Higher Education and the Challenges of the 21st Century: The Story of Why ErasmusX was Created.

7 min readMay 20, 2021


Story was written by Farshida Zafar, Director of ErasmusX

In the past 8 years of working as an educational innovator/teacher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I have witnessed first-hand what it means to be a pioneer in this realm. The university campus, a bustling international hub with brilliant academics, ambitious students, and people from all walks of life, all located in a diverse, energetic, dynamic city; to me is a highly inspirational (might I say addictive) environment. The students, academics, and all other members of the EUR community have been a driving force for my innovational aspirations. Stemming from my ideals and belief that education matters, I have dedicated a large chunk of my life towards making education accessible, enjoyable, and most of all fit for the future.

To be completely honest, when I first started my career as a teacher, I had no clue about the importance of instructional design, didactics, or even educational science for that matter. After all, I am just a tech geek with a law degree. Everything I know now, I have learned on the job. Luckily for me, my alma mater (EUR, Erasmus School of Law) trained me to conduct research and apply it to daily practice. As an Erasmian, I have been trained to find relevant information, analyze it, apply it, and more often than not; critically assess what I have found. More importantly, I have learned to ask critical questions and how to maintain an open mind. These skills and competencies made it possible for me to launch some innovative projects and make them stick.

In the past 8 years, I have co-designed and co-developed a multitude of educational tools, experimented with streaming literature (similar to Netflix, but then for books), a VR application for law, and gamified mobile learning. Furthermore, I have been lucky enough to design and implement new educational delivery models e.g., a part-time law bachelor’s degree based on blended learning.

But the road towards innovation has not been without any failures or hard times. And it’s not finished either. It’s just getting started.

Crisis-driven innovation

As we all have seen, the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled universities into rethinking existing educational models and paradigms. One could argue that the Covid crisis might have been the disruption the educational sector needed to rethink how they educate future generations, what they need to teach, and what they are preparing students for.

“One could argue that the Covid crisis might have been the disruption the educational sector needed”

During the pandemic, universities have migrated their face-to-face classes to fully remote online classes. Contrary to online education - the type of education designed to provide a meaningful learning experience - remote teaching is a temporary shift of instructional delivery or an alternate delivery model due to a crisis. Considering the context and the circumstances, teachers have dealt with the situation as best as they could, and they should be credited for the hard work they put into their teaching. But one could ask: why were universities not prepared for this? Did we really need a pandemic to force us to rethink our educational models? Could we not have seen the shift coming?

My personal opinion is that we should have seen the big shift coming, especially since it was being predicted by educational innovators across the globe. Sure, it’s easy to backcast and play Captain Hindsight, but let’s re-assess the situation and then make up our minds.

External pressure on the University model

As mentioned by the World Economic Forum, the OESO and numerous others, our educational systems need to change to meet the higher and different demands of the 21st century. This change also includes rethinking the role of universities in society. In the rapidly changing 21st century, the university's role to prepare students for the professional world, and society in general, is increasingly becoming more complex. Rapid technological developments, de-canonization of academic knowledge, and an ever-changing labor market are particularly posing the university to invest in innovation to remain relevant.

Digitization and rapid technological developments have been a great driver for innovation within the educational realm for decades. From distributing and transferring knowledge to learners via online platforms, to the creation of mobile applications to enhance the learning experience (mobile learning tools) and the emerging technologies that enrich the learning context or enable students in obtaining new skills and competencies (AR/VR/MR), technology has changed the educational game. While some technologies have been easily adopted (think of PowerPoint, think of email) others are still received with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Concerning the de-canonization of education, the days that academic knowledge was confined to the campus were left behind us with the arrival of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). It is worth mentioning that the way society values and relates to knowledge have also shifted from ‘what you know’ to an emphasis on the ability to find, construct and share new knowledge. The major changes that have taken place in processing information and digital skills have altered the ways students learn and are triggered/engaged.

