Whither the University

04/17/2012 11:14 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2012
  • Dan Rockmore William H. Neukom '64 Professor of Computational Science, Director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, at Dartmouth College, Santa Fe Institute External Faculty
  • David C. Krakauer Professor of Genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This week students around the country will be making their college decisions. Most were informed not by the thin/thick envelope auspices of the twentieth century, but instead by email. Indeed, the entire admissions, notification and even visitation processes have all been updated to reflect a brave new digital era. After decisions are made the electronic web of campus connectivity will start to be spun as Facebook pages and the like are reconfigured to accommodate a next generation of students.

While the ways in which colleges and universities now touch their prospective and future (and even current) students, both on and off campus -- the institutions that the class of 2016 will enter next fall -- are not in fact radically different in organization and conception than those of several generations past, more or less adhering to the departmental and divisional schema of their German forebears. Just as the ways in which colleges and universities have come to adapt to the realities, pressures and possibilities of the Internet, so too will the actual academic experience. Times are a-changing.

The possibilities and documented advantages of online learning are causing educators everywhere to rethink the age-old lecture hall information/knowledge delivery system. From the informative video nuggets on the popular Khan University to full-blown course materials -- such as the courses available through MIT's Open Courseware initiative -- carefully wrought learning experiences are freely available all around us. Former Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun has taught an artificial intelligence course to 100,000 students at once, and by all accounts, done so successfully. This raises the question of "What is a `classroom'?"

More broadly it is causing many to think hard about just what the university will look like in the future -- a question that is on administrator's and corporate leaders' minds everywhere. In fact, the future may be closer than we think. Effectively, 20 years ago there was no Internet of note. The paper that produced Google was a 1996 publication. Facebook, now one of the largest companies in the world, was not even a glimmer in the eye of a precocious teenager. Up until the 18th century a scholar could remain credible with information that was in effect over 2000 years old, with gray-bearded Aristotle and Galen the reigning authorities on matters of health and disease. Nowadays much knowledge is as good as obsolete a few years after publication date.

Thrun predicts that in 10 years the entire venerable landscape of universities and colleges will be razed, leaving in its wake an incorporeal network of distributed online aggregation sites offering sophisticated, interactive and very likely, free tuition. He could very well be wrong -- with an overestimate. The accelerating, exponential rate of development that we are now witnessing (as evidenced by Moore's law describing the doubling of processor power every two years) in everything that lives in symbiotic relation with information technology -- from shopping to microloans, crowd sourced science to activism -- makes our lumbering practices and habits honed over centuries of relative stasis feel like dinosaurs in the holocene.

Of course, universities and colleges are more than just information/skill-delivery factories. They are also places where a much of our social education and the majority of our research is conducted. Ultimately, one often comes to the social aspect of college life as an important component of the experience, but is this a vestige of the past or a portent of a super-social future? As more and more online communities emerge, the brave new world of college campus is one that is also virtual.

However, at the same time, the basic biological and social imperative to connect, leads to demand for new forms of physical interaction, albeit under the imprimatur of novel, porous institutional structures. Prime examples are the new interdisciplinary centers that are now dotting the academic landscape. Inspired by such successful endeavors as the Santa Fe Institute, MITs Media Lab, the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, new cross-disciplinary centers and initiatives such as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery are designed to overcome many of the obvious limitations of the aging departmental models, which at worst can act as an impediment to creative thinking and synthetic endeavors, and whose reward and promotion mechanisms often exclude some of our most creative minds. Many of these centers -- like our most successful technology companies -- recognize the power of social life, building cafes, restaurants and lounges directly into the research environment.

These new centers are growing up around ideas of transdiscplinarity, and collaboration, focusing on problems rather than methods, and could be transforming both research and education. The challenges of living in an aging, urbanized, overpopulated, and energy-starved world, calls for cultivating creativity and intuition at the interfaces of fields at the very earliest stages in our education. The students of today and of the future need to be a part of the insights that are transforming the way we conduct research. The next Ben Franklin is likely to be someone capable of straddling the complexities of the market and the atom.

We are at a moment to call into question the entire organizational rationale of the university. The diminishing funds for basic research, the decentralization and reform of education, the increased research focus of the tech sector, and the astounding power of digital content and delivery, conspire to ask that we return to an old-fashioned blackboard, and rethink the whole endeavor. Those organizations that are nimble and willing to transform, overcoming ancient habit and risk-aversion, are likely to emerge as the new centers of intellectual excellence in the 21st century. The University might be withering but among the weeds there is evidence of a wonderful profusion of new hybrid life.