Imagining a look back at where higher education is now (opinion)
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Imagining a look back at where higher education is now (opinion)

Today, Feb. 20, 2036, is my granddaughter Sofia’s 15th birthday. Born during the COVID-19 crisis that upturned our world in more than one way, she lives in Melbourne, while I am based in Berlin. Since she is about to finish high school this year, I invite her to join me on a virtual visit of the Museum of 20th-Century Universities to celebrate her special day.

I pull on my iGlasses and jump into my favorite museum metaverse app. We meet in the lobby of the virtual museum. VR technology has improved so much, it feels like we are actually in the same room. My granddaughter’s avatar is young Marie Curie, the only female scientist to ever win the Nobel Prize twice, with the gaunt look of the famished student who would faint because she was too absorbed in study to eat. Mine looks like Einstein when he taught at Princeton, with the iconic wild, bushy hair.

The Museum

The museum was designed and coded by a community of artists, educators and historians who wanted to recreate the experience of traditional universities as they operated in the past. It provides a memorial to connect and share with others from all over the world in VR. The virtual museum contains a cross section of the types of buildings that hosted universities and the main activities that went on inside them until the turn of the century.

Together we can discover what this space meant to our parents, who did not have other options for studying and expanding their intellectual horizons than confining themselves in these castles of knowledge and towers of learning for several consecutive years. Welcome to this immersive historical showcase. Step into a classroom or a library and surround yourself with the sounds and experience of a student cafeteria or dormitory, as if you were right there and then.

We start with the Grand Lecture Hall, an impressive amphitheater that can seat 800 people. An older white male professor is droning on for a full hour to an audience of bored and distracted students. We move quickly to the next room, a large library full of paper books and journals that students pore over for hours at their individual reading desks. In the faculty building are rows of offices where the professors write articles behind closed doors, well hidden from the students.

Next, we enter the Gallery of Numbers. I explain to Sofia how everything had to be counted, measured and ranked in the old days. What’s your gaokao or SAT score? How high is your GPA? How did you perform at the math Olympics or the Grande École entrance competition? What is the H-index of your professor? How many places did your university gain in the global, national and specialized rankings? She might find it hard to believe that universities did not select students on the basis of their life project or academic passions but focused on dissected high school grades and valued test scores.

We now switch to the Pavilion of Exclusion, a sobering monument to the stark inequalities that characterized many institutions back then. We see universities for whites only, by law, design or circumstance; science and technology institutes with hardly any women; colleges without Indigenous or special needs students.

In a 3-D replica of Room 104 in Carnegie Hall at the University of Oklahoma in 1948, we see George McLaurin, the sole African American student on a campus of 12,174. He is sitting in a closet, the spot he was forced to occupy, separate from his white peers, after winning a legal battle to get admitted. We learn about Ivy League institutions with legacy admission practices favoring the sons of rich businessmen who made a big donation to their alma mater at the same time that affirmative action was disparaged and legally challenged for giving unfair advantage to minority students.

Next comes the Building of Disciplines. All specializations are on display, from philology to finance to deep ocean technology. We can but wonder at the artificial distinction between the humanities and the sciences, observing how faculties and schools operated as silos within universities, and how the knowledge offered to students reflected the cultural biases of dominant nations and was completely out of step with the complex nature of real-life challenges and the multidisciplinary competencies needed to address them.

We hear speeches of politicians arguing for increased funding for science and technology courses at the expense of the social sciences, sometimes defending the elimination of foreign language and the humanities. Sofia frowns when she sees that everyone more or less followed a uniform set of courses toward the same degree, as if people learned at an equal pace and in a similar manner. “Imagine that they received dated degrees,” she exclaims, “instead of progressively building a blockchain qualifications portfolio throughout their working life!”

In the Pandemic Gazebo, we are reminded how the COVID-19 crisis triggered the coming of age of online education. Within a few weeks, sometimes only days, what was almost a hobby practiced by a few innovative instructors -- often regarded as eccentric and less professional by their more traditional colleagues -- became a mainstream platform for teaching and learning at universities worldwide, with extensive sharing of open educational resources. Sofia asks me, “Where are the students’ personal AI tutors?”

We finish with the Examinations Chamber. My granddaughter cannot stop gasping as we float through the holograms of anxious students immersed in writing high-stakes competitive finals, under the vigilant watch of stern proctors ensuring that no knowledge sharing or cooperative work takes place. How different from today’s open-internet, continuous, collaborative and interactive assessment sessions!

As we are about to leave the museum, my granddaughter’s avatar shakes her head and comments, “Seriously! Can you imagine that these people were restricted to studying at a single university at a time, instead of seamless cross-learning from multiple knowledge providers over their lifetime?”

“I feel so lucky,” Sofia says, “to live in this age of flexible and open education!"



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