SURF explores the future of higher education

At its annual conference “onderwijsdagen” (11-12 November 2008, Utrecht), SURF presented four scenario’s for digital learning in 2020.

SURF, the foundation of higher education institutes in The Netherlands on ICTs and innovation, surprised the visitors of its annual conference this year by omitting the casual opening key note speaker. Instead, at the entrance of the theatre, four Newspapers where distributed, while inside a talk show took place. The themes of the Newspapers were Airport, Department Store, (Stock) Exchange and Super Market. During the talk show these themes were introduced by a video clip and a couple of guests each. In fact the overall theme was the future of higher education, while the Airport, Department Store, Stock Exchange and Super Market represented the four scenario’s of the future of higher education SURF developed during the last year. Ultimately, the audience could vote which of the four scenario’s they preferred.

The talk show and the newspapers made clear that there is no well-defined future for higher education, but at least a whole range of possible futures. The fact that we all got four voting cards stimulated active listening. Which of the four scenario’s was most appealing for me, and why? However, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the scenarios. I realised that I did not like them all. For me, they all had an ego-centred and technical undertone. I can imagine that such values might dominate one of the scenario’s, but I cannot imagine that they have to be present in whatever future scenario of higher education. Time was over, I had to vote one out of the four scenario’s and nothing else. I tried to find out what the real differences between the scenarios were, the underlying assumptions or scales. The talk show did not make that clear. Finally, I took the Super Market, as it sounded most streetwise for me. I guess more people found it difficult to vote. The outcomes did not show a very clear “decision” anyway.

It was clear that SURF did not develop these scenarios during a brainstorm session one week before the conference. Recently, they published a report describing the 11 month project with about 300 people involved that resulted in the scenario’s. Of course, I browsed it to find the grid that defined the four scenarios.

First of all, it turned out that the study was not on the future of higher education, but on the future of the digital learning (and working) environments of students (and staff). The dimensions to define the scenario’s were: the curriculum (Institute driven versus Student/user driven) and the digital learning environment (Institute driven versus Student/user driven). The following table shows how the four scenario’s fit within this frame.

Institute driven digital learning environment

User driven digital learning environment

Institute driven curriculum


Department Store

User driven curriculum

Super Market

(Stock) Exchange

What for me was not clear during the conference, but became obvious through the report, is that the topic was not really the future of higher education, but options for educational delivery technology. Of course, it helps to distinguish a variety of models then. They exist already today, they will exist tomorrow and we could study which conditions could make one model more preferent than another. Personally, I would have reserved the scenario methodology for other types of problems. Nevertheless, it was great that SURF experimented this way and tries to innovate its conference as well. At least, I’m curious already about the next one.

Interesting links (all in Dutch unfortunately):