Between the trend lines: the digital university in 2021

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) conducts an annual survey of professionals and researchers working in learning technology, supporting and delivering services in educational institutions and other organisations. The most recent data was collected between December 2020 – January 2021, and the report published in February 2021. This post captures my thoughts as I looked through the ALT Survey report (Deepwell and Hawksey, 2021) alongside sessions from the THE Digital Universities Week event (17 – 21 May 2021) (THE, 2021) and an international perspective from the EDUCAUSE Horizon 2021 report (Pelletier et al., 2021).

Trends in important current areas of work

The ALT Annual Survey (Deepwell and Hawksey, 2021) has longitudinal data for 22 aspects of learning technology and presents trends in both current (p.5-7) and future areas of work (p.16-18). Respondents indicate how important, or not, tools, processes and approaches to the use of learning technology are in their practice. Across the responses, which it is worth noting represent views and experience from a huge range of roles and seniority levels, there are some clear trends. This year the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the priorities of work, and the patterns that emerge from these trends I believe show how there has been consolidation of technology-enhanced learning approaches as a move to blended/hybrid learning ‘business as usual’ is coming about. 

Trend lines for 22 current areas of practice in learning technology. Rankings can be accessed via the PDF linked in the references section. Key points discussed below.
Current trends (Deepwell and Hawksey, 2021, p.6)

Unsurprisingly, Content Management Systems and VLEs persist as the main aspect in learning technologists work, though this year Collaborative Tools such as MS Teams and Google Workspace have matched its ranking of importance. Bring Your Own Device has also risen significantly in the rankings, and aside from the fundamental need of students to use their own device to access online learning during universities’ pivot to online, is intrinsically connected to both content access and the significance of collaborative tools. You need a device to access content, but similarly in order to actively participate and collaborate, you’ll need a device that as a minimum has a microphone and ideally (in some circumstances) webcam too. Web Conferencing/Virtual Classroom Software remains highly ranked too, though as a distinct entity such as Skype (remember that?), Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate, such tools may seem disjointed from alternative, integrated platforms such as MS Teams or Google Classroom. These more recent Collaborative Tools combine not just content provision, but both asynchronous and synchronous toolsets, notifications and immediacy of interaction through mobile apps. The interesting aspect for me is how well students have managed (or not) with a multitude of devices, with a range of tools and content provided. 

In a his presentation at the THE Digital Universities online event (THE, 2021), Ian Dunn described universities typically operating in the ‘desktop’ and ‘laptop’ space, as they are the devices staff tend to have and be trained on, yet the same might not be true of students favouring tablets or smartphones (Dunn, 2021). Accessing VLE content, and juggling content whilst participating in or watching back online lectures, is a tricky process to achieve without a desktop/laptop device. Note-making on a tablet or mobile phone at the same time as engaging in a MS Teams seminar, responding to peers in the chat and reviewing the lecture notes is considerably difficult. In the ‘online pivot’ and ‘emergency provision’ of online education, teaching staff have had to take what materials they had already to hand, to use what they knew (VLEs) to make things work online quickly, and to use an institutionally approved platform for live teaching (MS Teams and the like). This is not learning design for mobile learning, but face-to-face pedagogy adapted for online which may give rise to tensions in the learning design. This may go some way to explain the challenges students have faced adapting to online learning (Jisc, 2021a), as the devices they have and the digital spaces they reside in, may be different from the digital space of the course designer or educator. 

The areas of practice that have had notable and longer term downward trends are the discrete aspects which have been formerly labelled as game-changers, but had limited or perhaps tempered adoption across whole institutions. That is not to say that each of these are not important to the sector, and it is likely that these downward rankings of importance are that they have either become business as usual, therefore moved out of learning technologist developmental stages, or operate on a project basis with cessation of funding and institutional sponsorship. 

The most fascinating downward trend from the ALT Survey is that of Social Networking. The spaces of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (given as examples in the survey question) are not to all students’ preferences, and with regular controversies around social networking platforms and user behaviour, perhaps this is reflected in institutional moves away from supporting such spaces for teaching and learning. A different view would be that, as they become more ubiquitous, they are less of an intervention, and more an everyday digital experience (like email). What the survey result may indicate is a move away from attempts to design learning for social networking spaces as collaborative tools take their place, though not to exclude it for non-learning activities. This leads to separation of digital spaces between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’, where institutions establish ‘safe spaces’ in the form of peer networks within courses and programmes. Institutional online platforms such as Aula foster these networks, and social learning is an embedded part of online course platforms such as FutureLearn to alleviate the need for personal social networking services in order to remain connected to other learners. These platforms and designed-in approaches provide opportunities for interaction within a topic-based community, that is moderated and focused. 

In a period of time where being connected online has dominated students’ learning experience, a cynical view would be that the informal spaces of social networks to provide the ‘wrap-around’ socialisation are not ranked as important. However, within MS Teams and Google Workspaces there are ample opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions of a social nature. Rather than focusing on the specific technology, it is the learning design and cohort building activities that provide the group forming process. If this is done in an inclusive way, students, and staff, will then select the technology and tools that work best for them to keep connected.

