Higher Education’s 2020 Trend Watch and Top 10 Strategic Technologies

Trends List and Definitions

We asked about 48 IT trends in this year's research. The 2020 trends apply across a number of different IT domains.

Agile approaches to change: Agile software development calls for adaptive planning, continuous improvement, and rapid and flexible response to change. These concepts can also be applied to change management in general. With the rapid pace of technological advances, the decreasing ability of IT shops to control users' technology ecosystems, and leadership demands for increased accountability, IT strategies that take an agile approach to change management are critical. The software design strategies of flexibility and continuous improvement are finding their way into efforts related to strategic planning, desktop management, IT governance, and infrastructure planning. In addition, institutions working to develop a culture of innovation may find that agile approaches increase cost-effectiveness.

Alternative credentialing models: Certificates, badges, micro- and nano-degrees, stackable credentials, and job-related curricula are increasingly relevant alternatives to traditional degrees.

Artificial intelligence (AI): Incorporating AI capabilities (such as natural language processing, cognitive systems, and analytics) into applications, smart machines, and robots has implications for instruction, research, student services, admissions, administrative services, and the higher education workforce.

Bimodal IT (managing two separate IT delivery modes, one focused on stability and the other on agility): This trend attempts to resolve two separate and sometimes competing IT service delivery modes. The first mode can be thought of as traditional IT service delivery, with a focus on stable operation. The second can be thought of as agile or emergent, with a focus on providing IT services in a way that emphasizes speed and innovation. The premise of bimodal IT is that both types of service delivery are needed for IT operations to create value.

Blending of roles and blurring of boundaries between IT and academic/administrative/research areas: This trend is in evidence across all dimensions that involve the application of IT. Discussions around the issue of digital transformation have suggested new, more integrative roles and skills for the CIO and the IT organization, such as the ability to collaborate and share responsibility with academic and administrative departments, as well as the need to integrate numerous solutions to support institutional and individual decision-making and work. Entailed in this blending and blurring of roles are new job titles, new governance models, new skill sets, and new demands for professional development.

Campus safety: The safety and security of campus students, faculty, staff, and visitors is a priority for higher education institutions. Institutions regularly evaluate campus operations to strengthen and improve them to provide a safe, secure, and welcoming environment. Similarly, the security of campus resources, including IT resources and data, is a concern. Institutions must regularly review and improve their IT operations to ensure the security of their IT system and data resources.

Changing demographics' influence on enrollments: Populations of many developed countries are aging, and, in many regions, the traditional 18–25 year old student population is shrinking in absolute terms and as a proportion of enrollments.

Changing enterprise system architectures, integrations, and workflows: The many facets of higher education require colleges and universities to run a large set of enterprise-wide computing systems. Options for these computing systems are expanding and becoming more specialized. In addition, the sourcing of those systems is evolving. Whereas IT once ran all enterprise systems on-premises, many now choose cloud options, with the result being a mix of systems from different vendors, some on-premises and some in the cloud. These changes require IT to focus on system architecture, integrations, and workflows to ensure adequate interconnection between systems and data, enabling many different computer systems to effectively share information, automate data-sharing workflows, and efficiently support task workflows for students, faculty, and staff.

Changing faculty roles (focus on advising and student success, growth in adjuncts, new methods of research and publication, etc.): Due to sociological, technological, and economic forces, the role of the faculty member in higher education has significantly transformed over the past 20 years. New instructional models and the innovative use of technology have resulted in faculty serving as coaches, software developers, advisors, and instructional leads to sizable cohorts of adjunct faculty. Team-developed courses and demands for increased access to education that can be delivered in various ways have led to an increased focus on the quality of instruction and the rise of the instructional design profession. The research and publication processes are more complex, collaborative, disaggregated, and digital.

Climate change: Responding to concerns about climate change, colleges and universities are taking steps to mitigate the magnitude of their environmental impact through green and sustainable technologies. Institutions are also adapting to the impact of increased severe weather events on areas including operations, risk management, disaster recovery, and travel.

Compliance environment: The regulatory environment impacting higher education IT systems and the data contained in those systems can seem labyrinthine. Data elements in many IT systems may be protected by a number of federal, state, and local laws and industry regulations. The complicated regulatory environment can be difficult to understand, making it even harder to secure IT systems in a compliant manner.

Cross-institutional and international scholarly and research collaborations: Research collaborations are increasingly common, and institutions need to be ready to support not only a greater quantity of collaborations but also increasingly complex collaborations. These include working with multiple institutions and working across international lines. Collaborating with colleagues beyond the institution is getting easier through a variety of options that include enterprise-level collaboration tools and free web-based tools.

Cross-institutional partnerships and consortia: In an effort to be as efficient as possible with enterprise IT systems and services, many institutions look to cross-institutional partnerships and consortia as a possible way to reduce costs or gain efficiency. In a purchasing consortium, for example, a group of institutions develops a contractual relationship that allows for collective cost savings and the opportunity to work more closely with system and software vendors, including cloud vendors.

