With the centrality of knowledge in all economic and social initiatives, education rose to the top of priorities. But universities are still centered on promoting individuals on the social ladder, through diplomas, rather than making access to knowledge universal. The new technologies allow it.
This is a systemic shift. If I take my cell phone, maybe 5% of its value represents labor and raw materials: and 95% results from incorporated knowledge. We can extend this reasoning to so many areas, even the small-scale farmer relies heavily on soil analysis, selected seeds, and many knowledge-intensive inputs. Overall, knowledge has become the main factor of production. We are in the middle of a digital revolution, going at least as deep as the industrial revolution two centuries ago, and it is changing the world. How long will universities cling to “traditions”?
The centrality of knowledge is one dimension. Another is the fact that it has become immaterial, allowing it to bathe the planet in useful science, at virtually no cost, with virtual books, papers, documentaries, and even museum content. Free accessibility is a reality, with no extra cost, different from printed books. And this means access to billions. It is used for so many fake news and hate messages, or just rubbish, but can certainly be used for universal science access. We are not substituting printed books, but expanding their reach.
And we have the social earthquake represented by global connectivity, the potential of digital inclusion of every person in the world, on a desk or in the pocket. Digital exclusion is still a drama throughout the world, in Brazil at least one-third of the population have no access to good-quality internet, not to speak of digital literacy. However inclusion is progressing rapidly, and the new opportunities for scientific knowledge access are immense.
To these deep transformations, we must add the deep transformation of software. We need not be drowned in a sea of rubbish, since intelligent search instruments allow us to channel our attention to precisely defined targets in any part of the world. Whatever the insecurity generated by algorithms, AI, ChatGPT, and the like, the fact is that the ease of access has generated a new world, brave or not.
However simplified the presentation here, the fact is that with the centrality of knowledge, it's freeing from material support, global connectivity and transformative software, institutions like universities, whose raw material is knowledge, are facing an earthquake. Instead of limiting ourselves to distance learning, often a case of a mass-consumption money-making machine, a more systemic overview of the potential is necessary. At the Catholic University of São Paulo, we drew up a list of possible changes, a preliminary map of a universe that we must admit is full of potential and uncertainties.
We are not alone in this quest, and we will look for examples of how different universities, in Brazil and around the world, are adapting to the new challenges: labels such as “hybrid system”, which only suggest possible combinations of online and face-to-face, are clearly insufficient. We do need to identify experiences that go beyond distance education and generate a typology of the changes adopted, allowing for a preliminary assessment of results that meet the relevant social issues, and not just aimed at the self-referring expansion of a mercantile model.
The universe of indexed publications, in particular the industry of reference journals, today an oligopoly that generates fortunes in profits for groups like Elsevier, drains science instead of promoting it, with particular difficulty in access for developing countries. We should research and systematize what is being done by the numerous institutions that promote Open Access, Creative Commons, PlosOne, ArXiv, OCW, etc. The existing initiatives generate opportunities we can explore.1
We must also rethink the universe of what we call a student today. The ease of going online today allows us to have students from anywhere in Brazil and the world, but also, with the current pace of technological, economic and social transformations, we can see the student as a permanent collaborator, with successive returns in different professional moments: this orientation goes beyond “alumni”, and aims to identify spaces in life-long education, both in terms of potential demand and of internal forms of organization. We should research new ways of selecting and joining projects that are already being developed by groups or individuals who are building diversified, freer and more autonomous work/study links.
The way we organize ourselves as teachers is also on the discussion table. Numerous universities teach the ergonomics of intellectual work, ways of organizing accumulated knowledge, and generating and making available a collection of knowledge that allows overcoming the prehistoric use of xeroxing chapters. The university professor's universe is changing, but the inherited culture is rigid. How can support for the necessary transformations be organized? Individual adaptations are not sufficient. As professors, we need to know our subject but also gain familiarity with new ways of communicating knowledge.
We should also rethink the role played by the technological support nucleus at the university. Managing change is part of the challenge, not just one-stop modifications. What dimensions it is acquiring in different establishments of excellence, what open software solutions, in a vision that needs to go beyond individual support and that allows facilitating generalized collaborative processes without complexities? A new digital culture needs to be appropriated by the university, simplifying and facilitating instead of bureaucratizing. How are universities in Brazil and around the world facing this transition? What are the inter-university networking opportunities in managing change?