Trends in future areas of work

Broadly speaking, the survey results show trends in future areas of work are similar to those of current areas. This is quite possibly due to the need to consolidate the practice learning from ‘online pivot’ and ‘hybrid learning’ experiences to form a sustainable and flexible approach to course delivery over the next year (and likely beyond).

Trend lines for 22 future areas of practice in learning technology. Rankings can be accessed via the PDF linked in the references section. Key points discussed below.
Future trends (Deepwell and Hawksey, 2021, p.17)

Siân Bayne, responding to what the campus will look like in 2030 in the THE Digital Universities event panel discussion on this topic, suggested a focus on “mobility” between spaces, some students joining on campus, some online, a blended campus, with an emphasis on student choice over where they want to learn (Bayne, 2021). The hybrid model adopted by some institutions over the last 18 months, has led to developing parallel courses for both campus and online, which is clearly not sustainable. Therefore, the ‘blended campus’ will involve a complex reevaluation of learning design, learning technology and curriculum outcomes to enable such flexibility. 

The other aspects which have lessened in rankings on the ALT Survey include Blogs, ePortfolios and Digital and Open Badges. Yet these too have a resurgence in professional learning that spans educational and training establishments. Examples include capturing ongoing professional learning through portfolio-like systems and recording training and short periods of learning using badges. Perhaps this is also where micro-credentials and ‘unbundling’ of the curriculum comes into play, enabling sustained learning before, during and after degree programmes. This type of unbundling isn’t common within undergraduate study, and this may be an explanation as to why such technologies have reduced in importance as discrete elements perhaps within institutional agendas.

Gaps in the survey

One missing area of specific work and development on the ALT Survey is clearly ‘online learning’ in the sense of fully-online programmes of study, and this too would be reflective of an unbundling approach. A possible expansion or rewording of the MOOCs, SPOCs, TOOCs definition to include short courses, micro-credentials and fully online degrees would be beneficial to map the shifts in pedagogical focus, as has been done for Blended Learning

Another aspect that I expect to see on the ALT Survey in the future, is the role that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play in all forms of digital learning as a distinct area of focus. This is still a field in its infancy in the sense that institutional support and embedded use of AI is still in the ‘understanding and exploring phases’ (Jisc, 2021b). It is also presented as a highly technical area, likely to require involvement of specialist software and services, rather than ‘home grown’ solutions. Whether AI will be part of the learning technologists’ toolkit or reside within IT teams is another area for exploration. Some suggestions focus on AI enabling personalisation of learning at programme, module and content level (Jisc, 2021b, p.5). AI may also have a focus for operational activities for efficiencies and automated processes. Neil Morris, at the THE Digital Universities event, touched upon the idea of automation to reduce operational burdens and enabling individuals to redirect their time towards more highly valued human interactions (Morris, 2021). 

With the idea that people are at the centre of learning and teaching, advances in learning technologies and technologies that support processes in education could help to ensure effective use of time, space and the opportunities for interaction at the individual level. This is borne out by the prioritisation in the ALT Survey of Collaborative Tools, Blended Learning (which, as a design approach should aim to make the most of both the online and face-to-face space), and Web Conferencing.

Comparison to EDUCAUSE Horizon Report 2021

The EDUCAUSE Teaching and Learning Horizon Report (Pelletier et al., 2021) provides horizon scanning trends and six key technologies and practices for the sector with a broader perspective, complemented with in-depth justification and expert perspectives. A panel of leading international practitioners and researchers go through a process of identifying and ranking aspects of technology-enhanced learning. 

“Three of the six technologies and practices identified this year (learning analytics, OER, and AI) are returning entries from previous years’ reports, suggesting some continuity in post-pandemic higher education even in the midst of so much change and disruption. Microcredentialing makes its first appearance in the Horizon Report this year, perhaps due to the flexible and just-in-time forms of education they might enable post-pandemic. The topics of blended and hybrid course models and quality online learning are new to the Horizon Report this year as well, though both are consistent with our focus in the 2020 report on instructional design. These inclusions also illustrate the continued importance of thoughtful design and flexible course models for higher education in the future.“

(Pelletier et al., 2021, p.5)

What is particularly interesting are the areas of overlap and dissonance between the Horizon report and the ALT Survey. The ALT Survey shows greater importance appears to be placed on ‘closed systems’ with Open Education in the lower half of the rankings, yet Open Educational Resources (OER) are one of the six areas of focus for the Horizon report. In describing OER, the Horizon report uses the phrase “resources that are ‘born digital’” (Pelletier et al., 2021, p.25). The distinction between resources created for online dissemination and interaction, versus resources adapted for online dissemination and interaction, may be where some of the friction of responding to pandemic teaching restrictions comes in having to repurpose at speed. One of the benefits of OER adoption brings is also greater awareness of how materials can be legally reused, and possible reduction in outlay to create such assets. However, with a sector that the Horizon report notes is having to grapple with reduced funding (p.9) from both central governments (not just for teaching, but research as well) and reduction in student numbers, whilst not explicitly stated, the implication is that there will be an increased commercial agenda and that itself poses a challenge for sustaining open educational resources. 