Data-informed decision-making: As a corollary to analytics, colleges and universities are increasingly deriving meaning from data and determining the best actions to take. AI and machine learning can facilitate decision-making more broadly and quickly. Data-informed decision-making can be incorporated into existing planning and management activities and processes, or it can be programmed into applications to generate real-time, personalized triggers, alerts, and advice for students, faculty, advisors, and other constituents.

Declining enrollments: Institutions are looking for new ways to recruit, enroll, and retain students to better predict and achieve enrollment targets. Technology and analytics can help institutions better identify and attract potential students and serve entirely new student populations.

Declining international enrollments: The political climate has made US higher education less appealing to international students. In addition, other countries are investing aggressively in expanding their own higher education sectors.

Deregulation of higher education: The higher education community is watching to see if and when the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) will be on the agenda. The HEA, first signed into law in 1965, is supposed to be renewed every five years. However, the last reauthorization was in 2008.

Digital transformation of research and scholarship: Digital technologies are transforming research and scholarship, enabling scientists and scholars to ask new questions and even influencing the emergence of new academic areas. Higher education IT must be aware of and able to provide the tools and resources necessary to collect, manage, analyze, visualize, and publish data.

Digital transformation: Digital transformation (Dx) is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's operations, strategic directions, and value proposition. Dx is being driven by technology trends and changes that are enabling a new approach to everything from how digital architectures are being incorporated to how campus leaders interact with the IT organization, all targeting improved student outcomes, more effective teaching and learning methods, new research capabilities, and an evolution in business models. Dx requires agile and flexible leaders at all levels who can enable the college or university to rapidly and efficiently achieve its strategic aims.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI): DEI is critical to the relevance and success of higher education. Scholarship can only proceed on the basis of encouraging a diversity of opinions and insights proffered by myriad sources. Technology can support DEI initiatives, making it possible to draw on diverse information resources, reducing sources of bias, personalizing experiences and resources to support underserved groups, and supporting equity of opportunity. For the IT organization, diversity/inclusivity issues are highly relevant to the issue of sustainable staffing and an engaged and high-functioning workforce.

Enterprise risk management: The term "risk management" refers to a detailed, thoughtful process whereby an institution identifies and assesses the risks that could keep it from meeting its goals and then creates a plan for prioritizing and addressing those risks. It is a mechanism for managing uncertainty. Technology is a source both of enterprise risk and of risk-mitigation strategies.

Evaluation of technology-based instructional innovations: Evaluating the impact of technology-based innovations in teaching and learning has long been a key issue. In light of increasing demands for technology and support, often dogged by dwindling resources, the need to know which innovations have the greatest positive impact is more acute than ever. ECAR research shows that the greatest motivator for faculty to adopt online and blended learning and to incorporate technology into their teaching is evidence of its benefit to students.

External partnerships with employers, corporations, and communities: Many institutions are initiating partnerships and collaborations to improve students' postgraduate outcomes, to create new academic disciplines and certification programs, to ensure the relevance and currency of existing programs, and to help local employers and communities thrive. These partnerships often entail technology support and can also help the institution implement advanced technologies.

Financial uncertainty for the institution: A combination of factors, including declining enrollments and reduced government funding, is endangering some institutions' financial health and outlook.

Freedom of speech: When free speech, inclusion, and civility are at odds, individual safety and institutional reputations can be at risk. This issue is playing out on campuses through controversies around trigger warnings, invited speakers, and expression of controversial viewpoints. Social media plays a role.

Growing complexity of security threats: The security threat landscape is increasingly complex, with cloud applications, the Internet of Things, complicated technology architectures, and sophisticated emerging threats requiring a flexible and layered institutional information security approach. Finding new tools and technologies to help identify and mitigate these threats is of great importance to IT professionals.

Higher education's reputation and relevance: The value of a college degree and an educated citizenship are under increasing scrutiny.

Incorporating open standards into enterprise IT architecture: Getting the typical institution to interconnect its wide variety of complex enterprise systems is difficult. Many enterprises adopt an existing framework or standard based on how complex business workflows, data architectures, and communications standards between systems will work to produce a truly integrated computing environment. For example, The Open Group Architecture Forum framework for enterprise architecture is a widely adopted set of standards, methods, terminology, business workflow descriptions, and tools for standardizing systems-planning language and methods and for avoiding dependence on proprietary vendor solutions.

Institution-wide data management and integrations: New digital architectures provide agility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness through a growing combination of applications and sourcing strategies. However, it also complicates the challenge of making all those disparate systems communicate with each other. To provide useful information from so many different systems and applications, IT needs an institution-wide strategy for data management that takes multiple stakeholder needs into account and focuses on data integration across many different types of systems.

Institutional innovation strategy: Many institutions are prioritizing innovation as a strategy for growth and differentiation. They are moving from ad hoc approaches to systemic, scalable, and repeatable approaches. IT organizations need to adapt to support intentional innovation.

Internet of Things: The number of computers and servers connected to the internet is being dwarfed by the number of other physical objects with embedded internet-capable technology. Gartner estimates that the IoT will encompass more than 20 billion devices by 2020, a fourfold increase from 2015. Two-thirds of those devices will be consumer-level devices. This enormous change will increase bandwidth needs, contribute to privacy and security challenges, introduce new computation needs, and potentially provide enormous opportunities for institutions as they begin to support smart campuses of the future. Perhaps the most obvious opportunities initially will be in automating and enhancing infrastructure management. But wearables and other person-based devices offer the potential for learning more about people's behavior, particularly if such devices begin to interact with institutional applications.

