Is the Future of Education Inevitably Going to be Digital First?


Is it wise to assume that technology should be the basis for future educational growth and development? How is it possible for us to envisage a future for education that is based on the inequitable distribution of social capital that is reflected in the uneven access to technology? How is it possible to foresee the impact of future social upheavals resulting from pandemics, climate change or cataclysms? We may be able to provide alternative channels of content delivery, but can we use technology to substitute a learning experience?

In 1996 two publications came to notice. One was entitled the ‘Search for the Virtual Class’ (Tiffin & Rajasingham, 1995) and the second called ‘Mega-universities and knowledge media: Technology strategies for higher education’ (Daniel, 1996). Both advocated for global policymakers to embrace the power of educational technologies to both individualise and globalise opportunity.

There are strong arguments for educational policymakers to embrace technology in developed economies, economies in transition and developing economies. Developed economies are increasingly reliant of technology sectors and service sector roles, the focus as much on the lifelong learner who will experience more than one career in adulthood (Susskind & Susskind, 2017). This requires easily accessible ‘just-in-time’ updating of skills which is often promised by ‘e-learning solutions’, ‘bite-sized’ learning and micro-credentials. The digitisation of education intends to allow anytime-anywhere education. The more visionary institutions are seeking to become more flexible, allowing students to construct courses for academic credit without following a prescribed curriculum, to enrol on-demand, to be assessed when they deem themselves able. This, in theory, allows the learner to customise their journey, personalise their experience and to take autonomy over their education. Those of us working in these countries are likely to find that our accreditation and validation systems, our technology platforms and the skills of leaders are the largest obstacles in realising that vision.

For economies in transition, the challenges are often poorly adjusted technology infrastructures which lag, poorly trained teachers and faculty, and a lack of coherent government planning and management. Some of these countries are wealthy but have very unevenly distributed social capital. In these countries, the digital divide is a problem, sometimes with expensive solutions. Curiously, developing economies can find themselves at an advantage. Without the need to establish complicated and expensive copper-wire or fibre-optic infrastructures they have adopted mobile telecommunications solutions, designed learning for hand-held devices, leap-frogging technologies (Goldemberg, 2011) and put these to good work in providing richer learning materials directly into their classrooms (West & Chew, 2014)./p>

The is an argument that ‘digital-first’ makes sense when there is no technological infrastructure. No one would expect to see West African countries replace blackboards, first with whiteboards, then interactive whiteboards, then establish a wired internet infrastructure in order to adopt virtual learning environments. The challenge of accessing quality learning materials may see students going straight from blackboards to hand-held devices.

For those of us in developed economies with deeply engrained teaching practices, embedded in the evolutionary nature of technology, it is harder to rationalise the ‘digital-first’ argument. The fact that technology has not disrupted education in the way that it has other economic sectors may say something more profound about human nature. Humans are quintessentially social animals; they build social capital in association with others; they define themselves as they are, and who they aspire to be, with reference to others, either individually or collectively. As useful as many educational technologies are, they do not substitute for the human interactive learning experience.

We have yet to see Tiffin and Rajasingham’s envisaged haptic virtual-reality suited teenager riding her virtual hoverbike to a Niagara Falls field trip. Neither have we witnessed Daniel’s ‘new mega-university’ opening every week leveraging the power of knowledge media. Is this because technology has failed to keep up with the pace of our ambitions? Is it because the technology infrastructure simply does not support the institutional growth required to satisfy global demand?”

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson


  • Daniel, J. (1996). Mega-universities and knowledge media: Technology strategies for higher education. Kogan Page.
  • Goldemberg, J. (2011). Technological leapfrogging in the developing world. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 12(1), 135–142.
  • Susskind, R., & Susskind, D. (2017). The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (Reprint edition). OUP Oxford.
  • Tiffin, J., & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. Routledge.
  • West, M., & Chew, H. E. (2014). Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries. UNESCO.