The Digitalisation of Universities: UFN Meeting Part 1

FernUni Hagen

I participated in the second meeting of the Universities of the Future Network (UFN) held at FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany, 11-13 July 2017. The theme for the meeting was “The Digitalization of the Universities of the Future”. The meeting consisted of 6 key themes that were discussed and debated. This post will look at the first three themes, while a second post will look at the last three themes. The facilitators of each theme were asked to discuss the key trends and issues as well as provide suggestions for policy and strategy development.

Theme 1: Towards a Policy of Access: Digitalisation for All

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education focuses on expanding access to post-secondary and university education and lifelong learning, on the basis of inclusive and equitable practices. Thus, there is a need to balance equitable access on a national and global scale and the improvement of access, scale and the quality of teaching and learning in a digital age.

Looking back, access to print materials with the invention of the printing press meant the book provided a means of education that had mainly been done by oral lecture before. Now the internet and other digital technologies provide a similar means to change education provision. Some of the associated changes are open educational practices, reform of accreditation and quality assurance and the development of teacher professional competencies. While digital education can expand access, developing countries still battle with high illiteracy rates, low participation rates in higher education and massive capacity development needs.

Policies are needed to respond to national economic needs and social development goals. Digital education requires resources to be sustainable.

Policy Channels and Strategies for Change

  • Institutional strategies to support systems and practices (widen participation to those who were traditionally excluded, access to technology and connectivity, support mechanisms for different students, relevant financial and human resources for digital education, recognition of prior learning)
  • Open education policies for the transformation of teaching and learning (vision of open education to inform and support open educational practices)
  • Redefining the changing roles of institutions (competencies for digital education, sustainable business models, industry partnerships, accreditation and quality assurance)
  • Creation and optimisation of open educational content and skills (development and production of OER, development of lifelong learning skills and digital literacy skills)


Theme 2: Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities

The use of technology in teaching and learning varies depending on the methods of education provision: Fully online, Blended or Face-to-face. In reality, however, this distinction is blurred as most education provision is blended. Another development linked to digital teaching and learning is the open education movement. This includes Open Educational Resources (OER) such as open textbooks and MOOCs.  There are several challenges and opportunities for digital teaching and learning:

Challenges for digital teaching and learning:

  • Technical infrastructure development and maintenance
  • Costs in the development and use of digital processes and procedures
  • Digital literacy skills of teachers and students
  • Lack of incentives (rewards and recognition) for innovative teaching methods
  • Changing roles of educators and support staff and other stakeholders

Opportunities for digital teaching and learning:

  • Reaching new target groups
  • Promotion of student flexibility and mobility
  • Improvements in teaching and learning quality
  • Potential cost-savings for institutions and students
  • Increasing collaboration between institutions
  • Facilitate the co-creation of knowledge

Policy Channels and Strategies for Change

  • Strategy and change processes
  • Prioritisation of digital literacy skills
  • Expanding infrastructures for digital teaching and learning practices
  • Funding for developing and distributing digital learning resources
  • Frameworks for digital teaching (teaching load, data protection and copyright issues)
  • Investing in support structures
  • Collaborative projects

Theme 3: Redefining Knowledge in a Digital Age: Internet and Social Media

The internet and social media have had a massive effect on knowledge creation and dissemination in the digital age. Key drivers in the changes of knowledge production and recognition are:

  • Decentralisation and disintermediation:  The internet has diversified means of knowledge production and information dissemination and universities are no longer regarded as the main providers of expertise.
  • Massiveness and growing demand: Universities are facing unprecedented demand for higher education. Learning is also offered in flexible ways.
  • New forms of knowledge production: knowledge production is more distributed and collaborative. There is also unprecedented growth in information online. The rise of artificial intelligence systems will open a new frontier for knowledge production and application.
  • New forms of knowledge recognition: In addition to traditional forms of recognition (diplomas and certificates), new forms of recognition include digital badges and portfolios. Alternative forms of assessing the impacts of academic research have also emerged.

