Universities of the future must listen to students
Photo: Unsplash/Stefan Stefanck
Roser Reyner
Just as primary and secondary schools have done, higher education must also place the focus on the students.

In Denmark, a new learning system allows students and professors from different universities around the world to take online, face-to-face and live classes. In Canada, an innovative social platform offers identical tools to students or teachers who want to create virtual groups of knowledge. These are just two examples of an incipient reality that is beginning to break the limits that the higher education system has had until now. An emerging present, but one that will only be a promising future if, in the maelstrom of new technologies, universities pick up the ball and get involved. It is not a question of adapting to change, but of intentionally creating change.

This is the warning from Denmark’s Rikke Toft Nrgrd and Canada’s Terry Anderson, two of the experts who took part in an international meeting organized by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and entitled “Pushing the boundaries of higher education: challenging traditional models with innovative and creative practices”. One of the conclusions of the conference is that, in the current climate, universities must not forget their raison d’tre, their human value, while at the same time ensuring that students and professors feel a passion for digital tools and the need to use them.

Rikke Toft is Associate Professor of Educational Design and Technology at the Aarhus University (Denmark) and a driving force behind the Global Online Inter-University Teaching platform. For her, universities have gone from being ivory towers, with walls that focused knowledge exclusively on the very few, to being workforce factories that have opened up these walls to meet market demands in terms of the skills and efficiency that graduates must have. However, according to Toft, we now find ourselves at a new stage, where “we are not so concerned about who owns and controls knowledge, but rather the dialogue between universities and society”.

Therefore, for this Danish expert, higher education is aimed at the concept of academic citizenship, where students and professors actively take part in the learning process and in society, and they do so as academics, in other words, as critical people from a particular field of higher education. It is a new university model that goes beyond the walls of segregation that is the ivory tower and beyond the barriers of utilitarianism that make it a sort of factory that produces workers. In this sense, Toft also mentioned the Participatory Academic Communities, where students take part in research projects as professors’ colleagues. “Students carry out real research. I believe that it is important for them to be treated as researchers, as adults”, she stressed.

This is why, according to Toft, it is vital that universities do not forget their raison d’etre, their human value and that they listen to what students need. “I believe that it is very important to consider why we do what we do; the how comes next and finally the what”, she said. One example she gives is the barely thought-out practice of asking students to write a blog simply because it involves using new technology.

Students’ freedom, far too limited

“Students’ personal freedom is very severely limited”, agreed Terry Anderson, emeritus professor at Athabasca University and director of the Canadian Initiative for Distance Education Research. For Anderson, universities’ limits are evident simply in the traditional semester structure, which is a reality in both on-site and online higher education.

This Canadian professor is one of the driving forces behind the Athabasca Landing social site, whose aim is to foster dialogue between all university players. It does this through a social platform where students and teaching staff can interact as equals and choose whether their activity is posted in a specific group or whether the entire university community can view it. Also, “each student and member of the community has the ability to create their own work environment, their own profile”, Anderson explained. And students can continue to learn once they have graduated.

However, “although the university is 100% online, we have not been able to make this platform mainstream”, he said. In this sense, both Anderson and Toft, along with other participants at the meeting, felt that key to the whole process, as well as ensuring that everyone had training in new technologies, was creating the need to use them. “We need to think how to ensure that these tools are something that students will in fact want to use, and how to ensure that teachers are also passionate about using them”, Toft added. “To create change intentionally is to design learning. Universities must be a learning experience”, Toft concluded.