Universities to Futurists: “The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.”

Give me a second while I remove the palm from my forehead.  Okay, here we go again – yet another wanna-be futurist desperate for press is predicting the death of universities.  The Wired Campus has a short, great article on this silliness:

Colleges Will Be ‘Torn Apart’ by Internet, Law Professor Predicts

They appropriately shred this argument to bits.  Not that it is hard.  Let’s see… the first time I heard this “death of the university” junk, the prediction was that they would be gone by 2010.  Which is… three and a half months away? Better start kickin’ the bucket soon all you Universities… you all must have missed the memo.

George Siemens also gives some longer thoughts on why universities won’t go away any time soon. Not the least of which is how much research your average college professor adds to the world, making it a better place to live one study at a time.

The sad thing is, there is plenty of room for us to discuss how the Internet will tear apart colleges by re-arranging how we deliver and design education.  But that does not seem to be what the whole “death to universities by 2020” movement is saying.  They are saying colleges will just be gone.

Gone?  Let’s see here – actual classroom education is a small percentage of why many student go to college.  They also go to socialize, to become involved in service projects, to take a smaller step towards independence from parents (unless they are unfortunate enough to have the helicopter variety), etc, etc.  So, not only will the Internet change how colleges educate, but it will fundamentally re-alter the entire system from top to bottom, completely removing a large list of non-educational reasons for going to college? I highly doubt that.

I need to make up some crazy theory and gain some attention.  Let’s see…. how about “Second Life will replace all office cubicles by 2020.  Sources report that Dilbert is speechless.”

8 thoughts on “Universities to Futurists: “The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.”

  1. Hi,

    I agree that there is a certain amount of headline grabbing going on but I have read a few of these articles in recent months and often I’ve found that when it comes down to it the authors don’t actually predict the demise of universities. Rather they generally predict core changes in operation.
    I do think that we are in a period of fundamental change bought on by new technologies, the massification of HE, the increasing corporitisation of HE, demographic changes in the academy and the rise of new competitors in knowledge industries. I also think and hope that these forces will combine to enable universities to reinvent themselves in a way that will be of much greater benefit to society than is currently the case. Having said that, even though the way that universities enable learning may change in far reaching ways, at the end of the day there will still be organisations that carry out research and enable learning that will be called universities.
    I have written about some of the changes that might occur here: http://www.masmithers.com/2009/08/03/some-ways-universities-will-change-over-ten-years/



  2. Matt, I agree with your post, mostly for the social reasons to which you refer. But I do believe that higher education has rocky years ahead as it grapples with sea changes happening in the market. Many institutions may not survive as these changes occur. But I too have trouble believing the entire sky is falling on higher education. Now if students no longer desire the college campus experience, then all bets are off.

  3. Hey Rick and Mark – thanks for the comments. I have to admit I was kind of bored when I wrote this, so I did go a little too extreme on the commentary. I have read a person or two that have predicted the literal death of the university, but you are correct that most are predicting major changes. Of course, Mark, when you talk about the massification of HE, you are hitting on something that might truly kill the University as we know it. If every starts going to college, will it just turn in to grades 13-16? That could be an interesting debate.

    Of course, I also think that “massive changes” have been predicted for the past 80-90 years at least. And certainly, if you look at where colleges were back in 1920s, there have been major changes. Fundamental? Maybe not so much, depending on who is defining what is fundamental. But those changes happened gradually – and not all aspects of the college experience changed. It’s a given that universities will change, but I think it is better to ask what aspects will change and how fast or slow these changes will occur. I’d rather discuss re-invention, grappling, and changing fundamentals than stuff getting “torn apart.” But that is probably why you don’t see me in the headlines :)

  4. Mark- I believe many of the headline writers of the world are evil. “I have read a few of these articles in recent months and often I’ve found that when it comes down to it the authors don’t actually predict the demise of universities. Rather they generally predict core changes in operation.”

  5. Gidday Matt.

    Allow me a slightly different response addressing the headline issue.

    The person you cite isn’t a futurist. No decent futurist worth their salt makes predictions about what WILL be, we (by and large), tend to leave that to business media economists! :-)

    Instead what futurists typically do is discuss the various potential for change that might be possible/plausible/probable. They tend to indicate the types of drivers of change and if they are really good at their jobs, are also likely to indicate the way in which holders of power in the status quo, are likely to respond t o any sense of change that might interrupt their place in the pecking order.

    So whilst there have been many examples of futurists discussing what might improve teaching and education, where limits within the University model might be made, why change within universities is often prevented by those well placed in power within the institutions and so on, (even if the demise might be wished by many futurists) – I’ve not seen any credible futurists saying the University is ended. Indeed, quite a few work within them!

  6. Marcus,

    Thank you for the comment. I think you have helped me put a finger on why I am so uncomfortable with many of these predictions. Many of the people I am reading are being “wanna-be futurists”. They do talk too much in absolutes about the future, rather than potential changes.

  7. Matt it is a common issue – the challenge is for the more substance based futurists to find their voice, rather than for the audience to find them.

    You might want to add to your reading list Sohail Inayatullah whose Causal Layered Analysis model is a great one for breaking discussion into qualities of discourse

    As to some thinking on futurists who’ve looked at Universities – I did a piece a while back called ‘The Future of Commercial Education’ that might be a useful example of how possibilities and not ‘will-abilities’ are tossed into an area of discussion. :-)

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