Higher education for sustainability in a post-digital world

Modern globalisation is a continuation of the same process started when humanity first established social communities (that is, the Agricultural Revolution) and began trading with other communities from different regions. Globalisation is an inevitable result of social development.

The distinguishing characteristic of modern globalisation is the speed with which modern science and technology have created a hyper-connected and hyper-dependent world. For instance, the recent COVID-19 global pandemic has altered every aspect of human life. The speed with which the COVID-19 disease spread across the planet illustrates how globalised the world has become.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many social and economic activities within and across countries were suspended in order to control the spread of the virus, including face-to-face educational activities. The pandemic showed that we live in an increasingly hyper-connected and interdependent world and there is no turning back.

The pandemic also showed the power of humanity’s resourcefulness and intelligence to respond quickly to a deadly disease. To cope with the ravaging pandemic, humanity had to create new drugs very quickly and people had to adapt to new lifestyles as a result of the global lockdown. The pandemic showed that humanity has the capacity to respond cooperatively when faced with global threats.

Whether in the digital world or in the physical world, viruses can spread quickly and create a lot of disruption. Like the air we breathe, digital technology has become so pervasive and deeply ingrained in every aspect of life that we take its presence for granted.

As such, post-digital means moving beyond an understanding of technology simply as gadgets, tools and devices and is more about an understanding of technology as an extension of human capabilities and intelligence.

When it comes to education, the pandemic forced the world to adopt digital distance learning as a survival response and, in so doing, moved the world much closer and much faster towards a post-digital reality. The post-digital world means a world where digital technology is so infused in every aspect of human life that we hardly even notice it is there.

Thus, post-digital is not something to be feared but something to be managed so that it serves humanity rather than humanity serving it. This is one of the aims of the emerging Society 5.0.

Transitioning to Society 5.0

By and large, the higher education sector has survived the economic instability caused by COVID-19 and proved its resilience and its ability to adapt to extreme changes in the environment.

As a result, universities and colleges are now more flexible in providing access to students. The shift to remote and hybrid instruction has allowed institutions to develop more flexible and personalised approaches to learning. Students are getting more opportunities to learn independently and at their own pace.

Things we once marvelled at, or considered luxury items, are now considered necessities and a normal part of everyday life. Since the advent of the Digital Revolution (aka, the Information Age or the Third Industrial Revolution) in the early 1970s with the development of the personal computer (that is, the Atari computer) and the internet protocol (that is, TCP/IP), digital technologies have diffused more and more into every aspect of human life.

Now, the internet of things is becoming more commonplace.

Over the past 50 years, society has restructured itself around these digital technologies and, in doing so, has not only altered every aspect of society, from how we communicate with people to how we shop and how we generate and disseminate new knowledge, but also altered and reframed how we experience the world – physically, psychologically and socially.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the traditional boundaries that once defined the physical, biological, social and digital worlds will continue to blend together. For example, perhaps no other technology has diffused into and across societies more quickly than the smartphone.

Today, it has become so integrated into people’s lives and we have become so dependent on this technology to carry out many of our daily tasks (for example, texting, email, voice calls, shopping, bill paying, video streaming, music listening and picture taking, among many other tasks) that we hardly notice our dependence on it.

If the infrastructure for this technology were to be disrupted suddenly, it would have an immediate and negative impact on our lives, economically and otherwise. It exemplifies how risk and uncertainty have become the new normal and accentuates the point that humanity must now be in a constant state of preparedness to respond quickly to potential threats that would cause disruptions.

The post-digital era is the era of the approaching Industry 5.0 and Society 5.0 (circa 2030). The decade of the 2020s therefore represents a liminal space – a transition period from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to the emerging Fifth Industrial Revolution.

The emerging post-digital world

Before the digital age, educational institutions relied almost exclusively on static place-based and time-based activities, which were, and still are, very capital intensive. With the advent of ubiquitous educational technologies, especially the internet, space and time constraints began to fade as technologies such as synchronous and asynchronous learning became more pervasive. These online technologies made it possible to continue educational activities in spite of a global lockdown.

In the emerging post-digital era, emerging educational technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), extended reality (XR), mobile learning, adaptive learning, live streaming, simulated learning and immersive classrooms will become more widespread in the transition to Society 5.0 – broadly defined as a human-centred society that balances economic development with social development. One aim of Society 5.0 is to infuse technology-enabled learning into every aspect of the educational process in a seamless way.

Education, at all levels, is the process of human development. However, at the same time, it is about much more than individual knowledge consumption and individual cognitive development. It is also about social and global development. Digital technologies are now so deeply embedded in our lives that we take them for granted and we only become aware of their importance and our dependence on them when they cease to work.

The hindsights from the past and the insights from the present presuppose that higher education in the post-digital world will cover four key visions for Society 5.0.

First, the pervasive mode of teaching and learning will likely become the blended delivery mode. Secondly, teaching approaches will likely be more diverse, more student-centred and more outcomes-based. Thirdly, higher education institutions will aim to democratise education by making it more inclusive and accessible to all. Fourth, the barriers to teaching and learning created by traditional space and time boundaries will continue to fade.

Reorientation towards sustainability

The utmost priority for higher education institutions globally is to be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Higher education around the globe is busy putting strategies and infrastructure in place to run a hybrid and blended learning experience. This covers students who will have a greater choice in the learning modalities they prefer. In addition to the technological and pedagogical transformations occurring in higher education, institutional leaders are also concerned with inclusivity, decolonisation and gender equality.

In the post-digital world, there will be a need to reorient the focus of higher education towards sustainable development. Higher education institutions will need to focus on sustainability education and on building a skilled workforce focused on both soft and hard skills which will be critical for a sustainable world. This will be important as Education 4.0 becomes more widespread.

In the post-digital world, nanodegrees and micro-credentials will allow students to better deal with continual changes in the workplace and as a means of career advancement and upskilling. These micro-credential frameworks provide a means to deliver non-degree learning programmes to working adults and thereby improve accessibility to higher education, especially for disadvantaged groups.

AI and other emerging learning technologies have the potential to transform the teaching and learning experience. Personalised learning is a cornerstone of AI – it aims to give each student a unique learning experience.

For more optimised AI learning experiences, big data needs to be integrated with personal data by using advanced AI algorithms. Generally, AI can provide a more personalised learning experience to students by using personal data to create customised solutions to the problems faced by students.

Chatbots, for example, are designed to provide support and over-the-counter guidance to students. AI can be helpful in reducing student stress and can increase the motivation of students. AI-enabled resources can further equip universities with the systems to create fresh ideas and innovation with personalised learning spaces so that anyone from anywhere in the world can access learning. AI systems can also assist in deriving study plans through AI-driven adaptive tools.

Lastly, games can be an alternative mode of teaching that students can experience. XR (for example, augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality) has the potential to change the learning experience for students. The concept of the metaverse will also affect higher education institutions.

However, given that these new technologies have the potential to be used inappropriately, there is also a need to build a more specific ethical code and advanced security measures when it comes to utilising and protecting these technologies.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct instructor at the State University of New York (Old Westbury), USA, and president and chief scientist of the Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association, USA; Abhilasha Singh is professor and vice-president for academic affairs at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Lukman Raimi is assistant professor at the University Brunei Darussalam in the department of entrepreneurship; and Sweta Patnaik is senior lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa.