Higher education, time has come to break the loop

Digital: short word, huge opportunities. Digital is flourishing everywhere, yet it remains a blur for many educational institutions. Digital is praised by governments, school head boards, teachers as well as students, nonetheless there is no existing practical guideline to drive all participants through.

In higher education[1] digital technologies are not mastered and even if there are currently various technologic innovations, their impact on schools’ architecture, space and pedagogy is still low. Schools seem to be stuck in the past. However, when it comes to companies, the race for digital transformation has already reshaped business models: thus the question is how can higher education align in order to match companies’ expectations?


Understanding digital change means having a closer look at how to get the best out of it.

Researches have shown that there is no correlation, at European level, between the quality of computer’s availability in schools and the frequency of their use by students. Consequently, this suggests that unlocking digital potential would depend more on monitoring learning management than on digital equipment and devices. This outcome is comparable to numerous business failures that are due to the discrepancies between consumers’ habits and companies’ propositions. When a change is neither anticipated and communicated nor managed during its implementation, users tend to reject it. Human nature likes steadiness, and digital is all about renewal.

On the one hand digital reaches better outcomes when it is used to answer system failures. Many school initiatives can be emphasized, mainly in low-income and developing countries such as The Bridge International Academies in Kenya where absenteeism cripples education[2]. Digital devices are used to track teachers’ availability on a real-time basis allowing substitute teachers to be alerted as soon as a teacher is missing. Innova Schools in Peru are also using digital tools to provide the mandatory set of hard skills that must be taught to students, in a country where in 2007, 62% of teachers did not reach an acceptable level on 6th grade reading tests and 92% failed to reach an acceptable level for 6th grade mathematics[3].

On the other hand, as digital use in higher education is often narrowed down to ancillary activities, thus students tend to acquire skills by themselves. As if, at the end of the day, school itself cannot walk them through their educational path. Schools are chained to the teaching corpus ability to embrace technologies and to the country’s vision on digitalization. Knowing that digital is buzzing in all states policies, the reason why change is so slow seems to rely on the ability of the teaching corpus to adopt and develop their digital approach.

In developed countries where higher education represents one of the greatest budgets, such as Luxembourg[4] where the budget has been increased by 25% in 2018 compared to the period 2014-2017, what could be the invisible obstacles relegating digital applications to accessory tools?


The purpose of digital is to transform past methods by accelerating processes as well as bringing participants closer in time and space. When adapted to higher education, new technologies give students the opportunity to build a strong skill-set enabling fast adaptation and strategic alignment to fast moving markets.

However, if the main purpose of introducing digital is to train students to face coming transformations or complex flows, it goes way beyond. Digital implementation has to be seen as a disruptive change, modifying the way knowledge is acquired, stored and applied. To reach system and structural transformation within school, digital must be empowered for its intrinsic value and not as an accessory tool[5]. Most of the time digital is cumbersome because it isn’t understood. It baffles teachers, students and even companies. Students are biased by their personal use of digital technologies, often restricted to social media and informative tools. Companies have a tailored vision of digital dictated by their own business model strategies; but what about teachers?
They have been considered, throughout the whole education history as pillars, sole owners of knowledge and know-how, and even as pedagogical gurus. But implementing digital supposes to rethink the overall process of learning: the way to acquire knowledge is transformed so as the way it is delivered.

As outlined by the charts below from the European Commission Benchmark[6], teachers recognize pedagogical inhibitors as more impacting than equipment inhibitors when it comes to justify the poor use of digital applications. Thus, there is a true mission for schools, at all grades, to soften that feeling and guide knowledge providers through changes brought by digital.

These charts make a statement for 4th Grade students, which correspond to elementary schools, but the trend remains the same throughout all grades, showing that the discomfort persists during the overall educational curriculum.

Digital is a huge opportunity to reconsider pedagogy and to empower teachers by challenging their methods and habits. Using digital tools means:

  • Reconsidering methods and programs
  • Providing new resources
  • Rearranging space organization and school times

If one out of the three keystones is missing, the change is unable to provoke the intended effects on students’ learning environment.

A very large majority of school principals and teachers do agree about the relevance of adapting the dispensing of knowledge[7], as well as they recognize the positive impacts of digital on students’ motivation and achievements. Acknowledgment is the first step to tackle change. Then it shall swiftly trigger massive structural change and initiate knowledge distribution transformations. A revolution is nothing like an evolution, current markets are pushing schools to evolve, but they need to mutate and enter in motion. Most schools are rooted in historical transmission processes and do not anticipate that they might promptly fall into a chasm.

Taking a step back and visualizing the whole knowledge chain, from schools to markets, it seems that the most relevant educational style is lifelong learning. Nothing is fixed, hence disruptions have to be the new basis. The underlying condition for teachers to embrace that paradigm is their openness to work on the DNA of their teaching routine.


Summit Public Schools are based in San Francisco and Washington, they are tailored to prepare students for success in college, career and life. Summit uses educational technologies to strengthen its project and competency-based learning approach. Starting with learning objectives, Summit has developed a shared interface named “Skill” that incorporates 36 skills considered by the school as the most appropriate set of skills to face future schooling and life challenges. All students are provided with the foundational literacies but also with higher-order thinking competencies and character qualities.

