Skip to main content

Universities of the future: several perspectives on the future of Higher Education


Laia Canals, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Spain
Martha Burkle, University of the Future Network Coordinator (UFN), Canada
Rikke Toft Nørgård, Aarhus University, Denmark


This editorial article presents five contributions that constitute the special thematic issue under the series entitled Universities of the future: educational and organizational challenges and possibilities. After a brief introduction, the five articles comprising the monographic are summarized in detail highlighting the topics and concerns they address. The theoretical approaches of each article are analyzed and their unique contributions to the volume are specified in relation to the call for papers. Topics addressed in the papers range from issues on faculty perspectives on MOOC design, a critique of MOOCs’ assessment methods,  leadership for technology enhanced learning, new approaches to teaching and learning, strategies to design and facilitate faculty professional development, and a study on the development of online and distance learning in North America. In light of the articles presented, sections three to five spell out additional overarching topics, concerns, and areas to move forward the conversation about the future of the university from three distinct points of view. Specifically, the editors of this volume examine issues regarding the role of technologies and the Internet in the future of higher education, the ecological university stemming from hybridity and value-sensitive design, the potential for accessibility and equity in higher education, and new and innovative pedagogical models.


Pedagogical innovation, e-leadership, higher education, online learning, educational futures, MOOCs, educational technologies, future of the university


Current higher education systems have been under scrutiny over the last decade in light of both the affordances recent technological developments offer and the increasingly complex challenges which are placed on future generations. It remains to be seen how higher education systems will leverage on pedagogical innovation, educational technologies, and accreditation, to help shape future citizens and create knowledge hand-in-hand with other actors and institutions in our societies. The present volume contributes with five articles and this editorial piece to address some of these challenges.

Main contributions in this issue:

The article by Freitas & Paredes (2018) outlines some of the concerns that have been brought up by other scholars practically since MOOCs were invented. Among them, the limited focus most MOOCs place on student-centered pedagogies which move beyond the mere knowledge transmission albeit through new and shiny mediums (video lectures, fancy-designed virtual platforms, etc.). The authors interviewed faculty members involved in the design, production and delivery of MOOCs at their home institution to explore their backgrounds and find factors that influence their understanding of teaching practices in online environments. One of the main contributions of this research is the connection between faculty’s prior knowledge and experience, behavior and practices, emerging conceptions and beliefs in the process of MOOCs planning and design. The findings of this research unveil the tensions faculty express between their traditional beliefs and the realization that they need to transform their teaching practices when designing these type of courses. Moreover, when creating or designing a MOOC, faculty members tend to place the emphasis in the the social value of learning, the possibilities of dissemination to a broader audience, and the opportunity of presenting their subject in an attractive and entertaining way.

Costello, Holland and Kirwan (2018) take a different approach to that presented in Freitas & Paredes article, by examining MOOCs multiple choice questions from a quality perspective. The authors analyzed over two-hundred multiple-choice questions in 18 MOOCs and found that more than half of them were problematic with at least one item flaw. Their study revealed that the authors of these questionnaires failed to stick to standard item-writing guidelines which could be solved by training faculty members in exam-writing and putting in place pre- and post-test measures that would check the quality of such assessment tools. The paper approaches a controversial issue in education, namely the use of automated assessment as a measure to tap into the achievement of learning outcomes, by problematizing inaccurate test-writing procedures and unexisting measures to ensure the tests’ feasibility and validity, which is just one side of the problem as the author himself notes. Nonetheless, the article provides compelling evidence that casts doubts on the ability of those MOOCs that adopt this assessment model to become trusted accredited degree-granting courses. This article contributes to opening up an important discussion about the quality of MOOCs assessment methods and its implications regarding their accreditation capabilities and overall quality. The discussion is especially timely at a point when MOOCs are starting to become credit-bearing courses that could count towards of a formal degree.

