THES Digital Universities – reflections

On 20th May I took part in the Times Higher Education Digital Universities Week 2021 event entitled: ‘What could university look like for the class of 2030? Despite the last year changing higher education in ways we never thought possible, there are still years of transformation ahead of us.” Below are some of my reflections, both during and after the session.

The challenge posed to those of us on the panel was to imagine what the University experience might be like in 2030. This is, of course, unknowable, but we had a stab at it anyway. The panel noted how the COVID-19-necessitated move to remote learning (I am not sure why people insist on saying ‘pivot’ here) had left educators with lots to reflect on. My contribution at this stage was to suggest that the prior limited use of remote learning in many mainstream Higher Education courses hadn’t been about the limitations of technology, but a failure in the sector to imagine and/or implement different ways of learning. 
While this is arguably true, what occupied much of our time was a conversation about where we go from now. In thinking through some of the ways Universities might amend their offer to students, there were areas where I felt, as some others on the panel did, that we needed to exercise caution and carefully weigh a range of factors. There is now a buzz in some areas of Higher Education as to what we might retain from the period of remote learning and how we might seize this current moment as a chance to ‘disrupt’ teaching practice. There are of course commercial EdTech interests at play here who have seen their chance, understandably, to increase their market/sales/reach. I want to propose caution here. As we have seen in FinTech, book sales, and is obvious on every High Street in every town in the UK is that ‘disruption’ of a market or service is often chaotic, has unintended consequences and unforeseen casualties. In such dangerous territory, and with the socially vital and personally high-stakes, one-time-chance education of young people at stake, Universities should tread carefully and hold back from rushing into irreversible decisions.  

Another area where I was interested in how we balance competing concerns was to do with the shape and borders of course provision. My fellow panellists spoke about the way that we might reimagine HE provision so that students can move between modalities, institutions and disciplines, possibly taking courses over a range of time periods, leading to a maximisation of flexibility and mobility. A student might take a break, slow down or speed up the pace of learning, take a module at a different University to the one they are registered at, and study another module remotely.  This has a lot of potential attractions for students and institutions, making the hard borders that exist in education more porous, and opening spaces for innovation, perhaps allowing staff more space to teach and research at various paces. But this is not an unalloyed golden future of unicorns and rainbows. When we look at improving the experience of students, and the efficacy of their learning – it is best practice to take a programmatic approach and look, often in some detail, at the way they travel through a set course. What are the courses they are taking in parallel, which lead to, support, prepare for, and embed materials and skills from which others? What assessment types are taken in what sequence? How can we scaffold the learning by manipulating these elements? A programmatic approach allows a considered learning design. Such an approach can help combat attainment gaps by ensuring students develop the right knowledge and aptitudes at the needed times, deepen student disciplinary learning, and give staff the opportunity to focus on a specific cohort of students and their collaborative interactions. In making the borders of our courses, disciplines and institutions more porous, we should ensure we don’t lose sight of the benefits of more contained and discrete programmatic provision and ensure we act to retain or replicate them in our reimagined HE futures.

The link for rewatching the session is at

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