Archive for March, 2018

The future of education

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018



I recently did a really interesting piece of work for the Open Universities Australia looking at key future trends in education. The piece was part of a larger report, which has just been released. Donna Gallagher was the lead on the project. My section focused on four key topics that are likely to shape the education sector in the next five years. The topics were:

  • The future of work and the skills needed.
  • How the needs of new consumers may change education.
  • Whether universities are accommodating the needs of older consumers in terms of their continuing education and the new skills and workflows they need to develop that will be relevant to them professionally and socially.
  • How blockchain technology will impact on the market in terms of transportability of qualifications, how will blockchain impact the market.

The intended audience is academics at all levels within a university and professional university staff such as course coordinators and learning developers. This evidence-based report will enable OUA to develop its portfolio strategy ensuring that it is built on a foundation of knowledge about the broader educational and societal context it operates in.


Future of work

By 2030 automation (robotics and Artificial Intelligence), globalisation and flexibility will change what we do in every job.[1] As technology reduces the need for workers to complete routine, manual tasks they will spend more time focusing on people, solving more strategic problems and thinking creatively. Digital talent platforms[2] have the potential to improve the ways workers and jobs are matched. Many employers say they cannot find enough workers with the skills they need.[3] This is particularly problematic in the IT and STEM industries.


Traditional, linear career trajectories are rapidly becoming antiquated. Digital technologies are creating new opportunities; in terms of digitization of: assets, operations and the workforce. These changes have a number of implications. Firstly, many activities that workers are carrying out today have the potential to be automated. Secondly, digital technologies offer a potential threat but also potential opportunities. Thirdly, we are teaching leaners for an uncertain future to do jobs that don’t even exist today. These raise a number of issues. Firstly, what skills are needed in the future and are universities addressing future requirements? Secondly, how should we design and deliver courses to meet these future needs? We need to move beyond knowledge recall to teaching learners the skills and capabilities they need to be lifelong learners, skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and team work.[5] 

Deloitte has introduced a fully customized, interactive, game-based assessment as part of their application process.[6] The focus is on simulating real-life work scenarios that applicants can expect to encounter at Deloitte. The approach demonstrates that Deloitte recognizes that the next generation is technology savvy and expects more active and personalized learning experiences.



Learners are increasingly demanding, and want personalized and flexible learning opportunities and have been referred to as the I Want What I Want When I Want It (IWWIWWIWI) generation. This raises the question of how universities can ensure that they are meeting these needs. There is a dichotomy in that university education is becoming more expensive and at the same time information is more ubiquitous.[7] Many are arguing that we do not need a degree to acquire the knowledge and creativity required to be successful and gain meaningful employment.

New initiatives are arising to address this such as ‘uncollege’, which aims to help learners identify areas of interest and to accelerate their learning.[9] It is a social movement that aims to change the notion that going to college is the only path to success. Furthermore, we are seeing an unbundling of education.[10] Learners increasingly do not want to do full three-year degrees; they want bite size chunks of learning. They may choose to pay for: i) quality assured learning materials, ii) learning support, iii) a guided learning pathway, or iv) accreditation. Universities need to shift from offering a specific one-time experience to providing lifelong opportunities to enable learners to acquire skills useful across multiple careers.[11] Different learners will have different needs and will therefore choose different components. In addition, learners are increasingly mixing formal educational offering with free materials and courses, available through Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). As a result new forms of recognition of learning and accreditation are emerging, such as digital badges, certificates of participation/completion, and Accreditation of Prior Learning (APEL). The OpenCred project provides a summary of these.[12] It articulates a number of factors associated with non-formal learning (identity verification, supervised assessment, quality assurance, etc.).


Digital apprenticeships are an interesting new development in vocational Higher Education.[13] Degree apprenticeships combine university study and workplace learning to enable apprentices to gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree. An apprentice has full-time employment status rather than student status, and receives at least an apprentice’s minimum wage. Degree apprenticeships are co-designed by employers ensuring that apprentices are equipped with the skills employers need and boost their employment prospects. Degree apprentices do not pay for training costs or student fees and are not eligible for student loans.


Changing ageing

We live in an increasingly ageing society.[14] People are more likely to have multiple careers and hence need to become lifelong learners to adapt to changing circumstances and develop new skills.[15] Furthermore, many choose to retire early, take part-time work, or be self-employed; prioritizing their work/life balance. Lifelong learning is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, educational investments are an economic imperative and on going learning and skills development is essential to surviving economic and technological disruption. Secondly, learning is positive for health. Research has shown, for example, that learning to play a new instrument can offset cognitive decline, and learning difficult new skills in older age is associated with improved memory. Thirdly, being open and curious has profound personal and professional benefits. Fourthly, our capacity for learning is a cornerstone of human flourishing and motivation.[16] Melbourne University have announced an initiative to offer lifelong learning opportunities for professionals across all academic areas for people at all stages of their career. Providing a rationale for the initiative, the Vice Chancellor stated that ‘radical developments in the technology landscape, primarily associated with the rise of the internet and associated digital media and tools, have opened up new possibilities in the provision of, participation in, and access to, education’.[18] A range of delivery models are being used, including campus-based intensive, online-learning and custom modes of delivery.


Transportability of credentials

To support more flexible career pathways and lifelong learning, opportunities for learning need to be available from a variety of formal, informal and non-formal settings. As mentioned earlier digital badges and certificates of participation/completion are increasingly being used to recognize learning in non-formal and informal contexts. Trying to collate learning across these different spaces is challenging. Blockchain education is being heralded by many as the next big thing in education.[19] A blockchain can be described as a digital ledge. Or more succinctly:


The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.[20]


EduCoin was an education-oriented cryptocurrency. It aimed to help students, educators and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates or long approval times. Blockchain startups are exploring things like identity management and smart contracts. In terms of education, one of the benefits of blockchains is the notion of ‘learning is earning’. The ledger tracks everything someone has learned in units called EduBlocks, each represents a number of hours of learning but it is also possible to earn them from individuals or groups.  A key benefit of the blockchain is that it can be used to better manage assessment, credentials and transcripts.

A number of institutions are exploring blockchains, including: the MIT Media Lab, the University of Nicosia, the OU UK and Holberton School.[22] The distributed, decentralised nature of blockchains is perceived as providing opportunities to disrupt traditional products and services, along with the permanence of the blockchain record and the ability to run smart contracts. The advantages of blockchains include: self-sovereignty, trust, transparency/provenance, immutability, disintermediation, and collaboration. Although still in their infancy, the implications include: accelerating the end of paper-based certificates, allowing users to automatically verify the validity of certificates, and give users ownership.


The four topics considered represent some of the key changes and associated challenges that are likely to impact on education in the near future. They demonstrate that we are operating in a complex, changing and dynamic context, with education offerings across a spectrum from free resources and courses through to traditional formal educational offerings. To meet future needs learners need to develop new skills and competences, along with digital and academic skills to become lifelong learners, enabling them to take control of both their chosen learning pathways and collation of accreditation to demonstrate their achievement of learning outcomes. Traditional educational institutions need to radically change to meet these needs. They will need to develop a more flexible and agile portfolio of offerings that are targeted at the specific needs of different learners from the IWWIWWIWI generation through to older learners. They will need to consider what is distinctive about their learner experience in a world of information abundance and free resources and courses.





[2] Connect individuals with work opportunities, examples include LinkedIn and