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Year in Review: The 4 Trends That Shaped Higher Ed in 2021

  • 4 Min Read

We look at how support, innovation, accessibility, and job readiness defined higher education in 2021


For many colleges and universities, the pivots made in higher education during 2021 have developed into strategic, long-term change. These changes have paved the way for a new era of learner success focused on support, innovation, accessibility, and job-readiness. Read on to learn more about the higher education trends of 2021 and what this reshaped landscape looks like as we head toward 2022.

Four major trends defined higher education in 2021. Here, we’ll break down the ideas that drove those trends and share some stories that dive deeper into the biggest shifts we saw in higher education this year.

1. Establishing a Permanent Place for Hybrid, Hyflex, and Online Learning

Traditionally, academic institutions had a strong division between online and in-person courses, often with different learning structures, curriculum requirements, and faculty compensation. However, this year we saw firsthand how the abrupt shift to virtual environments gave academic institutions the opportunity to reimagine the traditional face-to-face nature of lecture hall teaching and learning. Colleges and universities moved from emergency remote teaching to strategically thought-out online learning opportunities.

This year, we saw the words “blended,” “hybrid,” and “hyflex” learning all tossed around in reference to fusing online and in-person instruction to create a technology-enabled student experience. No longer are there rigid lines distinguishing online from in-person learning; rather, digital tools are being used to enhance face-to-face instruction. In the new teaching environment of online and technology-enabled learning, it’s evident that academic institutions need reliable technology such as robust systems and secure networks to provide students with educational accessibility anytime, anywhere.

2. Innovating Teaching and Learning to Help Students Succeed

In 2020, colleges and universities embraced technology-based tools out of necessity to ensure that students were able to learn remotely. In 2021, we saw how this necessity helped spur innovation. Academic institutions transitioned from trying to replicate in-person class environments online to using digital tools to create innovative teaching experiences.

We saw technology-hesitant faculty become technology-proficient as they learned to integrate a variety of tools to support students, such as collaborative documents and discussion boards. We also witnessed academic institutions using their learning management system (LMS) in new ways, moving away from solely hosting content to facilitating learning paths. Overall, the use of technology helped educators focus more on student-centered learning and transform the traditional educational space.

As we move toward 2022, it’s evident that technology doesn’t only help keep the lights on in lecture halls; rather, technology can help create quality learning experiences regardless of the situation. As we continually adapt and innovate, it’s clearer than ever that technology has dramatically changed the role of higher education, and this will continue to evolve. Perhaps the future will consist of integrating virtual reality into pedagogical practices, or perhaps data and analytics will become an integral part of learning to help identify a wide range of problems and strategize solutions. All we know is that the opportunities are endless.

3. Creating Accessible and Inclusive Learning Environments

The switch to online and remote learning affected student populations, further magnifying existing inequalities and adding new, deeper ones. In discovering how to adapt to these new learning environments, we saw colleges and universities working to promote equity and accessibility. This consisted of faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders not only recognizing differences in race, gender, class, ethnicity, ability, and other social identities among students but also learning how to adjust their approach to teaching those students accordingly.

We witnessed how online learning, with proper insight and planning, can provide a more accessible mode of study for students. We saw higher education institutions integrate different frameworks—for example, universal design for learning and tools such as accessible educational materials and assistive technology. As we move forward to 2022, it’s clear that designing with accessibility and equity in mind means thinking about these concepts in every step of the curriculum planning journey.

4. Planning with Career Readiness in Mind

This year we also noticed a transformation in how colleges and universities define student success. We saw higher education institutions move from a reliance on tests and exams to measure the progress students are making to instead focusing on career readiness. This new standard of success has caused a paradigm shift in personalized, competency-based learning that helps students demonstrate and develop important skills in authentic contexts.

Additionally, resilience was a staple of student success this year. Given the rapid changes in the workplace and education, the 21st-century learner also needs to be well equipped to adapt and move forward when unprecedented challenges arise. We witnessed higher education transform the learning space from a system that focuses on investing in students’ near-term skills to also focusing on building long-term competencies through upskilling, reskilling, micro credentials, and continuing education opportunities. As we move toward 2022, we can see the important role higher education plays in building resilience in a world where the only constant is change.

Student Success: Reimagined

A question we have all asked ourselves at one point or another this year is “How do we define student success?”

One of our favorite moments in 2021 was hosting the Student Success: Reimagined webinars where Dr. Jeff Borden, Chief Academic & VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, talked all things student success with our special guests Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director at the National Institute for Student Success; Elizabeth Burns, Senior Success Coach at Sinclair Community College; and Rachel Clapp-Smith, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Purdue University Northwest.

Watch the webinar now

Written by:

Zeina Abouchacra

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Table of Contents

  1. Top 4 Higher Education Trends for Colleges and Universities
  2. 1. Establishing a Permanent Place for Hybrid, Hyflex, and Online Learning
  3. 2. Innovating Teaching and Learning to Help Students Succeed
  4. 3. Creating Accessible and Inclusive Learning Environments
  5. 4. Planning with Career Readiness in Mind
  6. Student Success: Reimagined