However, in my view, a superficial assessment that positions open education as a commercial risk belies the contribution that open education has made to the future sustainability of tertiary and professional education. The lessons learnt from the processes of creating high-quality, research-driven open educational resources have combined with advances in mobile learning and social learning platforms to enable MOOCs. Far from MOOCs being on the decline indicated by the ALT Survey, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic platforms have seen rapid and significant increase of enrolments on MOOCs and related open-access (though not necessarily free) online course products (Shah, 2020). Through MOOCs, institutions have learnt how to scale online learning and create sustainable courses through effective online pedagogy. They have also begun more closely integrated courses to meet both short and long term employers needs. Transferring the learning from MOOC and online course development broadly across institutions will have had many benefits to avoid common pitfalls of online only modes of learning. Yet fully online courses with high production values are costly, and perhaps one way to address both commercialisation and competition is to focus on collaboration.

Kirsty Kiezebrink, in the THE Digital Universities panel discussion on what campus will look like in 2030, provided a further perspective on unbundling of higher education with increasing opportunities for collaboration and learning across multiple institutions (a point similarly raised by Neil Morris). Kiezebrink points out the intention to work with a view of “integration”, rather than “overlapping” to foster ongoing engagement with education (Kiezebrink, 2021). This requires alignment within, and possible between, universities to recognise the benefits of such models. This cannot just be achieved through individual academic staff, but a concerted and cooperative effort across institutional teams. 

Dunn (2021) noted the significance of learning technologists, learning designers and media producers in course development teams and their contribution to the success of online learning, but also how the role of academic staff will change. Academic staff will need to be aware of online pedagogy, but their focus must remain on subject knowledge and the advancement of their discipline. This justification and acknowledgement of the specialist contribution that learning technologists and course production professionals provide, with the discipline expertise of lecturers and industry partners, demonstrates the importance of the collaborative approach to course development. In summary, bringing together expertise in the discipline, online pedagogy, learning technologies and the student experience provides a sound foundation for quality digital education. 

Collaboration as the main trend 

I conclude here with another extract from the Horizon 2021 report. The challenges the sector is facing are also opportunities for it to grow. Learning technologists and learning designers can and should be central to establishing thoughtful, student-centred online learning. These roles are often bridging roles, and in the upcoming years, the negotiation of new priorities and responsiveness to trends will need to be informed by multiple perspectives and those with expertise in evaluating the pros and cons of different approaches. 

“Issues such as collaboration and flexibility, addressing the inequalities claringly exposed by the pandemic, open learning ecologies and new pedagogical blend, and the ever-present issue of funding are ones that cross national boundaries and bridge institutional types. At a time in which there is so much division, these [Report] essays can serve to remind us how much we, in higher education, have in common.”

(Pelletier et al., 2021, p.36)

It is reassuring then that within the practice of learning technologists, the main driver and enabler for use of learning technology is first and foremost Engagement from Students / Learners, followed closely by both Colleagues’ Commitment and Colleagues’ Knowledge/Expertise (Deepwell and Hawksey, 2021, p.34). I am looking forward to the innovations, closer working relationships between professional learning support services and academic departments, and a focus on collaborative, flexible pedagogies that enable lifelong learning with learner needs front and centre. What the ALT Survey shows me is that there will be peaks and troughs of interest in different technologies and approaches, but in many ways they are interconnected and evolving. It’s also perhaps time for learning technologists to acknowledge they can’t be an expert in all these areas and that specialisation is ok. The pace of change, networking opportunities, examples and evidence for each practice or tool shown in the survey are extensive. The way to tackle this exponential growth in learning technology and digital education sustainably is to continue to learn from each other, and keep learning ourselves.


  1. Bayne, (2021). Panel discussion: What could university look like for the class of 2030?. THE Digital Universities Week, 17-21 May 2021.
  2. Deepwell, M and Hawksey, M. (2021). Findings from the ALT Annual Survey 2020 (Complete Findings). Technical Report. Association for Learning Technology.
  3. Dunn, I. (2021). Leaving the lecture theatre behind: Innovative teaching for world-class learning. THE Digital Universities Week, 17-21 May 2021.
  4. Jisc (2021a). Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: Question by question findings for UK higher education based on data gathered October – December 2020 (pulse 1). March 2021. Jisc data analytics.
  5. Jisc (2021b). AI in tertiary education: A summary of the current state of play. April 2021.
  6. Kiezebrink, K. (2021). Panel discussion: What could university look like for the class of 2030? THE Digital Universities Week, 17-21 May 2021.
  7. Morris, N. (2021). Digital transformation: It’s mostly not about technology. THE Digital Universities Week, 17-21 May 2021.
  8. Pelletier, K., Brown, M., Brooks, D.C., McCormack, M., Reeves, J. and Arbino, N. (2021). EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, Teaching and Learning Edition. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE.
  9. Shah, D. (2020). By the numbers: MOOCs during the pandemic. The Report by Class Central.
  10. THE (2021). THE Digital Universities Week, 17-21 May 2021. Times Higher Education. 


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