Digitalisation is connecting people, universities, countries and continents in ways that vastly increase our individual and collective potential. But the same forces have also made the world volatile, complex and uncertain. Digitalisation is a democratising force: we can connect and collaborate with anyone. But digitalisation is also concentrating extraordinary power. Google creates more than a million US dollars for every employee - ten times more than the average American company, showing how technology can create scale without mass, leaving people out of the equation. Digitalisation can make the smallest voice heard everywhere. But it can also squash individuality and cultural uniqueness. Digitalisation can be incredibly empowering: the most influential companies that were created over the past decade all started out with an idea, and they had the product before they had the financial resources and physical infrastructure for delivering that product. But digitalisation can also be incredibly disempowering, when people trade their freedom in exchange for convenience and become reliant on the advice and decisions of algorithms.


For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting; but for those who are insufficiently prepared, it can mean vulnerable and insecure work, and a life without prospects. Our economies are shifting towards regional hubs of production, linked together by global chains of information and goods, but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of knowledge and wealth crucial, and that is intimately tied to the distribution of education opportunities.


On the one hand, education has won the race with technology throughout history. On the other hand, there is no automaticity for that to continue. But while digital technologies and globalisation have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure including our educational institutions, those implications are not predetermined. It is the nature of our collective responses to these disruptions that determines their outcomes – the continuous interplay between the technological frontier and the cultural, social, institutional and economic contexts and agents that we mobilise in response.


The dilemma for education is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are exactly the skills that are also easiest to digitise, automate and outsource. It is likely that future work will pair computer intelligence with humans’ cognitive, social and emotional skills, attitudes and values. It will then be our capacity for innovation, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will enable us to harness the power of artificial intelligence to shape the world for the better. This will enable humans to create new value, which involves processes of creating, making, bringing into being and formulating, and can generate outcomes that are innovative, fresh and original, contributing something of intrinsic positive worth. It suggests entrepreneurialism in the broadest sense – of being ready to try, without being afraid of failing.


The value of teaching as a key differentiator is bound to rise as digitalisation drives forward the unbundling of educational content, delivery and accreditation in higher education. In the digital age, anything that we call your proprietary knowledge and content today is going to be a commodity available to everyone tomorrow. Accreditation still gives universities enormous power to extract monopoly rents, but just think a few years ahead. What will micro-credentialling do to this? Or think of the rapidly improving capacity of employers to see through the degrees of people to what knowledge and skills they actually have. Already now, data from OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills reveal that the skills of people and the degrees they have attained are only fairly weakly correlated.


That leaves the quality of teaching as a highly valuable asset of modern higher education institutions, and it becomes harder for universities to hide poor teaching behind great research. We are living in this digital bazar and anything that is not build for the network age is going to crack apart under its pressure.

While people have different views on the role that digital technology can and should play in universities, we cannot ignore how digital tools have so fundamentally transformed the world outside of school. Everywhere, digital technologies are offering firms new business models and opportunities to enter markets and transform their production processes. No doubt, tchnology can play an important role to provide faculty with learning environments that support 21st-century methods of learning.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is that it not only serves individual learners and educators, but it can build an ecosystem around learning that is predicated on collaboration. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun, recognising that collaborative learning enhances goal orientation, motivation, persistence and the development of effective learning strategies. Similarly, technology can build communities of faculty to share and enrich teaching and research resources and practices, and also to collaborate on professional growth and the institutionalisation of professional practice. These are precisely the approaches that are needed to develop 21st-century learning.



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IAU blog on the role of technology in higher education 

International Association of Universities, UNESCO House, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris cedex 15, France

The International Association of Universities (IAU), created under the auspices of UNESCO in 1950, is a membership-based organisation serving the global higher education community through: expertise & trends analysis, publications & portals, advisory services, peer-to-peer learning, events, global advocacy.

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