Looking Back, Looking Forward – “Learners and Universities in the 21st Century – Future-ready?”

On March 11th, 2021, the NIDL was truly delighted to host Prof. George Veletsianos, as he shared an address entitled “Learners and Universities in the 21st Century – Future Ready?’.

The address was the first in a wider series of discussions with Prof. Veletsianos, the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and the Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Flexible Learning at Royal Roads University. Earlier in the year, our application was successful for George to be awarded a prestigious Irish Canada University Association (ICUF) D’Arcy McGee Beacon Scholarship.

This first talk was timed to coincide with Higher Education 4.0: Certifying your Future, an online learning masterclass delivered by the NIDL team, in close collaboration with colleagues at the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU). This discussion is now available on the ICUF’s Youtube channel, where you can watch an array of useful webinars on the strong links between Ireland and Canada across an array of academic contexts and subjects.

What’s “new” about the “new normal”? 

Prof. Veletsianos grounded his discussion in the key tensions that face educational systems in the 21st century, and brought a valuable longer-term perspective. While COVID-19 is often presented as a temporary, radical disruption of a pre-existing “normal”, from which we will recover, he notes that the pandemic has in fact “accelerated and amplified pre-existing trends and pressures”, rather than being in any sense a clear break.

Examples of these trends and challenges include: 

  • Wealth inequality, 
  • Technological advances which promote some form of economic growth but risk mass unemployment, 
  • Climate catastrophes, 
  • Financial concerns, such as declining revenues in HE institutions, 
  • Trends towards digitalisation. 

Prof. Veletsianos argues that COVID has instead brought these challenges to a head with greater speed, bringing them to public awareness in a manner which might not have been clear pre-pandemic. Building upon this argument, he notes that online learning is often viewed as a panacea, or an inherent means of promoting “flexible” learning (which can occur “anytime, from anywhere, at any pace”) – this promise being viewed as both good, and neutral, a promise of online communication, to move towards new models of learning. 

Towards radical flexibility 

Presenting a hypothetical learner (“Jordan”) who is working and has a family, Prof. Veletsianos asks us to question – can Jordan truly study anywhere and at anytime? Sanguinely, he notes: 

The challenges facing Jordan aren’t just technological, and those challenges can’t solely be solved by technology. 

Relatedly, he argues that while student responsibility, that learners are expected to direct their own studies, is laudable, it can also prove problematic, when failing to account for the fact that “different people have different levels of control and support over how they manage their life”. A cogent example presented is social expectations of gender, particularly in the division of labour. While self-identified men and women might (theoretically) be equally likely to avail of flexible learning opportunities, a woman who is a mother may be expected to cook and care for her children, where no such social expectation exists of a father. Thus, flexibility is “neither neutral, nor universal” (a point explored further in Veletsianos et al., 2021). 

In highlighting this problem, Prof. Veletsianos argues for an alternative, Radical Flexibility, that is “relative and relational, resisting placing onus solely on the individual”. Such flexibility entails trusting students, where the emotional and relational nature of teaching and learning is highlighted. 

“We ought to do better”

Prof. Veletsianos closed with an important call, that we must seek better alternatives, and work together to consider what possibilities exist. He notes that: 

“We ought to do better, because the future isn’t a given, the future is up to us to design and to make better, and we know that our pre-pandemic reality wasn’t the best that we could have; it was inequitable, right? It had all sorts of problems. I believe we can do better than that and I believe we are at the point in time where we have the opportunity to do better than that, and we should take advantage of it.

What does doing better mean? This is something that can only become clear through participation, collaboration, and an awareness that all learners are not “just” learners, but also caregivers, friends, explorers, dreamers, and many more. Prof. Veletsianos’ challenge is to think bigger, and was an inspiring and uplifting message for the many participants, who engaged in a lively Q and A session with the speaker following the main event.

Further opportunities to hear Prof. Veletsianos speak

Two further events will be hosted with Prof. Veletsianos as part of this ICUF-sponsored series of talks: 

  • On the 17th of June, George will participate in a further NIDL panel discussion , in which he will focus on the student experience drawing upon his recently published book, “Learning Online: The Student Experience” and stories and lessons from the pandemic. This discussion will also contribute to the new DigiTEL Pro Strategic Partnership where DCU is leading the student research and readiness development work package.

Both events will be open for registration shortly, and we encourage you to keep an eye on the NIDL’s twitter feed for further details and information. We also encourage you to explore Prof. Veletsianos’ work through his website, both written in a manner accessible to lay readers, and asking many of the key questions which face 21st century education systems, including expanding access for all.