Tag Archives: online learning

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful

Alfred North Whitehead

Imagining the future of university is now more than a safe-game with multiple advantages. It can be a practical exercise of building on the dynamic flexibility and capacity to use imaginations for a sustainable future for our institutions. Most of us know that we live a moment of unprecedented challenges and changes for higher education, all in the context of a dramatic economic crisis and a fierce competition. “Stories about the future” may be the best way to prepare for what was called “a tsunami” of change in higher education. Universities are forced now to find new solutions for their own future and this (harder than it looks) task may be best achieved if we play thinking about the possible future.

It happened in 2012…

2012 was marked by the activation of a strategic consortium with the online instructional delivery firm Coursera and some of the most prestigious elite research universities, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others. This was a shake of a magnitude able to seriously move the foundations of the old paradigm. Many have seen this as an important and clear sign that reshaping education  is already happening and resistance to change and engage new technologies in teaching and learning is not a realistic choice anymore. In 2013 it was already clear that universities will not have the option to leave technology just as an alternative for learning and teaching and a large number of universities followed the MIT and Stanford examples of serving the public with ‘open access’ to their courses. What started as an experiment in joining emerging initiatives in online education gained speed in the following years with the need to provide flexible content, time and space for learning. However, the change in the role and function of universities was more profound than anticipated. If new technologies opened new possibilities for higher education and learning, years of economic crisis increased the pressure on universities to design career-focused postgraduate degrees in collaboration with industry partners. In this new context, students achieved their degrees in complex online platforms able to enhance engagement and institutions shifted focus on their role as facilitator of learning, social and professional experiences.

Focus on flexible learning and the demise of traditional lectures

In 2030’s in-person, on-campus attendance of students and what was once called “traditional lectures” was a feature for marginal institutions unable to adapt to a new cultural, economic and social reality. This happened years before and most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation is dramatically changed by initiatives at the beginning of this century. Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers and universities actively explored the possibility to outsource marking and assessment as they have outsourced in the past their food services, print services, health services, learning management systems (LMS), IT services, staff recruitment, security, housing, the management of conferences, fundraising, student recruitment and others. Companies such as Edumetry were promising (and already offering services to some good universities since the first decade of this century) to “relieve the faculty of the burden of generating data on Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)“, and were successful by inviting universities around the world to “leave the mechanics of assessment to us”. This tagline is already obsolete in 2050 as most universities have to use complex software and specialized companies to deal with marking and strategic partnerships with workplaces for bespoke assessments for students.

The university of 2020’s could not operate anymore as a separate space where students come to be taught by those authorized by the institution to impart their special knowledge, mainly by lecturing on campus or online. What was once called “the online option” is now the common feature of most successful universities. It became more obvious that learning is an ongoing and dynamic process that cannot be realistically restrained within the walls of a classroom. New technologies and media opened “virtual curriculum” to endless possibilities and institutionalized learning opened for congruence instead of fighting for an impossible supremacy and control. Learning in higher education is now shaped around the option to have guidance in making wise epistemological and axiological choices for complex challenges and problems. Designing learning by models designed in the middle of 20th century as versions of curriculum arrangements common in previous centuries was at last forcefully rejected by students, employers and civil society.

Imaginations, Networks and Connectedness at the Core of Universities

Around 2015 universities moved from the past obsession on the illusory monopoly of credibility on qualifications, control and certification of learning to a clear commitment to use advanced technologies for innovation, production of relevant knowledge and research for civic, industry and academic partnerships. Consistent collaboration is at the middle of 21st century an intrinsic requirement, as universities have only the binary option to seek genuine connectedness, work on their engagement to create institutional, national and international partnerships with industry, community and other academics for innovative solutions or the alternative to play in the bush-league. The challenge of ageing population, the growing number of students and their diversity along with the realization that inclusive and lifelong learning solutions in flexible formats is a requirement for prestigious universities shaped new institutional processes. Academic institutions where the simple idea to collaborate with people on the same corridors was seen as an extreme step have changed under the increasing pressure to engage in diverse networks and collaboration with community, industry, and networks of national and international scholars. These active networks are now able to generate new ideas and innovative solutions for a fast changing reality for students and other stakeholders. Universities employ a consistent effort to stay as imaginative and creative entities in similar ways as the emerging creativity and innovation was promoted across an entire industry by companies like Google at the beginning of 21st Century.

2050 Research Drive: Universities as Research and Innovation Hubs

There was the problem that change involved by technology and economic crisis in 2013 was affecting universities in very different ways and it became clear that any institution thinking that the simple adoption of same (online) solutions as Harvard, Stanford or MIT is the cure or provides the competitive advantage was a naive and disastrous approach. It became clear in time that institutions have to focus their efforts to create a culture of innovation, develop their human capital and replace the unsustainable practice of casualisation with more stable forms of employment in exchange of a genuine commitment for innovative research, collaboration and production of knowledge. Not only universities, but entire countries learned the painful lesson that the stubborn refusal to move from rhetoric to practice in opening for ongoing collaborations with industry, civil society and the large variety of possible stakeholders translated in declining number of students, lost funds for research and financial collapse.

As learners increasingly used the web as their first port of call for information (and this encouraged even more independent inquiries and learning in all forms) employers moved focus from stale paper credentials to seek genuine mastery of new skills, flexibility and innovative minds. Higher education realized that learning journeys have to be different from previous levels of education and placed a strong emphasis on self-learning and discovery: universities provided choices for learning in a vast variety and forms for bespoke journeys. These learning stages are certified with the use of professional entities specialized in marking and assessment designed in line with different specific institutional demands.

Universities had to change in practice the isolation of ‘silos’ created by departmentalization, the emphasis on hierarchies and promotion of comfortable mediocrity, the use of slogans and surface reporting as these proved to be dangerously unsustainable in a context of a merciless competition. It became clear in time that all institutions leaving creativity, innovation and research in rhetoric rather than having a consistent effort to make it a genuine trademark of their living culture cannot survive the competition. Universities, countries and regions stay as successful examples where the emphasis of flexibility, the permeability of institutional boundaries and the openness to work with community and industry provided sustainable solutions for all. Some lost the meaning of this change and disappeared or still struggle in the margins for survival. The most important lesson was that universities can build on their potential as main catalyst for knowledge creation, creativity and change for society in collaboration with other sectors. Successful universities present these days the advantages of proliferation of experimentation and innovation, of building connectivity and collaboration, openness and encouragement of diversity, equity of access and in-depth thinking.

The university is at the middle of this century dramatically changed: the old walls stay now as a symbol for tradition used to work in open hubs for local, national and international collaborations. These are now the main meeting points where where scholars, industry and civil society come together to share perspectives and build on the high expertise of researchers engaged in the creation of knowledge and innovative solutions for challenges ahead.

Final note

It may be already clear that only universities capable to use the strategic advantage on their own steps will be able to see the 2050 from similar positions as today. Institutions (and countries) aware by their crucial importance on knowledge generation, innovation and overall contribution to society and economy have no time to waste if they want to be part of the scene in 2050. This is why vision – and knowledge to achieve this vision – may be one of the most valuable commodities in 2012.


The last blog post stirred some good conversations and feedback from scholars and friends from Australia and abroad. Grateful for their feedback and opinions, I had the idea to record one of these conversations. Therefore, Mr. Tom Kerr posted some questions in a recorded interview and you are invited to see it here and send your opinions and reflections.

One point of justified criticism is that I fail to offer here on my random posts clues on the alternatives, solutions for our challenges in education. In my defense, I have to mention that I work – too slow – on a new book, focused on imagination, creativity and possible solutions for educational change. In a first attempt to address this problem I have to briefly describe what I consider as first two prerequisites for positive and genuine change in education:

  • It is crucial to have an honest and open debate about the pedagogical advantages of new technologies in education.

Although this seems a truism, lobbying activities disguised as care for students’ learning and engagement, well-being of institutions and teaching staff, constitute already a living part of the unchallenged existence of academia. Tech firms promote often clunky, educationally useless or illusory products (see online solutions for plagiarism) for significant profits. This interested intrusion and well-funded influence stifle a genuine debate about the real advantages, traps, dangers, advantages and – ultimately – students’ interests. The pedagogical value of ICT solutions have to be discussed beyond the naive enthusiasm for fancy educational electronics. If we accept arguments like that educational technology is saving money, with the latest example of iPads replacing textbooks as a more economical solution… then we do not only ignore the real costs involved by these changes, the fast pace of change in technology, but – most important – a consistent body of research on learning and pedagogical solutions. It is important to have a wider, more diverse, consistent and courageous debate on what is genuine and positive change and innovation in education.

  • A real change in education requires imagination, innovation, creativity and interdisciplinary research as a vital component of thinking about learning and teaching in 21st century.

Imagine a discussion about the use of new technologies in education where moral philosophers, specialists in technology, scholars specialized in education, engineers and university administrators, teachers and researchers can openly debate various aspects involved in the practice of learning and teaching. Even more, imagine in this mix of teaching, innovation and research the perspective of rethinking education looking at the aims, not various (technological) tools, taking democratic citizenship, reasoning, nurturing imagination, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity and the thirst for knowledge, as paramount aims, not only as political statements designed to mask a neoliberal agenda guided only by immediate profit. Thinking about these possibilities may be more important for the future than it seems now and I argue that these perspectives deserve more consideration if we think about change and “disruptive innovation” in education.


In a recent article (with a surprisingly extensive coverage in the media), Jeff Selingo starts continues a discussion about recent trends in higher education with the promising sentence: “The “disruption” of the higher-ed market is a popular refrain these days.” The expectation for a serious analysis of the recent mantra in higher education is fueled when he continues in the same note: “What exactly those innovations will look like remains a matter of debate.” Unfortunately, the “matter of debate” is closed when we read realize that we have to read again an article to praise the digital revolution and some old promises:  “a potential future of higher ed that’s more collaborative, social, virtual, and peer-to-peer—and where introductory courses are commodities offered free or close to free.“ This article is very interesting for being not only amazingly present on influential publications (eg. Chronicle of Higher Education or The Huffington Post), but for its capacity to coagulate some concerning slogans able just to reveal some blurred sides of this promise of “disruptive innovation”. There is no point to stop here to scrutinize the semantics of “disruptive innovation” as a label attached to new technologies in education. The fact is that new technologies in education are presented as the solution for an educational revolution for at least two decades and no “disruptions” are yet recorded (if we understand disruption as something able to drastically alter or destroy the structure of [something]). It is more important to have a look at some important, but shadowed parts touched by this “popular refrain”.

It is important to note that the idea to reject or ignore the importance of new technologies in education is not only naïve, but unrealistic. Facebook and Twitter, e-books and e-textbooks, apps and computer/online games, LMS options and online education already have a tremendous impact on the way we learn and have the potential to expand as never before the way we learn and teach. This blog post starts with the hope that expressing some concerns about what looks to be the miraculous solution is not interpreted as a conservative rejection of Internet as a magical source of knowledge and open access or the educational potential of some new technologies. It is just a call for a more in-depth analysis of some implications before we relax thinking that the solution was finally found for most important problems confronting now our universities. It is also a challenge to look if the promise to revolutionize education with these tools presented as solutions is not just another utopian project linked with some perilous effects.

There are too many aspects of learning overlooked by the increasing chorus chanting what Selingo calls to be the “popular refrain”. In Finland – with its impressive results in education nowadays – some schools reported that sometimes students’ interest concentrated on computer instead of the assimilation of content. I admit to the guilt to believe that we have to assimilate a bit more that pop songs in our memory if we want to have creative and flexible minds able to adapt and productively work in the knowledge economy. However, being confused by software and losing interest on content in favor of a gadget may be a minor thing to fix, but brings the interesting example of “disruptive educational reform and innovation” in this country. In 1970s, Finland had an underperforming education system, a somehow primitive agrarian economy based on chopping trees and selling them as brute wood – obviously, not a long-term solution for a country with very limited resources. The change came with an impressive reform in preparation and selection of future teachers. Education for all, every teacher immersed in intensive preparation (all have at least a masters degree now) and strict selection. The other important ingredient: an impressive social esteem for the teaching profession and it all turned to be keys in the Finnish innovation’s success. There is an important lesson here for a genuine revolution in education: the success came not by increasing the control and punishments, standardization and numbers of tests, not with a massive investment on software, tablets and computers, but by a genuine focus on quality, selection and social esteem for this difficult job. The focus on lowering costs and increasing immediate profits was overcome by a long-term vision for results – this proves to be now a wise decision. In Finland only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom – competition is very high because in this country you can be proud for having this respectable and beautiful profession. Results show that students see this and serious benefits came with this form of “disruptive innovation”.

It may be argued that we live different times and things are different now for our universities, but there are no reasons to claim that the current focus on cutting costs and looking at knowledge and teaching staff just as “commodities” is sustainable for the knowledge economy. There is a different type of change happening now in universities: focus on commoditization, driving down cost and increasing profits (and number of for-profit universities), the syndrome dubbed as “cash cow disease” ravaging universities and what was so well and worryingly documented in “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – that we are losing student learning at an alarming pace. This book is providing extensive research data to sustain the argument that the attributes we consider to be the pillars of higher learning – such as critical thinking, writing skills, complex reasoning and acquisition of academic knowledge – are not being achieved at institutions of higher education. There seems to be an astonishing lack of vision and concern for the future, a twisted and simplistic understanding of the term “sustainability” with implications for the future of our culture, civic values and democracy. This part of “disruptive innovation” is not following the popular refrain and it seems as being completely left out of the song.

There is also the recent report on e-schools in Ohio (Ohio’S E-Schools: Funding Failure; Coddling Contributors). The report reveals appalling results of these innovative e-schools able to attract an increasing number of students: “e-schools have grown significantly in enrollment since their inception in the 2000-2001 school year when the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) enrolled nearly 2,200 students. Since then, enrollment in E-schools has grown about twice as fast as enrollment in brick and mortar charter schools”. However, we find here some concerning results associated with this indubitable popularity:

“23 E-schools rated by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2009-2010 school year, only three rated “effective” or better on the state report card. In other words, only 8 percent of all E-School enrolled children are in schools that rate B or better. By contrast, more than 75 percent of traditional public school students attend school in buildings rated B or better. In short, children are nearly 10 times more likely to receive an “effective” education in traditional public school than they are in Eschools.”

I imagine how some may read this with the reaction of that biologist looking for the first time in his life at a giraffe shaking his head in disbelief while repeating “This animal doesn’t exist!”. Sometimes it seems that common sense of some simple facts such as that popularity is not equal with efficiency and substance or that knowledge is not equal with web-surfing was lost in the genuine euphoria of seeing “disruptive innovation” at work. The re is a possibility to see online learning is passing the state of lab experiments and isolated showcases of prestigious universities and is applied more generally as a panacea for old problems approached with the same old paradigm… it may lead to the same old appalling results. This is one concern: massification of online solutions can just replicate and intensify current problems if we do not rethink our current educational paradigms.

The other foggy side of disruptive innovation in higher education is about the promise: it is even more unclear how technology will change other than opening access (we agree here for the sake of saving readers’ time to ignore the complex facets of digital divide and increasing debts of students choosing online courses/universities), increasing profits (this is already happening) and making “introductory courses [as] commodities offered free or close to free”. Where is the increasing accent on cultivating innovation and creativity for students, attributes and qualities that are vital for individuals and societies in the knowledge economy? To claim that the simple use of new and innovative products is making students innovative and creative is like claiming that a pair of Air Jordan Shoes makes you a unique athlete. So where is this part? It may be good to consider also data of recent research showing how we learn differently in online environments with a very interesting impact on memory (see here “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”). The equation of our cortex reaction to new technologies is far from being solved and it may be important to have a broader look at all these changes before we jump with joy and dull enthusiasm seeing videos posted online while most are just replicating the same old process in a bit more contemporary (and fashionable) form.

There is a genuine change in education starting from new technologies, but it may be not enough. We cannot afford the naïveté to think that our economic, social, ecological and cultural crises can be solved by the simple introduction of learning management systems and access to Internet. This may be just another dangerous bubble – the problem is that recent bubbles come with increasingly dangerous and serious costs for real lives. We have to hope that we will read soon articles embraced by all these powerful media outlets with less enthusiasm and more substance in looking at those obscured faces of “disruptive innovation of higher ed.”