Mapping higher education’s literacies of the future

Patrick Blessinger, Enakshi Sengupta, and Mandla Makhanya

The world continues to become increasingly defined by more complexity and uncertainty. The planet continues to become more complex as a result of advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, biotechnology, and genetic engineering, among other innovations. 

At the same time, the planet continues to become more uncertain as a result of climate change, biodiversity and oceanic degradation, the refugee crisis, extremism, and nuclear proliferation, among other global problems.

The growing anxiety associated with the increased and paradoxical juxtaposition of innovation and global problems places greater urgency on educational institutions to become actively involved in addressing these concerns and issues. Although the main purpose of education is to produce learning, higher education also serves several other equally important aims, including the civic or political, economic, social, environmental and personal purposes of education.

This contemporary reality raises serious humanitarian concerns and issues that are best addressed through a lens of human rights and democratic principles. Through this lens, institutions, societies, and the planet are best served when leadership and decision-making are based on principles of ethics, inclusion, and equity.

Some emerging trends in higher education

One of the best ways to get a grasp of the possible futures of higher education is to examine the emerging trends in higher education. Integrating sustainable development into the curriculum is one of the emerging trends in higher education, even though relatively little research has been conducted on the topic thus far. 

Another important emerging trend in higher education is the integration of learning through a more tightly integrated and inclusive curriculum.

The problems currently facing societies and the planet today are of such complexity that they transcend industry and academic discipline boundaries. Pervasive problems such as hunger, homelessness, poverty, un/underemployment, debt and lack of social mobility cannot be solved or mitigated solely with siloed thinking. These problems traverse disciplinary boundaries and therefore require integrated thinking and problem-solving.

Another important emerging trend in higher education is the democratisation of knowledge and learning. 

With the development of new ways to provide traditional formal learning (for example, e-learning and hybrid learning) has come the emergence of open education (for instance, MIT OpenCourseWare, a relatively less structured type of formal learning that is open to all) and non-formal learning (such as provided by the Khan Academy). 

In addition, the growing importance of continual learning in the lives of people has also sparked other forms of education such as shadow education (for instance, private tutoring).

Results of emerging trends

Not only has lifelong learning become a human right, but it is also looked at by some as a social equaliser. Thus, over the past several decades, higher education has evolved from an elitist model of education to a universal model of education. As the world has become increasingly hyperconnected, so has higher education in many ways.

For instance, today there are many ways to provide learning along the learning spectrum from informal to non-formal to formal learning. In doing so, many types and forms of communities of knowledge now exist, which in turn, have created a more dynamic, diverse and interconnected learning eco-system (that is, knowledge democracy).

The end results of these trends are 1) to democratise knowledge so that it is available to anyone at any time at any place, and 2) to develop a global knowledge society by making learning more meaningful by addressing the needs of individuals, societies and the planet as a whole. 

Since education at all levels is the engine that drives the development of humanity, it follows that education policy must be visionary in its policy-making and inclusive in its practices.

A humanistic vision of higher education

These trends have moved the higher education community towards a humanistic vision of higher education. Humanistic education refers to the role of education in addressing the contemporary needs, concerns, and problems of humanity. 

In humanistic education, all three core knowledge domains (the arts, humanities, and sciences) are equally important and valuable since each domain serves a different role and purpose in human development.

Humanistic education takes the Humboldtian model of higher education (the integration of teaching, learning, and research) and extends it to include service to humanity. Thus, its aim is human capacity building in all areas and at all levels. 

In the global higher education community, international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the International Association of Universities and the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association provide a voice and a medium through which to help achieve this aim. These organisations work with institutions, educators, and policy-makers to help higher education move in a positive direction in an often uncertain and chaotic world.

In short, the contemporary vision of humanistic education focuses on the core qualities of all people: agency, dignity, and development. As such, it involves the ongoing development of the ideals of rights (human, animal, and environment) and democracy (in all its forms). 

It also involves all those principles that flow from those ideals – inclusion, equity and justice – and all those practices that flow from those principles – lifelong learning for all, academic freedom, pedagogical pluralism, epistemic diversity, and institutional diversification. 

This contemporary humanistic vision of higher education can be depicted in the following model:

A humanistic framework (agency, dignity, and development) –> ideals (rights and democracy) –> principles (equity, inclusion, and justice) –> practices (lifelong learning for all, academic freedom, pedagogical pluralism, epistemic diversity, and institutional diversification).

Higher education at a turning point

Higher education is at a turning point. As such, it must re-examine its position in society as a knowledge producer and re-imagine its role on the planet as a contributor to the common good. For instance, sustainable development has become a top priority in addressing the needs of the planet. Thus, colleges and universities must learn how to integrate sustainable development into the curriculum if they want to remain relevant in the 21st century.

A growing number of educational institutions have initiated community-based learning programmes, such as service-learning – a teaching strategy, a learning activity and an educational philosophy that fosters active and engaged learning by integrating experiential learning and student research with classroom learning through community service. 

In this way, they aim to promote and facilitate civic engagement, social responsibility, and democratic learning. A programme like service-learning can serve as a gateway for colleges and universities to implement more global programmes, such as sustainable development that will help equip students with the new literacies of the future.

Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University, New York City, United States, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association or HETL. Enakshi Sengupta is director of the Center for Advanced Research in Education at HETL. Mandla Makhanya is principal, vice-chancellor and professor at the University of South Africa and president of HETL. HETL will explore the issues raised in this article in its upcoming conference, the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Conference.