Higher ed needs help--identifying solutions to persistent wicked problems will be challenging, but not impossible.

Can higher ed solve its 7 wicked problems?

Higher ed needs help--identifying solutions to persistent problems will be challenging, but not impossible

The education industry is among the slowest of industries to adapt and innovate, and higher education faces a number of complex, pervasive challenges if it is to survive and meet the needs of students.

WGU Labs, the innovation arm of Western Governors University, has identified seven “wicked problems” facing higher education today. Wicked problems share a number of characteristics, including that they “are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving.” Education policy, public health policy, and climate change are all examples of wicked challenges.

WGU Labs aims to be “an innovation engine driving transformation in higher education.” This transformation is essential given that higher education is facing a sustainability crisis that can’t be fixed by magical solutions or simple approaches.

That crisis is the product of several obstacles: Public opinion of higher-ed’s value is declining; higher-ed isn’t viewed as delivering results for students; and more students are looking for career-aligned credentials, certifications, and other non-academic degrees elsewhere.

In a December 2022 report, WGU Labs offers a look at the Wicked Problems that “are central to our understanding of the challenges and opportunities for higher education, and the lends through which our team of educators, learning designers, education technology experts, and researchers consider potential solutions in the education technology sector and marketplace, solutions in learning design, and solutions in policy.”

Wicked Problem #1: Postsecondary Access. Routes and entry points to postsecondary education unnecessarily limit access for individuals who do not match the historic student profile. Predictions for 2023: In order to meet the needs of new learner populations and increase access to flexible learning environments, we predict the rise of instructional designers as important purveyors of insight about the way students access and absorb tech-enabled content.

Wicked Problem #2: Financial Aid. Lack of transparency around postsecondary education costs and financial support impedes access and opportunity, especially for historically underserved student populations. Predictions for 2023: The federal government is unlikely to ever offer emergency aid at the scale we saw during the pandemic but interest in alternative models of financial support remains high. Researchers and institutions will continue to try to understand the need for, and how to, efficiently dispense aid to students who are caught between paying essential bills and staying in school. Employers, who are looking for ways to both upskill and retain employees, will play an increasing role supporting learners financially, and institutions will need to better understand what that means for their students, their programs, and their relationship to these employers.

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Laura Ascione

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