Digital innovation in higher education: opening up the learning landscape


New ways of engaging with higher education online are emerging. Some of these new educational initiatives known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), led by major universities such as Stanford, Harvard or MIT are generating a great potential for ‘democratising’ education and making a global free public good (millions of learners online in some cases). MOOCs and other emerging open educational practices are becoming a good test bed for education to experiment new pedagogical models; providing attractive economies of scale as well as new forms of assessing and certificating the knowledge and skills acquired by learners.

What next

The value of education is changing significantly. Yesterday, the access to Higher Education (HE) was a privilege for only a small sector of the society. The access to HE today is increasingly understood as a basic right (between 1990 and 2009 its demand increased in 160% according to World Economic Forum). Tomorrow the access to HE will become ‘universal’ (over 50% of the population). The expansion of new technology-enabled learning practices and the rapid global penetration of mobile devices (over 96%) will bring new opportunities (particularly for the less privileged), redefining the value of traditional academic degrees.


  1. New business modes: students registers are not charged but those who seek credentials certification are charged a “small fee”.
  2. MOOCs offer a transformative force providing flexible opportunities for learning as well as methods for skills and knowledge recognition.
  3. MOOCs are criticised for adopting a knowledge transmission model generating very high rates of student’s dropout.
  • Analysis

Despite the new learning opportunities available it’s important to understand that the educational landscape is changing quickly. MOOCs and other emerging educational practices shouldn’t be seeing as proxies of ‘fast food education’, but as platforms to rethink the landscape of human capital development. As follows, key trends to better understand this transformation.

  • Commodification of contents:

In the past, the access to knowledge was a distinct advantage (contents were limited by the physical characteristics of the objects: books, maps, tapes, etc.). Today the expansion of digital technologies makes cheaper, easier and incredibly fast the access to high quality contents. Today there is a vast variety of “open educational resources” and other free of charge educational contents (i.e. free University lectures on iTunes U, YouTube or TED ED; open access academic publications, etc.). It doesn’t mean that contents are not relevant anymore but their value lay in the capability of connecting, adapting and contextualizing these resources in order to address new problems. Traditional education institutions lost their former “monopoly” of providing high quality contents. For instance, Google Books or BBC – Learning can supply more learning contents than anybody can possibly consume.

  • Redefinition of learning environment:

Digital technologies enable a “context collapse”, where boundaries between work and leisure are increasingly intertwined. New ways of managing time and space offer opportunities for continuous learning, as well as for up skilling. New technology-enhanced learning initiatives as well as novel lifelong learning opportunities are providing alternatives for learning outside of traditional education institutions. Today the network is the learning. Rather than going to a physical space to complete a training programme, people’s capability of creating and connecting old and new knowledge in whatever space is what really adds value. It doesn’t mean that traditional and face-to-face training programs are not relevant, but these new learning experiences are now on the top of formal training practices. This transition is what marks the difference between the past and the future of learning.

  • Flexible skills and knowledge certification mechanisms:

The conditions for skills accreditation are also changing. There is a growing interest for multiple accreditations and progressive professional mobility. The European Commission 2020 framework for Education and Training has stated the need for more flexible methods for recognising skills and knowledge. Here are two avenues to consider: 1) Formal qualification of informal learning, allowing graduates to make additional information about their wider achievements available to employers. 2) Social (peers-based) recognition of uncertified competences (i.e. skills passports, competency based credentials, portfolios).

  • Redefinition of what means to be expert:

In a world of information abundance nobody can really claim that knows everything about anything. People’s capability to continuously update their knowledge becomes the core value of human capital. That also applies to the constant development and transference of the “soft skills” (i.e. self-direction, contextual learning, collaboration, critical-thinking, etc.). Today’s economy is increasingly influence by the intensive exchange of talents (i.e. brain drain, skills shortage, professional mobility, etc.) however the idea of being a knowledgeable person is not limited to the possession of an academic degree. Developing the capability of learning to learn becomes an essential element in the professional’s life.

Moving in a new environment where the expertise is distributed opens endless possibilities of democratization but also new challenges. HE institutions need to be able to: 1) Explore new strategies for knowledge capture and dissemination. The channels adopted should be hybrid combining traditional media, digital and social media with face-to-face experiences. 2) Develop partnerships with other organizations and sectors (i.e. industry; government, mass media, etc.) of society to make the generated knowledge better known, discussed, or transformed in different contexts. 3) Incorporate new professional profiles and skills – like the knowledge broker – and new practices – like knowledge translation – to expand and feed the knowledge network. Ignoring the current phase of changes can be an opportunity for the ‘early adopters’ and a potential challenge for those institutions and communities, which are more change-resistant.

Posted in aprendizaje colaborativo on May 11, 2015

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