What will become, or is becoming, of the concept of the university library? Libraries around the world are transferring huge collections to digital format, radically opening up research horizons. How do university libraries, or the corresponding interuniversity networks, fit into this planetary transformation, which would even allow them to keep up with emerging innovations and research in the world?2
As universities, we are supposed to do teaching, research and extension. We do a lot of teaching, much less research, and little extension, meaning spreading science throughout society. Huge opportunities are available through open access, but also networking with civil society organizations. Availability of online knowledge can be generalized, involving training, but also scientific support around local problems. Peripheries hardly reach the university, but with online systems, it is feasible to conceive ways for the university to reach communities in a much broader way, and with an interactive vision.
Curricula should be thought over, bringing together different scientific areas and disciplines to generate integrated research on our key challenges, which require systemic understanding. Urban organization, social and environmental challenges, inequality, the future of work and many other issues can constitute interdisciplinary lines of research, capable of generating richer knowledge and also greater synergy between the different areas. The ease of online access and online interuniversity meetings can generate a much richer scientific synthesis capacity.
Can university management and overall bureaucracy be systemically reconsidered? We suggest the articulation between professors, students and university management, insofar as the monitoring of online activities can either take place through more intelligent and less bureaucratic ways, or it can tie the various agents of the university universe into a sterilizing administrative rigidity. The very concept of monitoring productivity and results needs to be rethought within the framework of new technologies and new ways of working. Running after quantitative scores can be sterile, or even humiliating.
There is no need for such deep separation between higher education and the general schooling system. Organizing knowledge as a common, freely available online, opens huge underutilized potential. Shared knowledge opens opportunities for collaboration and support to the universe of schools and colleges. Partnerships and network organization can ensure the scientific enrichment of the territory as a whole, generating a collaborative environment for all teaching, research, and extension professionals.3
We could define priority axes of inter-university cooperation, for example with neighboring countries, which often face similar challenges, or with Portuguese-speaking countries (PALOP), in particular Angola and Mozambique, seeking mutual enrichment, ensuring the capillarity of interinstitutional agreements so that they can result in concrete joint projects by professors and faculties. Latin America constitutes a privileged universe of collaborative networking. With online connectivity, the international dimension of teaching and research can be greatly expanded, where the creation of transnational curricula promoted between Latin American universities can be an inspiration.
We need to assess how salary policies and forms of hiring are evolving in university institutions in Brazil and in the world. Today, the use of recorded classes disseminated online in many school units, within the framework of the accelerated privatization of the educational system, centered on financial results, is changing labor relations, threatening the education area as a whole, with the consequent pasteurization of teacher's relational function with their classes.
We need research on the impacts of the internationalization of the educational system, in particular the university system, with large companies listed on the stock exchange and standardization of programs: in the era of knowledge, controlling the system of its production and dissemination represents big business, ranging from student indebtedness to the academic publishing business, the provision of shared administration services, and standardization that seeks economies of scale. We need a universe of universities, so to speak, capable of bringing back social values, and more light on our common challenges, not just individual ladders for professional success. It is a question of rebuilding the link with our original and at the same time evolutionary identity, in a radically new technological environment and a much wider universe of opportunities.
Technology is advancing much faster than our capacity to change institutions, not to speak of the legal framework and overall culture. As professors, so many of us are outpaced. It would certainly be useful to ensure individual or group support, as a regular activity in our institutions, as a way of managing the transition, of coping with new challenges. Many of our top professors can feel outdated, with so much technology and so many traditional attitudes. Organized support could help. The river is moving much faster, and we are not just observing the water, we are in it, trying to keep afloat.
I am 82 and have been teaching since 1963. So many things have changed, but I still have chalk on my fingers. On the other hand, my son built me a scientific website, dowbor.org – kids can be quite useful – I presently have some 1300 titles there, open access used by my students, by networks of favelas, by students on different continents. The Chinese have translated several of my works, and Timor-Leste and other Portuguese-speaking countries have become collaborative spaces. How do we multiply these opportunities, and prevent the commercial profit-seeking straight-jacket initiatives, or the overall chaos of social media?
The vision of a public, free and universal education represents an ideal that needs to be not only defended but studied in depth, ensuring the comparative study of the forms of organization in different countries and environments. In the knowledge-based society, education in the broad sense constitutes a fundamental investment, and not “costs” as austerity-mongers call it, to be controlled, much less a privilege that reproduces elites and inequality. We need much stronger research initiatives in this area.4
1 View the Open Access Directory.
2 The transformations in the role of the university library, as a source research facilitator, can be found in Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, by Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess.
3 Pasi Sahlberg, in his study Finnish Lessons, presents a systemic view of the scientific enrichment of communities in Finland.
4 The original, expanded discussion on this project can be found in Portuguese.