education is huge. And if institutions aren’t ready, they may well go the way of Kodak. Yet, with disruption, with new technologies, there are immense opportunities to reach more people, make education increasingly accessible, and focus our efforts to achieve remarkable outcomes.
If I had to define the current state of higher education in one word, it would be “shifting.” Last month, I wrote about the challenging context in which we find ourselves—more competition for fewer traditional students, diminished public confidence, increased competition, and a rapidly changing landscape. As we move further into the fourth industrial revolution, higher education, generally, and regional comprehensive universities, specifically, will need to adapt to and embrace new ideas, technologies, and demands. And that, for many, is incredibly uncomfortable and scary.
In his book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail warned traditional organizations against complacency as contexts shift. Exponential organizations are those that understand these shifts and the role technology can play in opening new avenues and opportunities for success. Exponential organizations may begin small and under the radar while developing their infrastructure, similar to folding a paper in half once or even twice. The two folded layers of paper are still thin. If it’s folded again and then again, it is still thin but growing. However, if it’s folded just 42 times, its resulting height will span the distance from here to the moon. Technology is similar. It may grow and develop a few folds at a time until it emerges to threaten traditional organizations. Uber is a good example. Facebook is another. Facebook grew from a small user base that developed the platform and added members—a few at a time. Then, seemingly overnight, it became a global phenomenon. ChatGPT was almost unknown a year or two ago. It had a cadre of users that worked in the background and improved the platform until it broke through, into the public consciousness, in an exponential way. Just like paper, technology builds its base, doubling at each iteration, until it reaches toward the moon.
Exponential organizations build consistently and slowly at first until they emerge as disruptors—one fold at a time. In higher education, the growth of mega-universities that are nimble, responsive, and inexpensive has the potential to create a paradigm shift in higher education. Universities will need to find ways to leverage new technologies and prepare for an exponential future.
Ismail points out that shifting paradigms are brought on through a process he refers to as the 6Ds: Digitized, deceptive, disruptive, dematerialized, demonetized, and democratized. Exponential organizations capitalize on the 6Ds. The ability of higher education to compete and succeed in an exponential world will define how we achieve, or not, in our respective missions.
Digitizing books, research products, course materials, music, and videos extend accessibility to content and makes widespread use vastly easier. Higher education is still developing its digital capacity. Much of our work remains paper based. But digital transformation is increasingly embraced and deployed.
The power of digitization is deceptive. Once digitized, content dissemination is deceptively quick and easy. Sharing lecture notes or recordings is almost instantaneous. Fact-checking a lecture can be done in real time. Courses, meetings, town halls, and many, many other events can be digitized and disseminated globally in moments.
When usage of a new platform or technology reaches a certain level, the level of the public sphere, existing technologies, services, and products are replaced quickly, upending economic expectations and forecasts. Within short time frames, new technologies become ubiquitous and dominant. Consider how smartphone technology has displaced paper and other devices. Apple’s iPhone, almost overnight, replaced other phones including Blackberry and Nokia. ATMs and online banking replaced physical tellers. And Amazon, along with other online retailers, largely replaced malls. Once new technologies break through into the public sphere, traditional methods, technologies, and employees are disrupted.
Dematerialization means that fewer physical devices are needed to accomplish many different functions. Multiple devices can be condensed into a single device using numerous apps. Smartphones are a good example. Whereas 20 years ago we might have carried a cell phone, a GPS navigation unit, and a camera when we traveled, these have all been replaced by apps. Universities now use apps for registration, advising appointments, chatting, and streaming courses. The result is that much of a student’s educational experience can be carried out on a single device, which can also be used as a word processor.
As new technologies take hold, they become so ubiquitous as to cost little or nothing. Most apps are free or cost a nominal amount. Most GPS applications for smartphones are free. Similarly, many office suite applications, video players, news sources, among so many others, are free. Even mobile phones, once costing thousands of dollars, now can be free with a service contract.
Free or low-cost availability of sophisticated, cutting-edge technologies significantly open access for millions, if not billions, of people. 3D printers that once cost $40K now cost $100-$200 and can be found in labs, studios, and dorm rooms. Decades ago, only large multimillion-dollar companies could communicate with masses of people through magazines, television, and radio. Today, TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms give nearly global access to anyone at any time to disseminate messages, have conversations, or advertise products all for free.