The article by Arnold & Sangrà (2018) reviews 49 articles of empirical studies and theoretical analyses as well as opinion pieces done within leadership for technology enhanced learning (TEL) in higher education. The article updates Jameson’s (2013) TEL e-leadership framework through carrying out a review for the period 2013-2017. In the review Arnold & Sangrá walk the reader through the different articles, organising them in three clusters (empirical studies), highlighting key terms (theoretical analyses) and testimonials (opinion pieces). By doing so, they highlight central leadership theories within the field-  transformational leadership, distributed leadership and e-leadership - and find a clear development of studies focusing on distributed or shared leadership. Based on the literature review, Arnold and Sangrá conclude that e-leadership for TEL in higher education has still not taken off as a field of research. Furthermore, they also propose the inclusion of ‘Digital Education Leadership’ as a promising new field focusing on leaders who have the qualities to guide the digital culture. Finally, the article highlights four main gaps in current research that might further the field if addressed through research: 1) lack of research at a holistic level that links leadership to strategy and organisation; 2) research designs that combines quantitative and qualitative methods; 3) interdisciplinary studies within the field where researchers from educational technology and management studies work together; and 4) testing the validity of the developed models and frameworks within empirical studies and theoretical analyses through case studies. 

Bali & Caines (2018) present a range of examples and personal stories to inspire educators to develop new approaches to learning and teaching as well as strategies to design and facilitate professional development amongst faculty that are value-sensitive and sustain supportive communities. The examples are all drawing from transformative learning, heutagogy and connectivism as particular relevant ways of practicing ownership, equity and agency in faculty development. Cases and stories are presented as best practices, on the one side, and as caution against future-oriented edtech that sees technological development as already set and characterised by complete systems or closed technological set-ups that track or constrain learning. Overall, the ambition of the article is to open up the future, rather than predicting it. As such the examples and stories underline how teaching and learning are not bound by the institution but look beyond it for learning opportunities, mentorship and support within Personal Learning Networks, Communities of practice and affinity spaces. Through presenting potential positive aspects in relation to DigPINS, Virtually Connecting, #TJC15, Marginal Syllabus, Dual Pathway MOOCs and Untethered faculty development, as well as two personal stories of “A week in the life of…”, the authors examine a spectrum of educator possibilities, approaches, attitudes and interactions that incorporate some degree of extra-institutional connectivism, heutagogy and transformative learning for ownership, equity and agency.

Bates (2018) sets the framework for his article in the context of Canadian online and distance education. While these have a long trajectory in the Canadian context, little has been done to produce any relevant data in relation to users, institutions, learners, etc. Readers are invited to learn the trajectory of online learning by examining a track study on the development of online and distance learning. The research project originated with the desire to build similar data to that produced by post secondary institutions in the US, where statistics and results are available through survey groups (such as Babson Survey Research Group) or directly by universities and colleges. The study presents the strategy to build the research team and the selection of the participant institutions. With limited budget, funding for the research project was developed in three stages. Participation was volunteered and focused on Canadian public provincially funded post-secondary institutions. 70 universities, 81 colleges and 50 Cegep (college system in francophone Quebec) were surveyed. Detailed results of the survey can be accessed directly by web links provided by the article, but the following were the major findings of this research: 1) Canada appears to have a mature market for online learning; 2) most of the surveyed institutions use the Internet as the main platform for course access; 3) MOOCs do not have a real presence in the Canadian context; 4) online learning should be focused on training faculty on innovative pedagogies.

Based on our expectations as laid out in the call for papers of this issue, we were hoping to obtain a range of papers which tackled the future of higher education from a myriad of topics and view-points ranging from equity and inclusion in higher education to new university formats and inter-university or cross-sectoral collaborations. Taking into account the nature and topics of the papers already discussed, in the next few sections we intend to report and bring to the discussion additional overarching topics, concerns or areas of study which we think would need to be included in a monographic that deals with the transformations which will expand the university futures in several but intricately connected directions.

