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.

A design for learning: My ALT-C presentation in a nutshell


It is not a simple thing really; making education in a post-digital world.  How do we design for learning in this environment? Do we assume that nothing has changed, and the computers, devices and Pokémon Go are a distraction from the august and Socratic process of education?  Do we seek to embed in concrete the processes and practices of higher education and see them as immutable laws that will never change?  Or do we think critically about how all of this is not the same as it was before, mixed up, shaken out, broken down and reinvented.  The purpose of my presentation at this year’s ALT-C was to look at how learning has changed and how we need to change the way we design learning in the modern university.
At the heart of this design process was the challenge for learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to stop arguing about the efficacy or relevance of old and new technology.  It is an argument with no winners.  It sets up the easy farce of techno-solutionism vs defending the norm.  It creates entrenched positions of defence and attack, where one ‘side’ is seen as wanting to tear the other down.  But perhaps worse, talking about the technology is stopping us talking about what is more important, which is the difference between old and new learning, because it is this that is already transforming disciplines five and six times whilst we argue about our VLE. 
So how do we change this? How do we move it on?  If you have read this blog before you might have seen the posts around learning experiences from earlier this year.  Learning experiences are what Knowles describes as the connective tissue and sinew of education (with knowledge, skills, teaching and learning as the rest of the body).  We learn through experience; the abstract can only take us so far.  Whether it is environmental, tactile, mental, affective, emotional or physical, learning experiences are the context in which learning and knowledge come together. Learning experiences are the art and design component of curriculum development. They are intrinsic and personal. But here is the best bit, we all know how to have them. We all know the experience of making something. We know what we have learnt from making, and we know where to find the knowledge and skills required in order to make. We have made something with our dad or mum, we have made stuff with our own kids. All we need to know first is WHAT to make. Technology has changed the process, the practices and the accessibility of making. I can make music with an app (not an accordion), I can make my own media with a device (not a studio) and I can share that making with the world, for critique, for love, for fame or simply to release myself in order to make the next. This is how we contextualize learning experiences in a post-digital world.

An aside: What do I mean by a ‘post-digital world’? This is a contrary term, perhaps used a bit too often to mean something it isn’t, or as a convenient mark to signal the end of an arbitrary era. For me, post-digital means the point where we stop talking about potential and starting dealing with the fact that it has happened. Technology has normalized, how it is used has normalized and the things that happen in our lives happen not because of the technology, they happen because of people.

So, the short version of the presentation is that as learning technologists, teachers, learners and practitioners we have won. We run the largest learning space in the university, we own systems that have transformed the learning experience and there is no going back, the genie is out the bottle. We have made a difference. But what next? We have these monolithic infrastructure beasts that in the main are not being used to their full potential (the VLE distributing slides, handouts and making announcements?). What do we offer to the institution to help shape the experiences of our learners? The workshop asked participants to take existing learning technology tools (the VLE, Lecture Capture, PRS, plagiarism detection, a classroom etc) and break them. Bend them out of shape, hack them, crack them, remix and rebuild them to be the building blocks of creating and making learning experiences. How do we use the VLE to create a learning experience of play? Or community? How do you remodel a classroom to be a site of discovery or a space of discontinuity? This is a three-part process.

What knowledge and skills are being constructed
What learning and teaching technologies and methods are you using
And finally, what experience will the learners have in order to bring these two things together

So have a go yourself. Take advantage of your greatest success; what we do now and then smash it up!

From the Middle Out – making pedagogical change happen in a complex, messy world

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At the heart of defining and understanding resistance is the idea that two opposing forces are at work; the force being resisted and the force doing the resisting. In terms of universities and the way they engage with change, the forces of resistance can create dichotomous arguments; Traditional vs techno-centric.  Student-led vs research informed. New vs old. Affordances vs Resistances. Technologies vs Pedagogies. Service vs Strategy.


