Student learning in a turbulent age

View towards the Mersey

View towards the Royal Liver Building and the Mersey from the 5th floor of the Redmonds Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

This week I have been privileged to hear Professor Ronald Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University, where he was the keynote speaker on the second day of their teaching and learning conference. The title of his talk was:

A University for Learning: considering the present and glimpsing the future.

The theme for the conference as a whole was ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’ so Ron Barnett started his keynote with the question ’What kind of spaces are we trying to open up for students – how much space?’ He told us that the university has been with us for 900 years or longer and will be with us for a very long time. Many of today’s students will be alive in the 22nd century. At the very least we should try to answer questions such as: What is student learning the 21st century? What is it to be a graduate in the 21st century? What might we hope for from our students? What might they want of themselves?

He pointed out that we live in a turbulent environment and that our students are learning in a turbulent age where the higher education mantras of knowledge, skills and employability are no longer adequate. Neither knowledge nor skills may be adequate for tomorrow and we know that there is no guarantee of employability. The world is changing and there is a world beyond work.

He told us that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and that we don’t only have to think in terms of complexity, but of supercomplexity. In the Abstract for his book ‘Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity’, this is discussed as follows:

The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that this was written 15 years ago!

So in this world of ever increasing diversity, differentiation and complexity, is there anything that should bind us together? What aspects of Higher Education are universal across the globe? To answer this question he said we need to ‘reclaim’ the student as persons who can develop the capacity to benefit the world in wise ways. Higher Education should therefore be more than satisfying students as consumers or viewing them in terms of pound notes.

In this world of uncertainty and supercomplexity, Barnett suggested that learning is often ‘scary’, involving becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were. Knowledge and skills are not enough; they require engagement to become a human being of a certain kind. Individuals must continually give of themselves, must continually remake themselves. The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge. Dispositions of

  • A will to learn
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A preparedness to explore
  • A willingness to hold oneself open to experience
  • A determination to keep going forward

Barnett then suggested that these dispositions should bind us across institutions. These are the dispositions that would help students to develop the qualities required for a world of challenge, qualities that will enable them to become global citizens who will help to bring about a better world.

He also suggested that to do this we have to understand ourselves as human beings in relation to the world and for this we need an ‘ecological curriculum’ which promotes being in the world, sensitivity to its global/local, personal/professional, systems/persons interconnectedness, engagement in its sustainability and improvement, active empathy and caring for the world.

Ron Barnett spoke with a passion that it is not possible to convey in a blog post and it was this passion that made the keynote so effective and, judging by the tweets and the comments I overheard in the following coffee break, inspired so many in the audience.

At the end of the keynote a question raised was whether these ideas were ‘pie in the sky’. These were not the words of the questioner, but the words that Ron Barnett used in responding to the question. On reflection about the keynote, despite finding it the highlight of the conference and well worth travelling to Liverpool for, I am left with a sense that we were treated to a passionate exploration of a glimpse into the future of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Higher Education, but it’s the ‘how’ that remains open.

We were left with the question of how an ecological curriculum which contains spaces for critical self-reflection, spaces for engagement with self, society and the world, spaces for multidisciplinary demanding experiences, can be introduced into a 21st century Higher Education institution. How will these ideas impact on Higher Education? How will they be realised in practice?

Higher Education in 2025

On November 3rd Frances Bell and I will be at Southampton University’s ILIaD Inaugural Conference. Here is the programme and this is the information about the conference provided by the University.

The University of Southampton’s Vision 2020 states that over the next few years we will “revolutionise education”.  The new Institute for Learning Innovation and Development (ILIaD) has been created to lead on this ambition and help shape the University’s future educational approach. But what would this look like? What will we need to do to make this happen? Will students be happy with the changes? How will research shape our educational offer?

The ILIaD inaugural conference will give staff, students and external participants the opportunity to answer these questions and showcase and celebrate educational innovations. It will provide participants with the opportunity to discover the many ways to engage with ILIaD, and to network with others interested in educational innovation.

As part of this day Frances and I will give a short presentation in which we hope to stimulate thinking about some aspects of the Future of Higher Education. For this presentation we have drawn on recent reports on the topic and in particular on an article by Bryan Alexander (2014) in which he suggests discussing a variety of possible scenarios to support thinking about the future of Higher Education.

Frances and I will each present a short scenario and then open the floor for discussion.

For Frances’ scenario see her blog post – An Interactive Exploration of the Near Future i Educational Technologies.

The wonderful Fiona Harvey, who we met at an ALTMOOCSIG event at UCL earlier in the year, will support the discussion by graphically recording comments and feedback. For my scenario I will ask participants to imagine themselves as middle-aged academics in 2025. Here is a video that I have created to present the scenario.

Scenario Transcript – Jenny’s scenario 291014 (With many thanks to Mariana Funes for her helpful feedback on this video)

In creating this scenario, I drew on Bryan Alexander’s article (2014) and the reports listed in the references below, which I very briefly summarized for myself as follows. It goes without saying that there could be many alternative scenarios.

The Purpose of Education

Higher education is a great national asset. Its contribution to the economic and social well being of the nation is of vital importance. Its research pushes back the frontiers of human knowledge and is the foundation of human progress. Its teaching educates and skills the nation for a knowledge-dominated age. It gives graduates both personal and intellectual fulfillment. Working with business, it powers the economy, and its graduates are crucial to the public services. And wide access to higher education makes for a more enlightened and socially just society.

(“The Future of Higher Education,” January 2003, In: Alexander, B. (2010). The Future of Higher Education : Beyond the Campus. EDUCAUSE Review® Online – January).

This quote from a government white paper was written in 2003, more than 10 years ago, yet is still relevant – or is it?

Is Higher Education a great national asset? Is its contribution to the economic and social well-being of the nation of vital importance?

In his 2010 paper Bryan Alexander wrote that the purpose of education is to educate people for success in life; in their workplace, their communities and their personal lives. This purpose is increasingly challenged by high rates of youth unemployment, an ageing population and increasing social conflict around the world.

The Ivory Tower

Academics have long held a privileged position in society which has granted them academic freedom and academic identity, through the high esteem in which research has been held and the way in which research has been published and disseminated. Despite moves to make research and the research process more ‘open’, it remains slow to publish and disseminate, held up by ethics committees and peer review procedures which are in need of urgent change. In current times, with the fast pace of change, research findings can be obsolete before they are even published. Similarly slow Higher Education accreditation procedures stifle curriculum innovation.

Current Trends in Higher Education

Higher Education is assailed by change on all sides.

The Institution

Rising costs and decreasing resources have led to institutions seeking new business models in a search for improved efficiency and productivity. Economic social forces and sustainability are increasingly recognized as drivers of change. There is similarly a recognised need for greater diversity of educational provision and a move towards openness, transparency and collaboration. Innovation and entrepreneurship are seen to be essential to meet the demands of an expanding global market and growing student numbers.


The use of digital data is changing scholarly practices. Research is more conversational and out in the open, e.g. on blogs and is being crowd sourced. There is an ever increasing number of open journals, and open peer review has also been explored.

Teaching and Learning

The boundaries around HE institutions are becoming more permeable and modes of teaching and learning more flexible, with more online or blended learning provision. Students coming into HE have grown up in a connected, networked world with limitless access to open resources. In response, teaching is more and more focusing on the use of social media for interaction and problem solving. Classrooms are becoming multi-media learning spaces, which emphasise creativity and project-based work, digital storytelling, gaming and mobile learning. From the teachers’ perspective, increased work online results in more visible data and related accountability. The same can be said for the institution itself.


Technological advances continue apace and include: new hardware and software, ubiquitous computing, tablets, mobile learning devices, cloud computing and 3D printing. Gaming is increasingly being used for teaching and learning, as are augmented reality and sensor technologies. Collaboration tools and the use of OERs are becoming commonplace and big data analysis is receiving increasing interest and funding. Identity management and the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) is also a focus of attention.

Ways forward

There is increasing pressure on the Ivory Tower to innovate through:

  • interdisciplinary research and innovation
  • international collaboration and mobilizing collective intelligence
  • designing new business models which focus on students and innovative teaching and learning
  • cross institutional alliances and collaborative entrepreneurship.

Innovation and scenario planning are therefore essential.


Alexander, B. (2010). The Future of Higher Education : Beyond the Campus. EDUCAUSE Review® Online (ISSN 1945-709X), (January).

Alexander, B. (2014). Higher Education in 2024: Glimpsing the Future. EDUCAUSE Review® Online (ISSN 1945-709X). Retrieved from

Blass, E., & Hayward, P. (2014). Innovation in higher education; will there be a role for “the academe/university” in 2025? European Journal of Futures Research, 2(1), 41

Brennan, J., Ryan, S., Ranga, M., Broek, S., Durazzi, N., & Kamphuis, B. (2014). Study on innovation in higher education : final report Study on Innovation in Higher Education Executive Summary.

Downes, S. (2014). Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World. Seminar presentation delivered to Network EDFE Seminar Series, London School of Economics. Retrieved from:

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., & Cummins, M. (2013). Horizon report: 2013 higher education edition. Retrieved from

See also the work of the University of Northampton which I wrote about in my last post: Shaping the Future of Higher Education – standing still is not an option

Shaping the Future of Higher Education – standing still is not an option

Next week I will be attending a day conference about the future of Higher Education at Southampton University, so this month’s Teaching and Learning Conversation, hosted by Chrissi Nerantzi, caught my attention.

The webinar was run by Prof Ale Armellini, Professor of Learning and Teaching in HE, University of Northampton. The title of the session was Opportunities for Shaping the Future of HE in a Challenging Climate.

This was an enjoyable and thought provoking session, in which Ale Armellini shared the work that is being done at the University of Northampton to prepare for the future in Higher Education – or at least to try and anticipate the changes that might need to be made.

Universities are being hit by disruptive waves. They have to compete for students, compete to offer cheaper alternatives and compete in offering online delivery. Physical space is at a premium, there is global competition for increasing numbers of diverse and demanding students, and there is a critical need to change the way they do business.

Northampton University has recognized that students want a personalized learning environment and that to meet increasing student demands they will have to raise the bar. For them this means increasing excellence and innovation, inspirational teaching and transformational learning practices and open practice. It also means exceeding student expectation regardless of their mode of study, and providing CPD and recognition for staff in relation to innovation and change. Currently the balance of different students at Northampton looks like this.

Northampton 2014

A possible scenario for 2020 might be this

Northampton 2020

There will need to be a balance between campus-based provision and online provision, but Universities will need to think carefully about how to add value to the campus experience.

Northampton is currently thinking about it in two ways:

  1. The balance between face-to-face learning and online learning will change as undergraduates go through their 3 year degree courses as depicted in the following chart:

Changes from Year 1 to Year 3

But Northampton is also thinking about how to change the learning experience and their current thinking is that lectures will become a thing of the past, as depicted in this slide.

Prospective changes at Northampton

Unfortunately this was only a one-hour lunchtime webinar. We could have continued the discussion for much longer and it was clear that Prof Armellini had plenty more he could have shared with us.

Chrissi Nerantzi has already posted the recording of the webinar at  . It will be a valuable resource.

Thanks to Chrissi and Prof Ale Armellini for a most interesting session, which was particularly timely for my own work.