Universities’ mindsets lie at the heart of much of the current digitalisation debate


Nathalie Hyde-Clarke and Owen Kelly report from a symposium on Digitalisation, Future Universities and Society, organised by the Swedish School of Social Science, at the University of Helsinki.

While we might find a certain irony in attending a symposium on the digitalisation of education at one of the world’s leading tertiary institutions and having all information delivered via static PowerPoint, it certainly highlights the reality of the struggle traditional universities share in the face of evolving technology. We should not, therefore, find it surprising that the same university that launched a MOOC on AI that hosted more than 40 000 students in its first month, continues to offer degrees with face-to-face lectures that remain predominantly textbook driven. This seems an international phenomenon, and yet take a look at any university’s policy document and you will almost certainly find some mention of a digitalisation strategy.

Given the extent to which we find it difficult to imagine any access to education or cultural knowledge in Finland without access to the internet, Carl-Gustav Linden (Docent and Manager of Media Lab, University of Helsinki) reasonably asked:

Should we stop talking about digitalisation? Is this like talking about an electrification strategy in 1910?

It does seem that certain digital tools appear to have been incorporated to some extent in all university courses, but how many lecturers truly understand ‘best practice’ – if such a thing exists. Arguably, any such skills and competencies learned now may well become outdated within one or two years.

We do not intend to summarise the discussion at the (very interesting) symposium here, but rather to present some of the key ideas in terms of how we might manifest them in our own education at a University of Applied Sciences. In some instances, Arcada seems in a stronger position to actualise learning potential while using digital tools than a more traditional university. We might attribute this to the existing ‘learning as doing’ philosophy, as well as the relatively short time it takes to revise or introduce new courses tailored to evolving content. Traditional universities typically take two to four years to approve a new curriculum; at Arcada, we can to introduce new courses from year to year.

That said, nobody can guarantee that speedy delivery of content means better use of technology in education. As Carl Heath (Senior Researcher, RISE Interactive in Gothenburg, Sweden) notes:

Technology is not the issue, it is about how we make use of it.

He later clarified the point by acknowledging that if one approaches the technology sector with a social problem (such as access to education), we should expect an outcome that provides a technological solution. Should we therefore expect that the technical sector can resolve our educational concerns? Probably not.

Why then do universities increasingly look at the availability of online tools before plotting their next course of action? Even the term assigned to teaching practices in that space suggest a certain direction of influence: net-pedagogy. Even new disciplines suggest a technological determinism approach: Digital Anthropology; or Computational Social Sciences. What consequences will result from allowing technology to drive educational strategy? Do we truly understand all the implications?

The implications might, for example, include changing how our applicants and students see the world, and their place in it, before we get to discuss the nature of the digital age with them. In a recent online article Drew Austin argues that digital corporations such as Amazon have, in effect, begun to change the nature of the debate we should have with our students before we can even start it. He claims that

Amazon’s mission is to make customer identity more primary than citizenship,

something that any educational strategy should concern itself with.

If he proves even partly correct in this assertion then “where we stand” as people in larger communities, and in society, gets changed dramatically, and the possibility of critical thinking about where we stand gets diminished proportionally. Questions about the future benefits, or lack of benefits, of developments such as artificial intelligence become harder to analyse dispassionately because we have already become accustomed to assuming that the benefits will transpire. From inside the world of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter, the likelihood of critical thinking has already evaporated just as the question “am I hungry?” evaporates when plates of delicious-smelling foods get placed in front of me. Of course I feel hungry: just look at the food. Of course I feel in favour of artificial intelligence: just look at how it helps me shop, chat and attract followers.

As a result, while AI may prove a subject of continuous fascination in the public sphere, universities might better devote their energies to looking more closely at IA (Intelligence Augmentation). Speakers focussed on problem-based learning, project-based learning, reflexive practices and participatory teaching. They agreed that the accumulation of knowledge and cooperation between educational partners would prove imperative. They clearly implied that we should work towards an educational (and social) future that augments face to face interaction with digital tools. We should put aside notions that we can replace teaching with algorithm-led quizzes and learning games, and look at how we can enhance our current practice by introducing digital tools that assist students in the social process of learning.

And in this area Arcada positions itself at the forefront of the field. In the past eighteen months our students have worked with Helsinki City’s Migrant Youth project to devise an online presence for three connected projects. In the Buddyschool project students who have had trouble with maths learn through teaching maths to younger students in after-school clubs. The teaching and learning happens face-to-face but the digital branding, the design-work and websites that our students created underpin the feeling of belonging to a social group, the feeling of contributing to a larger process. In the same way the other two projects, Job’d and MakeSomeNoise, enhance real-life face-to-face activities through an underlying digital support based around user-centred design thinking.

We have also begun to experiment with gamethons and intensive innovation weeks, in which we provide students with the tools to learn by doing through rapid prototyping and the celebration of mistakes. By taking advantage of elements that only become possible using digital tools we can provide brief, challenging experiences that do not feel like studying in a traditional sense, but result in outcomes that indicate that a high level of learning has taken place.

We believe that proceeding this way – augmenting intelligence through the creation of digital and social tools – will deliver the best of the digital while avoiding the perils of seeking to replace social interaction with simulations and AI-driven virtual environments.

Note: This differs from the version originally printed in Arcada’s blog because I have edited it slightly and then translated it into e-prime.

This essay was first published on September 26, 2018