2014 Technology Outlook for Higher Education

To provide visibility into where higher education administrators spend their scarce financial and human resources in 2014, we interviewed more than twenty thought leaders at universities and colleges across the country. We targeted individuals and institutions that are leading the way in online learning and technology adoption. We purposely recruited large research universities as well as small private colleges. This cross-industry perspective provides strong guidance for others struggling to meet the shifting demands of higher education in this country. As we progressed through the interviews, we observed a number of consistent patterns around priorities, emerging best practices, and new ideas about how to leverage innovation to drive institutional progress and competitive advantage.

This year appears to be a year of stabilization and more thoughtful planning for leaders in higher education. Despite challenges with enrollment, funding, and tuition rates, interviewees were upbeat— especially when discussing innovation. There is an overwhelming sense that technology infrastructure like learning management systems, wireless networks, and data centers are in place. The scare of MOOCs has subsided, and there is the opportunity for substantive change on the horizon.

Many schools are close to completing multi-year projects that reconcile redundant investments in customer relationship management (CRM) systems and learning management systems (LMS). Part of that transition for quite a few of the institutions in our sample involved a move away from the limitations of proprietary, vendor-centric solutions in favor of open source systems as the foundation of their learning infrastructure. Executives now sound more focused on the business goals of their institutions—whether it’s recruiting the particular type of students they feel are a good fit for their school, or delivering the value that their students expect.

In our survey of higher education administrators and leaders, two major factors are continuing to impact the business of education.

First, a strong interest by private investors and institutions alike in funding education-related technology is driving a substantial amount of activity in the education technology startup environment. New companies and new products are emerging at a rapid pace, and it continues to be a challenge for institutions and funding organizations alike to keep up to date on the many emerging trends that this innovation boom is producing.

One of the drivers of this activity is a shift in demand away from monolithic applications. In our interviews with administrators and leaders of educational institutions, we heard a clear desire for specialized and unbundled services.  Open source solutions were preferable to closed systems, and smaller vendors are being given equal consideration alongside large industry players.

Second, we have seen that most institutions are reaching an inflection point where their investments in infrastructure in recent years have put them in a position to leverage emerging technologies as their existing technology foundation is on a firmer footing.  Administrators and leaders of educational institutions are now considering how to best integrate new technologies to benefit their organization, help attract and retain the students they seek, and to enhance their brand nationally and globally.

These investments in infrastructure are now paying off as they provide flexible platforms to support the rollout of new services.  These platforms have also created a capability to support new collaboration tools which have emerged as a central component in teaching and learning.  As the shift towards mobile device use has accelerated, they have created pressures on the institutions to move beyond simple wireless connectivity.

The massive scale up in data capacity has also led to a strong need to manage data storage and archiving, but it has also created opportunities to leverage analytics.

In both our evaluation of the innovation landscape, and our conversations with the higher education audience of that innovation, we heard some things we expected as well as some things that were surprising. Across a variety of sizes and types of institutions of higher education, four themes emerged as consistent areas of active interest.

  • MOOCs – The conversation of the last few years around MOOCs has centered on their potential to disrupt higher education.  More recently that dialog has shifted and schools are now seeing MOOCs more strategically. The ‘M’ in the acronym has taken on several meanings and offered new ways of engaging beyond the walls of the institution: Massive for branding, Mini for engagement, and Medium for helping to redesign large lecture course formats. MOOCs have also been seen as offering substantial value for reaching parents and alumni and providing enhanced brand visibility.
  • Shared Services – Many institutions have spent a substantial percentage of their IT budgets on investments over the past 3-5 years on infrastructure to support an exponential increase in the need for data storage, network connectivity, and collaboration tools. They are now well positioned to leverage these investments and see a strong return in the form of improved analytics, increased collaboration capability and an ability to share data within and beyond individual departments and research projects.
  • Unbundled Applications – While there are a few large industry software vendors who hold a dominant market share, particularly in the LMS space, there is an increasing preference for specific solutions. Institutions are trending towards flexibility over full service in application selection, and are choosing small vendors who can provide solutions with immediate impact over large, complex systems that require months or years of integration to be useful.
  • Hybrid and Adaptive Learning – Hybrid and adaptive learning environments have moved into the mainstream in a variety of ways. Adapting existing physical classrooms to support a more collaborative, hands-on experience is a priority for many schools, as well as using these space assets to engage with the community and businesses.  Smaller format courses are allowing students to speed through material they already know. Adaptive technologies are allowing schools to realize the potential of courses that are customized for individual learning styles and students.

2014 is emerging as a time to leverage investments and capitalize on new opportunities.  The trends are remarkably consistent across a broad sample of different sizes and types of organizations from small private institutions to large research universities.

With that said, it is also evident that the most forward-thinking organizations are aware that they cannot stand by and wait for the trends to become clear.  By that point the emerging competition will have gained an advantage in the market.  We heard loud and clear from many of the interviewees that the risk and fear of the business model changing around them, and the disruption of the model of higher education is still a strong concern.

Please visit MindBridge Partners  to download the full report.

Photo by: Gorka Palazio

Joshua Walker

Joshua Walker

Joshua Walker is a MindBridge senior advisor, EdTech Times editor and currently COO of Comlinkdata - a big data company, Board Member of CityVoter - the social media company he founded, and an active advisor to LearnLaunchX - an education technology accelerator. Josh spent years running research teams at Forrester Research and at General Catalyst as entrepreneur-in-residence. Josh continues to analyze technology companies and start-ups for MindBridge. Josh has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and NPR.