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Future of Higher Education

Creating a Symbiotic Relationship Between Technology and Human Capital

Veronica Onorevole

Associate Director for Learning and Engagement, American Council on Education

The emergence and global spread of COVID-19 has resulted in broad global societal changes, including how and where education is delivered. The pandemic has catalyzed advancements in existing technologies, and is fundamentally challenging how we use these tools to build deeper relationships with one another and meaningfully connect with the rest of the world.

It has never been more necessary for our global higher education community to develop long-term strategies, invest more resources into collaborations and partnerships, and create innovative delivery models to advance learner success, workforce development, and internationalization goals.

Higher education must think beyond the boundaries of institution, geography, and time to maximize learning outcomes and growth opportunities to reach all of our students, now and in the future.

It is imperative that education technologies adapt to meet the changing needs of human capital, and not the other way around. 

Human capital encompasses the talent, values, and culture, embodied in the academic, administrative, and financial systems that individuals perform on campuses, while education technologies include digital applications, artificial intelligence, and online systems and platforms. The increasing advancement of education technologies is meaningless unless they are used in a way that nourishes human ingenuity and relationships. 

Investing in collaboration

Investing more resources in collaborative technology will provide greater flexibility to higher education institutions, as they are impervious to shifting world situations. Higher education leaders who can foster a culture of support, trust, open communication, and collaboration in a digital space will be able to integrate these new technologies in ways that optimize campus efforts to yield better learner outcomes, manageable learning pathways, stronger partnerships, and affordable prices.

The American Council on Education is working with U.S. and international universities and colleges, supporting senior leadership, administrators, and faculty through a structured planning process for institutional transformation. This process is modeled on examples of campuses that have been successful in undergoing a step change in how technology and human capital work together to advance critical institutional priorities for long-term success. 


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Designing intentional goals and outcomes to increase access and equity in higher education, or to raise student retention and completion rates, requires a willingness from both faculty and administrators to reflect on their own relationship practices and to imagine new ways of approaching their work.

For example, a growing number of universities and colleges are seeking new ways to provide students with global competencies that compliment traditional forms of physical mobility and academic exchange. This has led to a dramatic increased interest in Virtual Exchange, including one of its most comprehensive forms, Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL). COIL involves the development and use of teaching approaches to foster online student and faculty collaboration. It links together students and classrooms around the world through co-taught multicultural and blended online course work. 

It’s a small world

This pioneering practice is bridging the physical distance between students from various parts of the world. It is important to understand that while COIL relies on technology to connect faculty and students, COIL is not a technological system or software platform, nor does it require institutions to use a particular type of education technology. Rather the “Learning” aspect of COIL takes center stage with specific tools chosen to match the unique needs of the students, instructors, and institutions involved. 

Implementing and sustaining this technology-based learning is a complex process that requires time, as well as effective educational leadership. COIL involves a high level of institutional commitment and coordination between the international office, academic affairs, technology and services, centers for teaching, and career services. 


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The goal for COIL is that all students will have an opportunity to cooperate with peers of different nationalities and cultures, comprising both physical and virtual learning experiences, to understand and proactively engage in and work together to solve global issues of importance at local, national, and international levels. Because the COIL method makes international experiences more accessible, affordable, and scalable for a greater number of students, many see COIL as the future of international education.  

Transforming institutions to deliver forward-thinking capabilities like COIL can help higher education respond in a more timely and effective manner to serve students in a more holistic way; beginning before enrollment, continuing through the college experience and extending beyond graduation. The underlying idea is to create a seamless learner experience regardless of field of study, mode of learning, demographic characteristics, and specific academic program.

There is a mutual symbiotic relationship happening between higher education and digital technological innovation. The pandemic has simply exacerbated this fact. Although technologies have disrupted and changed the current approach to many operational processes, it more importantly presents a new opportunity to improve how colleges and universities teach, learn, work, and interact. 

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