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Access, Equity and Quality: Envisioning the Sustainable Future of Postsecondary Education in a Digital Age


Postsecondary education is aimed at equipping citizens with skills and competencies necessary for the functioning of future societies and economies, as well as personal success in the workplace and life. Being at a turning point, postsecondary education faces many challenges. In addition to such issues as the pressure to offer accessible, affordable anytime/anyplace learning, postsecondary education must face related to increasing student numbers, diversification and differentiation of agents and functions, and increased market demand, while the resources available are declining in many places. Information and communication technologies  (ICT) can provide new ways to learn new skills for new jobs, and support practically every aspect of higher education and lifelong learning, including administration, finances, learning, research, security, and sustainability (EDUCAUSE, 2010). ICT changes what, how, where, and when people learn. Due to the ubiquity of technology and its power to facilitate highly dynamic, adaptable, and engaging virtual learning environments, personalized lifelong learning opportunities become feasible (Redecker, 2011).

To strengthen UNESCO’s function as an international laboratory of ideas and a platform for the global debate on critical trends and challenges, the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education initiated a project “Access, Equity and Quality: Envisioning the Sustainable Future of Postsecondary Education  in a Digital Age” to define the future agenda in ICT in postsecondary education, and to contribute to shaping education policies based on research and foresight studies conducted by UNESCO in collaboration with its partner-institutions (UNESCO, 2015). The project contributes to the analysis of ICT-related innovations and current/emerging trends in ICT use in higher education and identification of the strategies, which would ensure the harnessing of the potential of ICT, wider access and higher quality of learning at universities. The objective is to develop a framework for forward thinking, identify major challenges that postsecondary education and relevant ICT will face in a 15-year horizon. It is also deemed to develop recommendations and practical measures that could be implemented to address the emerging challenges. The project explores what should be done in postsecondary education until 2030 to meet the needs of students and future society. Particular attention is paid to the question of how education can both leverage innovations, particularly in the area of ICT, and foster cultural innovation and entrepreneurship. The project focuses on higher education and life-long learning, bearing in mind the need for coupling participatory pedagogy with cost-effective technologies in e‐learning strategies.

The first meeting of experts within the project was organized by UNESCO IITE and the Section of Higher Education at UNESCO’s Education Sector in March 2015 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. The event was attended by leading experts in the field of foresight, ICT and education, as well as representatives of international organizations, associations and consortia: EDUCAUSE, International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), New Media Consortium (NMC), Skoltech, etc. Experts from leading universities from Australia, Brazil, China, Korea, South Africa, UAE, as well as IT-companies took part in the meeting. The experts considered the key political, economic, social, technological, environmental and inherent educational trends that influence the changes in higher education and the use of ICT. Based on the discussion paper (Van Rij, 2015) and a pre-survey of the trends in ICT in higher education, the experts analyzed the impact and likelihood of 42 trends identified through the  desk study and additional suggestions for trends that were used as input for the foresight. All experts were unanimous about the fact that the access, equity and quality should be the focus of the project. It was decided that the project should also look at the issue of equity and validation – an increasing number of learners have been accessing knowledge but this access does not ensure equal chances for degrees, certifications, or credentials. Some institutions offer freely what must be accessed formally following standard tuition rules rather that truly equitable environment to allow people to gain the qualification, which is equally recognized and equally valued. The following issues were considered as the most important by the majority of experts and, therefore, laid a basis for the questionnaire developed for the online survey:

·         FUTURE OF LEARNING CREDENTIALS and VALIDATION: Future of credentials for learning, will there be a need for credentials in learning 3.0 / Validation / Recognition of learning / The trend and/or pressure to unbundle contents and degrees

·         FUTURE ROLE  OF FACULTY and TEACHERS: What will be the role of faculty/staff in 2030 / What skills will they need (pedagogy-content-technology) /Teacher Triangle /Who will be the new teachers

·         BUSINESS MODELS: Imagining Business models for 2030/which business model could promote opening educational content (OER and MOOC)

The survey was piloted at a round table within the V International Conference “UNESCO Chairs Partnership on ICTs use in Education”, which hosted 61 high-level international experts, representatives of the universities, teacher training institutions and practitioners from 17 countries. The survey was officially launched at the Global High-Level Policy Forum “Online, Open and Flexible Higher Education for the Future We Want” held by UNESCO and the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) in Paris in June 2016. The survey was open online until the end of October 2016. It was completed by 149 respondents from 54 countries. Their opinions have been summarized, analyzed and will be soon accessible as a report at the UNESCO IITE website. The follow-up of the survey and the report will be discussed in social media and specialized blogs devoted to ICT in higher education.

In the meantime, UNESCO IITE organized a preconference workshop at the 26th ICDE World Conference “Growing Capacities for Sustainable E-Learning Provision” hosted by ICDE and University of South Africa (Unisa). The workshop was arranged to validate some preliminary project conclusions in the African context.

Another initiative within the project was ‘Innosight’, showcasing good practices in ICT in higher education from different countries and regions of the world. The competition organized for UNESCO Chairs and universities revealed innovative approaches in ICT use. The winners of the first round were selected and awarded prizes. Their materials will be used in the report to be published. A new round of the competition is open.


UNESCO. 2015. Rethinking Education: Towards a global common good? Paris, UNESCO.

Van Rij, V. 2015. 21st Century Higher Education: Quick Scan of Foresight and Forward Looks on Higher Education in the ICT Age. Discussion Paper.

Aceto, S., Borotis, S., Devine, J., and Fischer, T. 2013.  Kampylis, P. and Punie, Y. (eds). Mapping and Analysing Prospective Technologies for Learning. Results from a consultation with European stakeholders and roadmaps for policy action. JRC Scientific and Policy Reports. Seville, European Commission-Joint Research Centre, IPTS.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. 2014. NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas, USA, The New Media Consortium.

EDUCAUSE. 2010. The Future of Higher Education: Beyond the Campus.

Redecker, C. et al. 2011. The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change. JRC Scientific and Policy Reports. Seville, European Commission-Joint Research Centre, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies.


Contact info: Svetlana Knyazeva, s.knyazeva[at]