June 16, 2006

Universities in fifty years time

At a conference last week I got into an interesting discussion about whether technology is going to be highly disruptive to universities. Others in the discussion thought that it will be, and that what universities do and how they do it will be fundamentally changed by the rise of the PC, the web, the network, and so on.

But I didn't. I tend to the view that universities have been doing what they do for a very long time, and have continued to work in more or less the same way despite the arrival of such earth–shattering inventions as the printing press, radio, television, the VCR and whatever other inventions one might reasonably class as earth shattering. If you went back to, say, the eighteenth century then what's surprising is not how different universities would look to you, but how similar: clothes, language and presentational aids aside, what you would see would be recognisably similar to what happens today: large groups taught in large rooms, small groups taught in small rooms, exams to test understanding. Or at least knowledge. Or at least retention.

Of course, the fact that something has been around for a long time doesn't mean that it's guaranteed to stay around for the indefinite future. Lots of things have changed or dwindled away as the internet has grown: bookshops, brokerage services, or travel agents for example. But my prediction is that universities will carry on much as they have done, using new technologies to improve and extend what they do, but not to fundamentally change it. So I offered my colleagues at the conference a wager: in fifty years time, I said, I believe that universities will be essentially unchanged from how they are now, with large groups taught in large rooms, small groups in small ones, and written exams at the end of the course. My colleagues were all happy to take the wager on the assumption that I would lose. Would you take that wager?

- 2 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Mathew Mannion

    I'd like to think that the advent of new technologies would be of enough benefit as to be incorporated into Universities. However, I think your clever has actually been very clever. Although students may be writing onto electronic paper that stores thousands of lines of information, such instrumentation would probably be banned from exams… The easiest way to stop cheating would be to just stay with the old school pen and paper.

    So I actually agree with you. Although the methods may change over 50 years, the basic structure will still be the same. (Although I'm guessing there'll be an increase in lectures being available over a number of formats, in a listen–again format as well as anything else, such as webcasts and whatnot – so there may be lecturers teaching to small classes in large rooms…)

    16 Jun 2006, 16:54

  2. It is ju … st possible that, fifty years on, brain implant technology will have advanced enough to change significantly the way we can access and process data and consequently the way universities operate. Instead of lecturing, I might be devoting my time to making and marketing the latest range of Warwick degree implants.

    23 Jun 2006, 09:56

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