Part 8: The use of technology in the university
This is the final part of an eight-part essay, ‘So, You Run a University?’. This essay is authored by Darcy W.E. Allen, Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson, Leon Gettler, Ethan Kane, Aaron M. Lane and Jason Potts. For previous parts go to:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Three visions of a university
Part 3: Universities are platforms
Part 4: Technology and a global health pandemic
Part 5: The university’s strategic assets
Part 6: Three university types
Part 7: Strategy for the great disruption
A new techno-economic paradigm
Historians of technology have long emphasized that change comes in waves, gathering about superclusters of technological innovation. These are techno-economic paradigms.
The industrial revolution emerged in 1770 with factory mechanisation in textile mills. By 1830, a technological revolution in steam power, telegraphs and railways. By 1870, a technological revolution in steel, electricity and heavy industry. By 1910, a technological revolution in oil, chemicals, automobiles and mass manufacturing. By 1970, the age of information, telecommunications and computers.
Each techno-economic wave builds on that which came before. They are centred on a new cheap source of value that fundamentally disrupts markets, firms, industrial organization.
By 2010, we had a new technological revolution in digital tools. This was a new supercluster of technologies from advanced computing to the third-generation of the internet (also known as Web3). This is business and market infrastructure for a global digital economy. Much of it is built on open source software (a revolutionary design concept from the hacker community).
This supercluster might be hard for you to see today, but it is here:
Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies are the base-layer administrative record keeping for identity, ownership, smart contracting and payments using machine protocols. These are the decentralised institutional infrastructure.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning create prediction engines. They facilitate automation, and robotic control of autonomous objects. These technologies expand agency and choice.
5G communications infrastructure. These communications speeds will power real-time integration of machines, including Internet of THings (IoT) devices, and people.
Additive manufacturing and 3D printing. We’re entering a world of distributed bespoke manufacturing with digital designs.
Virtual and augmented reality. The next generation of interfaces for semantic-context data representation and human-machine interaction, or machine mediated human interaction.
This software-based technology stack pushes algorithmic operations and decision-making deep into the economy. The combined effect of these digital technologies of business and service automation will be as disruptive as previous technological revolutions across the whole economy. What is being automated here is complex human-machine interaction, including the facilitation of a machine-to-machine economy.
Universities have never been entirely immune to technological revolutions. But they have been surprisingly little affected by industrial era technological innovation.
Ever since the printing press, new information and communication technologies have disrupted the university. Computers and the internet improve the efficiencies with which the university communicates with itself (email), and search engines and digital content have lowered the cost of research.
Since 2000 or so there have been repeated endeavours to digitise delivery of both teaching and research. These efforts have resulted in some success but mainly frustration. MOOCs and other web-based educational content delivery platforms (e.g. EdX, Udacity, Coursera, Udemy) have certainly been popular on some margins, but have also been less revolutionary than was initially hoped. The near zero price offering of many of these business models clearly showed that the university’s value-add extends well beyond efficient content creation and delivery. Furthermore, open access journals have not been widely adopted (although digital preprints such as arXiv and the Social Science Research Network have been more successful).
But now we now have the new technological supercluster we described above. These are the tools of the digital (cf the industrial) economy. And they could well be the most significant technological disruption to the university since elbow patches for tweed jackets.
Blockchain and the post-MOOC university
The supercluster of new digital technologies will affect the three different types differently.
Elite Universities can do what they like. They can go back to using stone age tools or mindmeld themselves with positronic beams. They will do whatever maintains and signals quality and prestige. And it doesn’t even really matter because others copy what they do, not the other way around. (Remember, Facebook started at Harvard, then spread from there.)
Specialist Universities will use whatever is useful and best suited to their needs. Practical and utilitarian, like they always have been. The technology is in service of their comparative advantage, which is deep focused expertise and its teaching and application.
Networked Universities are different. This is where the new supercluster finds its home. Here technology is the decisive part of transformative competitive advantage. Blockchain technologies in particular are likely to be central to the technology infrastructure for a platform university. It is perhaps not immediately obvious why this is so, given that centralised digital administration works reasonably well (despite all the administrators).
Blockchain technology is a way to create secure, digital record-keeping in a decentralised environment and to enable the flexible creation of automated processes on top of that. It facilitates a more decentralised and protocol-based model of a university. This reveals its value most clearly when an administrative platform begins to grow and integrate other modules and schools through, say, merger and acquisition, and especially when that growth takes place on a global scale. A blockchain based platform university can scale. It facilitates permissionless growth as other administrative units can plug into the system and engage with other parts and operations with high trust.
Blockchain technology also enables other digital tools to be built on top of a secure, distributed digital environment. This includes the stack of digital technologies coming from big data analytics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, all of which benefit from secure interaction with distributed digital identity, data markets, digital credentials, registries, access control of digital objects, intellectual property creation and transfer, smart contracting, financing, and payments, all of which can be natively built on blockchain technology-based infrastructure. We call this the Post-MOOC technology university.