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How will the digital transition transform higher education and research?

The digital transition is causing seismic shifts. What changes are in store for higher education and research? To answer this question, INRA and Agreenium performed a foresight study focused on their key research themes: agriculture, the environment, food, and animal health. Four scenarios emerged that describe contrasting but sometimes congruous situations. This work has highlighted future directions that the institutions could take...which may lead them beyond their primary fields of study.

Digital transition foresight study, illustration based on a painting by Robert Delaunay
By Nicole Ladet, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 08/05/2019
Published on 06/27/2019

MOOCS, the plethora of online educational resources…the digital transition is changing educational content, tools, and methods, as well as the roles of educators and students. Big data, artificial intelligence, neural networks, and data mining are all transforming the world of research, along with its practices and job opportunities. The digital transition is also profoundly affecting the ways in which research is applied, with major consequences in key areas such as digital agriculture, eHealth, food tech, and connected veterinarian care. As a result, Agreenium and INRA decided to collaborate on a foresight study looking at the effect of the digital transition on higher education and research (HER). At INRA, the effort was launched by the Human Resources Department and the institute’s scientific delegate for the digital transformation. The Delegation for Collective Scientific Expertise, Foresight, and Advanced Studies (DEPE) led the study, whose results were presented and discussed during a symposium held on June 27, 2019.

They revealed that publicly funded HER institutions may face one of four contrasting scenarios between now and 2040. They identified the challenges associated with the digital transition and highlighted future paths that could be taken in terms of structure, organisation, priority setting, and human resources. Each scenario encompasses a variety of issues: societal, economic, and political circumstances; institutional organisational schemes; practices used in research, higher education, and training programmes; approaches to data collection and management; interactions between society and HER institutions; ethical concerns; and the digital culture.

The GAFAM economic model versus...

In the first scenario, entitled "HER and the Big Five,” globalisation drives outcomes, and HER institutions primarily rely on tools, resources, and data provided by GAFAM. They are thus absorbed into their economic model. As a result, privately funded HER institutions are the most developed and valued. The research world becomes "uberized": researchers and university professors are largely self-employed and are rated based on algorithms. Public research institutions now essentially manage researchers' profiles. Innovation is largely driven by start-ups, who strive to be acquired by the Big Five. Consequently, GAFAM's value system shapes knowledge acquisition. Marketing and the creation of commercial services for consumers are given much greater weight than societal concerns. This system generates dramatic social inequality in access to higher education and substantially dehumanizes relationships. Only fields of study of little short-term commercial interest (seen as less valuable by GAFAM) will be left to publicly funded HER institutions.

...EU regulations protecting common goods, regional approaches, and the constrained, reasonable use of technology

In the second scenario, "HER and the digital transition help protect the planet,” concerns over the Earth's health and resources inspire society and policy makers to prioritise environmental challenges. The environmental crisis encourages strong action by the EU, along with better funding and infrastructure for independent public institutions. More attention is paid to societal issues, the state of common goods, and the fact that certain types of knowledge benefit society over the longer term. The work of researchers and educators at publicly funded HER institutions is valued and funded generously. Society places its trust in scientists. Open data policies bear fruit and foster collaboration. Within the EU, a "science without borders” takes root. Higher education follows suit with more universal courses, mostly taught in English, and EU-level degrees.

In the third scenario, "HER and regional digital ecosystems,” the future of HER is shaped by regional influences and local stakeholders. This regional network relies on relationships among areas that are strongly shaped by the EU. To use a food-production term, "short supply chains” are employed to generate research and innovation. Science and society engage in close collaborations. Focus is placed on dealing with local concerns and confronting the inequalities arising from digital technologies. Training programmes encourage critical approaches to technology usage and promote reasonable limits. Science and participatory research are greatly valued, and scientific approaches and practical experience are viewed as complementary. Greater care is taken of common goods, and trust is placed in science. Educational communities involve both virtual relationships and in-class interactions.

In the fourth scenario, "HER and the scarcity of digital resources,” HER institutions help manage a technology scarcity arising from conflicts over resources (e.g., energy and precious metals) and the psychosocial risks associated with the unrestrained use of digital technologies. Society restructures itself to more moderately consume digital technologies, following the development of regulations (e.g., an EU data byte tax) and guidelines promoting reasonable usage. The use of technology is consequently constrained and declines in intensity. HER institutions prioritise programmes that promote diminished technology usage. Weaned off its technological dependence, society accepts this shift and increasingly disconnects. In tandem, more inclusive learning models are bolstered within society. The data sciences are redesigned to be less "wasteful.” With the same objective, modelling research is better coupled with laboratory and/or field experiments. Higher education becomes more of a joint effort, relying on a more diffuse, better partitioned educational network. Knowledge is generated in response to local conditions and is based on laboratory research, field research, and interactions with other stakeholders. Educational tools and content are created by educators within online or in-person learning communities.

New opportunities and collective strategies

Each scenario presents its own opportunities and risks. The scenario in which digital technologies subsume all else seems unlikely. Instead, it seems more plausible that digital technologies will continue to transform the roles of researchers and university professors. In the world of research, a better balance will need to be found between the instantaneous nature of digital technologies and the longer time frame needed to observe certain biological and environmental processes, which are particularly influenced by regional contexts. Digital tools, Big Data, artificial intelligence, and the automation of knowledge acquisition require us to make new advances in the data sciences. The role of educators is therefore shifting from transmitting knowledge to guiding students, advising students, and helping engineer the educational system. Technologies that facilitate communication and promote open data can foster collaboration both among and across disciplines. Thanks to the digital transition, each and every one of us can engage in new real or virtual interactions.
The results of this foresight study should encourage HER institutions to develop a collective strategy for responding to the digital transition that considers societal visions of change.

Contact(s)
Pilotes:
Marc Barzman, Olivier Mora

Summary (in French)

Foresight Study

This foresight study was led by DEPE and utilised scenario analysis. It was carried out by a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional working group comprising 12 people and a joint INRA-Agreenium advisory committee comprising 9 people.