The Transformation of the University in a Sharing Economy I

It is said that the two oldest entities are The Church and universities. While The Church has seen substantive changes over the years, the basic institution remains intact. Universities on the other hand seem to conform more to the disruptive models suggested by Clayton Christensen.

With the arrival of the Internet, institutions in click and brick space are emerging and are challenging the extant model of the Ivory Tower in all areas from basic knowledge creation and transmission to its larger functions within society. The sensibility of the disruptive innovation model seems to hold. Universities, as they exist today, evolved from their founding about 1000 years ago, and for the most part, will exist in the future. But they will be significantly changed, informed by the emergent competitive paths that effectively meet the immediate and long term needs of the society in which they are imbedded.

In the past, these Ivory Towers might be considered as points of knowledge creation and concentration in a darkened plain, a source to attract seekers of such learning along an arduous path to arrive and access that knowledge. Over time ICT, information/communication technologies, have evolved making it easier to access knowledge but not with the same urgency to travel to a “Tower”. Simultaneously, scholars and researchers, in the past dispersed, came together at these centers; yet, today, except for the necessity of physical resources, that need has changed, also, but in ways different from the past. In many research driven disciplines, faculty collegiality around singular research is greater across institutions than with the faculty next door.

Knowledge is fungible and transferable across geo/political boundaries. The speed and ease of such borderless transmission and increasingly open access to this knowledge changes the urgency to concentrate and opens up opportunities that have not previously existed. It also changes the nature of a previously isolated “Tower” and its relationship to the outside world. The universities and their faculty are seen as being active participants in and contributors to the world outside. Basically, the walls of the Tower are becoming increasingly transparent with the larger public able to seize the opportunities therein and those within the Towers understanding how to more directly engage with the public, at large, internationally.

This starts to bring into question the entire structure and function of the university as originally envisioned, as evolved and where it is heading. Academic institutions with regards to knowledge creation are innovators, except when underlying paradigms are being challenged, and particularly where the institution as an organizing structure is under question. For example, the transition from secondary institutions to a post secondary one may have a culturally disruptive dimension but the knowledge to be acquired and the path to such competencies do not change like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Thus emergent paths being developed in the secondary schools and the methodologies of a post secondary program need faculty competencies in education delivery more than senior research faculty. In many institutions, particularly R1 or major research universities, the basic undergraduate courses are used to offset overhead costs including faculty not totally supported by extra mural funding. Similarly much of the basic knowledge can be effectively provided, particularly in competency based programs, via blended learning, not necessarily, again needing senior faculty.

Similarly, research, even at R1 institutions, does not need to be carried out within a single institution or even by a single researcher. As in the past, collaborative efforts across geo-political boundaries are possible and, in fact, gaining with increased electronic communication systems. Crowd sourcing, the use of “deep learning” algorithms and similar emergent paths point out the changing nature of both research and teaching.

It has been noted that in the “New Economy” the professional needs of society can be represented by the ratio of 1:2:7 which means 1 Ph.D., to two advanced prepared individuals (e.g. masters) to 7 with post baccalaureate certification. Translating this back to the Ivory Tower, this points to a shift in the balance of the faculty to meet both its core demands on scholarly works, basic education, and now community engagement. For institutions in the fiscally developed economies, this seems to be happening by default as the ratio of tenure track, research driven faculty decreases while the non-tenure track and “at will” faculty increases.

The adjustments are painful as a conservative academic community finds that the institutions are increasingly able to meet their commitments with this shifting ratio. In the under resourced countries it points to the need to strengthen the core instructional faculty rather than trying to lever scarce resources to compete, singularly against a rapidly changing institutional model. It points, as with the Bologna agreements in Europe, to collaboration across geo/political boundaries for all institutions. The joint publishing effort of many small, elite, institutions in the United States, Lever, and the increasing efforts to share shrinking operational resources point, again, to collaboration.

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