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.

Professor George Veletsianos Awarded Fellowship: Join a Transatlantic Conversation on the Future of Universities

We are pleased to announce that Professor George Veletsianos from Royal Roads University, Canada will be hosted by the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University (DCU) in March. This virtual academic exchange is possible thanks to the support of the Ireland Canada University Foundation who have awarded Professor Veletsianos a prestigious D’Arcy McGee Beacon Fellowship. George holds the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and the Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Flexible Learning. 

Professor George Veletsianos awarded D’Arcy McGee Beacon Fellowship

As part of his Fellowship, Professor Veletsianos will feature in a free online Masterclass on  Higher Education 4.0: Certifying Your Future starting on March 8th and will be giving an invited presentation on the changing nature of higher education in the digital-era. Details of this presentation appear below. 

Title: Learners and Universities in the 21st Century – Future-ready?


Drawing upon his significant experience as an educational researcher, Dr. Veletsianos will offer a presentation on how social and technological trends, such as automation, are disrupting and transforming the nature of skills development for 21st century learners, and in particular, how these changes are reflected in educational practices and systems. Students in higher education today face many challenges, from a changing world of work, a sustainability crisis, and core questions of equity and participation which require bold, socially-sustainable solutions.

Dr. Veletsianos will question common assumptions, such as that technological change inherently leads to wider participation in education, and invite us to consider how “…flexible education…can support better—more equitable, just, accessible, empowering, imaginative—educational futures” (Veletsianos & Holden, 2020).

This presentation will be conducted on the week commencing the 8th of March, 2020, and will consist of a 30-minute presentation, and a 15 minute Q+A session, and will be embedded in DCU’s online learning masterclass, Higher Education 4.0: Certifying your Future. Participants are strongly encouraged to consider the following questions as reflective prompts before the session: 

  • What does flexible learning mean to you? 
  • What kinds of learning models do we need to support today’s learners?
  • What types of skills do you feel that students should be developing in Higher Education, to become 21st century learners, and global citizens? 
  • From whom is greater flexibility required? 
  • How can we build more socially-just systems and ways of teaching and learning? 

Participants need to register for this event, which will be an opportunity to hear one of the leading researchers in digital educational practice speak, and give voice to both local, and global perspectives on these critical issues. 


The Ireland Canada University Foundation is also thanked for the generous support through the D’Arcy McGee Beacon fellowship’s mission, which…

“… provides light, guidance and hope in challenging times.”

The foundation was established to provide a “positive contribution to society, through the promotion of such shared values, which it does through the organisation of scholarly exchange and related events, and the support of academic and research networks linking both countries.”. For more information regarding the foundation’s work, please visit the ICUF website.

Background reading 

Veletsianos, G., Houlden, S. (2020). Radical Flexibility and Relationality as Responses to Education in Times of Crisis. Postdigit Sci Educ 2, 849–862. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00196-3

11th March, 17:00 (GMT)

Where: Zoom: 

Register in advance for this meeting. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting

You can also register here for our online masterclass, Higher Education 4.0: Certifying Your Future, starting on March 8th.