All of this is to say that higher education is being pushed out of its traditional mindset and comfort zone, which tends to be limited by the physical realities and restrictions of the previous three industrial revolutions, into a dynamic reality where the locus of power shifts. The shift looks like this:
Our Purpose. As knowledge becomes increasingly accessible and democratized, teaching moves away from centralized knowledge (physical libraries and professors as the centers of knowledge) to focus on knowledge discovery, integration, application, and instruction. Discovery is new research leading to new knowledge. Integration is the use of multiple fields to combine knowledge in new and innovative ways. Application focuses on how knowledge is used, and instruction strengthens teaching. Learning becomes increasingly active and engaged. Educational delivery moves toward more project-based and cross-disciplinary assignments, internships, research, global study, and other high-impact practices.
Target Learner. As the number of traditionally aged students diminishes and competition for learners increases, strategic decisions about educational opportunities and programs for a broader set of learners becomes more and more essential, especially given that exponential changes in work and the economy will require professional development and continuous learning plans across both traditional and emergent fields. Higher education will need to reimagine the role of graduation rates from traditional 4-year degree programs to lifelong, 60-year programs.
Attainment. The possession of a particular degree will diminish as economic drivers begin to focus on needed skill sets. Outcomes and competencies will be more meaningful than seat time or classes taken. The American Association of State Colleges & Universities (AASC&U) recommends focusing on four groups of essential learning outcomes that are responsive to social and economic needs. These include Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World; Intellectual and Practical Skills; Personal and Social Responsibility; and Integrative and Applied Learning. Each of these four dimensions include multiple outcomes stressing student competencies, critical and creative thinking, and the ability to reason and adapt.
Delivery Location. Before digitization, learning resources, instruction, and work groups were bound to the physical location of the campus or its branches. Technology has changed this and allows for a much broader reach and points of access for students across the planet. Zoom, email, various course delivery platforms, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and inexpensive technologies allow student access from almost anywhere.
Identity. Higher education will move more and more away from a siloed “ivory tower” identity to one that is more open, accessible, and collaborative. Where many traditional institutions focused instruction within the physical footprint of the campus, increasing collaborations and increasing partnerships will help higher education to be an integrated and valued asset of its environment. Identifying institutional identity in the changing landscape will be critical as institutions seek to define their unique value proposition.
Focus. Traditional universities focused on “core” disciplines as defined by tradition, faculty, disciplinary research, and peer review. Students’ education focused on developing a level of expertise in these disciplines. The importance of disciplinary majors, however, is changing. Increasingly, market needs and individual goals shape majors, disciplines, and educational outcomes.
Technology. What was an “add-on” paid for by the institution is now an expected, integrated requirement for any university. Now, technology serves as the means by which universities differentiate themselves in the market, with their offerings, and for new communities of learners.
Disciplines. New students are often asked “What is your major?” And many institutional funding models direct resources to support various majors across the university. This is changing. Outcomes and capabilities are becoming more important than a particular major. Of course, some majors require a special certification (accounting, nursing, commercial pilots), but many do not. Employers are beginning to focus on non-disciplinary specific skills: leadership, effective work with multicultural teams, creative thinking, and ethical decision-making, among others.
Power. As the location for instruction and the owner of information, traditional universities controlled much of a student’s academic identity. The ability to move toward ala carte programs where students select programs and features from multiple institutions that meet immediate needs and interests will change how degrees and academic pathways are packaged.
This shift is huge. And if institutions aren’t ready, they may well go the way of Kodak. Yet, with disruption, with new technologies, there are immense opportunities to reach more people, make education increasingly accessible, and focus our efforts to achieve remarkable outcomes.
Until next time,
 Salim Ismail, Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it), (Singular: New York, 2014).
 Minnesota State’s core goal areas were developed in the 90s and are: Communication, Critical Thinking, Natural Sciences, Mathematical/Logical Reasoning, History and the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Humanities and Fine Arts, Human Diversity, Global Perspective, Ethical and Civic Responsibility, People and the Environment. Descriptions can be found at: http://www.mntransfer.org/students/plan/s_mntc.php
 AAC&U, “Essential Learning Outcomes,” October 3, 2022.