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The Disruptive University – a German Perspective on Higher Education in the Digital Age

Presentation originally held at the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) Forum in Geneva, April 11, 2019.

Digitalisation – a Disruptive Force?

Digitalisation as a process has often been characterised as “disruptive”. Regarding the fundamental impacts of digitalisation on the way we live, this characterisation is certainly true. For instance, digitalisation has fundamentally changed the way we communicate: we can videochat to anyone on the globe at any time at almost no cost. E-mail, social media and a huge number of web platforms make global communication easier than ever before. The internet has broadened the opportunities to make contact with new people or to take part in discussions anywhere on the world. 

It has changed the way we travel. Only a bit more than a decade ago – before smartphones became common – we had to consult printed maps and print out railway timetables before leaving the house. Only a few years later it felt completely natural to check routes and make travel arrangements while already on the go. It has changed the way we access media: We have got all the information we want at our fingertips at all times. The only place where we could stay away from the latest news for more than a few hours used to be long-distance flights and thanks to satellite internet access, even this is changing now. The way we gather information has become universally easier. We have cloud access at almost all times and can use our own as well as foreign databases whenever we need them. Data storage does no longer seem to be an issue – with all the well-known implications regarding big data as well as data security. 

In this situation, of course a number of traditional business models are struggling or have changed radically: One of the first industries affected by the digital change was the recording industry whose business model was endangered by peer-to-peer platforms like Napster. Napster offered a convenient way to access and download music at any time at no cost without having to take a trip to the next record store. At the same time, it was illegal since it was a free service that did not pay royalties the recording artists. It was Steve Jobs who introduced the iTunes Music Store in 2003 and thereby successfully transformed the recording industry’s business model. It turned out that people did not like Napster for being a free service but for its convenience. The iTunes Store proved that people were even willing to pay for the same convenience that Napster offered. 

Nowadays, more business models are endangered by digitalisation. Uber and Airbnb are only two of the most prominent examples. Understandably, taxi drivers in Germany went on strike when the German minister for transportation planned to deregulate transportation laws in favour of Uber and similar services. The same goes for the hotel business since renting private rooms via Airbnb can add a whole new dimension to a travel experience when compared to clean, sterile hotel rooms.In all those areas, digitalisation surely was and is a disruptive force and can rightly be called a revolution.

Digitalisation and Universities – Not a Revolution

But is the same true for Universities? Is their “business model” – as far as that term is justified in an education system like in Germany where universities are mostly state-financed and there is no tution-fee – endangered by digitalisation?

The MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) debate that started in 2013 conveyed this impression when Stanford and other top US universities made their courses available online for free. If you could study online, why would we still need university buildings? Would MOOCs become the Napster of higher education?

Two quotes can illustrate this question. In 1997, the Austro-American economist Peter Drucker claimed: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive.” On the other hand, Stanford President John Hennessy was interviewed by the German news magazine ZEIT in 2016 and was asked: “Will the Stanford campus of 2060 basically look like the Stanford campus of 2016?” His response was: “Not completely. There will be changes, but they won’t overthrow everything.”

Drucker’s quote is now 22 years old and realistically it does not look like university campuses will be gone in eight years. MOOCs turned out not to be a disruptive instrument for higher education: Their low completion rate rendered them unusable for mainstream education. They continue to play a niche role in higher education where they have become a learning method for a small number of non-traditional students that lack the flexibility for presence study. Other than that, they are mostly used for marketing purposes. 

So why did the digital revolution fail in higher education? The most plausible explanation might be that learning as a basic principle remains unchanged through digitalisation. While digitalisation of course provides new methods of accessing knowledge and new forms of teaching – may it be distant, non-present or digitally enriched present teaching – the way we process and remember information in our brain remains the same. Studies have shown that personal contact between teachers and learnes as well as between learners themselves play a not to be underestimated role in the learning process. For this reason, face-to-face learning situations continue to play an important role in (higher) education. At the same time, qualified discourse and interpersonal debate require a certain extent of presence as anyone who ever took part in an online discussion with more that 15 participants will probably confirm. 

