Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced their winners of the Department’s Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge. The challenge was to “imagine what higher education would look like in 2030.”

WCET’s Dan Silverman, Assistant Director of the WCET State Authorization Network (SAN), attended the event honoring the 10 winners of this year’s challenge. Today he joins us to report on the event and provide his thoughts on these projects.

Thank you to Dan for today’s great post!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

photo of the US Capitol BuildingLast month in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Education’s office of education technology hosted the inaugural Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge Convening. Approximately 70 people attended the event honoring the 10 winners of Ed Tech’s call for “bold ideas that reimagine how we learn across our lifetimes, ideas that expand opportunity for all members of our society and foster equity,” and to imagine what higher education will look like in 2030.

The challenge attracted 164 entries, and the 10 winners received the opportunity to pitch their ideas to funders and possibly to receive unspecified, non-monetary support from the Department.

Post-Secondary education as a lifelong, career-focused pursuit

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Marcia McNair, president of the National Academy of Sciences, gave opening remarks that set the tone: the rapidly changing labor market, automation, and desire for meaningful work means that post-secondary educational institutions must be willing to start from scratch in order to serve lifelong learners in career-focused ways.

Before the ten winners had their chance to give three-minute pitches to the assembly, Sharon Leu, senior policy advisor at the Department and emcee of the program, summarized trends she saw across the submissions.

quote box: Collaborations will emerge as foundations of the higher education ecosystem of the future. Sharon Leu, senior policy advisor, US Department of Education
She noted that many of the submissions were partnerships working together to serve populations that are hard to reach, such as the incarcerated. She also observed that the submissions focused on post-secondary education as a lifelong activity, not as a box to check once. Finally, she reported that collaborations—rather than single institutions—will emerge as foundations of the higher education ecosystem of the future.

Lue presented at the WCET Annual Meeting where she expanded on some of these ideas. She was joined by one of the winners, Wayne Skipper of Concentric Sky. Along with their partners, BrightHive and the DXtera Institute, Concentric Sky’s winning proposal “responded to the challenge with a vision for a future designed around decentralized, fully portable, vendor-agnostic, self-sovereign student records.”

And the winners are...

winners of the edu2030 ecosystem challenge in a list

Only a few of the winners, such as Southern New Hampshire University and Paul Quinn College, came from degree granting institutions, and even those schools won for non-degree granting programs. Representatives from degree granting schools made up a minority of the audience as well; venture capitalists, ed tech entrepreneurs, foundations, and other firms composed most of the crowd.

One question this raises is how—if at all–traditional higher education institutions are reacting to these sorts of initiatives. And while these alternative credentialing programs operate mostly outside the traditional financial aid ecosystem, it is a possibility that federal regulatory reform could allow federal financial aid to flow in those directions at some point.

Some of the winning projects focused on the provision of specific, employment-centered alternative credentials for working adults at all stages of their careers. The Google IT Support Professional Certificate, for example, is a five course sequence on Coursera that prepares learners for entry level degrees in IT. Another popular concept was the opportunity for learners to earn stackable and competency-based accomplishments that employers could value and trust. FlexchainEDU and EdRec are two projects trying to empower learners in this way, throughout their careers.

Alternatives to alternatives?

And while the vision of post-secondary education as job training ruled the day, one winning program from Modern Campus touted the value of trips and cultural exploration for students at non-residential programs. The CEO of Climb Credit, which provides financial aid for learners in credentialing programs, was in the house as well. Could an a la carte model of postsecondary education be a part of the future ecosystem? Could something similar to the ”Tim Tebow” bill  (allowing home schooled students to participate in athletics) be far behind?

Although the majority of the winners of this particular challenge focused on new methods to teach students very specific and employer-focused skills, DeVos and McNair’s framing of the challenges facing post-secondary education raise the possibility that adaptation is an essential skill as well. It will be interesting to see what innovations emerge to meet the challenge of acquiring more abstract—and difficult to assess—skills.


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Dan Silverman
Assistant Director
WCET’s State Authorization Network (SAN)

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