Policy Channels and Strategies for Change

  • Discovery: Building original and significant research, generating new and relevant knowledge (strategies: open data policies, building Artificial Intelligence infrastructure, digital literacy policies and data management plans)
  • Integration: Build connections across disciplines, integrate new discoveries and promote use of knowledge across disciplines and communities (strategies: connection between disciplines, promote digital scholarship, technology integration models, implement new computational approaches to explore large data sets)
  • Application: Knowledge needs to offer different forms of helping society and professions to address problems and the dissemination of results to different stakeholders (strategies: build new tools to assess and validate knowledge in formal and informal settings, explore mixed reality technologies, such as augmented or virtual reality, development of Open Education Resources (OERs))
  • Teaching and learning: optimising connections between learning and practices and enriching pedagogical approaches through research and dissemination of good practices.  (strategies: developing less formal learning cultures and community support, development of alternative credentialing mechanisms and university ranking systems, design of new assessment systems)



International Workshop and Round Table for Ed Tech Journal Editors

As a pre-conference workshop for the EDEN Conference in Barcelona this week, UOC hosted an international workshop for editors of journals in educational technology and distance learning. The event was sponsored by “La Caixa” bank. About 18 editors, representing 13 journals, participated in the morning workshop. See a list here of participating journals. The journals ranged from well-established journals to newer journals, and included open access and traditionally published journals. The morning session represented a first of sorts as many of the editors had not been involved in such a workshop before.

There were 4 main topics for debate and discussion. It soon became apparent that despite attempts to separate out the topics, all of them are very closely interrelated. Here is my summary of some of the discussion:

1. Journal Editing and Quality Assurance

  • Quality assurance can be a very broad topic and needs to include considerations for the stakeholders involved, the key quality indicators and how these are measured.
  • There is an issue between maintaining rates of acceptance and mentorship for authors needing support before being ready to publish.
  • Peer reviewers need to be looked after to manage their workloads.
  • The quality of reviewers can be improved through pairing experienced and less experienced reviewers, reviewer mentorship programmes and sharing the feedback from reviewers and the editor.
  • There was some discussion of double-blind and single-blind review as the literature shows little difference in quality.
  • More interest is starting to be shown in access to the data used in research and not just the results, but the data is often not easily accessible.

2. Author Services

  • Journals provide a variety of author services such as tracking, publicity, statistics validation, citation validation and plagiarism checking.
  • However often these services are resource intensive and journals need to identify which services authors really need and which are nice to have.
  • Services for newer authors or junior researchers:
    • Author mentorship or the use of a “Critical friend” is helpful to authors when reviewers deem papers worthy to be published but need significant reworking – this does require time by volunteer reviewers
    • Pressure to publish for PhD students – one way to help reduce the need for all students to publish is to make students part of the reviewing team and partner with an experienced reviewer, thus gaining valuable experience and expertise.
    • Many authors require help or understanding of ethics issues and intellectual property issues – journals can provide education in this regard
    • As an example, I thought the following list discussed by the editors of why articles can be rejected before getting to peer review stage:
      • Most rejected as articles do not align with the scope of the journal
      • Articles are too long and/or do not meet journal publishing requirements
      • A few are rejected for plagiarism
      • A few are rejected for articles offering nothing “novel” or value adding to the field

3. Journal Dissemination, Impact and Metrics

  • There needs to be a wider understanding of what is meant by impact (not just citations, but impact on educational practice).
  • But academic recognition is often reliant on formal citation indexes only.
  • Understanding indices, how they are calculated and who is included is not always clear.
  • All metrics have flaws – need to use a variety of metrics and not rely on a single one.
  • Traditional indices can be used together with alternative metrics, including social networking.

4. Business Models and Sustainability

  • There are a wide variety of business models in place and some that are still being established. These include commercial publishers, university publishers, support from a society or association and others.
  • There is space in the market for commercial and open publishing and some format in-between.
  • Although there is still scope for publishing printed formats, there is a clear trend towards online publishing.
  • To be sustainable often requires a change in mindset.
  • The understanding of open access and the implications is not yet clear for all publishers and authors.

Workshop Outcomes

Although the workshop report still needs to be finalised, the following possible outcomes were discussed:

  • Formation of a mailing list for editors to share information and network.
  • Cooperation of editors working together on similar research/projects.
  • Regular meetings to be held annually or biennially that focus on issues facing editors.
  • Consideration of how to use the influence of the group of editors.

An afternoon round table was open to the public and featured a debate and discussion by 4 of the journal editors. This was streamed live and the recording of the session should soon be available. To follow the twitter stream of the event, use the hashtag #elearningjournals.

Thank you to all the participating editors and to UOC for hosting a unique event. I look forward to reading the final report of the event.