It is widely accepted that universities are facing massive challenges as society transitions from the industrial age into the digital era.

Higher education’s traditional “business model” is being battered by technological disruptions in parallel with growing demands that it be responsible for the constant training and retraining of workers young and old, who themselves find that a lifetime career is a thing of the past (aside from a lucky few).

Universities have been warned they must “adapt or perish”; that higher education is facing a digitally-inspired high-tech earthquake; that there is urgent need for “change and differentiation” and that institutions must “act now” to stay competitive.

Recently La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar said that to survive the pace of digital change, tertiary institutions needed to embrace what he called University 4.0 – “a new emerging case of university”.

This would have “a greater emphasis on on-demand learning, multiple modes of education, with a seamless blend between the different modes of: on campus, blended or wholly online”.

Discussion leans towards depicting the university in utilitarian terms, with institutions serving as places of teaching, learning and instruction so that students are prepared for the new work landscape.

Such commentary is centred on the ever-evolving needs of society and tends to remain in the realm of the big picture, with “universities” and “higher education institutions” being urged to do this, that and the other.

But of course an entity can’t make changes in and of itself. It relies on real people to do the work – and a large part of this will fall on academic staff.

So in the realm of teaching and learning what does the future hold for those at the coalface of higher education?

Most academics have a background in research as witnessed by a PhD and various publications. In Australia they are able to build their teaching and learning skills – including course design, assessment and the like – with a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education or similar, as well as various “in house” initiatives.

Complicating matters somewhat is the slow decline of the traditional “sage on the stage” lecture with many courses now requiring much more interaction – both technological and personal – with students.

A deputy vice-chancellor at a Sydney-based university told me this move away from the traditional lecture to utilising other learning technologies had been “a monumental change” for many academics.

“To go from thinking about what you are going to speak about, how you design your Power Points and what fonts to use and so on, to really putting the focus on the students and putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about learning outcomes … that is a much harder thing to do than writing lectures.

“It’s much more time consuming and is a completely different way of looking at the relationship between academics and students. But I’ve heard academics say that having made that shift they could never go back to the old way.”

The NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition spells out some of the pedagogical challenges facing academics in the new world of higher education.

These include project-based learning, challenge-based learning, and competency-based learning, which, it says, [are] “creating richer and more hands-on, real-world experiences for students”.

As universities begin to prioritise active learning over rote learning, it says, students are being viewed in a new light.

“Rather than being regarded as mere participants and consumers of knowledge, the embedding of maker culture in higher education has made them active contributors to the knowledge ecosystem.

“They learn by experiencing, doing, and creating, demonstrating newly acquired skills in more concrete and creative ways …”

The emphasis on more “hands-on, technology-enhanced learning” has impacted every facet of campus life, with teaching “a central force”.

“There is a need for mentoring and coaching as students work through complex problems to explore new frontiers and gain concrete skills. As student-led class discussions delve deeper into the material, faculty must balance the student-centered approach with subtle but effective facilitation.”

However, the report says, institutions are often set up “in ways that indicate a value on research over teaching”.

“As such, educators are not always sufficiently motivated to improve their teaching craft — or rewarded when they do so successfully.”

And just as there is a need to advance digital literacy among students, “faculty must also engage in ongoing professional development, with support from institutions”.

The contemporary workforce, it says, calls for “digitally-savvy employees who can seamlessly work with different media and new technologies as they emerge”.

“A major element of fostering this fluency is recognizing that simply understanding how to use a device or certain software is not enough; faculty, staff, and students must be able to make connections between the tools and the intended outcomes, leveraging technology in creative ways that allow them to more intuitively adapt from one context to another.

“Ownership of this movement must be shared and supported among institutional divisions as digital fluency is an important thread that runs through practically every facet of teaching and learning …

“While student success remains at the core of institutions’ initiatives, education leaders must also recognise the need to empower all stakeholders to support the changes needed to advance cultures that promote invention and discovery.”

These are just some of the challenges facing universities and their staff. There will be many more to come.