So while learning as a principle remains unchanged, the role of digitalisation is to support learning processes in a didactically reasonable way. Therefore, in the context of learning, digitalisation is an evolution rather than a revolution, or as German sociologist Rudolf Stichweh once put it: The University is a Presence Institution. 

Various student interviews and studies show that most learners prefer face-to-face learning situations and that students are no driving force in the area of digital teaching.[1] For most students, the student experience remains linked with campus experience, with the possibility to meet the teacher face-to-face and with social interaction with fellow students – not necessarily limited to  the classroom, but also over a coffee or a beer. Despite all the digital possibilities, we see an increasing demand for face-to-face learning spaces at German universities; university libraries increasingly fulfil the role of collaborative learning spaces. The growing need for sufficient amount of digitally equipped learning spaces on campus is a major challenge for German higher education institutions. These findings show that so-called “click university” is not a threat for the traditional “brick university”, but that we increasingly see a synthesis of “brick” and “click universities”. Karen Latimer, the chair of the UK Designing Libraries Advisory Board once said about libraries: “Far from libraries being displaced by information technology, information technology has moved into libraries.” The same is true for university campuses: Digitalisation changes a lot of processes on and around campus, but it does not displace the campus as such.

The Disruptive University

Universities are less prone to becoming disrupted by digitalisation. Nonetheless, digitalisation continues to be a major challenge for society, especially democratic societies:

  • The ubiquity of information does not necessarily correlate with the reliability of information. In fact, in a vast stream of information it becomes more and more difficult to assess which information is reliable and which information is relevant. One of the consequences we can observe today is the rising amount of “fake news” on the internet. 
  • The overflow of information leads to a rising perception of inequality between rich and poor both on a national as well as on a global level. When the internet opens a window to the riches of prosperous societies, it is prone to arouse envy and dissatisfaction among those who are less fortunate. 
  • Algorithms and AI determine more and more of what we perceive and is going to affect our daily lives in ways that we cannot even imagine today. Already today, a Facebook timeline for instance is not a mirror of reality but a mirror of those entries of which the Facebook algorithm assumes that they interest us the most so we spend as much time on Facebook and interact with as many ads as possible. One of the possible consequences of this are filter bubbles.
  • Last but not least, the rapid development of AI poses new questions concerning the image of man, the image of humanity itself. What does “intelligence” actually mean when software becomes “intelligent” The tremendous developments in the field of digital technology have the risk to overshadow the fundamental difference – and it cannot to stressed enough that there isa fundamental difference – between human beings and machines/computers.

In this situation, universities can and should become a disruptive force themselves: 

  • When we talk about “future skills”, we often mean fundamentally new skills that were unheard of 20 years ago. Provokingly, I would like to claim that the most important future skills are at the same time the most traditional skills: Source criticism is the basis to every form of research and has been taught at universities for hundreds of years. Today, the ability to assess the reliability as well as the relevance of information is more important than ever concerning the vast information stream as well as the ubiquity of information. 
  • Free speech, debate and discourse as a key value for the scientific community. In a digital world that is susceptible to filter bubbles, universities can and should promote the value of open, enlightened and unprejudiced discourse for society.
  • The idea of “universitas”, the unity of research and teaching, of teachers and learners and of different subjects and disciplines has been a fundamental principle of universities from their very beginning in medieval times. Nowadays, it can help to develop a holistic rather than a limited view of the world and therefore overcome limited perceptions of the image of humanity, fight filter bubbles and rise the awareness of algorithmic influence in our everyday lives.
  • At the same time, transfer of academic research into society (“third mission”) can become an important instrument to reduce inequality and dismantle distrust between science, society and governments.

Universities will not be disrupted by digitalisation. But universities can help to make the digital change as humane as possible: universities can and should be disruptive themselves in a way that they help to cope with the negative consequences of a digital disruption of society. 


[1] Cf. Persike, Friedrich, Lernen mit digitalen Medien aus Studierendenperspektive (=HFD Arbeitspapier Nr. 17), Berlin 2016, https://hochschulforumdigitalisierung.de/sites/default/files/dateien/ HFD_AP_Nr_17_Lernen_mit_digitalen_Medien_aus_Studierendenperspektive.pdf

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