Digitalisation – a good servant? Three future options

The saying “a good servant but a bad master” is certainly true of many technologies in our minds. Digitalisation in learning has been elevated to a role that will have a radical impact on how and where people will learn and teach in the future. The

The saying “a good servant but a bad master” is certainly true of many technologies in our minds. Digitalisation in learning has been elevated to a role that will have a radical impact on how and where people will learn and teach in the future. The significance of digitalisation seems to be gaining such proportions that it is necessary to remind ourselves of what digitalisation serves and how.

The University of Oulu is actively involved in Finland’s Digivision 2030 project. We are one of the 38 partner organisations in a national transformation, with a timetable well over the strategy and legislative periods and a budget of tens of millions. Together, we are committed to increasing the opportunities for learners to choose learning content more freely, improve digital pedagogy, harmonise our IT tools, platforms and services as well as lead with information more effectively.

Barrel of digital hopes and surprising trends

Expectations of what the results of the project will change and how and to where this will lead seem to increase as planning is moving towards implementation. For example, a platform for a common offering of continuous learning and a division of labour between the universities in producing courses are highlighted. Many of the initiatives seem to have quite fundamental effects on the financing of activities, space requirements, learning habits, campus structure and functions, student housing, curricula and education (self) services – just to mention a few things that come to mind.

We have rolled up our sleeves to make the University of Oulu’s will on digitalisation shine brighter. We have identified significant phenomena in our operating environment that are linked to the utilisation of digitalisation. One is the acceleration of the obsolescence of higher education competence, which means that faster regeneration of competence is needed in the future. Secondly, the demographic change is driving us to attract learners further from the south, while an international offering may in some fields become a genuine threat to our competitiveness. Similarly, the utilisation of learning analytics shows great potential, as does the new partnership thinking. Developments in the platform economy may surprise us, and changes can be seen in the needs of learners, the degrees of freedom in movement and participation and the desire to commit oneself to a community. Counting on political trends and funding is an increasingly greater risk.

Three scenarios for future preparedness

In order to prepare for the future, we identified three different scenarios. The first is entitled ‘Growth from digital educational platforms’. The scenario is built on the basis that, in the 2030s, the learner will be able to participate in learning in the ways they want to, the role of having a presence will change and growth in the number of degrees will also be attainable from abroad through digital platforms. State resources will be sufficient to ensure that half of the age group will graduate from institutes of higher education and the division of labour between the universities will be effective and efficient. The current level of funding will continue and competition within Finland will focus on flexibility and profiling ability.

An alternative direction is provided by the scenario ‘International competitiveness from face-to-face learning and reputation’. Although studying will no longer be fixed to a place, blended learning will be valued and there will be a clear demand for face-to-face education in Oulu. The platforms will not have assumed such a position of power that they would guide the selection of a higher education institute. Competition for students will be intense both in Finland and internationally. Efficiency and especially reputation will play a key role, which will also be reflected in the increased number of accreditations, feedback and good employment opportunities. The skills and recognition of teachers who provide face-to-face teaching will also be reflected in the reputation.

In the third option, ‘Artificial intelligence and technology break down learning needs, competence renewal and financing models’. In this scenario, the technological development of artificial intelligence and augmented reality will be so fast in the areas that are important to us that it will also have a critical impact on the nature of face-to-face teaching, operating methods, services and learning as a whole. As far as funding is concerned, the world will have pushed us to look for alternative sources – taxpayers will no longer be able to cover all the costs of education, especially in terms of continuous learning. Money matters more in this scenario.

Community behind the choices

Measures have already been taken, for example, the speedy equipping of facilities is already underway to enable the much-vaunted hybrid teaching. Much hard work goes in to enabling digital pedagogy by preparing instructions and disseminating good practices.

However, we must look to the future and seek alternatives – no one has been very successful in forecasting so far, but preparedness will be rewarded. The most important thing is to make choices and to act accordingly. What always makes it challenging for universities is that the commitment of the whole community to the choices does not come about without thorough discussions and personal involvement. There is also no guarantee of satisfaction with the decisions. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is great wisdom in preparedness as long as we understand why phenomena such as digitalisation must not be promoted from its rank as a servant.

Tapio Koivu
Vice Rector for Education, University of Oulu