Universities and the Brave New Academic World

Image source: telegraph.co.uk

An article published in the UK Sunday Times at the weekend and republished in The Australian yesterday adds another name to the growing band of influential figures seriously challenging the notion of university education — at least as it is currently structured. This time it is Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, and erstwhile colleague of that other Harvard academic, Clayton Christensen, who has also set the cat amongst the pigeons with his most recent book, The Innovative University.

According to Summers, the explosion of knowledge, and our ability to access it through computers, demands change in the way universities operate. Furthermore, most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago, yet undergraduate education looks much as it did in the middle of the 20th century. He also argues that:

Universities are going to have to be increasingly about pinpointing principles, ways of thinking, common values and common aspects of experience rather than trying to teach all there is to know because no one can know all there is to know.

This sounds to me like an argument for getting students to analyse rather than memorise, which may not appear a big deal except that it would mean a fundamental shift in the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices of a great many tertiary educational institutions around the world.

The image above is a common sight in universities everywhere. It does not resemble any real world setting where a graduate might be expected to apply their newly acquired knowledge and analytical skills. They are also using pens and paper which, while quaint, is not very 21st century.