How to transform universities in the era of technological disruption

Universities today need to expand and refocus their mission. The new technologies have the potential to act as a lever to reframe the goals of academia.

Do Better Team

Adapted from the manifesto ‘Transforming universities’ by Esteve Almirall, Ivan Bofarull, Marc Cortés, and Cecilia Tham. 

In recent years, and particularly in the last few months, technological advances have been made which have shaken the foundations and the possibilities of university education. The present context raises the question to what extent the combination of the new technologies, from generative AI to the metaverse, could be a catalyst for reducing the skills gap visible in Spain and much of the European Union. 

What changes are needed by universities, if they are to overcome the challenges that lie ahead? And how can they be implemented? These questions have been explored in the white paper Business education in the era of the metaverse, whose conclusions are outlined below. 

Foundational principles 

1. Expanding the mission 

In their modern history, universities have developed their mission around research and teaching, producing important scientific knowledge and imbuing students with knowledge and values. Universities still play an important role in society but, due to the developments in technology of recent years, they must change in order to remain relevant. Their own transformation must become part of their mission. Thus, universities must force themselves to change and consider how they could enhance the impact they make.  

2. Shifting the focus 

In order to be able to expand their mission, universities must shift their focus from what they deliver (departments and programs) to the needs and challenges they must respond to. In this respect, we have identified three fundamental problems or challenges:  

  • Provide a response to the need to generate and provide access to deeper, more reflective learning, in a world in which it is widely available. 
  • Facilitate a transformative learning experience. 
  • Rigorously validate the knowledge and skills acquired, in an environment of changing skills and multiple certification.  

In today's digital era, everyone has access to even the most specialized knowledge, in some cases of very high quality in terms of both the content and the digital experience. This also extends to the acquisition of academic credentials, with an emerging and growing microcredentials market. All this forces universities to reappraise their traditional role, as they look for their place in a world that is radically different from the world in which they first appeared. 

3. From purpose to technology

The transformation is not achieved by means of technological "additives": a better transformation will not be secured by those who have more/better technology. The point of departure for the change is a profound understanding of the challenges, before technology is assigned an enabling, leveraging role, so that ambitious targets associated with these challenges may be achieved. Generative AI and the metaverse can potentially have a multiplier rather than a linear effect on various areas of educational experience, including:  

  • Knowledge and content production. Generative AI as a copilot (personalized AI models for each university) for creating knowledge and content of greater value, and the metaverse as a space where simulations are created can have a multiplier effect on the production of relevant learning content.  
  • Personalization of the learning experience. Generative AI as an educational copilot (personalized for each university) and the metaverse as a space where we interact with data based on our own individual learning profile could represent a step up in personalizing the pace of learning.  
  • Matching talent and the needs of organizations. Through the combination and infinite evaluation of data, AI and the metaverse can transform the matching of supply and demand, so that the skills gap is significantly reduced. This leap forward goes beyond the proliferation of microcredentials provided by the online education environment in recent years.  

4. Reprogramming the university's “operating system” 

The institutional role of the university must recover an educational ideal, oriented towards cultivating the most permanent knowledge and skills, for example, fundamental knowledge, critical thinking, and the capacity for more genuinely human connection. Universities should not be simply centers of knowledge, but hubs which promote and re-educate an outlook on the long term, reflection, attention, and wisdom

While applying a sharp focus on the long-term objective, it should not be forgotten that the university “operating system” has to offer students the option of connecting with permanent upgrading opportunities, offered from the core of the university or through partnerships and alliances that form part of the same ecosystem. 

Development of new roles 

5. Learning experience 

The role that teachers had as cohesive knowledge transmitters is transformed into a facilitating and supportive role in the decision-making process. As for students, they can cast off their passive role and adopt a leading role, centered on learning through experience. And if to date neither the technology nor its practical applications have been available for this purpose, now technologies like the metaverse support the creation of immersive environments for the development of this paradigm. Moving into action, conducting pilots, and involving the different actors in order to achieve this change of roles are seen as the steps that need to be taken.  

6. Research 

There was a time when basic research was mainly developed in public and university laboratories. However, this state of affairs has changed radically, as can be clearly seen in the field of artificial intelligence. It cannot be overlooked that research has become the requirement for promotion and access to teaching, which often leads to jobs of little importance, whose main purpose is to fulfill the objectives of gaining said promotion and access. Interweaving research into the generation of relevant knowledge once again, giving prestige to more applied research, and reimagining its role in a world where knowledge abounds and is mainly free are essential elements in the reinvention of universities. 

7. Social impact 

Over the course of time, we have observed an increase in the demand for universities to act as agents of social transformation. In a world which increasingly competes in terms of innovation and in which there is generalized access to knowledge, it is hoped that universities will go beyond the mere diffusion of this knowledge, which is now widely accessible. Instead, the aim is to activate knowledge as a tool for inducing significant changes

It is hoped that this transformation will take place both in participants in academic programs and in universities as a whole. It is not only about imparting knowledge, but of transforming the participants, getting involved in the creation of startups, contributing to public debate, and supporting the transformation of our organizations and institutions. Society demands universities that will be catalysts for organizational and social changes.  

Future scenarios  

8. Integration of technology 

Emerging technologies in fields such as generative AI and augmented, virtual, and extended reality (AR, VR, and XR respectively), in addition to the metaverse, are destined to profoundly change our societies. In an environment in which digital copilots are the new everyday assistants, the traditional educational model cannot continue teaching for a future that no longer exists. The incorporation of these innovative technologies will not be a simple process. These tools have the potential to replace some of the functions which have been fundamental in university education for centuries. 

9. From personal adoption to systemic adoption 

Artificial intelligence or the metaverse are not technologies that we should compartmentalize in one particular field of use. Moving into action in order to achieve an impact and their widespread adoption implies thinking about their cross-use, so that their adoption may be extended to people's daily, everyday tasks and applied, with tangible results, to the professional environment. Having reached this point, we are prepared for their adoption to be functional (substituting or replacing tasks that we already perform), with the aim that their use will become systemic. 

10. Centralized decentralization 

The metaverse, the DWeb, and XR technologies are revolutionizing the educational arena. These innovations, from the shared virtual spaces to the internet structures controlled by the user, are redefining digital interactions. In order to incorporate them into education, vertical technological integration that is seamless is essential, which will guarantee that all the components, from the infrastructure to the applications, function harmoniously. 

However, the dilemma of “centralized decentralization” poses a significant challenge. Although these technologies promote decentralization, it is strategic that their orderly adoption should fall to centralized entities that inspire a high level of trust, such as universities. These entities will be able to attract innovation ecosystems around them, as they proceed to configure the new architecture of the university.  

11. From hyperpersonalization to the metaversity

Hyperpersonalization is at the forefront of educational transformation, with tools like ChatGPT leading the way. As the boundaries between algorithms and students become blurred, metaversities emerge as the new educational institutions of the future. These centers will be “augmented” versions of today's universities: through the ongoing support of technology, they will be capable of producing an "augmented" learning experience, both for the teaching staff and the students, thereby raising the quality of the universities' mission. 

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