The role of technologies and the Internet in the New University

The arrival of digital technologies and the Internet into the classroom has radically changed the way faculty and students access, produce, and share knowledge. Or has it? Higher education institutions (HEI) have become this massive bureaucratic institutions where an innovation takes forever to be implemented and where learning management systems are faced with the, valid enough of course, “academic freedom” principle, so strongly supported by faculty. But even in traditional universities, as the reader can explore in the articles of this volume, the so called “pockets of innovation” (see Tony Bates’ article) have started to permeate the way teaching and learning occurs in higher education: bold instructors who are using digital technologies on their own, with the hope to better engage with students, the so called “millennials”.

But how are digital technologies and the Internet affecting the way knowledge is access, discussed, analyzed, etc. in our higher education institutions? A number of authors around the world have taken this topic as their main research agenda as it is a crucial theme indeed to understand our higher education institutions, our faculty, our students (Marshall, 2010; Dong & Chen, 2017; Brabazon, 2016). The Internet is affecting knowledge in several ways. For the purpose of this editorial, let us analyze three of these modes.

Customized and personalized knowledge production

Due to the use of digital technologies and the Internet, knowledge and knowledge production is no-longer a commodity produced for everyone, with a massive principle behind (and idea started during the industrial revolution: Collins & Halverson, 2018). Information and knowledge is now produced and access on a personal demanding principle, where learners look at a particular piece of information that is relevant for them at a particular moment. These idea provides universities with the challenge of customization, producing courses and programs based on learners’ needs, expectations, and profiles. The idea of ‘personalized learning’ (Burkle & Cobo, 2018) is a growing demand from our students, who come to the classroom with personal agendas to fulfill.

Flexible learning opportunities

What will happen when universities’ libraries are no longer used by the students since the information they need is no longer in the books hold at this huge buildings? Libraries are transforming themselves in knowledge-sharing spaces. Access to courses and course materials is no longer restricted to the library or the classroom spaces. With mobile devices connected to the Internet, students bring with them what they need to learn, discussing topics as they have a bus ride, or when they are having lunch at the cafeteria. In a recent mini-tour that I had in Eastern Canada I learned about this library transformation at a number of universities and colleges: libraries have become flexible learning spaces to discuss a topic over a cup of tea, or solve a problem in a team, or print a prototype in a 3D printer.

Many other aspects of HEIs are being affected by the arrival of the Internet and digital technologies to teaching and learning. We hope this discussion has awaken in the readers the curiosity to further explore how are digital technologies and the Internet changing the role of knowledge and knowledge production in our colleges and universities. By exploring these issues we have already become witnesses of the rapid transformation of knowledge and knowledge access that the Internet is bringing to our daily life.

The ecological university: hybridity and value-sensitive design in HE

With the concept of ‘mode 3 universities’ (Barnett, 2004; Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2018), we might consider how traditional forms of and formats for teaching and learning within higher education can be rethought, reconfigured, and redesigned in order to facilitate more open, hybrid and dialogic universities. The emergence and promise of the mode 3 university is also visible when looking across the articles in this special issue as they describe some of these transformations and consider the implications, challenges, opportunities and potentials of higher education in and through hybrid ecological networks. This changing mandate of the university (Barnett, 2018; Wright, 2016) has taken at least three major forms that we will highlight shortly here as it might help contextualise how the articles of this special issue on Universities of the Future, in their own way, relate to and operationalise the mode 3 university.

The mode 1 university

We now only have exclusive sites (e.g. Oxford University or Stanford University) or small pockets (e.g. Master Classes or keynote lectures) left of the mode 1 university, sometimes also called ‘the ivory tower’. In this mode teaching and learning exist within a closed geography and a closed ontology (Barnett & Bengtsen, 2017). The university is a tower transmitting knowledge to the students until the students themselves become towers of knowledge and, thus, may enter into society to transmit that knowledge to it (Barnett, 2011). But long-time gone are the days where the university could exist in peaceful seclusion inside its closed gates and self-sustained ecosystem. This university had intrinsic academic value and stood as an ivory tower over educated life. This university, now almost lost and gone, is sometimes known as the ‘mode 1’ university (Barnett 2004). Interestingly, many MOOCs, Learning Management Systems and most ‘automated’ teaching and learning are clear instantiations of higher education thinking embodied in the mode 1 university. However, the university itself, in the sense that we know it from earlier historical periods, has today been forced to transform central parts of itself into the mode 2 university.

