Erik P.M. Vermeulen


Why Universities Will Be Disrupted in a Digital World

“Re-Defining” Education in an Age of AI and Robots

I love being a university professor.

And the new world of digital technologies, artificial intelligence and robots makes it a particularly good time to be involved with higher education.


Because these new technologies are beginning to disrupt universities and this disruption creates new and exciting opportunities in both teaching and research.

For a start, the expectations of young people (“millennials”) today are rapidly changing. It’s my experience that students are no longer satisfied by “old style” lectures or academic articles.

Millennials demand a more dynamic and engaged form of education.

Teaching and research have always been extremely rewarding. Universities have — at their best — provided the freedom and resources to create a “legacy” and make a valuable contribution to the future development of society.

But our new digital society has the potential to make universities even better.

Being a professor today gives us an excellent opportunity to take a “deep dive” into our fast-changing world. And what really interests me is how new technologies allow for the creation of new models for teaching and for combining teaching and research.

Now, more than ever, I have the feeling that being a “university professor” isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle and an adventure. Recall that “Indiana Jones” — a childhood hero for many of us who grew up in the 1980s — was also a university professor.

Three Reasons for “University Disruption”

I think there are three main reasons why universities and particularly university education is now being disrupted.

(1) New Educational Opportunities Created by Digital Technologies

New technology means that content can be delivered to students in new and different ways.

Content can be made more accessible. For instance, classes can be organized and paced in a way that is more relevant for a faster-moving digital generation.

The “consumption” of educational materials can also be made more flexible. More and more universities now offer the possibility of following distance-learning courses.

Finally, multimedia and online resources (think YouTube, Coursera etc.) offer interesting and useful content that can easily be integrated into the class room.

Of course, it is necessary to “curate” all this new content but — again — technology provides a “solution”. In my experience, the “wisdom of crowd” and “user” reviews is usually a fairly reliable indication of quality.

(2) External Demands of the Market

New technologies are transforming the global economy. The result is that universities find themselves under more external pressure to adapt to these new realities.

Commenting on an earlier piece that I wrote, Daniel Zahler wrote:

“You provide a good overview of the workplace culture shift and how platform companies are engaging creative artists to drive innovation. It seems to me there are still untapped opportunities related to identifying and recruiting these free-spirited, maverick types. We’ve moved from old-economy signaling mechanisms (Ivy league degrees, Wall Street pedigree) to freelance marketplaces, crowdfunding campaigns and Instagram portfolios. In this world the most successful platforms will need to find and engage creative thinkers in innovative, mutually rewarding ways.”

He identifies the potential risk for universities. If they don’t re-think education, they will find that a university degree is no longer the “signaling mechanism” of talent that it once offered.

As such, universities will be forced to adapt. The “market” will demand an education that provides skills and knowledge appropriate to a digital age.

(3) Internal Initiative of the Universities

Of course, universities realize that they have to change in order to make themselves “future-proof”.

But, too often, this change is just window-dressing (empty words) or involves the imposition of more control by central administrators (either from university or government).

What I find particularly frustrating (and deeply ironic) is that — in universities, at least — the transition to a digital and de-centralized world has often resulted in more centrally created “procedures”.

This is particularly true in an educational context where “quality control” often results in bland standardization that limits fast change or any innovation and experimentation.

Of course, we need to have processes and systems to guarantee quality, but too often the effect of such “procedures” is to kill the entrepreneurial spirit and speed necessary to offer courses that millennials need today to prepare them for tomorrow.

Change is Happening

Done right, however, the “university of the future” has the potential to make all of us more entrepreneurial and can facilitate engagement with a much wider, global audience.

In this way, “university disruption” can help the younger generation in creating a “better” digital future.

But we need to realize that “disruption” is not going to happen overnight. It’s a gradual process that is gaining momentum.

More and more of my colleagues opt out of the traditional university structures and start operating outside its walls. Facilitated by technology, they use more open means of communications and media to experiment with new teaching models and to disseminate their ideas.

It is these “influencers” that are re-defining education at universities in a digital age.

I am positive that universities will become “universities” again. That is to say, a place or community that prepares society for the things to come:

  • where face-to-face meetings are necessary to achieve the desired level of “co-creation”, and
  • where in-class engagement builds the skills needed to deal effectively with the opportunities and challenges of a new artificially intelligent and connected world.

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