Distributed Knowledge Systems

Universities increasingly find that their historical role as privileged producers of socially privileged knowledge is being challenged. More knowledge is being produced by corporations than was the case in the past. More knowledge is being produced in the traditional broadcast media. More knowledge is being produced in the networked interstices of the social web. In these places, the logics and logistics of knowledge production are disruptive of the traditional values of the university — the for-profit, protected knowledge of the corporation; the multimodal knowledge of the broadcast media; and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ which destabilizes old regimes of epistemic privilege through the new, web-based ‘participatory’ media.

How can the university connect with the shifting sites and modes of knowledge production? How can it stay relevant? Are its traditional knowledge-making systems in need of renovation? How can they remain distinctive?

To address these questions, the Forum examines the knowledge systems of the university. What makes academic knowledge valid and reliable, and how can its epistemic virtues be strengthened to meet the challenges of our times? How can the university meet the challenges of the new media in order to renovate the disclosure and dissemination systems of scholarly publishing? How can the university connect with the emerging and dynamic sources of new knowledge formation outside its traditional boundaries?
For all the challenges they face today, universities also find themselves in a strategically and rhetorically powerful position. Modern and modernizing communities are increasingly styling themselves as ‘knowledge societies’ and ‘knowledge economies’. As universities transform themselves, they need to put forth the public case that, as manufacturers and purveyors of knowledge, the health and growth of the university is, more than ever, a key factor in the production of social progress.

Ubiquitous Learning

More of our learning happens on the job – at the software interface, for instance, or close to the specifics of everyday life. The balance of formal and informal learning is shifting in the direction of informal learning. More of the specifics of what we need to know to be fully functioning workers, citizens and persons we learn in the pedagogic spaces of training programs, help menus and by immersion in communities of practice which provide support scaffolds for new entrants.

How do universities, sites of formal education par excellence, respond? What does it mean for the level of generality of their curricula—should they be geared up to the more abstract or down to the more concrete? What does it mean for their institutional formality? To what extent should universities join the markets for learning anywhere and anytime, just in time and just enough? How can universities work with the disruptive potentials of e-learning, or should they resist in order to maintain their brand credibility?

What should universities do as the demands of the knowledge society push the frontiers of equity? How could twice the percentage (or more) of the population go to university? What would happen to the knowledge and learning of elite institutions, if they stooped to the logic of mass marketing? What if they had to develop a new economics provision in order to open opportunities for entry to historically excluded groups located around the corner and around the world?

The Academy

In order to address these key questions of knowledge formation and learning, the Forum examines both legacy and emerging forms of the university. What can we say about the heritage, changing and imminent lifeworld of the university, the distinctive experiences of academic life and the dispositions of its participants?

If it is the role of the university to produce deeper, broader and more reliable knowledge than is possible in everyday, casual experience, what do we need to do to defend its methodologies and develop new ones? Which is the more generative and under what conditions—specialization or interdisciplinarity? What needs to be done about the knowledge validation and dissemination systems of peer review and academic publishing as they face the challenges of open access and creative commons? How do we teach in a world in which people are more inclined and able to build their own knowledge and understandings than to receive the pre-packaged wisdoms of authorities?

Matters of Academic Interest

What are academics to do? Which are the pivotal questions of our time, and how can universities address these questions, and be seen to be addressing them? How can they create ideas, practice innovation, and make their presence pervasively felt in the public imagination? How can universities define problems, set intellectual agendas, propose credible ways forward and figure solutions which address the major challenges and opportunities for people and planet? What should they be teaching and how should they be teaching it?

The World Universities Forum and its associated publication forums aim to address the fundamentals of the university, its heritage and its potential destinies. The Forum’s analyses range from the finely-grained and exemplary to the theoretical and speculative.
One concrete product of the forum’s work thus far is the following action agenda.

An Action Agenda for the University

Never before in their long history have universities faced as many challenges as they do now. We live in times of enormous economic, political and cultural transformation, demanding that the very idea of university to be re-imagined. Facing a fiscal crisis of the state, universities can no longer assume government support for higher education. Taxpayers now question the cost, relevance and effectiveness of the university, in ways they have never done before. In such a context, universities do not only need to re-think and re-frame their purposes and governance, but also communicate effectively with the communities that support them with public and private resources. They need to take a manifestly pivotal role in addressing the key challenges and opportunities of our times: globalization, environmental sustainability, economic development, social inclusion, and human security.

So, what is to be done? The World Universities Forum proposes an agenda that lists key challenges, as a starting point for discussions on the future role of the university.

Challenge 1: Reframe the purposes of the university in the era of the ‘knowledge economy.

The university must give substance to the rhetoric of the ‘knowledge economy’. Our social futures depend upon the work of the university in a more direct way than was ever the case in the industrial era. The university is the pre-eminent site for the production of new knowledge and for its diffusion through education. In a way we have never done before, we must position ourselves centrally as an engine of a new economy, assuming a strategic role as a primary source of knowledge as a key factor of production.

Challenge 2: Renew our pedagogies to reflect cultural and technological shifts.

A number of contextual forces put insistent pressure on the university to reform its pedagogies: the new social media; a generation of students less willing to be a passive recipients of transmitted knowledge; the necessity to be inclusive of a more diverse student body than ever before; and increasingly internationalized class groups. Our pedagogies and curricula are in danger of becoming anachronistic, and need to be modernized. This will require a concerted effort to adopt ubiquitous learning media for on-campus classes as well as an increasing number of off-campus online classes; to create curricula in which students are knowledge co-designers more than they are knowledge absorbers; to recognize and accredit life-engaged learning outside of the classroom; and to build pedagogies which build productively on the local-global diversity of our students.

Challenge 3: Recast the frames of reference for our research and development.

The sites and modes of knowledge production are in a process of transformation. Our disciplinary silos make us ill-equipped to address the most important questions of our time, all of which beg transdisciplinary approaches. We have to deepen our expertise in particular areas of knowledge, to be sure, but increasingly this must be complemented by broader perspectives of interdisciplinarity. We must also lead in collaborations which blur the traditional institutional boundaries of knowledge production, partnering with governments, enterprises and communities to co-construct distributed knowledge systems. It behooves the university to take a strategically central place in the larger society’s agendas for innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and proactive public policy.

Challenge 4: Rejuvenate our knowledge systems and innovation structures.

Our systems of measurement of knowledge value have become in many respects outmoded, and this goes to the heart of the credibility of university knowledge. How does one evaluate scholars for the purposes of employment, promotion and tenure? What mix makes an effective scholar? What are the intrinsic weaknesses in our systems for the declaration of knowledge outcomes—the peer review, and journal and book publication systems? How are these resourced? In the era of the social web, we anachronistically retain knowledge systems based on the legacies of print. Today, the university must design knowledge systems which are speedier, more reflexive and which are more systematically balanced than our current systems. We also need to build new business models which in which universities are neither the naive partner in the giveaway of intellectual property (take, for example, the commercial ‘journals crisis’ or poor returns to the university on patentable and copyright intellectual property) nor depend on the unpaid labor of scholars as amateur publishers in open access publishing models.

Challenge 5: Take a leading role in defining and promoting community development.

The university must ensure it is recognized for its central role at many levels local community capacity development, regional development, nation-building and meeting global responsibilities. With the emergence of new transnational processes, the university must promote an understanding of how communities are now forged, across traditional boundaries, in networks that potentially span the globe. The university is no longer located within a clearly defined geographical space, but needs to consider how the problems that communities face are interconnected, and require new modes of cooperation. It must therefore take a manifestly leading role in addressing the central global challenges of our times, addressing, for instance, health, food, poverty, peace, security, justice and environmental sustainability.

Challenge 6: Take a lead in globalizing scholarship through new modes of collaboration.

The university is becoming an increasingly a global player—in the international mobility of its students and scholars, through transnational knowledge collaborations and in global knowledge transfer. We must institutionalize these processes so the university takes a leading role in the knowledge flows that underpin this phase of globalization—international students, transnational scholar recruitment, inter-institutional research and development projects, and trans-national campuses and cross-border online teaching. This requires new ways of thinking about, and enacting, new modes of transnational collaboration.

Challenge 7: Become an agent for promoting social inclusion and equity.

The university has historically been an institution of and for elites. It now has to cater for the multitude. A larger proportion of school leavers are going to university. A larger proportion of those in employment now need to undertake university studies. If our numbers were to double, it would unlikely be in a context where governments or fee paying students also double what they are able to pay for expensive, historical forms of university infrastructure. If many more people are to attend the university, we need to create new delivery mechanisms, curriculum differentiation but with open pathways, and environments which are sensitively inclusive of groups who have not historically attended university. All this, without prejudice to intellectual rigor and pedagogical standards.

Challenge 8: Make a public case for strategic investment in the university.

In the context of the fiscal crisis of the state, we have to develop new models of sustainable resourcing. We may want to lament the baleful effects upon the university of the ‘taxpayer revolt’, but our institutions should not have to absorb these effects. As the mission of the university expands, we need expanded resourcing. If the state won’t pay, affluent students must pay more, including internal cross-subsidies through equity scholarships. Those who benefit materially from higher education should return some or all of the cost of their education once in employment and receiving those benefits, be that via an income tax surcharge or directly levied loans. The university must also find ways to extend its resource base by taking an active, investor’s interest in scholars’ intellectual property from diverse revenue sources including patents, copyright, training programs and consultancies. We need more accurate metrics on investment and return, ranging from whole universities, to units, to scholars themselves in a more systematic framework of accountable tenure.

Challenge 9: Restructure our systems of governance and accountability.

The university needs to move away from its contradictory mix of older practices – in one moment excessively bureaucratic and in another chaotically decentralized. A balance needs to be struck between devolved accountability and rigorously agreed overall policy and business process frameworks. This balance takes the form of deeply institutionalized systems and processes of subsidiarity or networked devolution.

Challenge 10: Take our message to the world.

The university is in danger. We see signs of an impending tragedy: the university in decline. To maintain and strength the position of the university we need to strengthen our stakeholder buy-in at local, regional, national and global levels. We need to put ourselves in a position where every sector of the economy and segment of society considers the central role of the University to be self-evident—government, corporations and communities. We will only achieve this in the first instance through carefully crafted strategic messaging.