The mode 2 university

In its place, we now have the ‘mode 2’ university functioning as a factory producing society’s future workforce. The university has had its gates pushed open and been flooded with demands about usefulness of competencies, ranking schemes, efficiency in output and where the value of knowledge is determined by its utility and usefulness to society. Here, teachers are monitored by technology and held accountable for the production of the future workforce and students are put through educational systems at a steady pace so they can enter the workforce. The mode 2 university has an open geography susceptible to the world and its present condition and power structures. However, its ontology is still closed as it is society that is in control of what it is that constitutes a university today, which is not something open to interpretation, dialogue or experimentation. The transformation from ‘ivory tower’ to ‘knowledge factory’ is also visible in the intrusion of private companies and technological systems into the heart of universities. What started as a refreshing ‘opening of the windows in the ivory tower’, seems to have become just as dominant as the mode it originally set out to challenge. However, we now see contours of a more networking, dialogic and ecological relation between university and society; what has elsewhere been called the emergence of ‘academic citizenship’ (Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2016), the ‘ecological university’ (Barnett, 2018), and ‘the co-operative university’ (Nørgård & Mathiesen, 2018). Today, we see a multitude of case competitions, incubators, internships, vocational initiatives and upgrading of technological skills getting implemented in higher education.

The mode 3 university

However, even though the gates have been pushed open and the demands from society have flooded higher education institutions, there are also signs that a pushback from universities and teachers is on the rise as they are adapting and reconfiguring themselves to the changed mandate of higher education. The future university might transform into what could be called an ecological university (Barnett, 2018) and a site for academic citizenship (Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2016; Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2018). In the mode 3 university, ecologies of entanglement are established wherein university and society, staff and students, educational developers and teachers work together in critical-creative partnerships to co-create societal value, future knowledge, and citizens. In this mode lies the potential to create a future university through inviting students, society, industry, government and the public to ‘participate in the idea of the university’ (Ossa-Richardson, 2014, p. 154). Through this participation, the future university is simultaneously held together and opened up as university and society becomes entangled into something that thinks, acts and lives together. In order to accomplish this mode, university and society need to be integrated and embedded into each other to such an extent that they acknowledge each other as part of the same ecological system or world.

But this requires that we connect the change to the inner soul and moral bases of the university (Barnett 2015; Nixon 2008). We need to keep focus on the pedagogical and ethical foundation of higher education, even when we get enthusiastic about the potentials and possibilities of new gadgets, technological potentials or formats. It is all too easy to tear the university down, technologise it or remove the walls – what is difficult is how to transform teaching and learning for the future with technology without losing sight of the virtues, ethics and value-sensitive design at the heart of academic practice and citizenship. This especially true when we try to reform or transform the university through changing its mandate by way of creating new systems, networks or technological upgrades: “Even when designers do not explicitly reflect morality on their work, the artifacts they design will inevitably play a mediating role in people’s actions and experience, helping to shape moral actions and decisions and the quality of people’s lives” (Verbeek, 2011, p. 90). For the future university we need ethical technology use and value-sensitive design in order to preserve the humanity of higher education. Something tackled and reflected in many of the articles in this special issue.

Accessibility, equity and new pedagogical models

Regarding the possibilities of the future university of broadening access to education for a larger portion of society and thus being more equitable, several initiatives need to be analyzed - among them the article by Bates in the present issue highlights the affordances that new modes of delivery of higher education can offer. Blended learning or the provision of a portion of a course online has recently allowed many universities to provide greater access and flexibility for learners who have to balance work and university (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018) or who face accessibility issues (Fichten et al, 2009). However, blended forms of educational delivery do not always go hand-in-hand with innovative teaching practices. Although it is true that the prospect of engaging in online or blended course design forces faculty to rethink their pedagogical approaches as Freitas and Paredes (2018) point out in their article, the outcomes of that process do not always result in improved pedagogical knowledge since other variables (such as lack of preparation of faculty, among others) need to be taken into account.

