The future is active – implications for future academic practice


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I have been thinking about the future academic and the implications for academic development recently. The Open University’s ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ is an insightful annual report (, though I would love to see one for 2018. I have seen Mike Shales present on these themes a couple of times and, whether you agree with the detail or not, the proposals are thought provoking and a useful reference point for futurecasting academic practice.

Many of the 10 trends identified by Ferguson et al. (2017) point to forms of active learning in response to current thinking on how people learn. While Spaced Learning advocates a specific pattern of engagement that takes account of findings from neuroscience, the idea that learning is stimulated by allowing the mind to engage with and digest knowledge by intentionally varying the nature and intensity of learning is not new: learning in an active way is enhanced by incorporating opportunities for the learner to apply, test and reflect on new knowledge. Ideas such as Spaced Learning reiterate longstanding constructivist theories which describe the learner as having a central curatorial role in constructing their own learning. Active learning methods are intrinsically concerned with, not only engaging students, but scaffolding deep levels of learning.

Active learning is also reflected in the idea of ‘Learners making science’, the second trend identified in their report. The authors note the need for graduates to be able to systematically ‘solve problems, evaluate evidence, and make sense of complex information from various sources.’ Attention given to complexity alludes to ideas of the authentic curriculum: one that is characterised by wicked issues, uncertainty, and dynamism. Our graduates need to be practiced and confident in making difficult decisions. This idea of ‘making’ is about the importance of not just learning by doing but learning by practicing and perhaps even learning by practising (as in authentic learning). From this, the implications for an ontological approach to curriculum immersion (the student’s meta-engagement with their ‘becoming’) are clear.

Today’s active learning environment needs to be understood as one of co-production and networked authorship. The role of group work, for example, is more important than ever; however, it is urgent that our understanding of the value of group work is developed. The benefit of group work is often couched in terms of teamwork, employability, and communities of practice. However, these are essentially inward-looking membership models of interactivity. Connected learning must reflect connected citizenship and the demand of society to look outward and to proactively reach out across dynamic global networks. Whether in the classroom or reaching beyond it, the learner must be responsible, agile, empathetic, critical, creative and resilient. In terms of the curriculum and academic practice, therefore, our students need to be continually immersed in projects that demand they are resourceful individually and co-operatively. This needs to be a developed maturity (see previous post), evident in their habitual practices of engagement and their ability to respond to unpredictable situations. This approach to collaboration is attitudinal more than goal-orientated. Students need opportunities that develop help-seeking and help-giving skills, so methods that depend upon and promote peer co-operation are key. These skills are noted in Ferguson et al.‘s (2017)  trend of Intergroup Empathy too, although, here, the authors focus on intercultural learning. This global context alludes to digital nomadicism (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004) and the capacity of a graduate to continuously manage their professional life and to confidently and seamlessly identify, make and take opportunities on a global stage.

The trend of Immersive Learning describes immersion in technical terms, for example through the use of haptics. However, there is a higher principle of immersive learning that points the academic to pedagogies such as simulation and the use of situated learning (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Brown, 1999; Brown, 2006) in which the academic creates credible scenarios and problems.

Such pedagogies emphasise how learner engagement is a prerequisite to learning and the development of self-efficacy, for example through safe failure. This is about knowing and trusting oneself to be competent in uncertain and unpredictable situations.

Uncertainty no longer can be understood simply in terms of the dynamic nature of knowledge, but in terms of the credibility of knowledge: we are well-aware that a graduate, and a student therefore, needs to be critically literate enough to deal with the power of ‘fake news’. Not just identify untruth but successfully challenge it. Ferguson et al. (2017) highlight the capability to navigate post-truth societies as a new literacy – mistrust, in itself, is of little use. Our future classroom needs to create an environment in which ignorance and falsehood can be confidently exposed and dealt with. Debate is one form of pedagogy that develops such acuity and adroitness. We should expect to see more evidenced-informed interaction in the classroom and less dependence on single authoritative voices therefore. In this way, graduates will become known as people “able to evaluate and share information responsibly.” Academics should look at ideas such as ‘epistemic cognition’ and ways of promoting this in learners according to the report.

As I have been discussing here and anywhere that will have me, the principles underpinning interactive social media allow us to see the value of connected space. Connected space is neither a phenomenon of online or physical spaces, but of blended or hybrid place. Hence ideas discussed on this blog about placemaking and agency. Ferguson et al. (2017) say,

“Online environments, such as social media, form global virtual spaces. In these, people from different backgrounds interact with each other, even if they come from countries or cultures that are engaged in conflict. This means that skills such as communication, teamwork, and empathy are important. When groups are kept apart, they are likely to develop negative stereotypes of each other. These stereotypes are associated with prejudice, hostility, and aggression. Members of groups that do not have opportunities for constructive social contact may think in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”

Quite, but there is so much more to scaffolding learning in a blended context and I particularly think about the value of a learning environment that scaffolds international and interprofessional interactively and the need for a graduate to be able to continually refresh their identity, knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

What shall we do?

What are the implications for the forward-looking academic, their development, and for the universities and developers charged with supporting this shift?

Firstly, universities need to decide whether to grasp this challenge or not. It feels like Higher Education has been messing around with active learning as something that is a nice-to-have focus for the exceptional inspirational teacher. It doesn’t work like that – meaningful adoption requires a clarity that leaves the academic community in no doubt about the need to develop active, challenging and supportive learning environments wholesale. The lessons from the trickle-feed development of so-called e-learning or technology-enhanced learning, for example, should wake us up. How has this trickle of change since the mid-90s really improved anything? Similarly, the sectors lack of commitment to understand the assessment and feedback problem despite there being longstanding excellent research in this area.

Dependence on ‘lecturers who lecture’ needs to be challenged and we need to recognise that so-called ‘teaching excellence’ should actually be about versatility in academic practice as part of a philosophy of interactive and agile active learning. Without a commitment to versatility of practice we stagnate in a meaningless quagmire that neither does justice to the history of teaching nor its future.

The implications for developing the future academic are to look beyond research and knowledge and accept the challenge of student self-efficacy and the agile identity.



Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Brown, J.S. (1999). Learning, working, and playing in the digital age. Online at:

Brown, J.S. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: exploring the edge. Change, September/October, 18-24

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (originally published as Mille plateaux, Paris : Éditions de minuit, 1980).

Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Active Learning, Assessment & Feedback, Belonging, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Literacies and Intelligence and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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