Education, Research

Much of the digitalisation debate is related to Universities’ mindsets

October 1, 2018


Owen Kelly, Principal lecturer in Online Media, Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS
Nathalie Hyde-Clarke, Head of the Department of Culture and Media, Arcada UAS


While there is a certain irony about attending a symposium on the digitalisation of education ( at one of the world’s leading tertiary institutions and having all information delivered via  PowerPoint, it certainly highlights the reality of the struggle traditional universities share in the face of evolving technology. It is therefore of little surprise that the same university that launched a MOOC on AI ( that hosted more than 40 000 students in its first month, continues to offer degrees with face-to-face lectures that are predominantly textbook driven. It is an international phenomenon. Yet, take a look at any university’s policy document and there is bound to be some mention of a digitalisation strategy.

Given that it is difficult to imagine any Finnish education that does not require access to the internet, Carl-Gustav Linden (Docent and Manager of Media Lab, University of Helsinki) aptly asks:

“Should we stop talking about digitalisation? Is it like talking about an electrification strategy in      1910?”

It does seem that certainly digital tools appear to have been incorporated to some extent in all university courses, but how many lecturers are truly educated in ‘best practice’ – if such a thing exists. Arguably, skills and competencies learned now may well be outdated with one or two years.

It is not our intention to summarise the discussion of what was an interesting symposium in this entry, but rather to present some of the key ideas in terms of how they are or may be manifested in our own education at a University of Applied Sciences. In some instances, Arcada is in a stronger position to actualise learning potential while using digital tools than a more traditional university. This may be attributed to the existing ‘learning as doing’ philosophy, as well as the relatively short time it takes to revise or introduce new courses tailored to evolving content. Traditional universities typically take two to four years to approve a new curriculum; at Arcada, it is possible to introduce new courses from year to year.

That said, there is no guarantee that speedy delivery of content means better use of technology in education. As Carl Heath (Senior Researcher, RISE Interactive in Gothenburg, Sweden) noted:

“Technology is not the issue, it is about how we make use of it.”

He later clarified the point by acknowledging that if one approaches the technology sector with a social problem (such as access to education), it should be an expected outcome that one is provided with a technological solution. Is it therefore acceptable to expect education concerns to be resolved by the technical sector? Probably not.

Why then do universities increasingly look at what online tools are available before plotting their next course of action? Even the terms assigned to teaching practices in that space suggest a certain direction of influence: netpedagogy. The names of new disciplines themselves indicate a technological determinism approach: Digital Anthropology; or Computational Social Sciences. What are the consequences of allowing technology to drive educational strategy? Are we truly aware of all the consequences?

The implications might, for example, include changing how our applicants and students see the world, and their place in it, before we get to discuss the nature of the digital age with them. In a recent online article (, Drew Austin argues that digital corporations such as Amazon are, in effect, changing the nature of the debate we should have with our students before we can even start it. He claims that “Amazon’s mission is to make customer identity more primary than citizenship”, something that any educational strategy should concern itself with.

If he is even partly correct in this assertion, then “where we stand” as people in larger communities, and in society, gets changed dramatically, and the possibility of critical thinking about where we stand gets diminished proportionally. Questions about the future benefits, or lack of benefits, of developments such as artificial intelligence become harder to analyse dispassionately because we have already become accustomed to assuming that the benefits will transpire. From inside the world of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter, the likelihood of critical thinking has already evaporated just as the question “am I hungry?” evaporates when plates of delicious-smelling foods are placed in front of me. Of course I am hungry: just look at the food. Of course I am in favour of artificial intelligence: just look at how it helps me shop, chat and attract followers.

As a result, while AI may be of continuous fascination in the public sphere, universities may do better looking more closely at IA (Intelligence Augmentation). Speakers focused on problem-based learning, project-based learning, reflexive practices and participatory teaching. The overall agreement was that the accumulation of knowledge and cooperation of educational partners was imperative. The clear implication was that we should work towards an educational (and social) future that augments face to face interaction with digital tools. We should put aside notions that we can replace teaching with algorithm-led quizzes and learning games, and look at how we can enhance our current practice by introducing digital tools that can assist students in the social process of learning.

And here is where Arcada positions itself at the forefront of the field. In the past eighteen months our students have working with Helsinki City’s Migrant Youth project to devise an online presence for three connected projects. In the Buddy school project students who have had trouble with maths learn through teaching maths to younger students in after-school clubs. The teaching and learning happens face-to-face but the feeling of belonging to a social group, the feeling of contributing to a larger process, is underpinned by the digital branding, the design-work and websites that our students created ( The same can be said of the Job’d ( and MakeSomeNoise ( projects in which real-life activities are enhanced through an underlying digital support based around user-centred design thinking.

We have also begun to experiment with gamethons and intensive innovation weeks, in which students are provided with the tools to learn by doing through rapid prototyping and the celebration of mistakes. By taking advantage of elements that only become possible using digital tools we are able to provide brief, challenging experiences that do not feel like studying in a traditional sense, but result in outcomes that indicate that a high level of learning has taken place.

We believe that proceeding this way – augmenting intelligence through the creation of digital and social tools – will deliver the best of the digital while avoiding the perils of seeking to replace social interaction with simulations and AI-driven virtual environments.