Continuous professional development for faculty has been mostly focused on the technological rather than the pedagogical aspects of implementing online or blended modes of delivery. In this volume, Bates (2018) lists inadequate training of faculty members as one of the top challenges that constraints the capabilities of online learning. Other challenges are  the lack of pedagogical knowledge of online learning and faculty resistance towards the adoption of online or blended modalities. Additionally, teachers and faculty members have often not been allowed to participate in the discourse on knowledge construction (Guri-Rosenblit, 2009) that is required when designing an online or blended curriculum or program. All these seems to indicate that we still have not resolved the tensions that exist between the benefits or affordance that online learning could bring and the many challenges it taggs along.

Similarly, we still need to see more instances of innovative pedagogical practices and modes of delivery that will have a broader impact and will allow others to replicate or adapt to different contexts. Even when these innovative practices already exist and we have evidence that they work, they are bound to have a limited impact unless they are supported by a well-thought curriculum transformation in higher education. There is a need to revise higher education curricula to become flexible enough to encompass the development of so-called 21st competences (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009) and allow the creation of interdisciplinary degrees that will prepare learners to become future citizens capable of solving current and future societal challenges.

As mentioned above, MOOCs have fallen short of the promises of transforming g the higher education landscape they held at the beginning of their existence. As Littlejohn & Hood (2018) point out, the initial idea that MOOCs would bring education for all, everywhere and  at no costs has deflated as their hype, brought by media attention, increased. The authors point out that MOOCs end up benefiting those who are already privileged and have an education or means and ability to upskill their competences. MOOCs’ mass-education potential have been dumbed down with antiquated pedagogies (Littlejohn & Hood, 2018) and clumsy automated assessment options, according to Costello, Holland and Kirwan’s article in the present issue. Besides pedagogies and democratizing potential, after a decade of being invented and except for a few exceptions, MOOCs lack a clear certification and accreditation mechanisms that could help them be recognized as a viable and important keyplayer in the educational futures this issue focuses on.


We would like to conclude this editorial paper glancing into the future expectantly and hoping to see an increasing number of research on several important issues and critical questions that were not specifically addressed in this issue. Specifically, questions such as access, equality and inclusion, curriculum development, and quality indicators to measure learning in higher education. We are also interested in seeing how issues that have to do with the sustainability of the current or future university systems and business and financing models develop, and how new university policies emerge to cope with such transformations. Similarly, we welcome more insights into new university formats perhaps in the shape of inter-university or cross-sectoral collaborations. As already pointed out by Castañeda and Selwyn (2018, p.9) in their digital technologies special issue in this journal “the need for critical questions to be asked of higher education (...) is more pressing than ever.” The five articles in the present issue attempt to bring attention to some of these topics but we believe the conversation has just started. We hope to see it unfold and spread in many directions in future papers and thematic journal issues.


Ananiadou, K., & Claro, M. (2009). 21st century skills and competences for new millennium learners in OECD countries.

Arnold, D., & Sangrà, A. (2018). Dawn or dusk of the 5th age of research in educational technology? A literature review on (e-) leadership for technology-enhanced learning in higher education (2013-2017). International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 24.

Bali, M., & Caines, A. (2018) A call for promoting ownership, equity, and agency in faculty development via connected learning. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.  Springer, 15:46.

Barnett, R. (2018). The ecological university. A feasible utopia. London & New York: Routledge.

Barnett, R. (2015). In search of a public: Higher education in a global age. In O. Filippakou & G. Williams (Eds.), Higher education as a public good. Critical perspectives on theory, policy and practice (pp. 15–28). New York: Peter Lang.

Barnett, R. (2011). Being a university. London & New York: Routledge.

Barnett, R. (2004). Learning for an unknown future. Higher Education Research & Development, 23(3), 247–260.

