Universities are changing too slowly to survive in their current form. I recognize that most of them will outlast me but within the more expansive rhythms of history and institutions, the forms we are familiar with today will be curiosities from another time soon enough.
People involved in higher education reflect on change often and at length but outside of the institutions themselves, we are not talking enough about what the university is, what it might be, and what it should be. One recent response to these questions was put forward by Don Tapscott in his book Macrowikinomics. Along with reflections on industrialization, education, media, and the public square, Tapscott singles out universities as institutions that are in need of substantive reconsideration.
Tapscott suggests that the university needs to open up and reinvent itself or suffer the withering effects of rapid irrelevance. They must, he argues, make the content of the courses they offer available to a global audience. MIT's OpenCourseWare is an example of how this might be done. Scholars might also get their research out sooner and to a wider audience by leaving space for other people to speak into their investigations. Collaboration at the research stage is much more possible now than it has ever been and this should be exploited more than is currently the case. Finally, he suggests that anyone should be able to take a course regardless of geography or age. Instead, they should be able to take what they want from wherever they want in a way that still allows them to capture the degree-like recognition and value of those efforts.
He goes on to argue that this rich collaboration should form the core idea for teaching and learning, underpin new revenue models between universities, and lead to more clear rewards for teaching and research. The infrastructure of the current system would need to change considerably for this to happen. That may happen through a shift in the current system or it may happen through the emergence of a new platform that draws resources away from the old system. The work of Christenson (The Innovators Dilemma), for example, indicates that the later outcome is by far the most likely. Our current "industrial age model of education" has little interest in choosing a path that changes the reward matrix.
What will the new platforms for education look like? Who will initiate them? Who will use them? When will they arrive in force? We can share knowledge, research, concepts, social networks and resources today in a way that was inconceivable short decades ago. It may well be, as Tapscott suggests, that we are now in an age when the critiques of universities made in the past will be acted on in substantive and structural ways.
Such things are difficult to predict but the global south may be the source of deep change as vast numbers of people outside of North America and Europe leverage their considerable intellectual and material energies within their own distinctive cultural paradigms. Demographics favour this scenario, and with the costs of collaboration dropping constantly, profound innovations (disruptive and otherwise) may reach the gunwales of traditional university education sooner than we think. Or, our own carefully-built systems may simply begin to fail from within as the power of once-cloistered knowledge ebbs away in an environment of openness, collaboration, and collective problem solving.