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19 March 2018

Why universities will be disrupted in a digital world

Erik Vermeulen looks at how modern-day technologies are re-defining education and the role of universities.

Author: Erik Vermeulen, professor of business and financial law at Tilburg University

I love being a university professor. And the new world of digital technologies, artificial intelligence and robots makes it a particularly good time to be involved with higher education.

Why? Because these new technologies are beginning to disrupt universities and this disruption creates new and exciting opportunities in both teaching and research.

For a start, the expectations of young people – so-called millennials – today are rapidly changing. It is my experience that students are no longer satisfied by old-style lectures or academic articles.

Millennials demand a more dynamic and engaged form of education.

Teaching and research have always been extremely rewarding. Universities have, at their best, provided the freedom and resources to create a legacy and make a valuable contribution to the future development of society.

But our new digital society has the potential to make universities even better.

Being a professor today gives us an excellent opportunity to take a deep dive into our fast-changing world. What really interests me is how new technologies allow for the creation of new models for teaching and for combining teaching and research.

Now, more than ever, I have the feeling that being a university professor is not just a job. It is a lifestyle and an adventure. Recall that Indiana Jones – a childhood hero for many of us who grew up in the 1980s –  was also a university professor.

Three reasons for university disruption

I think there are three main reasons why universities and particularly university education is being disrupted.

1 New educational opportunities created by digital technologies

New technology means that content can be delivered to students in new and different ways.

First, content can be made more accessible. For instance, classes can be organised and paced in a way that is more relevant for a faster-moving digital generation.

Second, the consumption of educational materials can be made more flexible. More and more universities now offer distance-learning courses.

Finally, multimedia and online resources – think video-streaming platform YouTube, online courses provider Courser, and so on – offer interesting and useful content that can easily be integrated into the classroom.

Of course, it is necessary to curate all this new content but, again, technology provides a solution. In my experience, the wisdom of crowd and user reviews are usually fairly reliable indications of quality.

2 External demands of the market

New technologies are transforming the global economy. The result is that universities find themselves under more external pressure to adapt to these new realities.

Commenting on an earlier piece I wrote, Living in today’s digital ghettos, Daniel Zahler, founder of healthcare data analytics company Picasso Health, wrote: “You provide a good overview of the workplace culture shift and how platform companies are engaging creative artists to drive innovation.

“It seems to me there are still untapped opportunities related to identifying and recruiting these free-spirited maverick types. We have moved from old-economy signalling mechanisms – Ivy league degrees, Wall Street pedigree – to freelance marketplaces, crowdfunding campaigns and Instagram portfolios.

“In this world the most successful platforms will need to find and engage creative thinkers in innovative mutually rewarding ways.”

He identifies the potential risk for universities. If they do not rethink education, they will find that a university degree is no longer the “signalling mechanism” of talent that it once offered. As such, universities will be forced to adapt. The market will demand an education that provides skills and knowledge appropriate to a digital age.

3 Internal initiative of the universities

Of course, universities realise that they have to change in order to make themselves future-proof. But too often this change is just window-dressing – that is, empty words – or involves the imposition of more control by central administrators, either from university or government.

What I find particularly frustrating – and deeply ironic – is that, in universities at least, the transition to a digital and decentralised world has often resulted in more centrally-created procedures. This is particularly true in an educational context where quality control often results in bland standardisation that limits fast change or any innovation and experimentation.

We need to have processes and systems to guarantee quality, but too often the effect of such procedures is to kill the entrepreneurial spirit and speed necessary to offer courses that millennials need today to prepare them for tomorrow.

Change is happening

Done right, however, the university of the future has the potential to make all of us more entrepreneurial and can facilitate engagement with a much wider, global audience. In this way, university disruption can help the younger generation in creating a better digital future.

But we need to realise that disruption is not going to happen overnight. It is a gradual process that is gaining momentum.

More and more of my colleagues opt out of the traditional university structures and start operating outside its walls. Facilitated by technology, they use more open means of communication and media to experiment with new teaching models and to disseminate their ideas. It is these influencers that are redefining education at universities in a digital age.

I am positive that universities will become universities again – that is to say, a place or community that prepares society for the things to come:

  • Where face-to-face meetings are necessary to achieve the desired level of co-creation.
  • Where in-class engagement builds the skills needed to deal effectively with the opportunities and challenges of a new artificially intelligent and connected world.

– This article first appeared on Medium. It has been edited for style and republished with permission from the author.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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