The Report: What does the future of HE look like?

Technology could make higher education open to everyone; at whatever stage of life. James Higgins considers how HE could be a student’s partner for life


If there is one thing history demonstrates, it is that we are often unprepared to deal with the chain of events we trigger. Since the industrial revolution, mechanisation has displaced traditional labour forms but, as the recent BBC drama Years and Years has noted, that revolution will no longer be confined to the primary and secondary sectors. As technology rids the economy of one job, it has (to date at least) created another. 

HEIs, like many other knowledge-based enterprises, will soon have to embrace the new world education technology will enable. In her interview in May’s issue of University Business (UB), Open University vice-chancellor Mary Kellett said: “I think a lot of other providers won’t do that pedagogical research into best practice and how you can deliver the best offering in an online environment. The idea of putting a PDF up on a website is not distance learning, not in our terms.” Kellett’s approach highlights the significance and monumental shifts the sector must anticipate. 

It won’t just be notetaking, essay writing and seminar reading that will change, technology could dislodge many of our preconceptions of higher education. 

A recent OU report entitled The Future of Learning 2070: Imagine What’s Next follows Kellett’s imaginings to their logical conclusion. Will 700,000 18-year-olds need to decamp en masse to our university towns and cities? Will students enrol for three years or a lifetime? Will students demand more support in finding a job and career from their educational provider? And will students even be applying to the 50,000-plus undergraduate courses currently available? Or will they take a modular, tailored approach to their post-18 education? 

Change in technology? 

The OU makes four predictions for edtech in the next 50 years which take in to account developments in artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and brain-to-brain learning. 

1) AI coaching could help coach students, and support teachers, by understanding how individuals study, learn and live. 

2) Full-sensory virtual learning could replace face-to-face learning allowing students and educators to connect virtually as avatars. It could allow people to coach one another from around the world.

3) Brain-to-brain learning could allow information (even complex and abstract concepts) to be transmitted between educator and student. 

4) Virtual reality 2.0 will become so immersive that kinaesthetic learning will become possible, with computers stimulating all five senses.

The notion that we could almost telepathically instruct students in half a century may seem farfetched, but social learning digital platforms already offer study to millions of subscribers

The notion that we could almost telepathically instruct students in half a century may seem farfetched, but if only half of these predictions are realised, academics can wave goodbye to lecturer theatres and seminar rooms. But, in the here and now, OU’s FutureLearn platform is offering a social learning digital platform that now offers study to millions of subscribers. Nigel Smith, FutureLearn’s managing director for courses and learning, predicts that the global market and international demand for world-class education will force HEIs to seriously consider wholescale shifts to a digital sphere. “Tertiary education enrolment rates globally are expected to rise rapidly by 14 million new students every year from now until 2030. This would require 13 new universities to be built every week, 700 each year, each serving 20,000 students if they are all going to be educated face-to-face. That’s not going to happen. The education sector needs to think: are we going to deny these learners, or are we going to offer them the education they deserve via an online platform?”

The point many sceptics make, is that technology depersonalises the learning process. While a “PDF on a website” might allow distance study, it will never usurp face-to-face interaction. Matt Jenner, FutureLearn’s lead on learner experience, disagrees: “FutureLearn is built around the concept of ‘social learning’. This is based on the theory that all learning involves social interaction – when we learn we converse with educators, other learners and ourselves. That’s why online discussion between learners is built into every course. And this makes for very effective learning at scale, with learners engaging not just with experts, but also with each other, building connections and discovering different perspectives.

“Anyone taking a FutureLearn course will quickly see that social interaction is encouraged, with discussions at every step of the experience. Educators will encourage discussion with leading questions and thought-provoking prompts. And learners don’t have to post comments to be social, there’s a lot of benefit from reading, liking and following as well.”

The Canvas platform is a project with similar ambitions to revolutionise the way students approach their lifelong learning. The chief executive of parent company Instructure, Dan Goldsmith, thinks technology can unlock new ways to lever success. “We have an initiative called DIG that uses date-gathering and machine learning. We use data and algorithms for predictive modelling. One of those predictive algorithms allows us to predict in excess of 80% what a student’s outcome will be before they’ve even taken the course.” The individual learner profile allows students to be given a statistical break down of the areas of the course they are likely to find more challenging and suggestions of what they could do to affect that result. 

“We now have the capability to provide learners with e-portfolios. The concept of an e-portfolio is a student can store a longitudinal view and experience and artefacts from their learning. We then have data that shows how they learn and how they anchor in. From there we can have a meaningful impact on their success with a breakdown of years of data,” Goldsmith says. 

Change in culture?

This technology lays the groundwork for a very different student lifecycle. Goldsmith says Canvas aims to support learning from the first day at school to the last day of work – this ‘cradle to grave’ model may demand institutions offer students more than three years of support. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive, Office for Students said in interview for UB April 2019: “From a university perspective, there’s a really interesting question about how far their support should extend. I think what we’re observing – increasingly – is that universities want to maintain that relationship. That’s partly because they feel an obligation to do that. They’re not just going to wash their hands of students that they’ve supported for however many years, but also it’s an acknowledgement that increasingly the reskilling and upskilling agenda is important.” 

The recent independent government report on post-18 education (the Augar review) signals that the Department for Education (DfE) has cottoned on to this transformation. The individual lifelong learning loan and additional funding for further education over higher education are part of this change in culture. Chris Rothwell, Microsoft UK director of education, made a similar point in his interview in UB April 2019. “Apprenticeships a decade ago meant learning to be a plumber or a car mechanic or a hairdresser or one of those vocational things. Apprenticeships now are blended learning and working. People are doing that at all ages – people are doing ‘returnships’, people are coming back from caring for elderly relatives or from having children, as well as ‘I’m 16 I don’t really want to carry on a formal education, but I want to keep on learning’. So that apprenticeship rise is proving popular with employees and employers and apprentices because it’s blending that hunger and ambition with work.” 

Higher education may be less less subject based. Phenomenon learning is already being tried and tested in primary schools in Finland

Goldsmith agrees that the future for earn-and-learn and constant reskilling is bright. “I think it is good to rethink what universities’ mission is. One of the interesting trends I see now is an understanding of not only the value of a degree but the discipline. None of us would go to see a physician who didn’t have professional qualifications, but I would absolutely hire a software engineer who had the right skills regardless of whether they had a degree. 

“There is a spectrum of other disciplines and job classes that I think will be reinvented in the coming years around the concept of academic experience versus an apprenticeship learning experience. I think there will also be an emphasis on additional experiences which will prepare those that do still go to higher education better for the workforce. Educational will be boiled down into more digestible chunks and stackable credentials over time.” Learners may not only abandon degrees in favour of earn-and-learn programmes, but their future careers (and the needs of employers) may weigh more heavily on their choices. Higher education may not only be less campus based, but less subject based as well. Phenomenon learning is already being tried and tested in primary schools in Finland. In the future, journalists, for example, may no longer opt for an English degree but select modules like statistics, creative writing and critical thinking. 


As Smith estimates, the global demand for education will increase as technology continues to sweep away jobs that are easy to digitise. If universities can become the bedrock of students’ learning across their lifetime, consider the potential HEIs have to eradicate generational inequality. If universities can become open to a greater number of students, consider the potential providers have to eradicate socio-economic inequality. Technology will change the way we learn. But the pace of change will also demand we rethink the way we learn. A three-year degree may no longer provide a graduate with a lifetime’s education. Learning is not like inoculation – it is going to require top-ups.  

You might also like: Want help planning for your institution’s future? HESA and Jisc’s new Workforce Explorer will transform your strategic staff planning

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