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Thoughts on the future of digital education

Digital education is here and it keeps on coming

In this blog post I want to examine how I feel about the future of digital education, based on excerpts (italicised) from the Near Future Teaching project, which can be read in full here.

First up is unbundling.

‘Unbundling’ refers to the disaggregation of higher education into its component parts (for example the separation of teaching from research; the outsourcing of student support and assessment; the breaking down of academic work into para-academic service roles and so on).

University degrees could also be broken down into courses that students take as and when they can, just like in open universities. My initial thoughts are more of concern than excitement. Human beings should be the driving force of education, not market economics. Unbundling as a word sounds like splitting up, making something more fragmented, less of a whole. Would quality of education suffer? Surely links within a university institution should be nurtured rather than separated. On the other hand, large institutions can be cumbersome and having the freedom to source services from outside the university may improve their quality. The cynic in me thinks that money (rather than better quality) might do the talking if that were the case.


Often, such approaches are welcomed as offering the potential for efficiency gains within the sector…some see automation of teaching in terms of economic and industrial growth, while others see it as a dangerous incursion of for-profit interests into the core, humanistic values of education as a public good.

Earlier I came across the concept of human-led and tech-led worlds. Automation sounds like an example of this clash. Is technology being prioritised over human beings due to efficiency thinking? Or can technology free the teacher to spend more time on human interaction, thus making improved efficiency a positive side effect rather than the aim? I like to think that automation is in fact a neutral term and the way it is used by people will determine its ability to “do good” in the world.


Europe, the UK, and the US are said to be facing a ‘collapse of trust in institutions’ (government, media, business and NGOs) (Edelman 2018), aligned to a reduction in the perceived social value of universities made manifest through extensive public questioning of the economic worth of a degree, levels of vice-chancellor pay and calls for greater ‘relevance’ and for greater public accountability.

It’s interesting how money seems to to be a theme in all these excerpts. Should education be a public good (like in Finland where I come from)? Would this improve trust in the system? Does education need to justify its cost to the student? By the way, this is a common topic of conversation at the vet school where I teach. Students who pay high fees for their veterinary education often want to get their money’s worth from their degree, in exchange for getting a huge student debt to pay. My feeling is that having the trust of students makes room for things like engagement, fulfilment, and better motivation and learning outcomes. Disillusionment is at the other end of the spectrum, which is also unfortunately common in the veterinary profession. Institutions should consider maintaining trust as part of their core values when looking at the reasons for making their education more digital.

In conclusion, I can see that it is easy to make digital education into a political weapon, like any proposed change to an education system. Perhaps it is better to see digital education as a tool that is free of values and let the human beings behind the screen use their values to influence the final learning outcomes.


3 replies to “Thoughts on the future of digital education”

  1. mbreines says:

    Hi Emilia,
    Great to see your (critical) reflections here. I think your scepticism is very valid and we need to think about what we are doing. That is probably not limited to the digital aspect of education, but maybe the digital aspects make some of the marketization processes more visible? However, we need perspectives like yours to keep thinking about how the tools we use are entangled in broader processes. In response to your conclusion, how can we ensure that humans influence the learning outcomes in digital education. Or in other words, how do we avoid being limited by the online platforms and tools that are available?
    Best wishes

    1. Emilia Porter says:

      Hi Markus, thanks for your comments. I think that’s quite a hard question but I’ll give it a go.
      “How can we ensure that humans influence the learning outcomes in digital education? Or in other words, how do we avoid being limited by the online platforms and tools that are available?”
      I think there are two levels to this question: the individual teacher and the institution. The individual teacher can keep an open mind to the possibilities of digital education and stay up-to-date with their technology skills. This will allow them to make better use of the technology available and perhaps push them to develop their teaching methods where they might not have done so otherwise. Teachers are creative people and with an open mind will find a way around most problems!
      The institution can try to make the online teaching experience as streamlined as possible by making available fit-for-purpose platforms and tools. I suppose giving its staff too much freedom in terms of what tools to use could make the student experience more fragmented (e.g. if one platform is used for one course and a different platform for another). The institution’s plans to update technology should be based on the feedback of its staff and students, rather than imposed in a top-down manner where no consultation of staff and student needs has taken place. One would hope that by making decisions about digital education that are good for all, trust in the institution will improve and it will be able to attract the best staff and the best students.
      Like you said, these points about institutional decision-making and teacher attitude could probably be applied to face-to-face education as well, so I guess Digital Education as a tool cannot necessarily be blamed for poorer teaching and learning outcomes.

  2. tayyab says:

    thanks for information

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