Are these our digital futures for learning?

Tertiary Education Futures Blogs
Publication Date
09/09/2021
Author(s)
Dr Jen Ross
A person wearing glasses and looking at the camera
Dr Jen Ross

Two years ago, few of us would have said the future would look like this. For many teachers in tertiary education, the unexpected future we are living in is one that has seen major shifts in the modes and technologies we use to engage with our students, colleagues, and organisations. But here we are, and some of the changes we’ve experienced look set to persist. Is this, then, the digital future for learning?

I teach and research digital education topics, and also about learning futures. My own teaching has always been mostly online, my students on the MSc Digital Education spread across the world and remain embedded in their own communities, organisations, and cultures as they study ‘at a distance’. From this perspective, I’ve had many conversations with others whose teaching was predominantly campus-based and seen how they’ve grappled with the implications of the transition to teaching at least partly online – and back again – during a global pandemic.

The idea that the online classroom – which might include a reflective discussion forum thread, a thoughtful online tutorial with or without cameras on, or a sparky Twitter exchange – could be a space of greater exchange and intimacy than a socially distanced physical space is one that might equally come as a surprise.

Jen Ross

One thing I would observe is that there seem to be strong correlations for a lot of people between the experiences of the past 18 months (characterised by urgency, stress, and the major negative impacts of the pandemic) and their expectations of what online learning can or should be. On one hand, this is not surprising, especially where this is the first or most significant experience people have had of teaching online. On the other hand, it might make the job of thinking creatively and critically about digital futures harder, as difficulties are attributed to being online. Charles Hodges and colleagues made some good points about why we might want to make a careful distinction between online teaching and ‘emergency remote teaching’.

Another observation is that ‘distance’ is not – and never was – a stable or unchanging category. My colleagues and I, in our Manifesto for Teaching Online, have been making the argument for over a decade that ‘distance is a positive principle’ but also that distance is not just about space – it’s also about politics, time, and emotion. The challenges of the pandemic have brought this into very sharp focus. For example, the concept of ‘social distance’ as a measure of care and safety would have been rather strange to most people before this pandemic. The idea that the online classroom – which might include a reflective discussion forum thread, a thoughtful online tutorial with or without cameras on, or a sparky Twitter exchange – could be a space of greater exchange and intimacy than a socially distanced physical space is one that might equally come as a surprise.

In the future, we will probably benefit from making fewer assumptions about the campus as the ‘default’, and giving careful thought to the kinds of experiences we’re trying to provide for students, and where and how those experiences might be able to take place in inclusive and energising ways. I’m lucky to be involved with developing the MSc in Education Futures, one of a suite of brand new Masters programmes for the Edinburgh Futures Institute, where a ‘fusion’ mode of teaching will be the default. Planning for a fusion teaching approach pre-dates the pandemic, but the urgency for this kind of reimagining has become impossible to ignore. So, we go forward.

Many of us in the digital education field have been asked for predictions, analysis, and critiques of what has been happening, and there has been some excellent work done in tackling this. At the same time, it may still be too soon, and the pathways out of this global crisis are too uncertain, to feel confident about the futures we need or will want. The experiences of education during the pandemic have given some of our old certainties a shakeup, and there is potential here to consider anew how our values and purposes as educators can be realised. I hope we’ll have the space and time to really engage with each other about the educational experiences that might be possible, and those that might need to be imagined differently.


Dr Jen Ross is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, co-director of the Centre for Research in Digital Education, and Education Futures fellow at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. She researches, teaches, and publishes on online and open education, digital cultural heritage engagement, and digital cultures and futures.

This blog was published as part of our Tertiary Education Futures project

Discover the Tertiary Education Futures project