Preparing students for the professional world in 1984 is not the same thing as preparing students for the professional world in 2021. Although the university’s goal hasn’t changed considerably, the surroundings have. A myriad of (mainly tech) companies for example already shifted focus in their hiring processes looking more for skill-based candidates rather than ones with diplomas, which may become an industry norm. This is in line with research LinkedIn has conducted in 2019, in which they identified a top 20 occupations that do not always require a four-year degree, ranging from jobs like Mechanical Designer to Marketing Representative. In short, there is a noticeable gap between the way educators prepare students and the way future employers assess potential new employees.

“There is a noticeable gap between the way educators prepare students and the way future employers assess potential new employees”

The sheer number of tools and platforms available is not to be confused with the quality of education on offer. And unlike the tech companies mentioned, most employers are still adamant that a degree is necessary to fulfill a certain job position, which means that the importance of a degree is not diminished. Honestly, I would also prefer my doctor to have gone through med school and have a degree to show me proof of his/her competency.

In short, to tackle the challenges at hand a new educational paradigm in higher education is needed. This paradigm shift requires universities to rethink their role as knowledge institutions and adapt to new ways in which students engage with knowledge and redesign how skills, values, and competencies are transferred. Universities know and understand these challenges and kickstarted innovation hubs in a mission to redefine what a university is and what it should look like in the future.

So, in answer to the aforementioned question, we could (maybe even should) have been prepared. At Erasmus University Rotterdam we were prepared, well, as prepared as we could have been. In the past years, the university invested greatly in educational innovation and continues to do so.

Within the university all types of innovations take place. The learning innovation teams, the communities around learning and innovation, the academics and staff involved in the education lab, the colleagues in the studio; all play(ed) a crucial role in educational innovation. Together with the teachers, they have been the backbone of the university’s efforts to combat the challenges posed by Covid-19 and challenges posed by the rapidly changing educational landscape.

From incremental innovations to mature innovations to radical innovations, every innovation team at EUR takes part in achieving our communal mission to future-proof our education.

And then there was ErasmusX 🎉

Like all innovations, educational innovation exists along a continuum. To crack the code of future-proofing education, incremental innovations or, for that matter, even mature innovations don’t get you there. As we have seen with the MOOCs; introducing new technology without challenging the educational status quo leads to the commodification of technology and not necessarily to actual change.

To truly change the educational status quo, you can’t continue to only improve upon systems that already exist. You have to challenge them deeply through radical thinking and testing seemingly outrageous solutions, even if that means that people have a hard time grasping what you do. This thinking led to drafting the first proposal for a university-wide unit that deals with radical innovations: ErasmusX.

“To truly change the educational status quo, you can’t continue to only improve upon systems that already exist”

Our main mission at ErasmusX is to challenge the educational status quo and offer alternative educational formats fit for the future. In essence, we use our creativity and critical thinking abilities to design new educational models that foster student agency in a rich and multi-dimensional learning environment. We stimulate collaboration with the city and our societal partners, and we use emerging technology as a means to an end. Staying away from the tech hype, we use tech if it suits the purpose, if it doesn’t, we look for alternatives. Most importantly, we put students at the heart of our projects, since it’s about them and not about us.

“We put students at the heart of our projects, since it’s about them and not about us”

So, who are we? We are a small and diversely skilled team, that operates on the edges of the general confinements of the university to seek innovation through unconventional tactics and techniques. All driven by a dream to support our students to develop themselves in the best way they can, so they are prepared to meet the ever-changing demands of the future.

We perceive the challenges at hand as a string of puzzles. As diverse as our team is in terms of background, nationality, and skills, we are characterized by very similar attitudes such as our natural curiosity, critical mind, and deep love for solving exactly those problems others may deem impossible. That is the type of culture we envision and are building for ourselves, our students, and our future colleagues.

As I mentioned before we are not done innovating, we are just getting started. Looking into the future we don’t know the answers, but I am sure we’ll figure it out if we ask the right questions. Taking one radical step at the time, together with our students and our EUR community.

Stay in the loop ⭕️

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We are a team of passionate people forming the driving force behind educational experimental innovation for the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).