Beki Grinter

The Future of the University

In academia, academic management, computer science, discipline on January 29, 2010 at 1:00 pm

My colleague, Dick Lipton, has just written a piece about the future of the University.

Inspired by Georgia Tech’s strategic planning, which was started by Bud Peterson, our 11th and newest President, but also by Rich DeMillo and others (as he mentions), Dick asks the hardest question, and one that’s currently not in the GT strategic planning process.

Will Georgia Tech be around in 2035?

He posits two reasons why this is not being asked. One is that of course it’s obvious we’ll be around and two that its a really scary question to ask. He then goes on to contrast traditional brick and mortar institutions (like Georgia Tech which he calls UN’s) with those that are on-line (like the University of Phoenix which he calls ON’s) over the basic functions that a University provides.

Educate students. I see no reason that On could not do as good a job as Un’s with this basic goal. The usual response is that there would be a loss of interaction with the professors and with fellow students. In 25 years perhaps there could be much more interaction with the On model. Imagine that they have a virtual world where you can talk to my avatar—when ever you like and for as long as you like?

Socialize students. This is perhaps one of the places where Un have an advantage. But, On may already, or could in the next few years create mechanisms that help in this important area. Again 25 years is a very long time, in which huge changes could occur in how humans interact with each other.

Network students. This is one where Un think they have a lead, but I think that is unclear. The rise of net based communities of all kinds may make this a tie at best. One could imagine On putting enough resources into on-line communities of all kinds that give them a lead here.

Research and innovation. This is the place that I think Un have and will continue to have a unique advantage. I will come back to this in a moment.

Perhaps it’s because I am a human-centered computing researcher, so I want to riff on the role of technology in these settings.

I think technology will continue to improve, but distance learning, virtual worlds, etc… are the subject of considerable study. A common finding is that those worlds are not the same as “the real world” and that social dynamics take new forms. Beki’s prediction. While distance learning will improve, the On’s are going to have to figure out how to adapt their methods of learning to leverage the best of online opportunities. Now clearly they are off to a great start, and that’s one reason we have to seriously consider what the future of UNs in an ONs world is. But to create an experience online that matches the offline, or that is as capable of providing perhaps especially socialization and networking is really going to require innovation. Oddly, it might be the research and innovation done in an UN setting that helps them to do that. That would be ironic.

And, while technologies may provide new opportunities, I don’t think humans change as much as we sometimes think they do. I’ve had a good career to date in studying how people use technologies in novel ways. Like, for example, the very rapid uptake of Short Messaging Service among teens. There was no doubt that the technology enabled teenagers to message and communicate across temporal and spatial divides, but what they did with it was to do what they enjoy doing, communicating, socialising, and get help with their homework. These types of communications pre-date SMS, but they are greatly facilitated by it. So, the ON’s don’t have to rely on human change here, they have to hope for innovations in understanding how to make virtual worlds etc… as rich and enjoyable as the experiences that people can have in the physical world, or something better.

Perhaps the ONs can also look to the most traditional of the ONs, places like the Open University in the UK that has done distance learning since 1971. ONs are older than they appear.

But, while I have a slightly different take on Dick’s post, I agree that it’s a question worth asking. Scary as it is.

  1. Thanks for the comments. I think you are more an expert than I for sure in human computer interactions. But I am glad that you agree that we should at least talk about the scary question.

    thanks again

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ashwin Ram and Beki Grinter, Beki Grinter. Beki Grinter said: my thoughts on Dick Lipton's latest blog post: […]

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