Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education: How to Explore Horizons of Change

Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education: How to Explore Horizons of Change

Will [insert emerging technology here] mean the end of [insert education element here]? 

By: Rocío Chávez Tellería, Research and Foresight Associate, eCampusOntario

Decade after decade, we have seen stories in the press repeating similar messages—predictions that the latest technology is threat to higher education. The “year of the MOOC” was heralded in 2012, and a year later the headline in The Economist was “Will MOOCs kill university degrees? It didn’t take long for the story to change, however, as in EdSurge’s MOOCs Are No Longer Massive. And They Serve Different Audiences Than First Imagined and “The MOOC Pivot,” a research paper published in Science. Today the focus is on ChatGPT, showing up recently in articles in Forbes (“ChatGPT: A Threat To Higher Education?”), The Atlantic (“Will ChatGPT Kill the Student Essay?”), and elsewhere in the popular press.  

There’s no question that artificial intelligence (AI) will have deep and widespread transformational impacts in postsecondary education. But many of the dominant stories on AI are narratives of culmination or substitution, rather than augmentation and transformation. So, one of the key questions we need to be asking ourselves is, how can we make sense of rapidly changing disruptions and envision wide spectrums of possibility beyond the technocratic hype?  

To answer that question and to support decision making in a constantly fluctuating context, we can rely on strategic foresight approaches. Strategic foresight, as defined by the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (2023), “is the ability of an organization to constantly perceive, make sense of, and act upon different ideas of the future emerging in the present.” 

The Three Horizons framework 

One foresight method that can help make sense of the possible changes brought on by AI and what transitional stages could look like is the Three Horizons framework. Developed by Bill Sharpe of the International Futures Forum, Three Horizons was designed to help people think about long-term change in transition stages, represented as three waves. 

Horizon 1 (the first wave), considers what is happening today and its relevance into the future, including “pockets of the future” or glimpses of emerging changes existing today. Horizon 3 (the third wave), is the visualization of a plausible or desirable future state: What is our ideal future? In between the first and third waves is Horizon 2 (the second wave), which is examined last in the process of applying the framework. This is where the transitional tensions between the reality of Horizon 1 and the vision of Horizon 3 are explored and where we can examine actions taken in the present to resist change, adapt to change, or build on change; the focus is on creating and managing change. 

By uncovering the overlapping and often competing waves of unfolding change, the Three Horizons framework provides a broader context on how we might make decisions today.  

Pockets of the future: What changes are emerging in the present? 

To look at some of the emergent opportunities of AI in education—those pockets of future of the first wave—we have sorted them into three main areas: 1) content and environment generation, 2) learning pathways mapping, and 3) revamped adaptive learning with virtual assistants support. 

The first pocket of the future is open access to the most recent text-to-text AI tools like ChatGPT and text-to-image AI tools like DALL-E and Midjourney. These tools have allowed those in the postsecondary sector to experience the capacity of generative AI to understand, process, and create text and visual content. Tools for text-to-3D objects are also emerging, such as Open AI’s Point-E and NVIDIA’s numerous generative tools , including its Magic3D text-to-3D service in partnership with Shutterstock.  

These next iterations of generative AI tools will further accelerate the trends of AI-assisted content and learning environment creation. Combined with the advances in virtual and mixed reality technologies, these developments will enhance  immersive experiential learning and the scalability of ubiquitous learning: learning from anywhere at any time.  

Thinking of the Three Horizons method, consider some possibilities of what this pocket of the future would look like in the far horizon: 

  • What would phygital (physical+digital) learning environments supported by generative AI look like?  
  • What could work-integrated learning opportunities for remote learners look like with 3D immersive environments generated by AI tools 

The second pocket of the future is AI applications for learning pathways mapping. The tools available can help learners match personal skillsets and interests with contextual needs and opportunities. For example, FutureFit AI (promoted by RBC) uses advanced labour market data and machine learning algorithms to identify an individual’s best fit and “starting point” for their career path, and build a personalized road map of learning, resources, and work opportunities to successfully guide them from point A to point B in their careers. Similar technologies have already been used on a large scale by governments, such as the UK’s, to support workers at risk from job automation in a drastically changing employment market.  

This growing use of AI and machine learning can deeply transform curriculum design approaches and systems for navigating lifelong learning. Consider some possibilities:  

  • What would AI and machine learning–enabled curriculums and programming look like?  
  • What would marketing, recruitment, and enrollment look like when learning opportunities are suggested and mapped by AI-assisted systems?  

The third pocket of the future is a new growth wave of adaptive learning systems. Adaptive learning has been around for some time, but it could grow exponentially when paired with current developments of technologies.   

One of the limitations of adaptive learning technology has been that assessments could be done only on logical, operational skills. It wasn’t able to assess essays, for example. But now, the natural language processing technology behind ChatGPT is changing that and could help expand the impact and ease of using adaptive learning systems. Additionally, chatbots embedded in adaptive learning platforms could personalize more complex support for learners as they engage with the content.  

eCampusOntario is supporting institutions with connections to companies, pilots, and research on adaptive learning. Consider some possibilities:  

  • What would the day-to-day teaching tasks of educators look like when working with AI-assisted content generation tools, adaptive learning systems, and AI-assisted evaluation tools?  
  • What new or transformed educator and educator support roles may emerge in a future with AI-assisted teaching? 

An open invitation  

We invite you to run your own Three Horizons exercise with your colleagues at your institution to explore the current horizon of AI and digital transformation in your own context (Horizon 1), extrapolate possibilities of the phygital to visualize a desirable far future (Horizon 3), and then reflect on what it might take to get there (Horizon 2). You can find a full guide and template for the Three Horizons method at the end of our Connected Education: Learning Ecosystems foresight report

We also invite Ontario educators and institutions to reach out and engage with us in making sense of horizons of change as AI keeps evolving and we continue identifying pockets of the future, exploring possibilities and co-creating desirable visions for better futures. Continue the conversation and contact the Research and Foresight unit at eCampusOntario at

For more information, visit the eCampusOntario Research & Foresight webpage.

Bio: Rocío Chávez-Tellería is passionate about learning and futures. She integrates pedagogy, foresight, technology, and design approaches to strategize future-relevant learning ecosystems. She holds a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario, and a Bachelor in Pedagogy from Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City. She is currently a Research and Foresight Associate at eCampusOntario, developing actionable storytelling about the futures of online learning in postsecondary education.