These arguments then become entrenched positions for which even the slightest weakness (showing admiration for the benefits of other side) indicates that you have swapped teams.  Handy little clichéd arguments emerge that privilege ‘established technologies’ like the VLE over new fangled innovations, or that talk about technological innovation as something to come, a concept that exists only in potential, like the flying car or world peace. In an earlier blog post, I described these types of narratives as a form of passive resistance to change, where there was a sense of accepting the need for change whilst resisting in other ways. Westberry, McNaughton, Billot & Gaeta (2015) argue that in fact the bigger issue arises where technology challenges the pedagogical primacy of the academics ‘goals, beliefs and practice’.  It is in this context that people have to construct plans, strategies and arguments to implement pedagogical change, especially change informed and inspired by technology.


In some senses, in HE we are chasing our tails. At the end of the day, much of that change we talk about in terms of potential has been and gone.  It is not inevitable when it has already happened.  Potential is not a measure of the past (you are reading a blog people, not a position paper or my own private diary!).  The problem we have as a sector is that whilst the world around us has engaged in the digital, education in the main remains staunchly divided on whether we need to.  The fact that learning technologists and educational developers have to make the case that innovation is not just a nice thing to do, but is essential for our survival seems to be as ludicrous as having to argue that the worlds climate has changed and we risk global annihilation by doing nothing…oh, oops.


The fact remains that technology and innovation often get side-lined in institutional discourses and funding pitches because they are thought of as an add-on, a luxury, value-added or simply the domain of the techno-mages. However, in institutional strategies and plans, innovation, technology and cutting edges approaches dominate the public discourse. Technology offers brand value, a differentiator from the rest of the pack.  This leads advocates to constantly cite strategy as the ace in the pack for our activity.  We can deliver this innovation in spades.  Just fund us, give us the resources we need to unbind us from the eternal circle of system updates and getting the basics right.  Let us turn to the two established strategies for implementing organisational change.


Bottom up

We can leverage the bottom up enthusiasm of our champions, who have been piloting and practicing for decades.  Their momentum and enthusiasm will eventually infect the rest of the faculty.  We can take their interventions and scale them to larger cohorts and bigger projects.

But the problem with bottom up is that institutions are a bit like a cow, impossible to tip over (yes, that myth has been dispelled). The pace of change and the fear that a lack of tenure creates means that an intransigent block begins somewhere above the grassroots and steadfastly refuses to engage. Time. Resources. Policy. Custom and Practice.  We all know the reasons, and they are legitimate (in part). They simply do not create a fertile environment for change.


Top down

We can expect strong leadership from the top down.  They wrote the strategy.  They want the university to go in singular direction, to position itself against the competition and deliver on the KPIs. People will listen to them because all we ask for is direction from our leaders.

But the problem with top down is that management and leadership across higher education has become diffused, disaggregated and siloed. An inspired direction from the VC becomes a call to do more with less from the DVC and a set of rolled eyes from the Dean.  We have all heard it before. Another strategic plan, another restructure, what are we this time; faculties or Schools? Departments or Divisions? Keeping your head below the parapet, doing your job to the best of your ability without changing too much is the only way to survive. Once again, this is not a fertile environment for change.  And in both cases, technology becomes the cause célèbre for resistors and the politically savvy.  And from that arises so many myths and misconceptions about technology that have blighted our sector for decades.  You have heard them;


  • Technology is just about the kit, so until you get my data projector working, you can’t do anything more innovative
  • Technology is there to replace me with robo-lecturers to save money
  • Technology is a luxury; good teaching will always be more important
  • Technology and pedagogy are mutually exclusive domains
  • Technology will capture my soul (OK, I made that last one up)


So, what is the solution? The solution is to find a different of making change happen. Top down and bottom up have failed to deliver change in terms of technology at most institutions. I am proposing something new, called ‘Middle Out’.  What is the Middle Out?  If you are a fan of the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ you will be giggling now. And quite rightly so. And if you are not, just google it and get it out the way. And if you do google it, you will see that Barack Obama also used a Middle Out model as part of his argument against the dominant conservative paradigm of trickle down economics, and making the case that real  economic growth comes when you empower the middle class.


