The digital transformation of higher education: so much more than a transition

Por António Moreira Teixeira [i] 1 y José Mota [ii] 2

1 Universidade Aberta y CFUL – Universidade de Lisboa

2 Laboratório de Educação a Distância e eLearning – UAb

Palabras clave: RED, Digital Transformation, Higher Education, Open Education, Online Learning, Distance Learning, MOOC, COVID-19


On January, 2021, Revista Educación a Distancia (RED) published a special issue (Vol. 21 Núm. 65) dedicated to the transition from conventional education to online education and learning, as a consequence of COVID19. The issue includes a selection of close to one and a half dozen articles from eight different countries depicting an array of innovative experiencies. This unique decison reflects the massive and unparallel impact which the coronavirus pandemic has had in the education sector and higher education in particular in such a short period.

According to a UNESCO estimate, 1.6 billion students from 138 countries were affected by the closing of universities and schools almost overnight during the lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Faced with such a starkly different, unexpected context, most higher education institutions (HEI) sought to find short-term solutions to tackle the problem, giving rise to what has been labelled emergency remote teaching [ERT] (Hodges et al. 2020). Overall, this is an umbrella term which designates improvised, poorly planned and unsubstantiated strategies to deploy distance education in response to a situation where in-person teaching is not possible. Misconceptions resulting from these rushed efforts to teach digitally have hindered the reputation of distance and online learning (Baggaley, 2020), and have introduced a set of problems and challenges which must be addressed by both policy and research.

Increased awareness of digital divide, teacher and student work overload leading to digital fatigue and burnout, problems related to privacy, data protection and ethics, as well as a general disregard for distance education methodology and online learning pedagogy could be found across the field. Teaching practices replicated conventional old routines and ignored active learning models based on interaction, supervision and participation (Moreira Teixeira, A. & Zapata-Ros, M. 2021).

This period of emergency remote teaching has made only more obvious the recurrent difficulties conventional HEI have always had to adopt good practices in distance and online education. By ignoring decades of experience in the field, they are condemned either to resort to familiar, traditional methodologies that do not translate productively to the online context, or to improvise half-baked solutions that focus on technology and gimmicks without the needed pedagogical insight and instructional design strategies.

Despite the mistakes and shortcomings this massive experiment of ERT came to be it unquestionably pushed the digital transition of educational systems and institutions. Most probably HEI will try to return to their usual modes of instruction after the pandemic, but the processes and changes they were forced to adopt during the COVID-19 crisis will likely leave a lasting trace. The long tail effect of this phenomena will indeed push HEI to an increasingly hybrid territory (Witze, 2020).

However, the quality of the digital transformation of HEI depends fundamentally on how successfully they adopt online pedagogies. To that end, establishing a reference model for teaching and learning practices will be paramount. Such a framework is quite helpful for both teachers and students, allowing them to adjust their respective practices in this new environment. Another critical point, which became quite evident during the current crisis, is the need to assure quality learner support, especially in such a challenging social context as the one we are all experiencing. The digital transition should lead to a more participatory learning culture, now that changes in how knowledge and information are produced, transmitted, or distributed in networks often escape the control of organizations and institutions and, consequently, to solutions that match these new realities in the form of participatory pedagogies. Learning and assessment should be based on trust and collaboration, acknowledging the growing importance of the ethical aspects involved.

Many HEI are taking steps to seize the opportunity to engage in this process of digital transformation now that they have the time and resources to move beyond a crisis management mode. The objective is to become proficient and effective in the new digital or hybrid environment while, at the same time, keeping high academic standards. But what does that mean, specifically?

Simply adjusting methodologies and procedures, while a significant and necessary step, is not enough to ensure success in the transition to distance and online learning. HEIs will also have to transform their organizational culture, which might prove to be the biggest challenge they will face. If any sustainable transformation is to be carried out, then governance and leadership need to be focused on promoting educational innovation. There needs to be a holistic vision that inspires the institution’s community, aligns strategic planning with it, and engages all relevant actors in the process.

Fuente de la imagen: Pixabay

Another key aspect for HEI will be to develop a coherent and multifaceted educational ecosystem, one which includes both the several elements of the learning environment (the learning management system, the digital repositories, the virtual and remote labs and the e-assessment system) and the administrative and support services as well. Considering that this is a cultural transformation process, HEI should also strive to make this ecosystem open, promoting the use, reuse and remix of open educational resources, and assuring universal accessibility and digital inclusion (Czerniewicz, 2018).

However, HEI’s readiness to overcome the challenges of the new normal will depend heavily on how well they are able to prepare their faculty. It is more urgent than ever to rethink teacher professional development. The crisis has highlighted the importance of teachers’ digital competences, but these need to be acquired and developed in authentic contexts, i.e., the ones in which they will be performing their function. This implies teachers should be trained in immersive online-based settings and not in traditional in-person environments. Otherwise, they will not be properly prepared as they will lack the experience of working, communicating, and learning online.

The move towards the online environment has been seen as a natural step in the evolution of all HEI (van der Zwaan, 2017). In the process, most HEI also acquired experience in open education, especially in the form of MOOCs. Despite some unfulfilled promises, MOOCs have raised the profile of ed tech in general, and open practice in particular (Weller, 2020). Moreover, «MOOCs generated a significant amount of media attention and hype» (Weller, 2020, 130), as probably no other educational technology before.

In recent years, open education has become a major part of the Open Science movement, materializing the convergence of open learning and OER, open source, open access, open publication, open data, open peer review, open innovation, and open licensing with new trends, as scientific social networking, and citizen science.

The policy of open science is grounded in the principle that education and research supported by public funding should be available for all, and at the same time also stimulate everyone’s participation. An open knowledge ecosystem is consistently taking shape, with important implications on how the research and innovation landscape of higher education is organized and operates.

HEI’s are therefore called to embrace openness in this broad perspective, which brings about a significant transformation of their organizational culture, educational practices, and internal procedures, encompassing institutional governance, policies and strategic planning, as well as technological infrastructure, teaching and learning practices, faculty support and professional development.

Notwithstanding, future mainstreaming of open education and MOOCs also requires that researchers develop more sustainable learning design models. As the emergency response has shown, online pedagogical models should be grounded in solid research and distance education theory, seeking to take full advantage of the affordances of asynchronous communication. Moreover, to facilitate a wider implementation and foster effective ‘transformational learning’, these models need to go beyond mere comprehension or networking, and develop critical thinking, analysis and evaluation, i.e., higher order thinking skills.

Similarly, educational practices should be designed in such a way as to promote greater flexibility and personalization of learning, differentiating content, activities and assessment according to individual needs and expectations. The combined use of learning analytics, adaptive technology and artificial intelligence will make it possible to accommodate an increasingly larger diversity of learners and to decrease dropout substantially. Nevertheless, the consolidation of this trend requires once again an increase in the participation of learners in designing, managing, and assessing their own learning experiences.

HEI will expectedly provide a ever more authentic learning experience, much more rooted in real contexts, as a true part of students’ digital living experience. The ongoing digital transformation of HEI will enable them to become true hubs in the knowledge network and to be part of the emerging landscape of the new smart cities. It is critical that this redesign leads to a larger integration of informal, non-formal, and formal learning. The transition to such a disruptive innovation-based model however requires vision, time, detailed planning, and consistent development (Teixeira et al., 2019). Looking ahead, HEI must openly embrace the challenge of institutional transformation and seize the opportunity to be radical in their goals. But, they need also to accept the complexity of the process, care for it’s integrity and avoid taking shortcuts.

Referencias bibliográficas:

Baggaley, J. (2020) Educational distancing. Distance Education, 41(4), 582-588.

Czerniewicz, L. (2018). Unbundling and rebundling higher education in an age of inequality. EDUCAUSE Review, 53(6), 10–24.

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. & Bond, A. (2020). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.

Moreira Teixeira, A. & Zapata-Ros, M. (2021). Presentation of the special issue Transition from conventional education to online education and learning, as a consequence of COVID19. Revista Educación a Distancia (RED), 65(0B).

Teixeira, A., Bates, T., & Mota, J. (2019). What future(s) for distance education HEIs? Towards an open network-based approach. RIED. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación a Distancia, 22(1), 107-126.

Weller, M. (2020). 25 Years of Ed Tech. AU Press.

Witze, A. (2020). HEIs will never be the same after the coronavirus crisis. How virtual classrooms and dire finances could alter academia: part 1 in a series on science after the pandemic. Nature, 582, 162-164.

UNESCO (2020a). Startling digital divides in distance learning emerge.

UNESCO (2020b). COVID-19: a global crisis for teaching and learning.

van der Zwaan, B. (2017). Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach. Amsterdam University Press.

Cómo citar esta entrada:

Moreira Teixeira, A. & Mota, J. (2021). The digital transformation of higher education: so much more than a transition. Aula Magna 2.0. [Blog]. Recuperado de:

[i] António Moreira Teixeira es Doctor en Filosofía por la Universidad de Lisboa. Profesor Titular en la Universidad Abierta de Portugal, hay sido Pró-rector para la Innovación en Enseñanza a Distancia (2006-09) y dirigido el Departmento de Educación y Enseñanza a Distancia (2016-20) en la misma universidad. Es investigador en la Universidad de Lisboa y colabora con la Universidad de Roma 3. Hay sido Presidente de la European Distance and E-learning Network (2013-16). Es EDEN Senior Fellow. Su investigación se centra en la educación abierta, a distancia y online.

[ii] José Mota es licenciado en Estudios Ingleses y Alemanes por la Universidad de Lisboa y mestre en pedagogía del eLearning por la Universidad Abierta de Portugal. Es investigador del Laboratório de Educación a Distancia y eLearning [LE@D] de la Universidad Abierta. Sus interés de investigación son los entornos personales de aprendizaje, el aprendizaje conectado y la educación abierta.

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