Students work at their own pace and are always surrounded by teaching professionals encouraging self-directed learning and exchanges. It enables Summit students to take responsibility for their own learning and to develop personality traits such as persistence, initiative, curiosity and adaptability. Group moments are supporting further personal development through discussion, reflection and collaboration. Students submit all assignments using Google Docs to give each other feedback and receive inputs from their teachers.

Summit’s content program is supported by “digital playlists” for online, self-directed learning. They include multiple types of internally and externally developed contents, such as exercises, videos and quizzes. Students have to go through these playlists, taking assessments as they feel ready. In addition to playlists, students work on platforms such as Khan Academy[8] to improve foundational literacies.

Thanks to Summit’s Personalized Learning Plan (PLP), students evaluate their curriculum in real time and set their goals for the next week, month, semester and year with the help of a mentor. In addition, schools are providing strong pedagogical support: teachers work as coaches helping students analyze their successes and failures. Summit schools have consistently performed above California’s measures of successful school standards. Thanks to its specialized and individualized curricula, 96% of Summit students are accepted to at least 1 four-year college or university[9]. They complete college within six years reaching double scores compared to the national average.


As Summit example demonstrated, when students and teachers are in charge of their own successes through project learning, transversal development and tailored programs, digital gives its best. Teachers are part of the learning value-chain during the whole schooling experience and this architecture has been replicated in the French School “42”. “42” is specialized in IT (as per their slogan “Born to code”) and designed to make learning become an experience. This is the main difference between a school embracing the potential of a disruptive architecture and a school that is just following the digital trend.

“42” is a free tuition school created by four business entrepreneurs with strong beliefs towards digital. The school’s model is built around project management with recurrent business interactions and in-depth focus on human development. These four innovative partners like to say that “42 is their answer to what should be tomorrow’s educational system.”[10] Creating experience is their core strategy and students are embarked in the “42” journey through digital exchanges but also through real business cases with professionals attending class conferences. They are building an agile way of learning where students are at the heart of the school changing the relation between students and teachers through a flattened hierarchy.

If we consider the 21st century ideal skill set as presented in the table below, schools should consider to change their systems and create student-oriented experiences to leverage learning. It will guarantee a greater match between students’ profile and complex upcoming companies’ needs.

Students are not expected to narrow their education on foundational literacy, but rather extend it to soft skills and character qualities. The current “ideal student” profile is thus a complex mix of soft and hard skills. This set could be acquired without digital technologies, indeed, but markets and companies’ expectations encourage to implement them as project management methodology is promoted. Learning has to be meaningful once school is over: companies expect students to understand learning as a continuous process that can last for a lifetime. Knowledge has to be updated as well as methods and tools along with environmental changes and personal developments. Higher education is the last step before jumping into the labor market and is supposed to ensure students own the right set to succeed. Schools purpose have changed and so its structure should.


We, as individuals, tend to be the mirror of what we have been taught to be; we reflect educational patterns where competition prevails. We strive to end up in first position, to get the teachers’ attention, to pass tests with the best possible grades. Digital reverses that competition paradigm and tries to transform the one-character story to a community story. A Peer to Peer society is showing up and needs well-aware participants to be sustained. And that society development depends on participants’ awareness and understanding of available opportunities.

Teachers are more important than ever in that learning architecture because they are responsible for an ethical, thoughtful use of project management. They ensure that the outcome is aligned with each student personality and goals. Digital has changed the educational system because it reduces the time teachers have to be focusing on ranking, tracking and reviewing and leaves more space to high added value experiences for students.

Education should be functioning on distributed flows of information where each participant is an actor with access to the same level of information regardless of his origins, level of involvement, actions, and educational background. Students have already embarked on the path that digital technologies have opened them. They grasped the opportunity to change their work habits and sensed education won’t ever be the same. They want to disrupt the way education is seen and just need a boost to get the best of what education could offer them. If we don’t want our children to be stuck in the middle of two systems we shall act now for our future.

Spread the word!

By Marie-Charlotte Renaux consultant at Initio

[1] By higher education we intend all institutions taking responsibility for education of students from fourteen years old.

[2] « Education and Health Services in Kenya: Data for Results and Accountability», Gayle M. and Obert P.

[3]Census Evaluation of Students, Sistema de Consulta de Resultados de la Evaluación Censal de Estudiantes (SICRECE), Innova Schools data, 2013.

[4]« Promising prospects: €1.44 Billion for higher education », Ministry of Higher Education and Research, The official Portal of the Grand Duchy Luxembourg, 2018.

[5]« Campus Numérique », Fichez 2006 ; Benchenna, Brulois, 2007 ; Craipeau, Metzger, 2009.

[6] «Survey of Schools : ICT in education. Benchmarking access, use and attitudes to technology in Europe’s schools», 2013, Digital Single Market, European Commission.

[7] «Survey of Schools : ICT in education. Benchmarking access, use and attitudes to technology in Europe’s schools», 2013, Digital Single Market, European Commission.

[8] https://www.khanacademy.org/

[9] «New vision for education : unlocking the potential of technology», World Economic forum in in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, 2015

[10] 42, http://www.42.fr


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