Image: Applift

Where’s the disruption?

I don’t normally get excited about talk of digital technology disrupting higher education, especially when that talk originates from south of the Canadian border.

MOOCs are an interesting and useful development, but they have settled into a niche for continuing education and corporate training rather than disrupting the current system.

There have been many claims for how artificial intelligence is going to revolutionise higher education. However, at the moment there’s not a lot of AI applications out there that go much beyond pretty standard learning analytics and quantitative assessment and feedback. (If you know of any more interesting applications of AI in HE send in an article for the special edition on AI in HE in the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.)

However, digital technologies are already disrupting both the economy and society, and public higher education in Canada is ripe for disruption, not directly but in insidious ways.

As we shall see in the second post in this series, Canadian universities and colleges are mostly absorbing digital technologies into their regular teaching, rather than using it to disrupt the system. But that is just my point. We need to start rethinking the curriculum, rethinking the way we teach, and how we organise our institutions, to take full advantage of what digital technologies can offer.

More importantly, we need to do this to prepare our students better for a digital society and most important of all, if our institutions don’t change, they will eventually be undermined by large multinational online corporations that can do more cheaply and effectively many of the things that universities and colleges are presently doing. The loss to society though if this happens would be immense. 

What Canadian post-secondary institutions need to do to avoid negative disruption or even extinction is to make themselves fit for purpose in a digital age. This is what I want to discuss over the next three posts

You can see a presentation on this topic that I made at CNIE 2019 here.

External developments

Defeating technological determinism

The main threat comes from the semi-monopolistic power of large multinational Internet-based companies such as Amazon, Alphabet/Google, Apple, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, etc. and new Internet-based companies that have yet to emerge. These are disrupting both the economy and society and have the potential to disrupt Canadian post-secondary education if it does not adapt quickly enough.

Although these multinational Internet-based organizations offer many benefits, they also result in many negative consequences. On the economic side, they are destroying many physically-based businesses and thus killing jobs, they are avoiding taxation and thus reducing the power of the state to provide essential services such as health and education, and reducing economic choices for individuals.

On the social side, they are weakening privacy, enabling and magnifying anti-social and malignant behaviour, and undermining democratic institutions and processes. Artificial intelligence offers many benefits, but also has dangerous unintended consequences that we are only beginning to discover.

In other words, the ordinary individual and even national governments are losing control over the technology. However, these negative developments are not inevitable but are the result of choices made not only by software engineers but also the businesses that exploit the technology.

Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Congressional Committee: a failure of education?

Universities and colleges have no more important mission than to prepare our students for this world and ensure that they can take back control, not just of the technology but also their very lives. In these posts I will suggest some ways in which this can be done. But I want to look first at some of the main threats or challenges for the higher education system.

The economic weakness of the public higher education system

In the USA the cost of tuition has been rising at an average rate of 3 per cent per annum over inflation (a net increase of 13.5 per cent over 10 years). The average tuition fees for a four year bachelor degree in a public university in the USA today is $40,000, and for a private university $140,000. OK, this is the USA and the Canadian system is different (the equivalent cost of tuition for a four year bachelor’s degree in Canada is around $26,000) but what happens in the USA will inevitably impact on Canada. Digitalization recognises no international boundaries.

Indeed, even in Canada, governments on balance have been reducing funding per student over the last 10 years, with tuition fees making up the difference. In particular, international tuition fees (which are usually much higher than fees for domestic students) constitute an increasingly larger proportion of university and college revenues in Canada. However, this is a high risk financial strategy. An economic recession or diplomatic tensions with just a few key countries could result in the abrupt loss of such students and their fees.

So what we have in higher education is a fairly large number of relatively small organizations offering a reasonably standard pre-digital product but charging high direct fees that are increasing beyond inflation. This is the type of market that lends itself to disruption by Internet-based companies. 

The need for different educational outcomes

I will be arguing that universities and colleges are focused on outcomes that, while satisfactory for an industrial age, should to be more focused on the needs of a digital society. In short, more emphasis needs to be placed on developing higher order intellectual skills and on helping students become digitally educated (in all fields of study).

High level intellectual skills

I have three main points to make here:

  • instructors will need to shift emphasis from delivering content to identifying and developing core intellectual skills in students
  • instructors will need need to focus on teaching methods that support skills development
  • departments will need to work out how to increasingly improve essential skills over the course of a program (from first year to graduation)

These skills are needed not only to enable students to survive and prosper in a rapidly changing work environment, but also to give them the power to challenge, manage and control the use of technology for the benefit of society.

Content and skills

Content (facts, ideas, principles, etc.) and skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, etc.) are closely linked. Both are essential. However, the emphasis historically in higher education has been on content delivery: lectures, articles, books, etc. However, nearly all academic content is now available online and increasingly free. Furthermore, content is easily managed and delivered online and thus can be selected and delivered easily by Internet-based companies. Coursera is an example. What these companies cannot so easily supply is the educational support that students need in learning.

The challenge now for instructors and students alike is knowledge management: what information to find, where to find it, how to evaluate and apply it, and how to communicate it. These are skills and furthermore they are skills we should be developing in our students.

Teaching skills

The reason why skills development is so important in a digital age is the changing nature of work. Many of the skills students need in the workforce have now been identified (see for instance Royal Bank of Canada, 2018). Automation and artificial intelligence will replace routine and standard work procedures. Workers in a digital age are needed who can not only do what machines cannot do well, but also who can bridge the gap between technology and humanity. This requires a far wider range of skills than computer engineering.

If pushed, most university and college instructors could identify at least in general terms some of the skills they are trying to develop in their students, such as critical thinking. However, the extent to which instructors explicitly work with students to develop such skills varies greatly. In particular, to what extent do instructors use what we know from research about how best to develop skills in students, such as

  • embedding the skill in an appropriate context,
  • small steps
  • lots of practice
  • timely feedback
  • progression across a whole program (how is critical thinking improved as students move from year 1 into year 2, for instance)?
We know a lot about teaching skills

There are many different methods of teaching for developing skills (see Teaching in a Digital Age), but few involve standing in front of a class and talking for 50 minutes. 

Digitally educated

Given the ubiquity of digital tools and applications in every subject area, it is increasingly important that students become aware in their study of how technology is applied within their subject area. This should include thinking broadly about the human and social implications of such technology applications and in particular unanticipated, unexpected or undesirable consequences.

This will probably require a basic understanding of how the technology works as well as its applications and effects. In particular students need to become aware of the consequences of their own actions in using technology within any chosen field so that they become responsible digital citizens.


Universities and colleges are needed more than ever in a digital age. However, they will survive only as long as they are relevant to society, in terms of providing the knowledge and skills that students will need, not just to survive in the workforce but to ensure that technology is used in ways that benefit the whole of society. This requires not only changes in our teaching methods but also in curriculum design.

The next post in this series will look at the current state of digital learning in Canada and how prepared Canadian post-secondary education is for meeting the challenges of a digital society.

For the keynote presentation on this at CNIE go to:


  1. This is a very detailed analysis of how technology can disrupt higher education if they do not adapt quickly. I agree the areas that must be addressed are teaching methods and curriculum design. It is worth noting that this phenomenon is global and not only limited to Canada. In Africa for example, the rate at which technology is evolving is unprecendented. Right now it has penetrated the economy through mobile finance but education is not far behind. Many Governments are experimenting with laptop projects for kids at elementary level. So the future is something to watch when they get to higher education but some action at that level is needed i believe


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