Investing in research: Some institutions' strategic priorities include increasing research programs and funding as a pathway to institutional growth and excellence. Attracting and supporting the best research faculty requires world-class cyberinfrastructure, research services, and staff.

IT accessibility: Programs, services, and resources at universities and colleges continue to expand exponentially, and delivery methods have become increasingly technology-centric. Unless these technologies are designed and deployed to support the access needs of all users, including those with disabilities, universities and colleges risk excluding qualified students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders.

IT as an agent of institutional transformation and innovation: IT has always had a dual role with respect to transformation and innovation: IT can be the vehicle by which an innovation is realized, and new breakthroughs in IT can open the door for a new set of innovations and opportunities that were scarcely imaginable before. There is no indication that IT will relinquish this dual role; indeed, if anything, the pace of such change only seems to be accelerating. Finally, the power of IT and digital transformation can greatly increase the scope and scale of current initiatives, such as serving new learners and improving student success.

IT frameworks: Frameworks support running the IT organization with a focus on governance, development, delivery, and ongoing improvement of services to constituents in a repeatable, measurable, and proactive way that is aligned with organizational needs. These frameworks can be flexible and complementary and include ITSM (for service management), COBIT (for governance, audit, and compliance), Lean (for continuous improvement), Agile (for development), DevOps (to integrate development and service delivery), and ISO (international standards for quality, information security, and other areas).

Lifelong learning and adult learners: The potential student population can extend to all adults, as the need for ongoing learning and retooling increases. Technology can enable institutions to reach new learner populations and serve adult learners more flexibility.

Mergers and acquisitions: Some institutions are exploring administrative, academic, and even institutional mergers to achieve sustainability. Others are being acquired as an alternative to closure. The implications for the IT function and workforce are significant.

Moving from transactional to strategic vendor–institution relationships: Digital transformation includes a shift in IT's role, from being a technology provider to a service broker and partner. This shift allows for a different level of conversation between institution and vendor, as IT can broker a strategic conversation between the two, bringing technology investments into closer alignment with institutional mission in the process. In the broker role, IT can ensure that cloud contracts meet institutional needs for data management, security, backup, and more.

National and global political uncertainty: Political uncertainty and unrest can lead to uncertainty about non-US enrollments, employment of non-US citizens, institutional and grants-based funding, compliance requirements, performance-based funding, free speech, and more. This may have implications for IT operations, funding, and priorities.

New business models for higher education: Institutions are experimenting with new business models, some of which entail new external partnerships and collaborations, involve digital resources, and have concrete ROI expectations.

Online and blended degree or certificate programs: Many institutions are considering or adding new blended and online programs to grant degrees or certifications.

Privacy: New privacy regulations, heightened interest in protecting individual privacy, and vastly increasing amounts and types of personal data are requiring institutions to take greater accountability for protecting the privacy of students, faculty, staff, and other constituents through the ethical use of data.

Shared services: Shared services is the provision of services by one part of an organization or group that were previously provided by more than one part of the organization. Shared services offers an economy of scale that may lead to decreased costs and greater value for the institution. However, attaining that economy of scale can require a large and challenging expansion of scope. A shared-services solution differs from centralization in that the former focuses on collaboratively developing business processes and service level agreements that deliver value to the business. In contrast, centralization typically emphasizes compliance and control more than service value. Strategies including leadership engagement, good change-management practices, shared governance, and a long-term financial model will lead to greater success in shared services efforts.

Simplifying administrative services and technologies: One path to institutional sustainability is by simplifying and streamlining administrative services, operations, and technologies. IT can help institutions achieve simplification through new enterprise architecture and processes.

Solution providers bypassing IT to work directly with business-area leaders: As cloud-based services become increasingly common, individual departments often negotiate directly with vendors and bypass IT departments to select and purchase technology-related services. This practice makes it difficult for IT staff to maintain standards for architecture and integration, and it complicates concerns for information security, compliance, privacy, data management, and data governance. IT departments are responding in part by developing expertise in relationship management skills, allowing them to communicate better with both campus stakeholders and the vendor community.

Student success focus/imperatives: With an increased focus on student completion, higher education faces a new urgency not only to innovate but also to collaborate across departmental silos to bring about an integrative approach to a seamless student experience and ways to address all impediments to student success, whether academic, social, economic, or personal in nature. Institutions are being called on to change the way they address student success, resulting in more students finishing what they start and developing the skills to contribute to society in and beyond the workplace.

Use of algorithms to influence institutional and individual choices: Applying homegrown or proprietary vendor algorithms to personalize and inform instruction, curricula, educational plans, student outcomes, staff hiring and evaluations, and other areas carries risks as well as benefits.

User-centered design: Colleges and universities need to give extensive consideration to end-user needs and experiences in the design, configuration, deployment, and support of IT services and applications.