word art of the predictions mentioned in article.

2020 sure was challenging, difficult, unique, interesting (?), and [insert other adjectives here].

Now that we are in a new year, (but are, sadly, still facing similar issues as we were just a few months ago) WCET is curious what higher education practitioners predict for digital learning and higher education in 2021. We are even more curious about what those practitioners hope for this year.

So, we asked several! Here are their replies. I’ve broken these hopes and predictions into two separate posts due to the… proclivity of our lovely interviewees to provide eloquent and loquacious responses.

But first, here are the general trends of the predictions and hopes:

As far as predictions go, our practitioners believe that in 2021…

  • Higher education will reassess the institutional approach and strategy for online learning.
  • AI and SMART technology will be used in all aspects of campus (class, eSports, etc).
  • There will be a decreased focus on centralization.
  • There will be increased scrutiny of Online Program Management companies (OPMs).
  • We will see an increased use of portfolios to address student needs and foster educational communities.
  • Changes made during the shift to remote learning will persist in some form and there will be an increasing ubiquity of online learning or hybrid learning models.
  • New roles will emerge and be brought more into focus, such as learning analysts.
  • We will see (or send out?) calls for meaningful educational research.

Our practitioners also had several hopes for the year:

  • Positive steps toward addressing equity and inclusion within higher education.
  • A digital transformation for institutions.
  • More interest and involvement in open education.
  • Programs and initiatives to address equity and digital divide challenges.
  • Easier transfer options for students.
  • Creation and appointment of chief online learning officer type roles.
  • Closure of the information gaps between licensing boards and postsecondary institutions.
  • Renewed interest and focus on competency-based education (CBE).

Thank you to the WCET members and leadership who responded to our call for predictions and/or hopes for this year. Below are the predictions for 2021 and next week we’ll learn about their hopes!

Thank you,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


Robbie Melton, #1 Appologist, Associate Vice President SMART Global Technology Innovations Center, Dean, Graduate School, Graduate Professional Studies, Tennessee State University

Due to the impact of the pandemic where higher education had to immediately transition into a remote and virtual environment, my prediction is that higher education will pursue SMART A.I. technology innovations from telemedicine to eSports to transform our curriculums and deliver education, healthcare, and business in a global digital workplace.

Angela Gunder, Chief Academic Officer, Online Learning Consortium (OLC)

Though the efficacy and impact of quality online education is not new in any way, this past year has ushered many more individuals into the community of practice of equitable and inclusive online learning. I predict that with this influx of new champions and advocates, we’ll see innovative new methods born of the challenge of the pandemic for ensuring access to education for all learners.

Bryan Alexander, futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher

Financial stresses driven by state budget woes, increasing campus costs, decreasing enrollment in many institutions, and the general recession will change a great deal of higher ed. We’ll see continued personnel cuts, from furloughs to early retirements to RIFs (reduction in force). We should also see more program cuts in fields with lower student enrollment, especially in the humanities, even as some COVID-related fields experience growth. Non-COVID-related research will slow down. 

Phil Hill, Publisher of the PhilOnEdTech blog and Partner at MindWires, LLC

It feels like cheating, writing this prediction in mid-January and not January 1st, but one trend I believe we will see in 2021 is significantly increased pushback against the wave of digital learning centralization that accelerated last year. Late in the year we saw the cancellation of systemwide RFPs for LMS, online tutoring, and online proctoring in the Alabama Community College system due to flaws in the evaluation process. We also saw the cancellation of a systemwide RFP in Tennessee over similar concerns. While the K-12 space is different from higher ed in many regards, there are some common issues we face. The nation’s fourth-largest K-12 district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, with more than 270,000 students, had a series of technical problems disrupting students from taking class, leading to the cancellation of a $15 million no-bid contract and a scramble to migrate back to Zoom and Microsoft Teams usage.

To keep my methods transparent, yes, I am relying on past events to inform my look forward. Simply put, I believe these were not isolated incidents of poor processes or bad technology decisions, but rather that they represent an accelerating movement towards centralization that we are seeing in the digital learning world. And that we will see many more mistakes made and public pushback against these efforts. 

This is not a Manichean world of centralize = bad and pushback = good. There are some strong reasons backing up the moves towards centralization, including the need to provide minimum services for digital learning infrastructure during a period of enrollment and budget chaos for many schools. And there is the underlying CARES Act funding that encourages centralized infrastructure spending in a tight timeline (spend those dollars soon before you lose them!) in the messy area of teaching and learning that needs careful consideration. It is likely that we will see additional pandemic-related federal government funding that replicates the effects of the CARES Act in early 2021. There can be some real benefits of centralization with improved resource sharing, increased collaboration, and better opportunities to measure and learn what works and what doesn’t. But centralization is messy and will always be risky in higher ed.

One reason that I am focusing on the pushback side of this story is that centralization by its very nature raises the stakes. Bigger implementations driven by administrative or even legislative offices quite removed from front-line educators is a recipe for public angst, much of it quite warranted. Let’s hope that the higher community can learn from the past and upcoming messiness of centralization.

John Opper, Executive Director Distance Learning & Student Services, Florida Virtual Campus 

Perhaps a renaissance?

When thinking about a prediction for the next year given all that has been happening in higher education in terms of the fiscal struggles, affordability concerns, public confidence, and a changing education marketplace, I find it a bit difficult to focus on one. Certainly, the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the many challenges we faced going into 2020. Given where things stand now, I think I would say that this next year will be one for the relaunch of online learning that will be in some ways similar to the initial ramp up almost 20 years ago.

Photo by Anni Roenkae on Pexels.com

I would suggest that we will see a 3R’s approach over the next year or two. I believe that colleges and universities will reassess their online learning and other academic programs in light of what they have learned during COVID-19 and the need for a new approach. There will be some retooling in the areas of administrative structure, analytics, student support systems, academic policies and procedures, and perhaps credentials offered. And once done, we will see a relaunch of online learning operations that have more depth in the academic and student services operations of the institution, more streamlined policies and procedures and a more aggressive student-centered approach than pre-COVID-19.

So, in a nutshell, I think we will see the beginnings of a renaissance for higher education with online learning and support services playing a major role in the shape of things to come.

Dale Johnson, Director of Digital Innovation, University Design Institute, Arizona State University

Higher education enrollment will increase by 10% in the fall as students who deferred in fall 2020 return to start their education.

Leah Matthews, Executive Director, Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)

A growing dependence on Online Program Management (OPM) services will lead to increasing scrutiny of OPM-institution partnerships, revenue share agreements, and the resulting student outcomes. Accreditation will play a major role.

Janelle Elias, Vice President, Rio Salado College

New models will emerge in online learning. I expect institutions to continue to experiment with a full spectrum of delivery modalities to increase flexibility, match student expectations, reduce cost, and enhance continuity of learning. 

Douglas Stein, Vice Provost, Colorado Technical University

Institutions and their faculty became more comfortable with instructional technologies in 2020, in many cases due to the necessity of remote learning. 2021 will likely see institutions and their faculty innovate by using instructional technology portfolios to best serve their students. These portfolios will promote flexibility to address unique student needs while fostering educational communities in the face of student and faculty isolation.

Judith Sebesta, Executive Director, Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas (DigiTex), Texas Association of Community Colleges

I predict that the increasing ubiquity of online instruction and learning will continue post-pandemic, with institutions further harnessing its ability to support more flexible, equitable access to higher education, and credential completion.

BUT, my concomitant hope is that we can better bridge the digital divide by addressing lack of equitable access to the internet (including availability and affordability of broadband as well as access to adequate devices to connect to the internet).  

Gary Chinn, Assistant Dean, Digital Learning, College of Arts & Architecture, The Pennsylvania State University

My prediction for the new year is that some of the changes that we’ve seen in response to the pandemic will persist in some form after we’ve returned to a more normal time. Specifically, I am hearing from more and more faculty at my institution who are interested in retaining the benefits of some level of remote instruction for their classes. The positive side of this interest is that it can open a conversation about how best to integrate digital tools in a meaningful way. 

