Research is one of the central missions of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). In fact, it is widely believed today, through notions such as ‘publish or perish’, that research improves other missions of HEIs such as education, knowledge transfer, and internationalisation. Such four missions have, in turn, been influenced by two major trends in recent decades: globalisation and digitalisation. Globalisation resulted in increased exchange of students, faculty and staff across borders as well as in new foreign-owned HEIs. It was thus primarily related with rising flows of people and capital, facilitated by transportation technology and infrastructure such as low cost aviation and modern airports.


Digitalisation, by contrast, is primarily concerned with knowledge flows across borders, enhanced by information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as personal computers and videoconferencing as well as infrastructure such as the Internet. The impact of digitalisation on HEIs is illustrated by the way research is conducted. Instead of physically searching for a journal article in the shelves of a library, researchers now look for the same article online by digitally browsing webpages in the hope of finding it available for free. The walls of physical space have thus been replaced by those of digital space. The former were geographic, whereas the latter are economic and only when open access is unavailable.


Searching for a journal article, however, is just one of the many tasks researchers can perform digitally. Nowadays, there are even research projects entirely devoted to the listing of the vast amount of digital research tools available online and offline (e.g. Such a listing is in itself an ambitious endeavour since new research software is created daily. An equally relevant question is, therefore, what research tasks are not yet digitalised. One can think of isolated field work, but most likely researchers will carry their smart phones with them; or face-to-face interactions in HEIs, but most likely tablets and the Internet will also attend the meetings.


Such ubiquitous role of ICTs has inspired new concepts such as ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’, depending on whether digital skills were acquired in adulthood or childhood. For HEIs, it means that digital literacy creates new generational gaps, namely between faculty and students, reversing once taken for granted hierarchies of knowledge.


In such a context, it is relevant to ask what digital research design means, in contrast to traditional research design, and what are the implications for HEIs. For the purposes of this paper, digital research design is defined as the process by which research software is used to conceive academic research. Such a definition emphasises the role of software rather than paper to think, and of screens rather than human eyes to interact. A cognitive and relational revolution that disrupts traditional ways of learning, teaching and supervising research in HEIs.


Such a revolution affects primarily doctoral researchers, given their corner stone role in the four missions of HEIs. In particular, they tend to contribute to education by teaching younger generations of students as well as to research by publishing with their supervisors. In addition, they may participate in knowledge transfer projects as well as in international exchange programmes. It is not surprising, therefore, that international higher education organisations such as the European University Association have recently created a Council for Doctoral Education, nor that its 10th Annual Meeting was entitled ‘Digitalisation’. 


At the doctoral level, digital research design increasingly implies the use of online rather offline research tools. Such web-based tools assist doctoral researchers in the design of a research project either as content providers or collaborative platforms. Content providers disseminate theoretical frameworks and related knowledge to help researchers think through a research project. Idea Puzzle and Sage Research Methods Project Planner illustrate this first approach to digital research design. Collaborative platforms, by contrast, are primarily interested in creating opportunities for networking and sharing online. Doctoral Net and Form@doct illustrate this second approach to digital research design.


The adoption of such tools in HEIs can nevertheless be problematic due to conflicting goals. In particular, digital research tools may question the legitimacy of HEIs to be the sole providers of knowledge, especially for academic research design. In this respect, it is important to ensure that such tools complement rather than replace traditional face-to-face classes of research methods and research skills as well as supervision sessions. One possible way to address this issue is to consider them as an opportunity for collective blended learning in HEIs rather than individual e-learning elsewhere.


In sum, digital research design is another reminder that digitalisation is a disruptive revolution which may lead to the creation of new positions in HEIs such as vice-rector for digitalisation, in addition to education, research, knowledge-transfer, and internationalisation. In other words, digitalisation may well be the fifth mission of HEIs.


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IAU blog on the role of technology in higher education 

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