IMAGINE Irreversible Change Focused on Students

IMAGINE Irreversible Change Focused on Students

IMAGINE that the disruptive changes of 2020 in higher education cannot be reversed – for the organisation, for academics and for the students. And the learning experience of students is always guaranteed, regardless of where they are, when they want it or how they want it. Surely that model would be so unsettling that it could undermine the full mission of higher education?

The same question is being asked in industries around the world economy. The retail and banking sectors have also had to move faster online to support consumers changed behaviours. Universities sit at the same point – where a switch to digital delivery has allowed you to focus on the user, and let other things align behind it.

Although this change was forced upon the sector, what it has demonstrated is that organisations are flexible and resilient, and that our academic colleagues were just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to rapidly innovate. Years of investment in education technology, training and familiarity for staff enabled a rapid switch. With over 140 million global users of our education products, we saw this happen directly during the initial pandemic, with 1,300 years of learning taking place each day just on Google Meet alone.

In 2019, the AlphaBeta ‘Future Skills’ report, commissioned by Google, identified that although the number of hours of learning beyond the age of 21 would more than double, a very small part of that increase would likely happen through tertiary education. And so this is the opportunity to imagine better times.

If universities can support their existing students in a more widespread adoption of this model of learning, that creates learning experiences alongside life experiences, and allows both to align, then the same can be true for those lifelong learners who aren’t currently at university. As businesses re-skill their workers, and as employees see a new future for themselves with newly upgraded skills, the role of the university expands out to deliver a truly lifelong learning experience for everybody.


“With so much successful learning happening online in 2020, and the resulting wealth of data that this change has generated, there is a positive opportunity to improve every learner’s experience.”


To get there we need more innovation, and re-think the traditional academic model.

Universities can use data to deliver a learning journey that is hyper-personalised, so responsive to an individual learner that the learning fits like a glove. Up until now it’s been an option to use data to personalise, but going forward, with the diversity of the student population, and with the inclusion of a lifelong learning role, it’s just not going to be possible to deliver on the university’s core mission without it.

As in other industries, we can use the advancing power of machine learning and artificial intelligence to help us understand the story that the data is telling, and to move directly to using data to make decisions, not dashboards. Ivy Tech used their data to build a system that showed how they “could predict a student’s final grade in a course with 60%-70% accuracy by week two of the semester” and have subsequently been able to help 35,000 students shift from risk of failure to achieving success.

Universities’ three greatest assets – their physical presence, their academic corpus and the deep knowledge held within – can be boosted by the newest strategic asset of data. In May 2017, The Economist magazine ran the headline “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. I can only imagine the new heights we could get to as universities harness their data to build the new model of lifelong learning for all of their stakeholders, and the role of the university becomes assured for the next few centuries.



Ray Fleming is the Google Cloud Higher Education Partnerships and Programs manager in the Asia Pacific region, and has worked in the field of Education Technology for more than 35 years. His international experience of the journey to a digitally transformed but human-centred education system spans multiple sectors and roles, including working for some of the largest specialist technology providers for education. Ray has worked in a number of roles, including as an education technology journalist.

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