Universities are changing. They are going the way of a host of other industries that were transformed by Information Technology (IT) in the last 25 – 30 years – media, entertainment, retailing. Process standardization, collaboration and automation tools are “dis-connecting” various processes and changing the way that things get done in the University.
Universities have three major functions: 1. Creation of knowledge through research, 2. Dissemination of knowledge to students and 3. Providing infrastructure and facilities for students to interact with one another and with teachers and potential employers, and to get access to sources of information. Traditionally all of these activities have been carried out in one physical structure, the University. Now, there is the potential, indeed even a reality in many places today, that these three objectives can be served seemingly independent of one another and outside of a conventional university with classrooms and faculty offices and labs.
Starting with “Dissemination of knowledge to students”, an increasing proportion of classes are conducted online, where instead of meeting the professor and other classmates every week, course materials are accessed, assignments are done and quizzes are taken online. With increasingly “rich” sorts of interactions, through collaborative tools such as wikis and video conferencing embedded in or augmenting traditional course management tools, an increasing number and variety of classroom activities such as discussions and case study analyses can be conducted online. Theoretically speaking therefore it is possible for a professor and a student to teach and take a course without being in the same physical space. I know many colleagues who after retirement are teaching only online courses for non-traditional universities, working out of their home offices.
Second, as far as “providing infrastructure and facilities for students to interact with one another” goes, most students do not meet in traditional places such as libraries and canteens. They meet mostly in online spaces and exchange ideas and information through things such as Google docs, not to speak of Facebook. So the idea that students need to spend time with one another to set off spirals of serendipitous learning is becoming less and less true. Yes, the 4 years spent in college are still filled with that sort of learning and friendships and network building, but that doesn’t happen only through or even majorly through physical spaces any more.
And lastly, for “creation of knowledge through research”, perhaps the only physical facilities that are required are laboratories. And that too largely in the physical sciences. Everything else that research requires – collaboration, discussion, iteration, analysis, writing, reviewing and critiquing, can be done through electronic media.
Given the above then, it is very likely that we are looking at disembodied “classrooms” that exist only in the abstract, at college going students conglomerating only in online forums for their learning and course, at professors working out of their home offices and at ‘universities’ as significantly shrunken physical spaces. The “unbundled” university.