The promise and peril of digital technology is currently the most debated issue in international education. The emergence of so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) from world renowned universities, which hundreds and thousands of people have used as a learning resource, has marked the starting point of a period of fundamental transformation in education. There are both external and internal drivers that are transforming the way people around the world learn. External drivers for technology in education include constant technological progress, the growing dissemination of social media and big data application, a significant boost in venture capital in the US and, not least, the entry of digital natives into the education system.

Drivers of Technology in Education
Drivers of Technology in Education

Cost and access are driving the transformation in digital education from within the system. In the US, skyrocketing tuition fees for a brick and mortar education (on-campus) have created a new market for online learning. In many developing countries, such as India and several Africa nations, it is the “democratic” (broader) access to educational opportunities that makes technology-supported education a hot issue. In developed countries with a largely publicly financed education system, people are less concerned about the cost and access to higher education. Thus, the drivers for advancing digital learning are fewer. Yet applying technology to education remains attractive even in such countries, especially for individualizing learning in an environment of constantly growing heterogeneity. Here, digital technology can help to accommodate diverse learning needs, paces and styles, while still significantly increasing the audience size that can be reached by an educator.

Massification combined with personalisation: The real disruptive revolution in education

As with any innovation, the increased use of digital educational offers carries risks. The implementation of e-learning elements creates new challenges (e.g. new approaches for monitoring cheating, a differentiated assessment of low completion rates in MOOCs) as well as new fears (e.g. concerning data protection, the growing privatization of education with in parts unclear business models, or the perceived US-dominance in the field of technology-supported education). Not least, the quality of online learning formats is criticised. It is argued that there is still no reliable stock of research on the effectiveness of ICT-based learning. However, studies have revealed that distance learning programmes are, as far as learning outcome is concerned, at least not per se inferior to on-campus programmes. Anyhow, the dichotomy of on-campus programmes versus e-learning is to a certain extent misleading, since there is no homogeneous model of “online studies”. Instead, technological progress offers a number of new opportunities that can be used by higher education institutions (HEIs) in various combinations ranging from an enrichment of traditional on-campus programmes (blended learning) up to highly automated MOOCs with thousands of participants.

Despite such reasonable doubts, digitalization can do more for the future of education than just massively scaling educational resources and thus lowering the existing barriers of cost and access. The smart use of technology and big data is also likely to improve the quality of teaching and learning in various respects. For example, learning analytical software can identify students – especially in introductory courses – who need to catch up or require additional time for the consolidation of the teaching content. HEIs or other education providers can use this opportunity to offer personalised tutoring and advice or, in the medium term, automatically adapt individual curricula accordingly. Already today, inverted classroom formats that use the contact time with a professor for discussing and applying the content of a digitally prepared lecture provide more scope for individualised learning than traditional teaching formats could do. In the end, the big promise of digitalized education lies in the hope to easily design and adapt personalized learning paths suited to each individual’s learning preference, pace and style. Massification combined with personalization would tap the potential for infinitely scalable learning opportunities – and thus be a real disruptive revolution in education.

The digital age is expected to change teaching and learning beyond traditional brick and mortar education, calling for innovation in both traditional pedagogy and business models. The digitalisation of education emerging from the USA is driven by technological possibilities, changing individual requirements and needs, and increasing pressure for efficiency in an ever more expensive higher education system. However, digital educational offers have promising potential for HEIs all over the world, be it in the improvement of teaching efficiency and quality, in their usefulness in marketing and recruiting for HEIs, or as a an opportunity for expanding co-operations with other actors in the field. HEIs that make technological expertise, practical experience and quality content a part of their strategy will have competitive advantages over their peer institutions and – in the area of further education – other education providers. The wave of digitalisation is associated with technological advancement. Both HEIs and policy makers should be prepared to embrace this wave, including both its risks and opportunities, shape it actively and use it for the implementation of their systemic or institutional strategic targets.


At the Global Economic Symposium 2014 in Kuala Lumpur (September 6 – 8), distinguished experts will explore the following core questions on “Transforming Education in the Digital Age”: What are strategic options for both higher-education institutions and corporate employers beyond catching the omnipresent MOOC bandwagon? How would sustainable business models in the field of digital education look like? What is the responsibility of leading brand actors from the Western world when providing their services in developing countries? How can personalized education formats be developed and scaled up globally? What role should policy makers play in preparing our education systems for the digital age? Please join us in this debate.