Read through the latest studies surrounding educational technology and higher education and you’ll see several recurring themes. Students, employers and institutions are collectively increasing their focus on better preparing students for the workforce. Day-after-day, we have plenty of new insight that explains why edtech startups are growing so rapidly, but a few studies in particular this year stand out.

Among the findings of these four high-profile studies:

  • Rising tuition costs and a recovering economy are causing the recession’s record-high enrollment numbers to decline in community colleges. Meanwhile, a significant number of students are completing their degrees at places other than where they initially enrolled.
  • Despite the number of traditional and nontraditional students who returned to university during the recession, recent graduates and employers still found significant skills gaps in new hires entering the workforce.
  • U.S. universities are aware of the need to better prepare students for careers and that many prospective students are looking to competency-based education (CBE) to accomplish this.
  • An increased focus on using educational technology is changing the role of instructional designers to be both stakeholders and to be trainers for that technology.


Driven by career needs, many students are forging new trails outside the traditional path offered by universities. As universities augment their own paths to meet more students’ needs, we’ll see a shift in the curriculum offered and the technology tools used. Will that be enough?

Related reading:

Community college enrollments down as the economy continues to recover

The American Association of Community Colleges released their Trends in Community College Enrollment and Completion Data in March, examining reports by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse. These reports show that after a surge in enrollment during the recession beginning in 2008, there’s been a downward trend in enrollment rates over the last four years.

“As was the case last year,” the AACC report concludes, “the decreases in enrollment are probably partially due to continuing economic improvement. Students who may have turned to community college to weather the recession may have returned to the workforce.”

One fascinating aspect of this report isn’t simply the graduation and completion rates — it’s the where part. The AACC report breaks down how students complete their degrees and finds that nearly one in three (31.8%) of students who complete community college received their credentials from an institution other than the one they entered.

That’s a significant number of students who ultimately modified their own paths. This speaks to the need for flexible programs that provide opportunities for students to customize their educational journey.

Only 50% of managers believe recent graduates are prepared for full-time jobs

The 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report analyzed data to determine how prepared recent college graduates truly are when they enter the workforce, as well as which skills hiring managers are most likely to consider new grads deficient in.


Payscale, 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report

The report, issued by compensation data and software provider PayScale, divided the “skills gap” into hard and soft skills. Managers, it turns out, are reporting weaknesses in both. Writing proficiency and public speaking lead the pack of hard skills managers find lacking, and critical thinking and attention to detail top the inadequate soft skills.

This study also digs into individual professions to show the top three skills lead to the highest percentage of salary increase. Management occupations, for example, call for competency in IT risk, SAP business intelligence and mergers and acquisition; ambitious healthcare practitioners need skills in emergency medicine, sales management and mail order pharmacy.

Studies like this shed light on the specifics of what students need to learn. Students armed with this knowledge can better prepare for the career they want, and higher ed institutions can use it to shore up their career-oriented curriculum to make it more attractive to students who are seeking reassurance that their degree will provide them with the skills to land a job.


Despite challenges, a majority of schools are interested in CBE

A joint Eduventures/Ellucian survey reporting on institutions’ level of commitment to competency-based education (CBE) was released in July. The study, Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals, and Challenges in Higher Education, found that U.S. colleges and universities are excited about the potential of CBE, but are relatively slow to implement it.

American Association of Community Colleges, Trends in Community College Enrollment and Completion Data — March 2016

American Association of Community Colleges, Trends in Community College Enrollment and Completion Data — March 2016

The study surveyed leaders at 251 colleges and universities that are either considering or are actively utilizing CBE. The findings are illuminating:

  • 35% see CBE as applicable to more traditional students, while 68% of respondents expect CBE to expand opportunities to non-traditional (by age or demographics) learners
  • 68% of surveyed community colleges think CBE can help address workforce needs
  • Interest in CBE is high, but programs are often executed on a small scale; most CBE efforts are at department or course level rather than integrated into a certificate or degree
  • 7% of respondents reported CBE as the institution’s dominant mode of instruction, another 18% reported active CBE programs and 37% indicated CBE at course level
  • 42% of institutions surveyed plan to offer a learning analytics dashboard for faculty

In releasing the survey, Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, points out that the concept of CBE is complex and flexible, with potential to target any number of student populations.

“CBE does not have to be delivered online, and need not be entirely self-paced,” says Garrett. “A CBE program might value student cohorts, and might target traditional age students rather than working adults. At the same time, CBE does call for schools to do some things differently, such as re-think faculty roles and course development.”

Related reading: In Introduction to the Basics of Competency-Based Education

Instructional designers are key to decisions about edtech adoption in higher ed


Intentional Futures, Instructional Design in Higher Education

Just wanting to make these shifts is not enough; questions of what changes to make and how to implement them must first be considered. This is why instructional designers are essential to facilitating the re-thinking that comes with CBE and more student-centered practices.

What role do instructional designers play in higher education today? A new survey from strategy and design studio Intentional Futures, Instructional Design in Higher Education, seeks to answer that question.

After surveying 853 instructional designers, Intentional Futures (in partnership with Acrobatiq, a McGuire Editorial client) gathered enough data to paint a portrait of instructional designers. As the bridge between faculty instruction and student online learning, instructional designers have a diverse set of duties that skew more to training and project management than course creation.

Included within their daily responsibilities:

  • 20% create new online courses
  • 17% transition face-to-face courses to a learning management system
  • 73% manage projects
  • 60% train someone in technology
  • 49% train someone in the use of online pedagogy

As to the tools instructional designers use, the survey found they spend the most time working with communication tools, learning management systems and multimedia tools. The favorite and least favorite tools were inconclusive, but the important thing is that 47% of respondents said they get to choose the digital tools they use.

Intentional Futures has this recommendation for technology providers: “Emphasize instructional designers as key stakeholders that will be using and teaching others how to use your products . . . . Invest the time and resources necessary to discover the qualities of tools instructional designers consider to be effective and efficient.”

Put students at the center of the edtech journey

Put simply the edtech startup ecosystem is growing and adapting to meet a tremendous demand, because higher ed can’t change quickly enough and can’t grow quickly enough. In short:

  • Too many students can’t access the existing systems.
  • Degrees aren’t sufficient as a career path.
  • Higher ed is primed to try innovations, but they are technologically challenging and require either support or simplification.

A shift is underway, and universities with foresight will find the agility to navigate the shift. The institution-centric mindset must be replaced by a student-centric mindset designed around the expectations of students and their needs as they enter a crowded workforce.

Educational technology companies and higher educational institutions who want to succeed in this changing climate will need to proceed with the learner at the heart of their mission.

Jessie Kwak

Jessie Kwak

Guest Author

Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. She writes for B2B brands in educational technology, SaaS and related industries. You can learn more about her work at