With technological advances happening every day, the future of universities lies in the conversations we have about human interaction, technology and ethics.
MADRID — A few years ago, a Spanish university made changes to its student residencies. The dining hall was removed and, instead, mini-kitchens were installed in the students’ bathrooms. Each student was encouraged to study in their bedroom or the university library. The residence rented out equipment such as irons, dryers, video game consoles and other small digital or electronic devices.
But here's the latest innovation: human workers would be removed from the entire loaning process, to be replaced by machines. This would allow for the university to reduce the overall number of staff members. This automation has led to students knowing one another and the residence staff less and less, but satisfaction surveys show that students value experiences that make them feel ‘at home’.
Automation, the great debate
This story provides us with a good depiction of a possible future for higher education. These same automation trends are present in many classrooms. Increasingly, diverse educational platforms are being implemented in university programs to guide and even assess student learning, with their numbers expected to grow.
The possibility of relieving professors from the task of evaluation and, to some extent, teaching, is highly appreciated. It avoids one of the less pleasant aspects of their work, increases objectivity and frees up time to focus on research, a key element in rankings and the professional careers of educators.
There is currently much debate over the impact of new AI tools on teaching. We already know that ChatGPT and many other websites represent a revolution in the way we learn. The analysis and synthesis of information and the creation of papers or other written or visual exercises will be forever affected by the introduction of these tools.
Trust and truth are what prevent societies from falling into the void of lies and violence.
Some propose redesigning tests and assignments to ensure that they are genuinely completed by students. Others consider the impossibility of stopping progress, and prefer to integrate these tools into the curriculum. There are voices that warn of their risks, such as Michael Ignatieff, a historian, politician and former rector of the Central European University in Budapest. Ignatieff points out that we have created machines that make it difficult for “an average person to distinguish the truth, and it will soon become impossible.” He argues that “trust and truth are what prevent societies from falling into the void of lies and violence.”
Students sitting in a lecture hall.
The death of universities?
Another effect which merits discussion is the possibility that there may be a need to justify the very existence of university institutions from now on. We won’t have to wait long for the development of personalized tutors or teachers: they will be AI tools which will guide us individually in our studies and propose tests and exercises based on our progress and the goals we aim to achieve. This has already been implemented in fitness gyms – it’s only a matter of time before it extends to the core of higher education.
The race for efficiency, defined in this way, has consequences that we often don’t value in the long run. It is true that there are many things we do in the classroom that, in hindsight, are a waste of time or could have been optimized. Our energy and motivation levels are not always high. Machines will always do things better, faster and more efficiently. But what does it mean to teach? Is it about designing the most efficient process for acquiring specific knowledge, with the main focus being the production of the best professionals?
In our opinion, this leads to a rethinking of the meaning of teaching and the competencies that are inherent characteristics of a higher education institution. It is not difficult to come to the conclusion that this exclusive core of competencies should focus on everything related to human interaction and the holistic formation of the student. In fact, the world’s leading technologists and scientists agree on one thing: the major challenges we face in the future are ethical and political in nature. They emphasize this in all their manifestos and public statements, increasingly alarmed by the risks posed by their own creations and seeking to make sense of impending societal changes.
However, in our academic circles, as in the rest of society, the gap between what we can do and what we should do seems to widen. We are not focusing on our efforts on connecting students with civic values and equipping them with the moral reasoning abilities needed to live in societies that were constructed on the basis of freedom, equality, and solidarity.
Good citizens before good professionals
The word “university" evokes the gathering of professors and students, a decision to come together for a communal learning experience, understood as a journey open to all dimensions of humanity. Philosopher and writer Javier Gomá recently reminded us that the mission of the university is to educate good professionals and good citizens, but the latter purpose should always take precedence over the former in cases of tension between the two. In other words, learning to recognize the human dignity of others is more important than gaining technical competencies.
The sense of belonging to one or more communities has weakened.
In these times, we must all undertake a reflection which is not insignificant in order to ensure that universities complete their missions. In the last years, we have witnessed hyper-individualistic mentalities increasing in western societies, largely due to the fragmentation of the human experience caused by digital technology and social media. The sense of belonging to one or more communities has weakened. We see this reflected in the modern language of politics, which focuses on the assertion of new and old rights and forgoes civic duties, which are virtually nonexistent in public discourse.
We would like to conclude by posing a question to the reader: will high quality human interaction within higher education become a luxury only accessible to those with resources? Or, will we be able to integrate these technological tools into a learning process that, of course, does not disregard them, but rather places them within a meaningful and ethical reflection?