The future of universities in a digital era

As the digital revolution transforms society, what is the role of universities as “intelligent” machines begin to ask and answer the questions of the universe.

This content was published on February 15, 2018 - 11:00
Lino Guzzella and Gerd Folkers

Monasteries – the guardians and sanctuaries of knowledge – once maintained huge collections of manuscripts that formed the foundation of current knowledge. The Abbey of St. Gallen, whose architecture, school, and even its herb garden served as a blueprint for many monastic communities, not only preserved their livelihood, but also fostered learning.

While the monks worked in the scriptorium copying time-honored Christian texts – some scribes barely able to understand their content - the revolutionary ideas recorded in Roman manuscripts (such as Lucretius’s tract) rotted in the cellars of abbey libraries until Poggio, an “enlightened” former papal secretary roaming the country on a donkey, no less, came across the treasure trove. The historian Stephen Greenblatt regales Poggio’s’ tale of discovery of De Rerum Natura.

For nearly a thousand years, universities have provided a home for thinkers who questioned wisdom, clearing a path for scientific progress as modern and open democratic societies expressed a need for a body of knowledge that is individual, collective and socially relevant all at once. With the advent of the printing press 600 years ago, technology has played a revolutionary role in the dissemination of knowledge, as well as placing it in a critical and social context.

Today, new media cultivates, digests, and questions knowledge, much as it did six centuries ago. Despite technological advancements, society still faces significant obstacles in terms of transparent processes and access to scientific discoveries. With machine learning and quantum computing on the horizon, “How will the digital era influence knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, and ultimately, the future of universities?”

Knowledge and prosperity

Education, prosperity, and quality of life appear intrinsically linked. Galileo incurred the wrath of the cardinals not because he placed the sun at the center of our planetary system, but because he wanted to publish his work in Italian, to benefit the “common people.” True to Galileo’s ideal, universities bear a responsibility not only to make their knowledge accessible to the public, but also to challenge the prevailing worldviews.

Knowledge, and the ability to process it, is the capital of universities. Only by continuously nurturing this capital and putting it to good use can we increase the prosperity of an open society and its fitness in competition with other societal forms.

Lino Guzzella (right) is the President of the federal technology institute ETH Zurich; Gerd Folkers is Full Professor in ETH Zurich’s Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences. ETH Zürich / Giulia Marthaler

New technologies and their commercialization happen more rapidly with prominent “publications.” The market takes longer to recognize findings overshadowed by the higher-profile scientific journals, but their economic potential is nevertheless powerful. The new gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 is a case in point. After years of attracting minimal publicity, prestigious universities are now squabbling over patents.

The prominence of the discovery’s publication and its potential (or actual) successful commercialization in turn serve as an important medium for universities, by attracting investors. If a university can demonstrate that its products are instantly marketable, it enhances its reputation among taxpayers, and, ultimately, among politicians.

Democracy and critical thinking

Universities have been in the knowledge market for more than a thousand years. Since the founding of the University of Bologna, universities have been processing knowledge and creating new perspectives through reflection and transformation. The empirical method – an integral component of teaching – is a structure that has held up over time, proving itself repeatedly as an effective approach, in terms of both effort and reward.

The structure of a university imposes a strict methodology that teaches the next generation how to engage knowledge critically, to question, and reform – a process only possible if universities exist within a democratic system that allows unrestricted freedom of expression.

Every “Why?” question challenges the established view of the world - enhancing societal understanding and helping people navigate the world more easily. Knowledge-based advances have eliminated diseases such as smallpox and polio, democratized mass communication, and revolutionized mobility. The new media and machine learning are prompting a fundamental change in education and research.

"As knowledge is democratized, value-based critical and creative thinking becomes a university’s unique selling proposition."

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It may take a while, but machines may eventually be capable of asking “Why?” questions, searching for systematically ordered answers and adopting a methodical approach in doing so. Even so, the task of validating the findings of artificial intelligence through reasoning and evidence will remain an essential part of our culture of discourse. Humans will also continue to set themselves apart from intelligent machines in terms of their capacity for empathy, intuition and abstraction. We have a wealth of emotional intelligence that will prevent robots from ever replacing us.

The future of universities

No one disputes the fact that the foundation of science rests upon a fixed structure of axioms, laws, and theories, and that critical questioning of the prevailing world model is elevated as a guiding principle. Nevertheless, there is a temptation in academia to look for affirmation rather than disagreement, to cite positive results, and narrow perspectives instead of breaking free from the constraints of a single discipline. This problematic attitude gives rise to publication bias, “alternative facts,” and, at its worst, fraud. It is the duty of universities, and indeed all scientists and their institutions, to continuously review and improve the peer-review process.

As the technological advances of the digital era fundamentally alter both the creation and dissemination of knowledge, universities have lost their once dominant role. They now compete with a host of digital knowledge providers accessible 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and worldwide. One thing is certain, significant changes lie ahead for the knowledge business as a whole. As knowledge is democratized, value-based critical and creative thinking becomes a university’s unique selling proposition. 

Universities should profit from this proposition by continuing to foster an exchange between different worlds, languages, and thinking. In doing so, universities too will evolve critically and creatively.

This article, published on the ETH Zurich ZukunftsblogExternal link, is an excerpt from “Universities as curators of knowledge”, a conference paper from Glion Institute of Higher EducationExternal link and was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier MagazineExternal link

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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