Perspectives on Digital: Change isn’t coming, it’s here and it’s permanent

I have done two keynotes recently where I have been asked to talk about the future, to look ahead at the horizon and suggest what it might look like when we reach it. Quite frankly, I would be an idiot to try and do that beyond what we know already, and even more so if I tried to guess within the time allotted for doing a keynote!  But one thing I am sure about: educators are looking to the future to prepare and vendors who are talking to educators about the future are often selling something (possibly their version of the future).

My purpose for both keynotes was to talk about staff, to find a way to highlight how focus on their own development, there own use of digital, would give them both the capacity and capability to deal with future technology, and how it is used in Higher Education.

Two themes that I did want to come through were ubiquity and blurring.


So even though I didn’t want to talk too much about the future, I was asked to think about it, and it would have been disingenuous not to say something. So I made points about the ubiquity of technology, and how costs of technology are falling and that in higher education it is unusual to have students who have no devices. But at the same time we need to check our privilege: the ubiquity of technology is one that we see the through lens of a university, it is not necessarily reflected across society, and some students will be excluded.

The other ubiquity is that of change. Change is a constant across most sectors now, both in the private and public sectors. It is essential that staff are able to respond to to change, to have the skills and attributes to adapt to new situations, and also model that behavior for students as they embark on their life after university.


The other key point about the future I wanted to make was around blurring. We have seen a lot written about the impact of technology on work-life balance, how the boundaries of our lives are blurring. In education we also see the boundaries of, for example, formal and informal learning spaces blurring, where more recognition of the role of social media in learning and teaching (and student support generally) is becoming more established. But the way in which staff and students are present in the physical and digital is also blurring. As a colleague said to me recently as we said goodbye for what will be several months, “see you in twitter or skype”. The perception of digital spaces is for some people moving toward a sense of place, a sense of being present at spatial or temporal distance.

Culture Change

When I worked in the disability and technology field, running workshops for staff, I used to talk about changing the culture of universities. The chair of my steering group for that work, a Deputy Vice Chancellor, sat me down one day and said “universities have been working for hundreds of years, and we work here because we like the culture. I like the culture and who are to tell me to change.” So, understandably, I am cautious when it comes to the term “Culture Change”. More than that, when an external comes in and say you all need to change your culture, it seem arrogant. But when we are talking about technology and practice, it is hard to argue that there hasn’t been a culture change, and indeed that change is still occurring, but that change is coming from within, from the institution’s own staff and students. And that is the key thing to remember about digital; digital is about people and people are culture

“Digital is about People”

This is the area of my work that I enjoy most. I may have business card in my pocket that makes reference to technology and digital, and people often look at that and say “oh, you work with computers?” Well, yes, and so does everyone else in the sector. I work with people. Digital is all about people. And the thing that is changing fastest in the education sector when we talk about technology, is behaviours.

Change isn’t coming to the sector, it’s here, and change will be a constant as long as we have technology and people.  


  1. Hi Lawrie, while you were speaking about the above, I was speaking about complexity. I sense a certain synergy.

    “Central to complexity is the notion of the complex adaptive system, and educational systems – whether at the macro-level of national systems or at the micro-level of student-tutor interaction – exhibit many features of complex adaptive systems.

    Those systems are dynamical and emergent. They’re unpredictable. They cannot be reduced to simple parts, which relate to each other in very predictable ways. And they operate in external environments that are also unpredictable and subject to sometimes rapid change.

    – Such systems tend to ‘self-organise’ around changes, and small changes can have big impacts: the butterfly effect. So when we start tinkering – with the best possible motives, of course – at programme review time, with such things as module content, learning outcomes, assessment criteria etc., we may have little or no idea of the possible consequences.
    -Very similar conditions can produce very dissimilar outcomes (“I don’t think I’ve taught anything different, but last year’s group were SO much better!”)
    -If something works once there is no guarantee that it will work in the same way a second time (well that puts paid in one stroke to the notion of ‘best practice’!)
    -Strategic regularity and conformity naturally break down to local irregularity and diversity. What my colleague Murray Saunders at Lancaster calls ‘the implementation staircase’. By the time an educational (or any) policy or strategy has worked its way down from the top of the building down to street level, it has inevitably changed, been interpreted, adapted re-interpreted, etc. Leaving those at the top level wondering why it’s not working!
    – Effects are not straightforward continuous functions of causes; (there is no “line of determination” between what we teach and what our students actually learn)
    – Social life, education and learning take place through the interactions of participants with their environments (however defined, e.g. interpersonal, social, intrapersonal, physical, material, intellectual, emotional) in ways which cannot be controlled in an experiment…or managed in the name of operational efficiency and effectiveness
    – Outcomes are largely unpredictable and long-term prediction is impossible.

    If we accept the above (and you may not) then it has some profound implications for the manner in which we might approach the design and provision of our programmes of learning. For example, if we accept that we are operating within a complex adaptive system then it becomes clear that writing things like “on completion of this module the student will be able to (a, b, c,….etc.)” is really creating a hostage to unpredictability. But as that is the form of language that is expected and accepted by the validation and regulatory frameworks that we work within, that is what we write – I’ve written them as well – that is the game we play.

    Thankfully, there are instances where, often through a combination of will, confidence, serendipity, political nous and sheer bloody-mindedness an innovative, adventurous pedagogic proposal manages to break through the ‘norm’, and in so doing introduces some disequilibrium into the system, and disturbs it…which is a good thing…and I’ll try and explain why.

    The evolution of a complex adaptive system is fostered by disequilibrium and feedback…or creative disruption. Equilibrium is a condition in which all acting influences are cancelled by others, resulting in a stable, balanced, or unchanging system i.e. a system in stasis. This might lead one to believe that disequilibrium is a negative attribute. However, as Margaret Wheatley points out, “the search for organizational equilibrium is a sure path to institutional death, a road to zero trafficked by fearful people”

    To stay viable, open systems need to keep themselves off-balance, maintaining themselves in a state of non-equilibrium. A successful complex adaptive system frequently creates or deliberately seeks out feedback and information in the form of perturbances or disturbances that might threaten its stability and knock it off balance, thus producing the disequilibrium that is necessary for growth.

    Which brings us to the edge of chaos!”

  2. Wow! Thank you Lawrie Phipps and Paul Kleiman! I find these posts so helpful. So how do we cope in a world that wants measurable outcomes? And can your accurate sense of unpredictabilities get incorporated into new approaches?

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