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.

A Strategic Reflection on Digitalisation in Higher Education – Webinar Recordings

Over the past fortnight the NIDL team was pleased to contribute to two webinars offering strategic reflections on the increasing digitalisation of Higher Education. This two-part webinar series was part of the Digi-HE project being led by the European Universities Association (EUA). The project aims to promote critical self-reflection in supporting institutions to develop their capacity and strategic approaches to digitally enhanced models of teaching and learning.

In the next phase of this project, a number of Thematic Peer Groups (TPGs) will get underway shortly involving around 30 different higher education institutions across Europe. We were delighted to have some many institution al applicants for this phase of the project. The TPGs will enable participants at each institution to engage in regular lively discussions and share their experiences relevant to the chosen theme related to digitalisation in the context of teaching and learning. The selected themes include:

  • Curriculum and Assessment
  • Strategy and Organisational Culture
  • Strategic and International Partnerships

We look forward to meeting up with a diverse group of participants in this next phase of the project. However, before then the following recordings kindly made available by EUA may be of interest to those who were unable to join our recent webinar series.

In reverse order, the second webinar which took place on Friday 5th February (recording above) discussed the findings of our report which presents the results of a survey of digital learning and teaching in European higher education institutions.

One of the key takeaways from the survey in terms of supporting teaching with new digital technologies is the value of an environment that fosters rich professional conversations with and between colleagues.

The first webinar back on January 26th (recording below) explored the question, what does digital education look like from an institution-wide perspective when successfully implemented in a mature way? This webinar coincided with the launch of another Digi-HE project report focusing on the development of a high performance digital education ecosystem. The report provides advice and guidance for higher education institutions wishing to undertake self-assessment of digital learning and teaching using selected instruments reviewed as part of this study.

if you have any questions about the Digital-HE project or anything arising from the two webinars, then please do not hesitate to contact us. The project team meets regularly and we would be happy to provide further advice concerning the range of self-assessment tools reviewed for fostering a culture of strategic reflection and quality enhancement.