Barnett, R. & Bengtsen, S. (2017). Universities and epistemology: From a dissolution of knowledge to the emergence of a new thinking. Education Sciences, 7(38), 1-12.

Bates, T. (2018). The 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education: Methodology and results. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 29.

Brabazon, T. (2016). The University of Google. Education in the (Post) Information Age. Taylor and Francis Group. England & Wales.

Burkle, M. & Cobo, C. (2018). Redefining knowledge in the Digital Age. Journal New Approaches in Educational Research, 7, 2, pp. 79-80.

Castañeda, L., & Selwyn, N. (2018). More than tools? Making sense of the ongoing digitizations of higher education. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15: 22.

Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2018). Rethinking education in the age of Technology: the digital revolution and schooling in America. Google books.

Costello, E., Holland, J & Kirwan, C. (2018). The future of online testing and assessment: question quality in MOOCs. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 5.

Dong, F. & Chen, Y. (2017). Study on the legal construction of the teaching service system of colleges and universities under the era of Internet Plus. School of Engineering Journal, vol. 32,16, 835-841. Internet available:

Fichten, C. S., Ferraro, V., Asuncion, J. V., Chwojka, C., Barile, M., Nguyen, M. N., ... & Wolforth, J. (2009). Disabilities and e-learning problems and solutions: An exploratory study. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 241.

Freitas, A., & Paredes, J. (2018). Understanding the faculty perspectives influencing their innovative practices in MOOCs/SPOCs: a case study. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 30.

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2009). Distance education in the digital age: Common misconceptions and challenging tasks. Journal of distance education, 23(2), 105-122.

Littlejohn, A., & Hood, N. (2018). Reconceptualising Learning in the Digital Age: The [un] democratising potential of MOOCs. Springer Singapore.

Nixon, J. (2008). Towards the virtuous university. The moral bases of academic practice. New York: Routledge.

Nørgård, R.T. & Bengtsen, S. (2016). Academic citizenship beyond the campus: A call for the placeful university. Higher Education Research & Development 35(1), 4-16. 

Nørgård, R.T. & Bengtsen, S. (2018). The worldhood university: Design signatures and guild thinking. In Bengtsen, S.E. & Barnett, R. (ed.), The thinking university: A philosophical examination of thought and higher education. Springer, 167-183.

Nørgård, R.T. & Mathiesen, K.H. (2018). Undervisningsbaserede forskningskollektiver: Fra studenterundervisning til akademiske partnerskaber. Dansk Universitetspædagogisk Tidsskrift (24), 82-103.

Marshall, S. & Taylor, W. (2015) ICT in Education: Innovation, implementation, perceptions and experiences. International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT), 11, Issue 1, 2-3 .

Ossa-Richardson, A. (2014). The idea of a university and its concrete form. In P. Temple (ed.), The physical university. Contours of space and place in higher education. London: Routledge, 131–158. 

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Verbeek, P. (2011). Moralizing technology. Understanding and designing the morality of things. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wright, S. (2016). Universities in a knowledge economy or ecology? Policy, contestation and abjection. Critical Policy Studies, 10(1), 59–78.


Associated institutions

The International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education is associated with:

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Dublin City University

New Content Item

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaiso

New Content Item

Guangzhou University

New Content Item

Annual Journal Metrics

  • Citation Impact 2023
    Journal Impact Factor: 8.6
    5-year Journal Impact Factor: 9.9
    Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP): 4.019
    SCImago Journal Rank (SJR): 2.578

    Speed 2023
    Submission to first editorial decision (median days): 28
    Submission to acceptance (median days): 91

    Usage 2023
    Downloads: 2,572,502
    Altmetric mentions: 1,356

This journal is indexed by

  • Scopus
  • Social Sciences Citation Index® (SSCI)
  • Journal Citation Reports/ Social Sciences Edition
  • Current Contents®/Social and Behavioral Sciences
  • ProQuest Central
  • Google Scholar
  • DOAJ