University of the Future Network – Redefining knowledge in the Digital Age

The next ‘University of the Future Network’ meeting will be in Hagen (at theFernUniversität in Hagen), Germany  (July, 2017). The topic of the meeting will focus on the issues of digitalization: “Universities of the Future: Digital Challenges – the international perspective”.

As known, digitalization is gaining more and more relevance on the HiEd agenda, and new challenges are taking place in several educational fields (not exclusively on the technological field). These issues are on the agenda in several countries and hence are relevant conundrums to be discussed within this network with regard to the ‘University of the Future’.

Why Hagen? FernUniversität in Hagen is the only state-maintained distance teaching university in the German-speaking countries and regions with currently over 76,000 students enrolled.

Here an excerpt of the work to be discussed*:

The digital era that started with the arrival of the Internet into our business, our higher education institutions, and our lives in one word, has dramatically changed the way we explore and produce knowledge. The possibility of instant access to multiple sources of information is transforming not only the way people access, produce and share knowledge, but also is pushing the agenda of knowledge certification and knowledge recognition out from the universities and college settings into other forms of knowledge recognition.

This text explores the impact of the Internet and digital media in the creation and production of knowledge at the start of the 21st century. The authors examine the complex but fascinating process of transition that higher education institutions (as any other institutions in our societies) are suffering triggered by the great influence that the digitalization of content has brought into our classrooms, our students, our faculty. This transition can be considered multidimensional since is happening simultaneously in a number of areas. The following lines will focus on what are considered some of the key drivers of this change, which aim to illustrate key aspects of this transition.

  1. Decentralization and disintermediation.
  2. Massiveness and a growing demand.
  3. New forms of knowledge production.
  4. New means of knowledge recognition.

1. Decentralization and disintermediation: The growing capacity of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as well as the expansion of portable devices, enhanced by the dropping of their cost and there increasing processing capacity, has made of this type of digital technology a social platform which is enabling a very intense flow and exchange of information (Becker et al., 2017). For the last decade, Internet has become a social sphere where communities can create and disseminate knowledge and information to others (C. Cobo, Scolari, & Pardo Kuklinski, 2011). This phenomenon has not only diversified the mechanisms of knowledge production but also it has brought deep implications into what was traditionally understood as valid knowledge (Keen, 2015). Similarly, this phenomenon has also has impacted in what some authors suggest as the end of the expertise monopoly that universities had for centuries (Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2003).

2. Massiveness and a growing demand: The access to higher education has significantly changed during the second half of the 20th century and beyond. After the second world war, those individuals who could access universities were part of the elite of their respective societies. In the 70s and 90s that situation changed into a larger portion of the society worldwide (with a growing demand of women to have access to university degrees) (Trow, 2000). However, due to globalization, the expansion of the Internet, and the interest for expanding the sector of knowledgeable workers, an unprecedented demand for higher education was developed. At the start of the 21st Century, the exponential demand for education cannot be fulfilled if we depend on the classic model of the 20th century University. Currently, the development of universities is not only observed in the growing volume of students but also by the number of years students are required to attend university to obtain a posgratudate degree. Without doubt, the growing adoption of technologies has also contributed to expand access to higher education through more flexible models for delivery. Moreover, access to the Internet has influenced the phenomenon of commodification of knowledge (where knowledge is used, produced, and managed as a product or when knowledge processes are commodified and mechanized) (Johansson, 2016).

3. New forms of knowledge production: the increasing connectedness and interdependence between societies in the 21st Century has impacted how knowledge is being produced: the creation of new knowledge happens in a much more distributed way. Nowadays, research can be elaborated by scientists or academics who are spread all over the globe without a major effort or with very limited additional costs (Plume & van Weijen, 2014). Science production is not only more distributed than some decades ago, but also is more collaborative, where more and more academic publications are written in co‐authorship. However, the expansion is not only in terms of volume but there is also a growing recognition of the importance to move towards a more trans‐ disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge production (Gibbs, 2015); (Enright & Facer, 2016). All these factors are also impacting the increasingly accelerated renovation of knowledge. Due to the high volume of new knowledge been used, is practically impossible to keep up with the path of innovation. Moreover, the expansion of new autonomoussystem (artificial intelligence) capable of recognizing and interpreting text, sound, and image, is also opening a whole new frontier in terms of artificial forms of new knowledge production, dissemination, validation and application (Kodratoff & Michalski, 2014).

4. New means of knowledge recognition: taking into account some of the drivers and trends already mentioned (a growing demand, the commodification of knowledge, more distributed ways of accessing knowledge, flexible forms of learning, etc.) it can be argued that the forms and mechanisms to assess, validate, and recognize knowledge are also changing. This does not mean that the traditional forms of knowledge recognition (e.g. diploma, certificate) are not valid anymore, but there is a transition into new forms of assessing learning (e.g. learning analytics); new tools for assessing the impact of academic research (e.g. Almetrics) (Wilsdon et al., 2017); new devices to validate on recognize novel forms of learning as well as the development of new skills recognition ‐ e.g. Digital badges, Digital portfolios, and so on (Glover & Malone, 2014). All of these are samples of emerging avenues where knowledge is being recognized and valued as a new currency but in different ways. Today is not only relevant what knowledge do you have (or can access) but also what can you do with the knowledge (adaptive expertise, up skilling, just‐in‐time learning).

(*Redefining knowledge in the Digital Age: Internet and Social media, by: Cristobal Cobo and Martha Burkle).