Technological advances and workforce needs reshaping the future of US higher education


Technological advances and workforce needs reshaping the future of US higher education

Rapid technological advances are making the future of higher education more digital than ever. There is a good chance that the traditional lecture room education will be something from the past and in the future we´ll only see tailored options via online learning as well as virtual and augmented reality education. Continuous skill development will be more and more common and geographical barriers won´t be limiting the accessibility of the education. Technological advances are clearly reflected in the global EdTech markets. In the US, there are at the moment nearly 14 000 EdTech Startups and by 2025, the global EdTech market has been estimated to be worth over $400 billion. Rapidly growing EdTech markets and technological advances clearly impact the strategic plans at the universities, and they need to rethink the contents of the academic programs and teaching forms. Collaborations between universities and industries are clearly strengthening and at the same time ensuring that university programs are in alignment with the evolving needs of the job markets. The future of traditional US higher education is clearly in transformation and there has been a lot of discussions on the needs of personalized education and shorter micro-degree options to meet the current demands. Even the long process of gaining doctoral degree has been questioned in many institutions.

Rapid technological revolution in education
The future of education will see a significant shift towards visual learning techniques, enabled by advancements in technology. Online platforms and interactive tools will allow students to engage with educational content in a more visual and immersive way, enhancing their learning experience. Students will have access to a wide range of visual assistance tools to support the learning results and to store information. 

Besides students, teachers will experience massive changes in their work description: Use of new technology will enable more efficient teaching tools that allow managing course contents, tests and students - but new technology also brings up the question about ethical issues. The utilization of ChatGPT to produce text for various purposes has raised numerous discussions on the ethics and reliability of the AI-produced texts. Also, as soon as AI is being used on campuses as an everyday tool of the students, the inevitable questions arise in terms of which students are using it, how are they using it and who is doing it well.

The usage of new learning technologies has been increased about 20% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemics. Shutting down educational institutions forced a rapid revolution of different types of virtual communication tools, study groups and learning platforms. Many of these tools are here for good and in active use despite the fact that studies in the traditional classroom environment have been back for a while. Blended and flexible learning models are assumed to be favored even more in the future, and the popularity of online and hybrid learning choices is still progressively expanding. Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) can also create unique learning environments for exploring various topics in a more realistic and interactive way. AI will additionally enable more personalized education possibilities and customized education entities. Use of AI will also provide various tutoring tools to assist in independent learning. DreamBox and Knewton platforms are examples on the utilization of adaptive algorithms to create individual courses and education for students. Increasing use of technology and online applications make education also more global and independent of the living area. 

Future education in the US
Education in the US has changed rapidly in the past couple of years and created almost 14 000 EdTech startups to the US markets, having also huge economical impact on the country. California especially has had the status of technological hub, which is also reflected on the education and the number of related companies. Various EdTech platforms, starting from the K-12 education to higher education choices, exist nowadays. The markets providing a number of online courses have also expanded enormously: Companies like Coursera, Udemy, edX, and Khan Academy offer huge selection of courses from top institutions, and make high-quality contents accessible and affordable to all. In higher education, in particular the public CCCs and CSUs (California Community Colleges and California State Universities) are pushing more students online. Although online studying has its strengths, the topic also entails questions such as how to guarantee good quality and teaching outcomes given that they are more difficult to monitor and regulate online. Success in online courses is also mixed for higher education students, especially with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The educational landscape in the US is thus very dynamic, and driven by multiple technological innovations – but also expectations from the work force. It is very likely that the traditional higher education system will undergo drastic alterations and many institutions are in pressure to meet the demands of the future students. Students are already aiming for shorter education units that provide specific competence and skills that benefit their career and chances on the job markets. Shorter study units, so called “micro degrees” also make education more affordable. This phenomenon is already seen especially on the West Coast, and companies are directly hiring young people that get personalized education from the company. Vocational education is thus highly valued and clearly competes with the traditional university track.

