Learning in the 21st Century

Author/Producer Gordon Freedman - Blackboard
Published in Bulletin 33
Date Published 10 October 2007


A report by the Vice President, Education Strategy, Blackboard


Learning in the 21st Century

A successful 21st century university is a student-centred institution, unconstrained by time and place that operates simultaneously in a local and global context. It should measure and communicate its progress, and continually renew its commitment to students, community and the economic competitiveness of the country.

By Gordon Freedman, Vice President, Education Strategy, Blackboard

Colleges and universities are confronted with new types of students who are younger and more technology-driven, as well as older and more career-driven. They are facing unprecedented competition, aggressive accountability demands and a view of operating in a global context. In such scenarios, education leaders increasingly realise that in order to achieve 21st century education they have to take a more market-oriented, student-centred and businesslike management and accountability approach, whilst preserving their academic mission, focus and values. Recently, Blackboard embarked upon a survey to learn from higher education leaders about their greatest challenges in achieving the goals of 21st century education. Blackboard was surprised at the consistency of the answers given to the changes needed in Higher Education relating to: Student Engagement, Institutional Accountability, Revenue Generation and Globalisation.

Student EngagementT

he challenge concerning student engagement involves much more than academics - it’s about how prepared students are for college level work (not well prepared in our public colleges and universities) and about whether they have the study habits to stick out (many don’t’). While more students go to college than ever before but many are dropping out or transferring.

The best indicator of college student satisfaction is their perception of how the environment supports both their academic and social needs. Universities and colleges require a keen understanding about remediation issues, retention rates and the expectations of a diverse student population. They need to provide timely and efficient student services; ensure faculties modernise to benefit from advances in technology and make meaningful lifelong learning connections to achieve student engagement.

Institution Accountability

Funding bodies, trustees and accrediting bodies are now more concerned than ever before about the improvement in graduation rates. These bodies want to equip students with the necessary skills to compete in today’s workforce on a global scale.

To meet these demands, education leaders agreed that technology will play a key role in delivering the information required by these bodies. Universities and colleges feel they need to be more transparent about cost, price and student success outcomes. They also realise such information has to be shared with students and their families.

In short, managing the nature and quality of student learning outcomes, maintaining continuous improvement and providing a consistent flow of evidence can no longer be ignored.

Revenue Generation

Another great challenge for education leaders is revenue generation. Developing new revenue sources looms large as funding from government flattens, and competition from new students increases. Therefore, universities and colleges are considering creating new online programmes and courses that can both increase enrolment and help facilitate the use of physical space more efficiently. In addition, well-managed student services can both increase the attractiveness of a campus and be a source of additional revenue.

Simply put, the leaders had been very active in using online learning to extend the campus footprint and relieve pressures on the physical campus. Additionally, the ability to provide a wider range of services on campus has become a universal need.

Overall institutions are looking for ways to develop innovative, business-oriented, student and community-spirited activities to generate new revenue.


Globalisation is another major issue which education leaders cannot ignore or acknowledge as one of their greatest challenges. It is widely recognised that those institutions that forge deeper international partnerships present a more competitive profile for attracting and retaining both faculty and students. Building an institution with a global presence is a matter of pride, as well as practicality, for the institutions to remain competitive worldwide. In many cases, institutions are moving ahead of student demands with an understanding that having a global perspective is an essential element for future success and relevancy.

Meeting the challenges

In seeking to meet these challenges, all of the education leaders interviewed were clear about encouraging the development of an overriding framework to drive their institutions to be more market-oriented and businesslike, whilst preserving their academic integrity and focus on student learning.

Their methods and solutions for accomplishing such a goal tended to fall within three organisational structures: Transformational/Comprehensive, Transitional and Incremental. Many institutions move through these organisational structures at different rates and times depending on how far an institution has progressed in seeking to realise its overall goals.

Transformational/Comprehensive: This requires the entire campus to come together in a reinvention process guided by a clear vision and strategic planning. Arizona State University’s New American University initiative is an excellent example of how a very large institution can reinvent itself. As a result the New American University now states it does not measure itself by the academic credentials of its new undergraduates but has created an environment where researchers, while pursuing their scholarly interests, also consider the public good; one whose students, faculty and staff transcend the concept of community service to accept responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and environment vitality of the communities they serve.”

Transitional: This requires actions that re-orient some elements of the institution whilst stopping short of a large-scale reorganisation. Transitional solutions are common and typically involve one or more aspects of the campus operation attempting to change organisationally and/or procedurally. At Capella University, for instance, President Michael Offerman explains the institution’s economic mindset as one that focuses on making investments as opposed to reducing cost per learner and unit operating costs.

Incremental: These are individual solutions designed to address a specific issue or set of challenges in one or more aspects of campus life. A good example can be found at Quinnipiac University, which realised that moving its Q-CARD cashless transaction system to include more off-campus businesses results in a dramatic increase in overall transactions thus generating new revenues.

Leadership and Progress

Of course, none of these methods and solutions could have been accomplished without innovative and competent leadership. Our research and interviews also reveal that there are tough barriers to consider when moving a university or college along the process of discussion, then agreement, and finally action. Many of the education leaders we interviewed say that they have a number of staff who oppose, and are threatened by, change. Others are disconnected with the mindset and behaviour of students. Our survey reveals that to prevail under such circumstances, many leaders tend to follow a three-stage pattern of progress: rethink, engage and adapt.


In almost every case where top-down change occurs, a rethinking or study process is implemented in which old methodologies are catalogued, new problems are defined, a re-conceptualisation of issues is created and a change-implementation process is initiated. Such processes may be led by the president or provost and typically involve the appropriate campus constituencies, driven by a committee or group appointed to survey the issues at hand.


Change will not happen without engaging faculty, staff, administrators and outside assistance in a process driven by campus constituencies and not dictated by campus leadership. To engage people at this level requires the development of an environment where faculty, staff and administrators see change as an absolute necessity. Education leaders who have implemented such a process report campus-wide ownership of change.


Institutions need to be flexible, nimble and adaptive to the ongoing process of organisational change, and capable of refocusing efforts to achieve qualitative and quantitative results. Without these capabilities, change is only tactical and difficult to achieve. With an adaptive capability and process to support it, change is part of the mission of the institution and is an expected part of improving campus life.

Our Conclusion - Embracing Change with Technology

During our research, it became very clear that education leaders fully embrace the notion that change must occur along the lines of financial, organisational, service, and education improvement and accountability. To enact change requires bold action and a clear vision that entails using technology and organisational change wisely. All of the education leaders expect to rely increasingly on technology solutions to help solve problems, create greater levels of engagement, and to become more efficient, as well as more performance and evidence- oriented.