Robert Hansen, Chief Executive Officer, UPCEA

The mass exposure of students and faculty to remote learning during the pandemic will accelerate the long-term enrollment growth of online learning. Even traditional students now expect a mix of online and in-person classes, and many faculty members previously indifferent or hostile to online learning have discovered they like it after all. This healthy new dynamic will largely offset on-campus enrollment losses, once again saving higher education from another potentially calamitous year.

Julie Uranis, Vice President, Online & Strategic Initiatives, UPCEA, and Managing Director of the National Council for Online Education (NCOE).

I know WCET was probably looking for one grand prediction for higher education, but for my prediction I will focus on what leaders on campuses will wrestle with this year. 

TL;DR…2021 is the year everyone starts to figure out what they are doing with online (again) at their institution.

In 2021, institutions will have to rethink their entire approach to online learning. I know, I know, you did that in 2020. But I mean REALLY RETHINK your ENTIRE approach to online learning. 

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

Previously settled territory will have to be reassessed and renegotiated.

  • How are you defining online, web-enhanced, hybrid, remote, hybrid flex courses, and programs? How are you ascertaining if a course or program falls into any of those categories?
  • Are “online” courses and programs only asynchronous, always?
  • Are faculty required to work with an instructional designer for a course to qualify as an online course?
  • What quality assurance and accessibility reviews will you do?

Your strategy for resourcing and growing online at your institution needs to be audited. Online learning (really all learning technologies) is core to the institution now. We’ve proven that they are critical to the continuity of operations. Treat them as such. If you do not have an online strategy and a senior leadership role responsible for online, you need them.

Myk Garn, Assistant Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models, University System of Georgia

That the skill set (and possibly role) of a ‘Learning Analyst’ will become more prominent as institutions amass, analyze, and make actionable more and more learning-level telemetry generated by the LMS and associated courseware.

Shannon Riggs, Executive Director of Academic Programs and Learning Innovation, Oregon State University Ecampus – WCET Steering Committee Vice Chair

I predict that experienced online educators will emerge more fully as leaders in higher education and will help to improve access to educational opportunity.

Tina Parscal, Associate Vice Chancellor for CCCOnline and Academic Affairs Colorado Community College System – WCET Steering Committee Chair

The emergency pivot to remote instruction in 2021 fostered some amazing innovations in digital learning. I predict we will see some exemplary effective practices in synchronous teaching and learning.

Tongue in cheek prediction…

I predict that 2021 will be a challenging year to make accurate predictions.

Demaree Michelau, President, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)

This past year demonstrated to all of us how digital learning can be more fully integrated into the fabric of higher education – not just on some campuses or in some programs or in continuing education. We all experienced it – the good, the bad, and the ugly – on some level. Going forward, I predict that colleges and universities are going to more effectively tap into the potential of effective distance education and hybrid models to not only to serve students in a period of continued uncertainty around the health crisis, but also to leverage dollars in a constrained fiscal environment, and importantly to reach students who have been left behind. I don’t envision a return to a pre-pandemic landscape, and my hope is that we take the hard lessons that we have learned and transform them into positive action. Now is our chance.

Russ Poulin, Executive Director, WCET and Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE 

The conversation around the price (tuition, fees, and other expenses) that students pay for higher education and the ROI of that investment has only just begun. Parents, students, legislators, and the public are already questioning whether college is worth the investment. State legislators are weighing how to handle reduced appropriations in most states. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will release the Postsecondary Value Commission report later this spring. Additionally, students who decided to opt-out for a year or two due to the pandemic will wonder whether they should return. We, in digital learning, will find new ways to meet the student affordability challenge. 

What are your predictions for 2021? Let us know here in the comments below or tweet them to us at @wcet_info.

Join us next week to chat about our hopes for the year!

Here at WCET we hope that we can help you achieve those hopes you have for the year. Learn more about getting involved with WCET. Personally, I agree with Tina above, I think it’s going to be a hard year predict. But, we’ll be there for you!



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