Interview with Farshida Zafar

Expert in online education long before it became fashionable discusses what can be learned from the gaming industry, common mistakes innovators make and why her own undergraduate experience was an unhappy one

December 22, 2022
Farshida Zafar
Source: Farshida Zafar

Farshida Zafar is director of the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she has pioneered the university’s work in digital technology and online education. When she was a child, her family left Afghanistan as political refugees.

Where and when were you born? 
I was born in Kabul. According to my passport my birthday is 2 March 1978, however it could also be sometime in late May 1979. There is some debate in my family on the exact date. Let’s just agree that I’m old.

How has this shaped you?
My upbringing and journey to the West have made me very aware of my environment as well as cultural differences and new perspectives. All the experiences I have had in life have enabled me to be highly adaptive, creative and inventive.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Unmotivated and lonely. I had a hard time fitting in at university, and balancing my jobs and studying was stressful. I felt quite lonely because I was one of those students who had to work really hard to make ends meet while my peers were socialising and building up their résumés. Uninspiring classes, hardly any interaction with professors and rarely being given a chance to ask critical questions made me skip a lot of classes and study the books by myself. I made it, but am not proud of those years.

When did you first become interested in new technologies?
My dad introduced me to a computer when I was 12. Back then it was quite a thing to even see a computer, let alone know what you could do with it. But it was in 2012 when I joined the Erasmus School of Law that I really got into emerging education technology.

Why was this experience so influential?
I was told to come up with a plan to close our lifelong learning programme in undergraduate law that was specifically designed for students to combine studying with work but, with only 18 enrolments per year, was not viable. I had four months to do it by myself and there was no budget, no IT infrastructure and no guidelines. I started to research novel ways to teach and learn and created a business case to make the programme work. It was the first blended learning undergraduate programme at the university and most likely the first in the country. I had planned for 30 students but in the first cohort we had 230 and there are currently 1,000 enrolled. This kickstarted innovations across the university leading to a professional studio, digital infrastructure and more focus on innovation and pedagogy.

What are the biggest mistakes most people make when trying to innovate in higher education?
I don’t think innovators always fully grasp the importance of understanding the politics of an organisation. Knowing the system and the “game” that is being played is really important; who pulls what ropes and how can you gain their commitment to your cause. There’s also sometimes too much focus on the product and too little focus on the service-level design. A lot of us think that one piece of technology will make our lives so much easier and work so much more efficient. As innovators we often jump on the next tech hype; we have seen this happen with Moocs, we still see it with the metaverse, AR, VR, XR and so on. But we rarely question the actual problem they are solving and, by extension, whether the problem and solution fit.

How do your colleagues react when you try to introduce changes?
They freak out. And with reason. Everyone wants change as long as it doesn’t impact their daily work. Which is why it is wise to not frame any change as a big utopian vision; taking small steps is sometimes more effective. I once had a colleague who threatened me with a lawsuit if I recorded a lecture. After sitting down with her, and talking about the real issues, we found a solution for the problem. She became my biggest champion and pioneer. Respecting one’s decision not to join a project or be involved in the change is also OK.

What can higher education learn from the gaming industry?
The way I see it, education is a big game. There are levels (undergraduate, masters etc), there are challenges (exams, tests, assignments) and there is a boss you have to defeat to end the game (thesis). Every game has a serious note to it; you have to collaborate, use creativity to find solutions, negotiate to get what you want or prioritise your moves. None of these skills are taught in traditional curricula.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired. 
My parents’ ability to start a new life on a continent they knew nothing of and provide a better future for their children after fleeing Afghanistan is truly admirable. Their struggle in Europe and by extension my struggle finding my identity and a sense of belonging have shaped me in ways that no educational experience could.

What keeps you awake at night?
The most obvious answer would be climate change but, although it concerns me, it is the shifting dynamics in society that really keep me up. The polarisation between groups with no debate or dialogue is worrying. The social and digital divide, the gap between the haves and have-nots is also widening and I don’t see enough action to counter this. While we are all working on creating new technological tools, we forget that a huge percentage of the global population do not have access to the hardware needed.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I would be a CEO of a mission-driven company focusing on making education accessible. And if I couldn’t find one to work at, I would most likely set one up myself.


BA in law, Erasmus University Rotterdam

MA in constitutional and administrative law, Erasmus

2012-15 lecturer in constitutional and administrative law, Erasmus

2015-17 project leader, Vision Online Education, Erasmus

2018-19 chief innovation officer, Erasmus School of Law

2019-2022 director, ErasmusX

2019-present senior fellow, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence for Digital Governance

2020-present director, Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship


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Reader's comments (1)

Really enjoyed this and really appreciated the outlook and advice about innovators and politics. That's an area I'm terrible at. To my mind innovation and enhancement and change should be easy to implement and embed if you evidence how it improves things and helps people with minimal to no investment or infrastructure demands or need for anyone to really do or learn anything extra. But there is almost always a political game afoot that I rarely consider.