There is a revolution going on, a paradigm shift, a significant event in the story of humanity. We have found ourselves living in the information age and as institutions and as individuals we are struggling to come to terms with what that means.
It isn’t so very difficult in itself. The new communications technology has made everything much simpler. The problem is how to rid ourselves of the old ways of doing things, the old ways of thinking about things. All organisations are affected by changes in the way that information is stored and exchanged but the ones that need to do the deepest thinking about what the new circumstances mean are the ones whose biggest concern is information. One of these is higher education.
Only two decades ago information was a scarce commodity. That meant that for an academic the bookshelf in his or her office was a major component of the working toolbox. It also meant that the information in his or her head was a major component of the toolbox. It was not so many decades earlier, right up to the 1960s, that the lecture was the main way that an undergraduate student could obtain information but books became cheaper and more easily available and the lecture became less important as an information source. Instead, it became a way for the student to experience the lecturer’s mind in action as it grappled with the problems in the subject matter. The change was subtle, almost unnoticed, which is why the transition was achieved smoothly. However, this time the paradigm has shifted much further and things need much more fundamental reconsideration.
Bill Gates has told us that the days of the university it are necessarily numbered. He is wrong. But, it is an easy mistake to make if you think that education is all about information.
Of course, you do not need a university to disseminate information but you do need one to create and propagate knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is created by dialogue and knowledge is propagated through dialogue. It is not created by solitary individuals beavering away in isolation. I read some papers on a topic, realise that there is more to said, a concept that needs further examination, another point of view to be considered and so I come to write my own paper. And, knowledge is not propagated through monologue. I say something to my student and his reply indicates that he has not understood so I ask him a question, add some further information, offer a different point of view and slowly the process of understanding comes about for him and, very often, I will gain further insight myself because in the teaching process I have been challenged to look at the matter from a different angle. Always, the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Universities are funded because they teach and because they create new knowledge. It is only recently that educators have come to the realisation that you can teach a topic more effectively by giving students some information and then having them discuss it between them in a structured way – what it means, what the consequences are, how it might be applied and so on – than by just standing in front of them and subjecting them to a deluge of facts. Some academics have still not grasped the point. But, effective teaching is one of the benefits that society expects from the university in return for funding.
The other benefit that society expects is the creation of new knowledge. However, the paradigm of university research is an academic who sits in a silent room for months on end working on a topic which he or she does not discuss with anyone and eventually produces a paper which is of no interest to anyone in the world apart from a handful of people who happen to have the same obsession. Of course, not all academic research is like this and the proportion which is like this varies from discipline to discipline but this scenario is very common.
The university needs to ask fundamental questions of itself about its role in society. If the university is there to teach and create new knowledge then it must do so effectively. It must teach students effectively and it must create new knowledge that is significant. It can do both of these much better if the institution thinks of itself as a centre for dialogue. Students who learn through collaboration with other students are being taught effectively and they are learning a skill which will be useful to them for ever. Academics who engage in dialogue, perhaps working collaboratively, will be more effective at producing papers that are significant for a wider audience.
I don’t just mean that academics should write for a wider audience of academics but that they should be able to engage with serious practitioners as well. As it is, for example, how many people in business ever read an academic journal concerned with their specialisation? The answer is, very few.
It has been remarked before that academics are reluctant to use the new media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook or Linked-In. Younger people, unhampered by ideas about how things should be done, quickly find the benefits of these as tools for discussion and problem solving while older people often find it more difficult to see the potential. Yet these tools open up possibilities for dialogue that is wider and potentially more fruitful than has ever been possible before.
When there is a paradigm shift institutions have to seize the opportunities or die by a thousand spending cuts.