Universities face digital challenges

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The world of higher education is confronted with a pivotal question in the digital era: what roles will students and educators play in tomorrow’s universities?

Our society is undergoing a rapid transformation defined above all by globalization and the spread of technology. In many areas, digitalization is modernising—if not openly challenging—established systems and ways of doing business. According to business information technology expert Ulrike Baumöl, IT innovation is driving social, economic and legal changes in two ways: through automatization (digitization), and through the emergence of new business models, processes, products and services (digitalization). Unfortunately, examples of disruptive innovations are everywhere: whether in the music industry, the print media, or in retail. They are enabled by new technologies that have undermined the seemingly unassailable positions of market leaders and left permanently transformed business models in their wake.

In higher education, the use of new technologies has mostly been restricted to administrative tasks such as dealing with a huge demand for certain courses. Rarely have they brought about disruptive innovations or strategic changes in the basic way education is provided.

Transparent teaching

Nevertheless, the following effects on colleges and universities are already being felt, or appear to be imminent. For one, teaching is being made public and transparent. This can be seen in the growing number of free online courses known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Here, there is both good and bad news. One risk is the “Hollywoodization” of content that could necessitate measures to guard against cultural dominance, such as those that protect European film-making. These ensure it’s not only those producers wowing audiences with the biggest budgets and most expensive effects who succeed. The good news is that transparency always raises quality. This is a principle that applies just as much to the realm of higher education.

Individual and 
collaborative learning

Students are increasingly changing from being users to being producers. Content is often sourced for free from peers as “commons”. Education is being de-institutionalized. One result is something the organizational researcher Ayad Al Ani has termed “edupunks”: individuals who use modern communication technologies in order to design their own educational journeys as an alternative or supplement to classic university structures. New media do not only facilitate individualized learning; they can also strengthen cooperation and collaboration among students and teachers. Ideally, community learning can enhance self-designed learning programs and is a central element of new learning strategies.

However, both factors in this equation only work if students possess high media competency in critically assessing sources and the knowledge they convey, something for which they must be prepared whilst still at school. Teachers will need to address our modern media reality in the classroom, and train their students to use media critically and wisely.

The role of educators 
will diversify

The changes that have taken place in information and communication technology have helped to turn local heroes in sport, entertainment, and culture into global stars. According to the higher education researcher Hans Pechar, a similar trend towards academic stars with global reach and recognition will intensify at universities, potentially leading to stronger hierarchies and uneven distribution of resources within the same academic status-group. The unity of research and teaching, which in the reality of today’s mass-universities has become little more than a normative ideal, will come under further strain.

Because not all professors can afford to concentrate on the demanding process of producing globally available content, the roles of educators will diversify within university faculties. At institutions like the University of Hagen, which has a primarily distance-learning approach and where media-supported teaching is of central importance, educators often work hand-in-hand with media technicians and method specialists. Scholarship, the guiding ideal of academic teaching, must in future also apply to funnelling multiple sources of knowledge into well-designed and effective learning arrangements.

The role of the institution will also change. Alongside its core competence as a certifying body, the university or college will increasingly act as a guide through a diverse educational landscape and a partner in a lifelong process of learning. When bulk learning gives way to a continuous educational process in response to new tasks and challenges, students will need mentors who can guide them through a range of learning options. An institution’s reputation will be based on its commitment to quality control in carrying out these roles. This will be decisive. The openness of institutions to a whole spectrum of educational options must also be organized and validated. The interplay of education, work, university and career can be facilitated by digital media’s ability to span distance and enable communication when and where it is convenient.

Countering the Matthew effect in education

Social effort is required to combat the Matthew effect: “unto those who have shall be given”, or translated into the context of education, those who know shall know more by taking advantage of the opportunities arising from new media. Education must give students the skills they need to successfully perform in a digital society.

Target groups who still lack sufficient access to higher education can and must be addressed more effectively: for example, people from families without university graduates, the elderly, and those working full-time. Academic training will become an increasingly important way to connect and engage with society, to avoid marginalization, and to build career opportunities. Lifelong learning, supported by digital media, will be an essential antidote to social fragmentation. Whether studying, working, or helping to effect social change, media competence is vital in giving a voice to both individuals and communities alike.

Engaging in wider 
social debates

Developments in recent years have shown how new technologies intersect with wider processes of social transformation already underway, and how they are able to spread most effectively when addressing an already existing need. In his book Kultur der Digitalität, media theorist Felix Stalder discusses two parallel trajectories of political development in our increasingly digital society: post-democracy, or a concentration of decision-making power at levels excluding participatory input, and the deployment of the Commons as an attempt to maintain the participatory dimension of decision-making. New infrastructural possibilities will instigate new social institutions adapted to them. In this sense, higher educational institutions, as sites of republican, democratic discourse, have an acute responsibility in shaping the debates to come.

Ada Pellert

Ada Pellert

Prof. Dr. Ada Pellert was appointed Rector of the University of Hagen in March 2016. A trained economist, she has worked in the administration of several universities in the German-speaking world and as a professor of Organization, Development and Educational Management.
Ada Pellert

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