From an evolutionary standpoint, we are on the brink of profound and intriguing technological advances… some that will occur sooner than most might think. While preparing to update Western Illinois University’s IT Strategic Plan, I researched predictions for the future of technology and higher education for the years 2017 through 2050. Although this article is long (particularly for a blog post), I wanted to share where we are at and some exciting future prospects that may be in store for us.
Today, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that significant business change is nearly impossible without the use of information technology. It touches nearly every aspect of higher education. For students, it begins the moment they (and their parents) visit a university’s website and it continues well after they graduate. Higher education, therefore, grapples with a host of technology-related issues, including security, privacy, and compliance. Technologies and trends higher education embraces include data mining, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, consumerization, mobile devices in the classroom… only to name a few. Also, there is an insatiable demand for more bandwidth on campuses and students expect their colleges and universities will have equal or better technology than they enjoyed at home.
Keeping up with these challenges is… well, challenging, especially in light of the great upheaval that is taking place in higher education. Across our nation, most state appropriations for public educational institutions are continuing a downward spiral, forcing admissions to be increasingly competitive and universities to look for new funding models. While colleges and universities use technology to help differentiate themselves, “there will be very little difference between public institutions and private institutions in terms of their funding, or their cost structures, or their tuition (fees),” if this funding trend continues, according to Robert Reich, who was secretary of labor under the Clinton administration and now a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley (Havergal, Times Higher Education, 27 September 2016). Many employers today consider higher education to be a checkmark rather than a differentiator when hiring. Some have concluded that higher education needs to be free in the future (just as high school education is today). Also, education is becoming less confined to a specific location and less proprietary. Thus, it seems that the only constant is change itself.
Compounding this situation is the phenomenal pace at which technology is changing. Technologies that were merely science fiction yesterday are now being patented, tested in labs, and even successfully demonstrated in the real world. For example, Quantum Teleportation, which involves separating intertwined particles that react identically when one of them is acted upon (yes, even when separated), has now been successfully tested over four miles of city fiber. This may eventually enable secure transmission of data through the Internet. Brain-to-brain communication through the Internet (one person thinks of a word and someone in another country perceives it) has been demonstrated with up to a 60% accuracy. And someday, when computer chip manufacturers switch from making silicon-based chips to ones using new materials (nanomaterials, grapheme, neuromorphic, memistrors, etc.), today’s computation speed barrier will give way to speed of light computing (perhaps a quintillion calculations per second). That will pave the way for mind-boggling virtual personal assistants that understand the context your questions and every nuance of your speech… and will instantly answer extremely complex questions in an ongoing conversational mode (without the need for you to repeat what had been said before when you change some of the parameters of you questions). Virtual and augmented reality, as well as tactile holograms that can be touched and felt, will be making their way into our everyday life in the years ahead. With these technologies, children born between the years 2025 and 2045 may be able to control web-connected objects with their minds and communicate “telepathically” with their peers. These “young wizards,” who will adopt new technologies that earlier generations resist, will be “so far beyond [our] experience that [we’ll] be to them what [our] great grandparents are to [us]: cavemen” (Tal, QuantumRun, 29 July 2015).
While the advancement of technology hurtles forward at a dizzying speed, so does the relentless barrage of attacks by threat actors, some which are funded by foreign governments. In light of one major and costly breach after another, the public understandably is questioning detection and remediation practices. Adam Levin, chairman and founder of IDT911 LLC said, “…we live in an environment where breaches have become the third certainty in life (Heller, TechTarget SearchSecurity, 23 Sep 2016).” A few years ago, nearly two-thirds of the traffic on the Internet was generated by non-humans, so it is not surprising that attacks are now branching out into new areas. For example, the IoT, which is a relatively new concept to many, recently came under a denial of service attack.
Amidst this turbulent whirlwind of change and challenges, individuals and institutions can no longer afford to just simply maintain their status quo. As Howard Tullman said, “If you’re trying to just hold steady, you are slipping backward. (Morris, Engineering News, Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering, 28 Jan 2016).” Colleges and universities must continue to invest in technologies and they must keep pace with the evolving technology to succeed in the future.
Unquestionably, WIU must plan for technological change. To build tomorrow’s computing environment on our campuses, we can’t wait for tomorrow… we need to start planning today. That’s why our 2013-2018 IT Strategic Plan is being revised. In the near future, students, faculty and staff will be invited to review the new 2017-2023 plan and to provide their input. I invite you to watch for this in the coming days and to add your suggestions and comments… so that we may think big and implement technology responsibly in the years to come!