The National Theatre, San Jose, Costa Rica

The ICDE 2023 conference in Costa Rica has prompted me to think about the future of open and distance education. I want to go beyond the buzzwords of ‘transformation’, ‘disruption’, and AI-mania/skepticism. 

Yes, the world is changing

Open access to higher education is still needed

Let’s start with the good things. Over the last 50 years or so, open and distance education have been immensely successful in bringing education to many millions of people who would never have had that opportunity otherwise. This is due mainly but not only to the major open universities around the world.

Second, there has been major progress in general access to higher education. In many developed countries nearly all those who want to go to university or college can do so. This was not the case 50 years ago. For instance, when I tried to get into university in the UK in 1958, only 12 per cent of the school-leaving cohort went on to higher education. That figure is at around 37% today. In other countries such as Canada it is much higher (75%). 

In developing countries, the problem of access to higher education is still much greater. There has been major improvements in access, particularly in growing middle income countries such as China, India and South Africa, but there is still a long way to go, and in poorer countries access to higher education remains extremely limited.

Thus there are in most countries around the world still problems of access. Access may be restricted to specific groups in more economically advanced countries, such as to those with disabilities or living in remote areas or too poor to be able to afford computers, or lack of access may be much more general in less economically advanced countries. Even in economically advanced countries, universities are often selective. You can’t choose to go to just any institution.

Thus access is still an issue and is not going away. Alternatives to conventional education are still needed, such as open universities, open programs and open initiatives such as OER and open textbooks. The ICDE remains a very relevant organization regarding access and open learning.

Distance is no longer such a problem

However, distance from a university or college campus is no longer such a barrier to participation in education. Online learning in particular has made learning possible any time and anywhere. Online learning is not limited only to special institutions, or to students far away from campus, and is increasingly available from all institutions.In many economically advanced countries, almost every higher education institution is now offering at least some online courses. Indeed, in some countries, some of the biggest online providers are now conventional, on-campus universities. 

Although online learning may have made institutions geographically more accessible to some students, though, they are not open – you still need prior qualifications and they may not offer full programs online, particularly at an undergraduate level. And access to online learning is still a problem, for a significant minority, around 20% of the population, even in economically advanced countries, because of poverty or remoteness.

Distance/online learning is converging with campus-based teaching

Thirdly, instructors and institutions, because of their growing experience with online learning, are beginning to move to hybrid learning where digital learning is combined with face-to-face teaching. Thus the online part is no longer organizationally separate but integrated with the main body of the institution. Indeed, in the future nearly all learning in higher education will be either hybrid or fully online. This means all instructors and all institutions need to understand the difference and requirements of various modes of delivery. This has major implications for all institutions.

Challenges and opportunities

This integration of online/digital learning and face-to-face teaching means the following:

  • research has shown clearly that for learning to be effective, the method of teaching needs to change as one changes mode of learning; you need to teach differently fully online in particular, but also in a hybrid mode, than in an entirely face-to-face class
  • this has major implications for faculty training and development: ALL faculty will need to know and understand these differences to teach more effectively
  • AI won’t change this need to understand the differences; indeed it will make it even more important
  • moving more students online, whether at a distance or on-campus, will have massive implications for campus and institutional infrastructure; buildings will need to change
  • assessment will need to change because learning outcomes will change. You can do things fully online or in hybrid mode that you cannot do in a conventional classroom, and these new outcomes are more relevant to the new needs of a digital world. Online learning in particular lends itself to both continuous and more authentic assessment, enabling the skills that students need in a digital world to be better assessed than by paper and pen.

Online and hybrid learning will reinforce curriculum change

Online and hybrid learning will thus enable institutions to better achieve the teaching of the new skills needed in the digital world that is rapidly changing outside the higher education institutions. Many of these skills either need or are enhanced by digital learning.


Yes, we do need to ‘transform’ our institutions and our teaching methods, and the world is increasingly complex and challenging, but in order to develop learners who can cope with these externalities, this ‘transformation’ of institutions needs to be grounded in the vision, goals and realities of the non-digital world as well as the digital world, which are now becoming more and more integrated.

Digital learning is not only a goal in itself but more importantly a necessity if higher educational institutions are to produce the kind of students needed in a fast-changing world, but that requires a hard look at the curricula we offer and our teaching methods to make sure they are fit for purpose, as well as adopting new technologies and infrastructures. We need to cut the rhetoric and the hype, and start to re-design thoughtfully and pragmatically our institutions and our teaching for this new emerging world. Digital learning is central to this.

However, we need to act with an understanding that this alone will not be enough. The biggest problem we face after climate change is the increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us. Tinkering with access, digital learning, and re-design of teaching and institutions will not of itself address this great divide. Digital learning needs to go hand-in-hand with political and economic change if we are to avoid becoming slaves to the mega-rich. Only this way will we achieve Martin Dougiamas’ optimistic vision of the future.

These are the main lessons I took away from this year’s ICDE conference. I hope the next ICDE conference in Wellington will address these issues.



  1. This reminded me of when one of those old white men ( I love them all) asked the question back in 2017, how must open universities dress now that traditional universities have stolen their clothes? I think the answer is in quality but it isn’t cheap and the social, political, economic and technological contexts are all drivers. Having said that I do believe that access to high quality higher education for all is non-negotiable. Do we still have a lot to do.

    Thank you Tony, for these updates. Thinking back to your first post on this conference, I am very conflicted about flying so far. Maybe the sector could combine knowledge and expertise to create a more lifelike virtual conference experience?

    • Thanks, Liz. I don’t think it will be long before we have 3D immersive conferences without leaving our desktops but I suspect it will still be less fun than an in-person conference. There is a whole industry built around in-person conferences, including tourism, but we pay a very high environmental price for this.

  2. Hi Tony, thank you for your reflections on the ICDE conference in CR. I regretfully had to miss it due to a personal situation. I saw the pictures and am happy to see you there.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here