At the Assembly Beyond Borders 2023, hosted by the international platform CACE at the University for Continuing Education Krems on 29 November 2023, speakers Philippa Hardman, Elmar Kutsch, Susanna Leong, Helga Nowotny and Séamus Ó Tuama provided insights into current topics such as dealing with uncertainty, stackability of continuing education programs, microcredentials and the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in teaching.

Friedrich Faulhammer, Rector of the University for Continuing Education Krems and initiator of CACE, addressed some aspects of the upcoming lectures. Following Prof. Helga Nowotny, he reflected on growing uncertainties in times of a poly-crisis and how education can turn challenging situations into opportunities to shape the future. His remarks also touched on the use of artificial intelligence, especially in the field of academic continuing education. Faulhammer also highlighted the importance of an appropriate regulatory framework, stating that Europe needs the best AI, not the best regulated AI.

About uncertainties and the burden of the future

Science theorist and technology researcher Helga Nowotny, a founding member of the European Research Council (ERC), spoke about dealing with uncertainties such as geopolitical tensions, fake news, and the polarization of society. Making the future predictable has always been a human concern. Nowadays, predictive algorithms serve as a basis for decision-making, but there are two aspects that should not be ignored, said Nowotny: These algorithms extrapolate data from the past and are based on pure probabilities. They behave like a black box: Even experts are unable to understand exactly how an AI arrives at its results. Nowotny outlined a paradox: On the one hand, AI should help us gain more control over the uncertain future. On the other hand, AI has the power to make us act according to its predictions, thereby reducing our control over the future. Every major issue is currently viewed in the light of the future, with great concern based on predictions, as the example of climate change shows. Nowotny called for confidence in our ability to shape the future, especially with regard to lifelong learning. After all, the future is open and unpredictable, and we must learn to live together in the course of the co-evolution between humans and digital machines.

AI and scientific integrity

Teaching and learning in the post-AI world was the topic of Philippa Hardman, affiliate scholar at the University of Cambridge and founder of the learning design process DOMS (Discovery, Outcomes, Mapping, Storyboarding). When it comes to the risks of AI, the focus is often on scientific integrity, for example in the case of AI-generated plagiarism. After all, research shows that under normal circumstances, generative AI performs better in written examinations than average students. In any case, the traditional pedagogical system of teaching, learning and assessment must now be questioned. In response to AI plagiarism, many institutions are trying to better control the authorship of written work: either by having it done on site, or with the help of AIs that can recognize AI texts, although this is an unsatisfactory cat-and-mouse game.

As an alternative to AI skepticism, there is an integrative approach to AI in teaching. This involves a shift from a pure knowledge assessment to an assessment of behavior and skills such as critical thinking and problem solving as well as the application of knowledge. Students would actively learn. Subsequently, there is a shift from selective assessments to continuous project and process assessments. This project-based learning is accompanied by a summative assessment. According to Hardman, this provides a better, more holistic picture of how well students have mastered the material. This in turn benefits academic integrity.

Opportunity and challenge: stackability

Elmar Kutsch, Associate Professor at the Cranfield School of Management (UK), introduced the many ways of thinking about stackability, i.e. the possibility of combining short academic programs. The most common is vertical stackability, in which the credits build on each other and lead to a higher qualification, usually a degree or certificate. This approach is more in-depth in terms of content, while horizontal stackability is broader and allows qualifications from different, complementary areas to be combined. The mixture of the two – diagonal stackability – allows learners to progress within a primary subject area while integrating complementary skills from other disciplines. 

In addition, there is a wide range of other forms, such as building a customized degree in a modular fashion or competency-based pursuit of cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking, communication, and leadership. Transitional stackability is aimed at people who want to move between different career stages or sectors. According to Kutsch, the inherent flexibility of stackability leads to a degree of complexity in its design, which can be a deterrent for students. Communication therefore plays an important role in helping prospective students to make the right choice for them. There is also a risk of arbitrariness with small courses, which should not be "Mickey Mouse" courses.

Singapore: Continuing education as a national task

Susanna Leong, Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning at the National University of Singapore (NUS), spoke about the importance of microcredentials in continuing education at her university. In times of constant change, a one-off education is no longer enough; lifelong learning is essential, said Leong. It is no longer just about 15 years, but about investing in 50 years of learning, as the Ministry of Education in Singapore puts it. A comprehensive range of educational opportunities would enable people to obtain higher qualifications or retrain according to their needs. A wide range of learning paths with personalized further training would be available to them. Microcredentials are one way of encouraging people to pursue lifelong learning. According to Leong, further advantages lie in improving the ability of alumni to compete and in the personal commitment of students, as they have put together their own learning pathway. Microcredentials are flexible, compact and agile. The credits earned can be transferred to full degree programs within five years. The NUS has its own centralized platform for lifelong learning. It takes on tasks such as market analysis, resource management, program development and implementation as well as external communication.

Holistic understanding of education

Séamus Ó Tuama, University College Cork (Ireland), addressed the perspectives for the reflexivity of learning in his presentation. A holistic view of the learner is a prerequisite for designing learner-centered educational offers. For Ó Tuama, this was done through the lens of the five capitals that people have at their disposal. 

In this context, Ó Tuama understands "seed capital" as the starting position of learners, including their ability to accumulate more of the five capitals and their opportunities to invest existing capital with a reasonable success rate. Stackability and the recognition of prior knowledge from informal learning could contribute to increasing this success rate. Ó Tuama emphasized the importance of parental education, as this is still strongly "inherited". Identity capital is made up of the self-esteem of the individual and their dignity as a member of a community. This capital can be significantly increased through continuing education and is essential for learner-centeredness. According to Ó Tuama, education changes people's identity. Thanks to their education, they can interact with society in a way that they would not be able to without it. When it comes to cultural capital, it is important to recognize and appreciate it, especially in marginalized groups that are not part of the mainstream. Cultural capital enables us to understand how the societal environment in which we operate works. Ó Tuama referred to the example of the ecosystem, in which diversity promotes robustness. The same applies to societal capital. Social capital is the sum of networks, shared norms and values. Education is a crucial way to build social capital. The concept best known is that of human capital, which summarizes knowledge, skills and competencies in terms of performance. Ó Tuama points out that the other four forms are necessary for the accumulation of economically desirable human capital.

Increasing societal impact

Peter Parycek, Vice-Rector for Educational Affairs/Academic Continuing Education and Digital Transformation (CDO) at the University for Continuing Education Krems, summed up the presentations and provided an outlook for the future. He sees the next step as combining the aforementioned aspects such as dealing with uncertainty, AI, flexible learning, stackability and the societal impact of education. With regard to stackability and microcredentials, Parycek emphasized their global significance. This new organization of teaching represents a transformative turning point: it becomes flexible, personalized and more inclusive. It is precisely this increased inclusion that is an important lever for the societal impact of universities. Parycek shares Helga Nowotny's positive attitude towards the future despite the uncertainties, which include the role of AI, because the only way to face future challenges is without fear. 

With its breakout sessions and the concluding discussion of the keynote speakers, which was led by David Friedrich James Campbell, Center for Higher Education Governance and Transformation at the University for Continuing Education Krems, the Assembly Beyond Borders offered ample opportunity for professional exchange. Interaction in the online room was possible via Mentimeter. Experiences, opinions and moods of the audience were captured and thus became part of the joint discussion.

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