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Matney: Class of 2045: A futurist view of Northwestern education

Lucas Matney, Columnist

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Last week, I touched on the idea that Northwestern was proceeding too slowly in its adaptation of education technology, but now I’m left to ask where all these technological changes are realistically leading us as a university. 

Imagine NU 30 years in the future. If the current rate of annual tuition increases hold, undergraduate tuition will reach $143,383 for the 2044-45 academic year.

I can’t look into the future, but based on the rapid adaptation of technology across fields, I believe that in three decades’ time NU will endure a number of major changes as it strives to keep up with — and stay ahead of — society’s pace for innovation while justifying its potentially exorbitant price tag. These developments will largely be brought about by the digitization of the classroom and an increasing reliance on data analysis. These progressions will alter the ways NU professors approach instruction and examination as well as how the University rethinks the way it approaches connecting students with career advancement opportunities.

Generally, people like to exaggerate the pace of physical change when looking towards the future (I’m still waiting patiently for the auto-lacing shoes and hover boards from the “Back to the Future” vision of 2015.) Digital innovation is moving ahead at a pace that may be surpassing society’s willingness to adapt.

One of the most predictable changes that will occur over the next several decades is the digitization of campus resources. Major efforts will be put towards scanning the entirety of the library’s five million volumes into searchable text documents that will be available to anyone on the campus network. This will be particularly useful as eBooks, which will replace all academic print texts by this point, grow vastly more sophisticated and you’re able to hopscotch through various adaptable texts that update automatically alongside new breakthroughs in research.

Professors will undoubtedly be using technology much more in class, but largely in ways that will be standardized across the University. Testing will take place exclusively online and all students will probably need to use insanely powerful — and inexpensive — mobile devices to supplement their learning and research capabilities in class.

How lectures evolve will obviously vary depending on the subject, but technological advances will still impact the instruction of even the most technologically averse instructors. Incredibly fast and reliable Internet connections will allow classrooms across the globe to connect and participate together, blurring borders and widening perspectives in the process. Academics will also be more easily connected, allowing collaborations in research and class instruction.

Big data will play a major role in personalizing the educational experience of each student. Personal student education profiles will hold National Security Agency-quality amounts of data on students pulled largely from testing. Tools, similar to Apple’s suggestion-engine “Genius,” will be able to use these datasets to offer recommendations for classes, professors and even degree focuses. Where this data will prove most useful — and lucrative — will be in allowing NU to connect a vast network of employers with its most qualified students and vice versa.

Technological progress is leaving society ripe for a great deal of exciting changes, and the future will not allow places like NU to bypass the “disruptions” that countless other institutions are undergoing. I think that a lot of the concerns about overreliance on technology are valid, but honestly the inevitability of its utility is already a foregone conclusion. The future is already on its way.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at lucasmatney2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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