Educational future is more equal – even in the United States 
Policy changes may also play a big role in the future of the educational landscape in the US. There has been a lot of discussion on the equal accessibility and lower tuition costs of education. The state of California has a huge amount of students from countless cultural and ethnical backgrounds and far greater portion of disadvantaged students than national averages. ln terms of accessibility, lawmakers have identified problems with college access and differing graduation rates when broken down by race, ethnicity an socioeconomic status. Several Californian high school students have aspirations to achieve a college-degree but only about 1/3 of all 9th graders make it to and through the college. Furthermore, low-income, Latino and African American students are less than half as likely to earn a college degree compared to their peers. 

California's diverse, multicultural population has therefore led to increasing demands on creating culturally distinct and inclusive educational environments. Future government policies must thus enable equal access to education for all groups and at all levels. This also applies to special education services that may be required by groups with disabilities or students requiring additional support for example due to language barrier. 

On the West Coast, engaging community, local educational institutions and organizations have provided a way to insure that the educational programs are in line with the needs of different cultures and communities. In addition, different types of financial programs, providing grants and other financial assistance systems have been developed in increasing speed to lower the economical barriers for receiving proper education. The monetary community effort might be needed, because there is less support for directly subsidizing the public universities and simultaneously an increasing privatization of these institutions. The current system of public education already relies on key elements provided by private and nonprofit firms. 

 In discussions on the inclusive education, the topic of digital inclusion has been in the focus a lot for the past few years. In the US, certain communities and rural areas are still lacking the same digital possibilities that are taken as granted for others. The access to internet and computer devices is required as the remote studying progresses but at the same time it is known that some subgroups of learners have greater resources than others and inequalities exist between the quality and quantity of technology that students use in their learning.  
Enabling access to internet and computers for all students, independently of their socio-economical background, is one of the main aims to diminish the digital divide. Different types of EdTech solutions and open access to learning materials will be factors that promote inclusivity and make education widely available. Equal accessibility also concerns teacher training and professional development possibilities must be enabled in all communities. 

Transforming University environment -  University-industry collaborations forming the future education
Changing educational landscape has direct impacts on the action plans of the US universities. Besides the technological advancements, the needs of the workforce development have reformed the contents of the US higher education.  The collaboration between universities and industries have become more and more important and this kind of partnerships benefit both sides. Universities get valuable information from the companies of their workforce needs, and insights into the necessary educational contents. This will insure that they are in a competitive situation in training the workforce. Companies can also provide important hands on training and internship periods for the students to gain professional skills. Cooperation with companies will also encourage an entrepreneurial attitude and prepare students for contributing to the economic growth through innovative mindset. On the other hand, companies have direct access to talent pool though university collaborations.  They get to know skilled students though cooperation and internships, as well as get access to state of the art infrastructure through connections with the academia. 

Together, industries and higher education institutions can thus create working ecosystems for research, innovations and product development. In California, especially in Silicon Valley the partnerships of the universities with tech companies have already increased enormously. New funding possibilities have also been created to support the cooperation between industry and educational institutions, and in the long run to support the formation of new companies and jobs.

Lifelong learning
Maintaining competent workforce and the requirements from the employee´s side has put more pressure also on continuous learning. Lifelong learning programs by universities and different learning platforms have therefore become more and more common in the US as well. Professional development and updating skills is a demand that cannot be avoided and the universities have started to pay increasing attention to the training of already existing industry professionals – in addition they have focused on people that decide to change their career. Education has really become a lifelong journey that can insure professional development and ever-increasing demands targeted on the work force.  With new, emerging technologies there might be great opportunities to use the technology needed for continuous learning but failure to act rapidly could turn the tide against education as a public good.  

Sari Tojkander, Councelor for Science and Higher education, Los Angeles
Vilma Sarvela, Edufi Intern, Los Angeles

Photo: Utah Valley University Campus in Salt Lake City, Utah. The University campus itself is like a small city, having housing, shops and possibilities for various sports. Independent learning is supported by various creative spaces around the campus area. Picture: Sari Tojkander 2023.