Reimagining Higher Education: A Roundup of the Connect 2016 Higher Education Summit

Last week, it was my honor to be a part of the Connect 2016 Higher Education Summit, right here in Louisville. For the seventh year, Learning House brought together some of the best minds in higher education to discuss where the industry is heading, and how we can make higher education more affordable, more accessible and more relevant in the 21st century.

More than 20 speakers shared their insights with more than 200 attendees, who work in all aspects of higher education. Sessions ranged from Dr. Talithia Williams’ discussing the importance of cultivating a STEM mindset to Richard DeMillo outlining the revolution happening in higher education to Dr. Gerard Hanley sharing his insights into open educational resources. Those were just a few of the sessions – view the presentations here.

One of the best parts about the summit is the new ideas it generates. Connect 2016 did not let me down! Here are three of the themes that emerged from the summit.

Finances Impact Everything

Student finances, and the student loan crisis, have been a constant refrain over the past few years, and Connect 2016 raised these points in a number of ways. In the newest edition of the Online College Students report, 90 percent of students say they would at least be somewhat swayed to choose one school over another for as little as a $500 annual scholarship.

What Connect highlighted, though, was that finances play a role in many aspects of higher education. Dr. Williams, for example, noted that finances play a role in higher education long before students even reach the traditional age of a college student. She pointed out that the achievement gap, particularly in STEM areas, is one of the greatest challenges facing the American education system today. Finances play a key factor in this: poverty and low socioeconomic status are primary factors for why this gap exists.

Clearly, then, finances affect whether students go to college and where they choose to go. But what emerged in the summit was that finances also affect retention rates. Dr. Hanley used information from California State University to show that the affordability of textbooks has a direct result on how many courses students take, and whether or not they fail a particular course.

These issues are systemic and will not be solved overnight. But even having the discussion of how to conquer these challenges is inspiring.

Education Needs to Focus on Knowledge Acquisition

This may seem like an oxymoron – of course education should focus on knowledge acquisition. That’s the entire point of it. But as education continues to evolve with new learning methodologies, ensuring that students are actually gaining, and retaining, the knowledge they are seeking is critically important. Throughout the conference, several speakers brought this concern to the forefront of their discussions. In this brave new world of higher education, how do instructors teach in a way that’s effective for knowledge retention?

This idea pervaded conference discussions. Mimi O’Malley and Dr. Delwin Jacoby spoke at a break-out session about the importance of designing curricula based in experiential learning. Other speakers discussed how designing online video lectures can further engage students, how to develop adaptive competency-based education programs (CBEs), and the function of formative assessment in improving student outcomes. We also discussed how to unite traditional education with microdegrees and bootcamps, which are non-credit bearing programs that teach a specific skill such as software development or data analysis.

All of this discussion was anchored by keynote speaker Richard DeMillo’s thoughts on the revolution happening in higher education. He asked, “What if we made classrooms less like factories and more like how the brain learns?”

I challenge all of us to begin to reimagine education in this framework.

Changing Technology for a Changing Industry

Albert Einstein once said: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” That seems more true today than ever before. As an industry, we need to be attuned to those conditions (i.e. modes of delivery) in which students learn in order to best engage them in online education. Students no longer work solely from laptops; mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are playing an increasingly large role in their education experiences. According to the Pearson Student Mobile Device Survey 2015, 87 percent of students use their laptop and 64 percent use their smartphones weekly for mobile learning.

I’m not surprised by this information – I use a tablet as my primary computing device much of the time, whereas even five years ago, I was firmly committed to my laptop. But it does challenge the industry to adapt. How can we incorporate these changing technologies, and the different ways students use them, into higher education? What do students, teachers and administrators need to consider in the evolving world of higher education?

These are just some of the questions raised by the summit. Best of all, though, was hearing people as passionate as I am about higher education share their ideas, concerns, innovations and questions. I walked away energized and even more committed to reshaping the industry I’ve spent most of my career in.

How do you think we can, and should, reimagine higher education?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: