Future! The future of higher education technology led education in the digital world of online digital learning technologies 2020


One of the most common keynotes you see these days at educational conferences is the one about how technology will transform the future of higher education. Filled with assertions of the next big thing to emerge from the wilderness and riffing off songbooks of transformation such as the Horizon report, this model keynote usually makes the damning conclusion that education won’t look the same in 2030 as it does today. This is the keynote that a lot of people love to hear. It is vapourware. It makes promises that no-one needs to keep. We all know AI will transform education. Imagine, VR goggles in every classroom, the teacher feeding students with terabytes of virtual data that they think they need, the students wowing in awe and thanking the teacher for the experience. Imagine that! And that is all you need to do, imagine it. Because it will never happen. These assertions about technology (and Horizon is one of the worst culprits) are vapourware. They are like reading a new year’s prediction article in the Daily Mail on the 31st December. Sure, it can be entertaining. It can trigger fantasy, both positive and scary. Some of the predictions might even have a ring of truth. But, they are written to maintain the dominant order as in seen by the Mail (would the Mail ever predict the election of a leader like Macron or that Jeremy Corbyn will displace the Maybot or that Brexit won’t happen). They are also written to be safe, because this kind of prediction is nothing more than a game. It is a safe because there is nothing to be held accountable to. But it also provides you with a safe excuse to convince yourself and others that you are not wedded to the past and that you are looking to the future. Asserting that the future of higher education is digital and by 2025 MOOCs will be ruling the earth doesn’t mean you NEED do anything about it. It either doesn’t happen and you keep teaching the way you always have (winner, winner) or you can say that in 2017 you knew all along where education was heading (winner! ahead of the crowd). By engaging with the menu of digital futures that sound great (adaptive learning! AI!! learning analytics!!!) you can avoid addressing the real questions. You never need to engage in real curriculum level change. You don’t have think about learning styles, different forms of delivery, the experience of your learners. You can quite happily overlay your rusted-on practices, the dominant teacher/student paradigm and the inherent power that comes with it on any imagined technological intervention or vendor created problem. You can also be the one in the privileged position of deciding what you will ‘allow’ the student to use or what technology they can be trusted with.

This post is not about any specific keynote, but represents a series of panels, conferences, workshops and interventions over the last few months. Many of these located the student as the receptor of the innovations ‘we’ enunciated and implemented. Many used vendor PR to spin the future. They blurred the lines between who higher education is for, ascribing technology as the instrument of bloody transformation and avoided the notion of education as a public or societal good. Below are some of the tweets I shared during these presentatiions, with some additional commentary that twitter doesn’t afford me in its expanded 240 characters world.


One of the consistent messages about the future of HE in these keynotes is that vendors provide the solution. This is demonstrated through showing vendor videos that assert the future of education lies in the framework of technology they offer. This one below from Dell is the perfect example.

They don’t sell any of their products, they are selling (in highly amorphous terms) a solution to a problem that they assert you MUST know exists. And they are your partner in solving this problem. A vendor is not there to participate in education. A vendor is selling a product, often one that is not designed for education, but is being cross-sold. All good marketing is based on a simple fact. A drill retailer does not sell quarter inch drill bits, they sell quarter inch holes. Vendors are creating problems for which their product appears to be the perfect fit. But who tells them about these problems? Who is making the case the VLE needs to be more agile and democratic. Certainly, not our students. When we asked them, they told us they love Moodle. They want academics to use it more. One even asserted they were happy for their fees to pay for Moodle. Yet, they wouldn’t be a day go by that someone pitches the next agile future of learning technology driven 21st century innovative VLE/LMS.

One of the (un)intended consequences of the marketization of education is the equivalence of voice given to corporate partnerships which have enabled vendors to move from service provider to participant in the education process. Education practices become branded instruments, conversations result in brand endorsements. The risk we fear is that vendors get to the CIO, the COO or the VC and dazzle them with the name of leading adopters resulting in their technology getting ‘done’ to the rest of the institution, top down. But educational technologists are not innocent in this scenario. We can get blinded by the latest technology, wanting to keep ahead of the crowd, sometimes we can be bought by swag and promises, or the fear that if we don’t know about it we might look foolish when the leadership asks our opinion. We need to be in the room when the problem is defined. We need to draw in voices and insights from the entire community and be a hub for them. And then we talk to vendors, or we make it ourselves. And we hold them to account. They are not partners, we are buying a service from them. If they can’t solve our problem, we don’t change what we do to suit them. We find someone else who can.

not the platform

learning is social

Another common assertion in these types of keynotes is that ‘we’ know what is best for students. We understand them and why they behave the way they do. So, this assumption is a good example. Students don’t read emails (ignoring that staff don’t read them either according to most published data). We need better ways to communicate with students. We need WhatsApp, we need Snapchat, we should be in Instagram because that’s where they are sharing their selfies. You know what we really need? We need to have better messages. I get about 100 emails a day. Over 50% of those are vendors and unsolicited emails from service providers. Manage security! Move to cloud storage!! How is your stack? They see the word technology in my title and bombard me with messages irrelevant to what I do. Make the message relevant, useful and purposeful, then it doesn’t matter whether it is on email, pigeon or social media, people will find it and read, and perhaps even respond to it. Learning is social. Sending a broadcast email that is no interest to anyone other than you is bound to be ignored, in the same way the 250 introductory messages in the first week of a discussion forum (hi, I’m Peter and I am really looking forward to learning about underwater basket weaving) result in 250 people sitting there waiting for a reply and no one actually answering.

future of HE

Finally, these keynotes make grand, tweetable assertions of the world of education in 2020, 2030, 2050. The critical question for me is who owns this future? One of the critical insights from the Future Happens workshops run by Dave White, Donna Lanclos and myself is that many educational technologists, designers and developers as well as academics believe they don’t have a say in the future of higher education. There is an acceptance that much of the future is decided for us, by policy, by the institution, by competition or by the momentum and culture of the sector more generally. This can range from a passive acceptance to change, a sense of resignation of powerlessness to influence the change or righteous anger vented at all and everything around them.


At the heart of this issue is assertion that technology will continue the progress of education as a transaction. Pathways to employment, boxes of skills for employers, patents and intellectual property coming from making and doing. Experiencing education in this environment becomes value added, meaning a tension arises between what can be afforded and what is necessary. Experience is a value proposition traded off against the expediency of completion. Technology has become the instrument to affect this trade off. One keynote recently asserted that students don’t want to watch three hour lectures, they prefer to watch the lecture recording at double speed. In this example (which we have also heard from teachers at other institutions) there is a simple trade off, time vs consumption. It assumes all lectures are consumption. Good teaching is not a consumptive or broadcasted act. Many of the technology platforms being offered to universities however do just that. They package education ‘content’ and offer ways to multiple and massify it, promising economies of scale through media sharing, social media like VLEs, online examinations and generic content.

Where does this leave us? I can find dozens of keynotes, conferences and webpages promising an insight into the future. But to conclude this, I want to look to the past (and hopefully the present) to get an eye on the future. At its heart, a successful university is a community. A critical community of students, teachers, staff, alumni and partners. Communities need leaders, they need innovators, they need advocates, they need citizens and they need members. Communities share values but they disagree and argue for what those values are and how they evolve and are applied. These debates make communities better. Communities come together to apply tools to problems, sharing and swapping expertise and experience to enhance how we use those tools, or invent new ones. No-one should be able to buy a community. The successful future for higher education is one where the community leads the organisation. Participatory citizenship. In terms of education and technology we need to lead that debate, be the people that bring the community together, critically challenge the assertions of people who want to own the community and convince it spend their hard-earned cash on a newer, brighter proprietary widget for the future. These communities don’t have to be non-profit or altruistic and that is also fine. Well run communities can make money (look at the retailer John Lewis in the UK which is owned by its staff). One of the key ambitions of #futurehappens is that we bring people together to empower and increase the literacy and capability of people to be the catalyst for these communities in their own organisation. Maybe it helps to say, well over 100 institutions came together and they all said the same things, or maybe it promotes and encourages self-belief. In the end, when we hear these talks about the future of education, the future of employment, the myths of robo-replacement and massification of education through technology, we need to have a counter-argument. Evidence based, persuasive and critical ambitions for our institution, built on the engagement with community. We need to describe and understand the wicked and messy problems in front of us, and we need to be able to apply the skills and experiences we have learnt and that we teach to come up with innovative, amazing and completely original ways to solve them. We don’t need the answers, we need to ask the questions.

Note: This blog post is the early part of bringing the innovations and idea together from our Future Happens workshops ran in Liverpool, Toowoomba and Berlin. Stay tuned.

Making change happen from the centre: (Pedagogical) change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon

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Higher Education is caught, flash hard in the eye of the perfect storm.  Brexit, Trump, the death of the expert, the rise of the VC funded learning machine, decreasing numbers wanting to go to University and the increasing resistances of an emboldened institutional population.  So, you might think that change is the byword for the modern institution, pro-acting and reacting in equal measures to the forces that imperil and empower it.  But that is not what’s happening.  Each year of enrolments sees a repeat of last year plus or minus 10% with whiteboards washed down, VLEs reset, inductions planned and the occasional blast from the laying of foundations of new buildings filled with the old order.  Institutional systems rust on practices and processes, from freezing timetables to filling buildings from Week A to Week Z in an ordered fashion, hour by hour, with front facing spaces ready for the next batch of fresh faced empty vessels.  The drive to start the next semester is already too far gone to think about arresting its momentum and making change happen.  Too many people, too many resources and way too much risk.


On the other hand, institutional strategy outlines a sometimes-utopian vision of alignments, engagements, innovations and a so much better experience.  One where everyone pulls in the same direction to make the institution a player and a partner in the digital world.  The daring audacity of the ambition set out by our institutions is inspiring, unachievable and necessary, often in one breath.  When you want to be part of a change, then having audacious targets moves you from the hamster wheel of eternal trying into a more longitudinal trajectory.  But audacity is the bedfellow of risk and change.  Standing still and providing the students with the same educational experience we offered them in 1979, with a few YouTube videos thrown might afford you the opportunity to slowly fall behind.  So, what do you do?


Future Happens is an initiative started last year on the back of a successful changehack event held in London.  The aim of the first changehack was to bring people together to debate, discuss and share how we collectively address the tensions outlined above.  How do we make the square peg of the way we do things fit the triangular hole of institutional ambition?  For many of us who run Future Happens, this is one of the most critical challenges facing educational technologists, developers, course and programme leaders, student unions and senior management.  We posed this challenge to the people who came to the first Future Happens hack ‘Digital is not the Future’ and a similar challenge will be at the heart of three changehacks we will be running in the Autumn:


It is easy to make pronouncements about pedagogical, technological or institutional change from the ‘islands’, when the consequences of advocating for and implementing that change are limited to your world, your classroom, your twitter feed.  They are safe spaces, full of friendly faces and welcoming and supportive practices.  But decisions, assertions and opinions all have consequences; for your students, for the worlds they inhabit and for your institutions.  The challenge comes when you need to scale what you speak.  You need to make the future happen for your entire institution. What happens when the VC, the Dean or the Director says ‘we need to this transform the whole institution’? What do you say and do? How do you make sure you say the right things, in the right rooms, with the right people?


Pedagogical change is not just necessary.  It is unavoidable.  Readers of this blog will have seen me make the case that learning has changed in the digital age.  Learners have changed and what they need to know is changing constantly as society and skills fragment and coalesce in different guises. But resistance to change is powerful.  Keeping the status quo as it has been can be comforting and calming.  It means all those unsettling feelings like fear, anger, distrust, polarisation and political malfeasance can be focused on one group: those who want you to feel like that by changing things.  And maybe, they are right.  Pedagogical change can be bad, it can throw the baby out with the bathwater.  It can damage people’s livelihoods, professional identities and practices.  But. BUT. Change is unavoidable.  Especially in learning and teaching.


Reason 1  – Why would we avoid doing learning, teaching and assessment in ways that make the education for our students better? Why would we, as professional academics ignore research and data that suggest that many of the more traditional ways of teaching and learning are not as effective as diversifying them, using technology in agile and informed ways and most importantly, finding ways people can work together?


Reason 2 – Things are not the same as they ever were.  There are new roles needed in teaching and learning and that change requires ambition, collegiality and expertise, but it also induces fear.  It requires people to be willing to own the change.  It needs people with skin in the game.  Lead from the front, work with others, take risks, be responsible, fall over, get back up again, make a mess, tidy it all up, wear stupid glasses and share the selfie on Instagram and most of all, again, find ways in which people can work together.  This is not a fight.  This is not them versus us.


Pedagogical change in higher education, in whatever form you optimistically or pessimistically think it might be, needs people to be part of it.  Despite all the best efforts of years of bureaucratic structures and behaviours, it won’t come from the top.  Tenures are short, structures are layered on top and short-term fixism, reactions to league tables and medals and the immediacy of falling financials mean that some of the fears that change instill are realised in 3D.  Equally, it won’t come from the bottom up.  HE institutions are not grassroots political parties, with burgeoning emancipatory calls to arms to defend practices at the barricades.  As I have argued before, in terms of strategic change, it has to come from the middle.  And in this instance, I mean it has to come from the centre. Not the much-maligned university centre of supposedly failed services, brickbats and rotting bouquets.  But the very cultural heart of the institution.  What is stands for.  What it believes.  The critical centre that provides the interlinking of something that holds us all the institution.  This centre is shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely and not fun place we call work. Hell yes HE is liminal.  Its borders and boundaries are frayed, contested and its belief structures and systems are under constant threat from government, from industry, from the private sector and from a society itself that is not sure what it really wants.   But there is a sense of strategic unity that comes from collectively experienced liminality. And that sense of unity can be enhanced and leveraged to create and sustain pedagogical change.


What can you do to make change happen from the centre?

In the end, that is the most important question, isn’t it? What can you do?  We all believe that education is important, valuable and makes society better.  We all want what is best for students.   I won’t profess to have the answers.  What I can tell you is how I try and do things.  Pedagogical change is critical to doing what I do.  Pedagogical change is also the hardest thing to land in any HE environment.  Have I got it right and delivered transformative institution wide pedagogical change? You know where I work and the answer is we are a long way from where we want to be.   It is so much easier to feed the elephant in the room, pat her trunk and notice that she is squatting uncomfortably on the chaise lounge than to ignore that its there.


  1. Have an evidenced opinion

Know your stuff, build the case, collect the evidence and be sure of the facts.

  1. Find out where to say that opinion and be a part of the process

Opining on twitter or the echo chamber of conferences filled with people of the same mind as you is great.  It is reinforcing and makes us feel that we are not alone.  It won’t change your institution or the experience for your students. Get into the room, whatever that might look like.  Be a part of the capacity for change and persuade people of your vision.

  1. Bring others along with you

This can’t be done alone.  Change is an inherently social activity.  Persuading yourself is like taking a selfie only for your to see.  The risk comes from sharing it, engaging with the selfies of others, helping people to make better selfies and then deciding actually we need something better than a selfie.

  1. Have skin in the game, make a commitment

Self-evident. Put something behind your views, commit time, resources or every ounce of your persuasion reserves.  If this matters to you, if keeping education, vibrant and valued part of society is important then put skin in the game.

  1. Don’t throw stones, don’t build walls

Kind of the same really.  Just because you have decided that nothing is going to change in your course, your kit, your teaching until you retire doesn’t mean you can make others do the same.

  1. Don’t be afraid and don’t seed fear

Change makes people scared. Bat shit scared.  Especially when it gets linked by people trying to stop the change to emotive things like job security, demotion, workloads, risk of exposure.  Don’t let people make you scared.  Don’t seed the fear of other people.  It is cheap politics.

  1. Don’t just listen; talk, debate, discuss, argue

The point of change is to bring people along with it. It never works doing change to people.  Engage staff, students, society, your next-door neighbor, your boss and your team in the conversation.  Make it passionate, make it engaged, make it open, make it two-way and make it productive.  Make sure the conversation leads somewhere, that people can connect the dots and see how their part fits into the bigger picture.

  1. Want to make things better, seeing how you can

The Hummingbirds say this so much better than I could, from their song ‘Get on Down’ released in 1989

You can depend upon it, I’ve got my focus in you

She said ‘Don’t you be so negative,

I’m trying to think positive’

From the Hummingbirds song ‘Get on Down’

Vale Simon Holmes












It doesn’t matter what is in your hands – Reprise: Challenging the learning of the future

So, this is a reprise of my last post, written in late September.


Jisc have just launched a co-design challenge (#codesign16) looking at what should the next generation of digital learning environments do. There are a number of key assumptions that keen readers of this blog might suspect I will take issue with; should we even be talking about learning environments for a starter. As learning technologists, academics or educational developers, why do we keep talking about the box of tricks as the on-going ticket to educational success? There are a number of much prescient articles about the future of the VLE (Louis Pugilese wrote a nice thought piece on a demand side VLE a few years back HERE and Martin Weller’s 2007 dystopian future ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’. But for me, the debate about what comes next, what does the VLE of the future look like or whether it is cloud or server based is like a drowning man arguing about the political position that his rescuer has on the issue of Brexit (and deciding that drowning is better than jumping in a boat with Nigel Farage).

What we should be talking about is far more fundamental than all of that. In 2014, I wrote a blog post about some the polarising factors that are in fact paralyzing our sector, preventing us from change, supporting entrenched positions of resistance and not affording us the opportunity to truly interrogate why the hell we are educating in the first place. This was not a baby out with the bathwater argument, nor was it the call to smash it all down and start again;

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!  (from the post ‘We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it’)



We don’t know what we don’t know. Prediction is a mugs game for sure. The Jisc challenge here was two-fold;

1. are current systems meeting the needs of our institutions,
2. and is it time to think about the next generation of learning environments?

My question is a different one; are the current systems meeting the needs of learning? Our institutions rise and fall on that question. The one thing we have over and above informal learning, community learning, micro-learning and all the other wolves at the door is that we accredit and certify. The value of that certification comes from the people who get it pinned to their chests. If what we offer stops meeting their needs, then we stop being relevant. The next generation of learning environment must tangle with the provocative and frankly difficult question of what learning actually is. My last post looked at good teaching, and why that was important in the digital age, and in the face of claims that technology courrupts good learning practices. It argued that god teaching was system/OS/box agnostic and that what made teaching ‘good’ was essentially intrinsic and human. One of the controversial interpretations of is that advocated that good teaching as it was human could only happen in ‘real life’. It doesn’t matter what the future learning environment is, the first question is what is the future of learning going to look going to look like? Are we the right people to be a part of it? This is not a clarion call for the heaving morass who argue the age of the expert is dead. Expertise is not a pejorative term FFS. Experts fix things, make things better, cure things, understand things and share things. But we do have to ask ourselves the tough questions; should we be involved in our our students learning? What kind of learning do they need/want/have no idea about yet?

Any learning environment of the future needs to be shaped and understood with at least some interrogwtion of those questions. Gutierrez in 2014 made a broad attempt to answer these questions by saying that learning is changing in four ways;

From Individual to Collaborative Learning
From Passive to Active Learning
The Rise of Differentiated Instruction
The Phenomenon of Multi-tasking

If we assume that this is what learning is in 2020 (which is a giant leap) how would the learning environment we would need to start developing now adapt to these changes, which are no hypothetical or fictitious, they are happening in our institutions now. How can a VLE be made to support active learning; can it be hacked, can it be bent? One of the biggest arguments in the ‘VLE is dead’ saga a few years back was the rise of adaptive and predictive technologies. You know, the ones that Amazon use to tell you which books or music you should buy next. Imagine (we were told) what a VLE could do if it were to become adaptive -after removing the rise of the Apes from your brain (and stopped screaming ‘“YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!’ at the small snow globe of the statue of liberty you have on your desk), take a deep breath. What is it adapting to? Learning is a crooked, messy, chaotic and non-linear pathway through living.  It doesn’t matter where it happens, on what box or within which four august walls.  It matters that we understand why people learn.  It matters we know why we should be part of it and it matters how the learning is used.  And all of that, as it has done for centuries is changing.  Sure, technology is part of the reason, but not the whole of the reason.  Our needs, desire, passions and pains to learn are changing.  Survival is an entirely different beast when you are not facing the 22 foot gleaming teeth of a giant angry pre-historic badger.  How we survive and what we are surviving is different, so how and what we learn to survive must be as well.


So, let’s start the debate with an open blue sky of thought.  It shouldn’t be never-ending or ponderous.  It is not a left-wing rant nor is it an affordance or a luxury that we can’t afford.  We have to ask ourselves, our friends and colleagues and our leaders the question ‘What is the next generation of learning?’ As I ask in the earlier blog post, what will our 2025 selves tell us about what we should have prepared for?  And most importantly, we need to ground that in some thinking, exploring and evidence, then we will know exactly how we will design the environments that the learning of the future will sit in.