In education, middle out represents an opportunity to truly deliver an effective change process by leading change from the middle. If change from the bottom up and top down have failed to create and sustain change (even in the face of the maelstroms of MOOCs, increased global competition and significant and lasting societal change around technology and knowledge) then we need another approach. Each week brings another start up or new player that challenges the dominant paradigms of successful higher education.  From institutional reputation, to certification through to constructed programmes of comprehensive disciplinarity, these ventures argue that modern higher education is not fit for purpose. And with each intervention a little bit of the building blocks of success get chipped away.  Anyone who has been watching what has happened to the edifice that is TAFE NSW in Australia knows what this looks like.  Poor technological decisions, a fundamental and entrenched resistance to change, a political environment more toxic than arsenic and old lace and the unflinching and unrestrained impact of commercial provision have led to questions about whether one of the worlds largest education providers simply shuts down after training millions of adults. The traditional modes of adult education, whether right or wrong, are under significant threat and it is not enough to put our head in the sand and hope it goes away.


So, what is middle out? Middle out is a way of advocating and most importantly delivering strategic change in higher education. It is especially relevant (and it is where I have tested it across three institutions in the UK) to pedagogical change in the digital age. The way in which institutions allow or even encourage entrenched perspectives through spreading resources and support too thinly across multiple programmes creates an environment that can doom initiatives that rely on top down and bottom up to long term failure.  Middle out provides a third way, a different path to achieving the change required to shift the majority of the organisation.  Middle out takes initiative and courage on behalf of the organisation.  It needs advocates who passionately believe the only way to succeed is to build networks of collaboration and common purpose.  It needs senior management committed to rewarding that collaboration (as opposed to simply expecting it through diktat). It requires people to be willing to celebrated and rewarded for doing, achieving, piloting, experimenting and accepting.  At the heart of defining and understanding acceptance is the idea that two complementary forces are at work; the person making the change to be accepted and the person applying criticality as a way of accepting the change.


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Scaled projects that have institutional impact
Connected approaches that cross function, discipline and faculty (CONNECTION)
Stimulating change through high profile, highly visible interventions (STIMULUS)
Projects that make an impact with learners, teachers and the institution (IMPACT)


In middle out, the idea of scale is counter-intuitive to existing lore around change (slowly, slowly or rip the Band-Aid off).  Scale represents an opportunity to test initiatives, effect fundamental shifts of practice and undertake this within an environment where it matters.  Large cohorts, full programmes, first year courses, major policy areas such as assessment or curriculum redesign.  Scale means having enough resources, staff and support to engage in change at a substantial size and scope.  This is not new to learning technology or educational development.  We have all started and then moved VLEs, brought in lecture capture or started any number of institutionally supported systems.  We have reacted to major changes in QA policy or practice.  But these ‘solutions in a box’ have been and gone and they have left little resonant and lasting pedagogical change.

In the digital age, learning and doing have changed and these changes are not easily located in a box. Because the changes are messy, contested and to be fair it’s a little chaotic and under-intellectualised. Scale gives you enough variation and dilution to see if the change or strategy actually works, evaluate it effectively and make the case that if it works at scale, then it will work in smaller instances and at a local level.  Maybe it’s the opposite of trickle down education.  An instance where change is large enough to test something in real time and then have it explode outwards through the institution, from the top to the bottom.



