We live in a world which offers the average person unprecedented access to information. What once took hours, days, or even weeks to find out, now takes less than half a second at the click of a mouse. The future of the university as the repository of society’s collective knowledge and memory—especially within a globalized context—will be entirely dependent upon its ability to adjust to these new conditions.
With the rise of the Internet, we have now come to think of information as something which is ideally shared, rather than possessed. Universities may find themselves uneasy at such a realization. Maintaining the monopoly over knowledge creation is difficult when your human resources, students, can go to other places—Wikipedia, Khan Academy, etc.—to find their means of production. The major labels in the music industry can certainly attest to the difficulties of trying to fight the sharing power of the Web. If the university is to have a continued positive impact on the constituency of the world, then it must be willing to embrace the realities of this time we live in, and reimagine its purpose within our hyperconnected social space.
One might imagine online education to be the first thing that a university can do toward this end. In recent weeks, Columbia has jumped on board with the other 32 institutions that signed on to be a part of Coursera, the online platform which aims to offer free courses from top universities around the world to anyone who creates a profile. “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions,” the company’s vision statement reads. “Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students. Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.”
Pretty big stuff, huh? Seeking to preempt the impending tide of the digital revolution, groups like Coursera certainly advance the idea that a truly global society will not function without education for all. The university must harness the power of the Internet for disseminating information and knowledge—this much is clear. However, as the university moves forward in time, it must accept an even broader mission. Understanding just how easy it is to connect and share with others around the globe, the university must cultivate in its students the ability to do these things on their own in a meaningful way.
In a “global city” such as ours here at Columbia, the university has to ensure that its students are prepared to handle information responsibly and effectively. The individual’s search for useful knowledge now takes place in an arena far broader than any campus can cover. The university, therefore, must seek to develop in its students the disposition and method necessary for conducting this search on their own. Because the Internet exists as this free-for-all of informational exchange, the university now more than ever must commit itself to fostering genuine interpersonal connections in real—not cyber—space. As human beings, our online interactions cannot be considered anything but supplementary to our lived ones. I shudder to think what our world might look like if we were to one day decide that the opposite were true.
The Internet is a great place to learn new things. But the real world is so much better, especially when you consider every person you meet to be a potential teacher. To listen attentively and evaluate honestly—these are the demands which the university must place on all students if they are expected to be effective global citizens in life after college. We can only maintain productive transnational communication by humanizing the social categories that too often drive us apart. The true role of the university in a global city is to empower students to carry out this humanizing endeavor. The university must work to create learning experiences that develop this openness of presumption in each of its students, along with the ability to discern honest and useful information from the rest. The peace and prosperity of our increasingly interconnected world depend on it.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in American studies. He is president of the Columbia chapter of Students for Education Reform.