Technology in higher education: opportunities for bridging divides

Universities in all regions of the world are providing online access to millions of students that would not have been included in quality higher education if left without the online opportunity.  Examples are University of Maryland University College, USA, UNISA in South Africa, Open University, UK, Universitas Terbukas, Indonesia, to mention a few.  Some started as online universities, like Open University Catalunya, Spain, the first online university in 1995. In the US, almost 40% of students take at least one course online. 


In Brazil, most federal universities collaborate under the umbrella of the ministry for Health, to provide continued education for almost 3 million health professionals. This would not be possible without an online approach.  One of the main findings in a European funded project, IDEAL (Impact of Distance Education on Adult Learning), coordinated by ICDE (UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, 2015), was that online education as the main mode of distance education fulfilled most adult learners’ requirements for more flexible learning opportunities.


We are at the beginning of a new wave of innovation, a wave that so far has brought many new opportunities to higher education. A credo for this wave is “what can be digitized will be digitized”. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Cognitive Technologies (CT) are high profiled technologies that are rapidly emerging at the marketplace. In times where technology seems to be everywhere and in increasing speed to market, I find it relevant to remind of the often cited statement from one of the pioneers in technology enhanced learning, Tony Bates: "Good teaching may overcome a poor choice of technology but technology will never save bad teaching".


So, we are back to basics, what are the divides needed to be bridged, what are the problems to be solved?

Major changes seem to happen in the population aiming for higher education. Professor Mark Brown, Dublin City University (DCU) noted previously that, in Ireland, “the demand from part-time mature students for more online and flexible learning pathways continues to increase as people look to earn as they learn." In 2017, DCU alone accepted a record number of new registrations for online degree programmes. In my home country, Norway, more than 25 % of the students are above 30.

We can already observe dramatic consequences from digital disruptions, automatization and job destructions. New competencies on higher education level are needed for the new jobs. New skills are needed to adapt the workforce to the massive innovation taking place.


Job-destruction and creation arising from automation and early AI require a fundamental change in lifelong learning. Higher education will have to respond to new and massive demands for continuing, informal, non-formal and formal educational needs to help transforming society and transforming lives. Online and technology enhanced provision will often be the best solution.


Estimates show that future student enrolment is set to more than double from now to 2030. This need requires taking the best from online and open in combination with campuses. The future is “blended”. Open and Open Education Resources (OER) came together with the massification and democratization of higher education. Open and digitalisation makes a new vision reachable: For the first time in human history it is possible to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all (Sustainable Development Goal 4, Education 2030).


The Education 2030 Framework for Action seeks to push for action in utilising these opportunities: “A well-established, properly-regulated tertiary education system supported by technology, Open Educational Resources (OERs) and distance education modalities can increase access, equity, quality and relevance, and narrow the gap between what is taught at tertiary education institutions and what economies and societies demand.” (Target 3, point 43.)


My focus is how technology enhanced solutions and OER can facilitate access to inclusive and equitable quality higher education and lifelong learning. However, other areas also have needs where technology enhanced solutions can help. To mention some of those ICDE is working on:

  • Personalisation and quality enhancement: Learning analytics and big data.

  • Employability: ePortfolio, Alternative Digital Credentialing.

  • Internationalisation: Collaborative Online International Learning, COIL.

Online, open, flexible and technology enhanced solutions are not a quick fix for massive educational needs or failures of the educational system.  Success requires committed strategies on all levels, long term investments and promotion of a culture for quality and a culture for innovation, in particular social innovation.  When more than 100 leaders from education met in UNESCO 25 May 2017, the main conclusion was:

“SDG4, Education 2030 will not be met unless stakeholders, drawing on humanistic values, collaborate to lead the digital transformation of higher education - making online, open, flexible, and technology enhanced learning a part of the solution.” This conclusion is even more valid today.


For those entering the area, I can recommend the free, online open textbook by Tony Bates:  “Teaching in a digital age”.

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IAU blog on the role of technology in higher education 

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