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Navigating the future


We live in very uncertain times with major global geopolitical, socio-economic and technical changes, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Europe and elsewhere, the current cost of living crisis, migration challenges, the growing climate crisis and the AI revolution.  In relation to online and distance education there are also new forms of competition, and disruption on a wide range of levels affecting education systems in ways not seen before. What are the opportunities and threats and what might the ‘new normal’ or the one after that look like for education providers? 

The Covid-19 pandemic in particular has transformed the way digital technology and online education and communications are being adopted not just as temporary solutions but as part of innovative new approaches to both on-campus and open and distance education and some of the current debate about the potential impact of AI envisages more momentous changes.

While no-one has all the answers to these questions, a recent project by the University of London Centre for Online and Distance Learning has leveraged expertise across different roles in the sector to synthesise different perspectives in order to inform future planning for the medium to longer term.

The ‘Navigating the Future’ project used a series of in person and online workshops with invited experts to consider the current higher education context and to identify important drivers of change. Foresight research methodologies were deployed to develop and explore imaginary scenarios for the future of education systems over a 10 year time frame. These exercises were informed by an extensive literature review covering the emergence and adoption of new technology; the adaptation of technology into teaching tools; learner practices and acceptance of technology; higher education sector trends; wider learning industry trends; digital Inequalities; sustainability and ethics.

While this exercise identified  a number of important themes including changing demographics, geopolitical factors and ongoing and increasing inequalities, two major themes emerged particularly strongly  – the potential impacts of AI and of climate change.  The scenario narratives that emerged flesh out four different combinations of these two themes, identifying potential outcomes for institutions, citizens, geopolitics and the environment and considering the their implications for different examples of learners. 

It is clear from this foresight study that we are in a period of great uncertainty. The geopolitical context is extremely volatile, and there are increasing levels of concern over the potential impact of AI not only on the education sector, but on many aspects of our lives. Alongside these factors, climate change, changing demographics and ever growing social and economic inequalities are among the many drivers that will impact the world in the coming years. Education that is well designed and delivered and that reflects clear values is of key importance in influencing and shaping the future. The report concludes with suggestions for tools that can assist with developing appropriate organisational strategies.

Some of these foresight and soft systems problem solving methodologies will be deployed in a forthcoming workshop at the ALT-C 2023 conference. In this workshop  participants will engage creatively and imaginatively with the scenarios based around AI and climate change to identify relevant, feasible and desirable strategies for maximising sustainability and equity of educational opportunities within their own institutions.

Register for the Navigating the Future workshop at ALT-C 2023 on 7th September.