Middle out argues that trans-disciplinarity and inter-disciplinarity can align functional areas to identify commonalities and informed practice.  Effecting change from connection draws on the strengths of disciplines and knowledges and shares them between and across.  One of the criticisms of technological change in education is that much of the insight and transformations reside at a local level within course groups, TEL teams or sometimes individual teachers.  There is often no way to share that expertise. When institutions have a Damascene moment and decide that everyone is going to do something online or that all assessment will be electronic by next week, it is not the people who have whittled away at the coal face for years that are consulted, but new teams flushed with cash and caché that start from scratch, imbuing the early adopters with resentment and cartoonish grumbling.  Middle out aims to at least try and allay that fear by building networks of practice, virtual and physical, by sharing expertise through cross functional projects, whole-of-team interventions and impactful dissemination of practice.  Connection draws together teams from cognate and tangential disciplines to approach change from a multidisciplinary perspective. Connection encourages these teams to take their success and knowledge back to their disciplines and cascade change from within.  In other instances, it is a simply a community of practice sharing common experiences from engaging in change across disciplines. A community of gamers, a community of social media users, or a community of visual researchers.



Middle out is not a model driven by numbers.  Bigger is not always better.  The aspiration of using middle out is to focus is on what can make change happen and then cascade it through the organisation.  So much change dies on the branch.  Restructure after restructure. Initiative after initiative can look like churn rather than burn. Stimulus is a good example of middle out as a strategic approach.  Stimulus argues that change can accelerate through the effervescent effect of a successful and impactful catalyst.  Maybe that is a learning space, a platform, a show and tell, a training course, a set of grants or an award.  For example, a learning space is just a room until it changes the way people use it, and people change the way its used. The room becomes the stimulus for change.  And these changes don’t have to be big. They can be something such as recognition.  At the LSE, we have developed a project called LSE Innovators.  The aim of the Innovators project is to celebrate individual passions and innovations within teaching and learning through case studies and multimedia presentations. They celebrate the staff member as championing innovations that enhance the student learning experience.  They offer real examples of practice that can inspire, inform or shape the practices of others, inside and outside the institution. These have been viewed hundreds of times across the School and the sector and they act as a stimulus to innovation, reducing barriers of fear and resistance. It is the stimulus that changes practice, and if that stimulus is available widely then all the better.



Another good example of middle out a strategic approach to allocating resources is impact.  If only it were a simple equation of money+time+any programme+technology=success.  Not every project is created equal and through a combination of politics, structure, context and luck different projects have different impact.  The trick is working out which projects have the greatest potential impact.  Sometimes it is the smallest project, a simple intervention that you have nurtured and support, invested time and money into and evaluated effectively that explodes into significant change.  It is this project that convinces the important opinion leaders to spread the initiative and scale it.  Maybe it is the persuasive voice of the right salesperson, maybe it is fact they will not be the first person to climb Everest.  Maybe it is simply that the fear of failure is 10% less than before and that takes it below your risk threshold.  Impact cannot be underestimated in a middle out strategy.  And as with the other components of a middle out approach, impact is enhanced by award and reward, evaluation and dissemination, sharing and mentoring.  Impact projects often benefit from the leadership of a guru or figurehead (as do stimulus projects). I met one colleague at a university in the US who argued their most important advocate for change was a long standing science professor, awarded to the hilt, who simply decided one day to record his lectures. Smallest change, but with a massive impact because people said, well, if Bob can do it, why can’t I? He became an advocate telling everyone how this had changed his teaching and had enhanced his students learning.  He critically reflected after watching his videos and changed the way he taught for the better.  Many of his colleagues have followed him.


So there you have it. Four examples of what a middle out change strategy can look like. Does it work? To be honest I could sit here and say ‘yup, worked for me’ and it has.  But the real answer is that each institution has to develop its own unique approach to developing a culture of acceptance and engagement rather than resistance.  Resistance is fine if it shapes the change to be better, more successful or lasting.  Equally, passive acceptance can be just as damaging as unreconstructed resistance.  Middle out is a way to craft a successful change process around pedagogy and technology.  But in the end, we have start with the need to change, a successful plan of what we need to change to and why and finally we need the resources that mean that necessary change happens for the right reasons.  And then we can look at middle out.  We can look at making the changes that we should be making about how we teach, how are students learning and how we can expand the debate from simply making PowerPoint better or Moodle less clunky and into what skills and experiences should we delivering for the next generation of adult learners.