On the sustainability of universities in the era of information technology

Bodil Jönsson, Lund university

Pre-Summit Conference
Knowledge and Learning for a Sustainable Society
Göteborg University
, 12 June, 2001

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Ladies and gentlemen,

If all this is for real, if universities are to play a role for the sustainability, then there are many necessary preconditions. We have to face the fact that sustainable development demands sustainable people, many sustainable women and men, with the courage and the power to formulate new questions. And, of course, with the will and ability to search for the answers.

Actually, the contribution to the sustainable-people-aspect might be the key issue - even more important than increased university research and teaching on sustainable development per se.


Some historical aspects

A few decades ago, the knowledge society was not even labelled, nor was sustainable development. The universities were outstanding and pretty unthreatened arenas for research and higher education. The difference between education and information dissemination was not always well delineated, and not many university teachers shared the opinion that students as well as researchers have to construct their own knowledge rather than merely receive it through information dissemination.

Now, the knowledge society is here, and the fixed relationships between the senders and the receivers have loosened up. Soon, most people will experience how they themselves - more or less self-governed - want to and have the capability to act as both the interacting 1) senders and 2) receivers and the interacting 3) searchers and 4) givers of feedback. The tools for this twofold possibility come from the information technology and its ability to strengthen people's natural creativity and their ability to make the world make sense to them.

It is up to universities to place themselves on the cutting edge and try to meet the challenges from a searching and constructing surrounding. But historically, universities have not always placed themselves on the verge. One of the reasons, no doubt, has been a lack of that innovative power, which should be a cornerstone of any university. One of many examples of a failure was the display of ignorance by universities in the face of Newtonian science. For a period, Newton and his contributions to physics were considered nonexistent in the university world.

But knowledge always finds its ways, and the result that time was that the academies of science arose and grew outside of the universities and became the ones that, in this aspect, were committed to the development of knowledge.

It could be that we now, once more, will have to face the shortcomings of universities. But to avoid that - which would actually be an unnecessary failure - there are at least two possible, complementary paths:


1. Sender, receiver, searcher and giver of feedback

Where lies the real excellency of universities compared with the surrounding knowledge society as a whole, including the Internet? And, on a more specific scale, why go to Gothenburg and study at Chalmers University of Technology when all the courses at MIT are available over the Net?

Actually, I am convinced that information technology will be superior to local universities in fulfilling the old authoritarian task of sending and disseminating information to receiving students. But students are not just receivers of the sent information. On the contrary, they are also senders themselves. And searchers, with the enhanced ability of using IT tools to raise new questions and find out how their own thoughts and observations can make the world more understandable and possible to develop. What they need then, from their university, is feedback in the form of structuring the questions and widening the horizons.

In order to shoulder this reversed mission, universities need to accept the priority of the particular, the priority of the examples, instead of merely focussing on the general. And university teaching will have to be complemented with a new science, searchology, that can form the basis for fruitful cooperation between searchers and researchers, searchers and experts, searchers and givers of feedback.


2. Art and science

Many universities have lofty ambitions to focus on a meeting of the arts and sciences, and in the current context of sustainable development these ambitions can finally come to fruition. Indeed, it may just be an absolute necessity.

Art has always taken upon itself the task of making us feel uneasy, of concerning us; of formulating questions on its own terms, and presenting the questions to mankind. But art does not try to answer the questions - that is for people to do.

Science on the other hand extols its ability to frame questions as well. But scientifically formulated questions are often entirely impossible to ask outside of a scientific context. It is up to the researchers themselves to work out the answers, which they then present to the rest of the world. But most often, they present neither the answers nor the questions in a way that concerns people.

However, in a rapidly changing world, there is no doubt that the questions are more important than the answers. One of the contributions of universities could be to help many quickly see the same questions as relevant so that they can help each other in finding different parts of the answers. For universities to play a role in this, we have a lot to learn from the liberal arts and their excellency to make people concerned.



Sustainable universities in the era of information technology will need:
  1. to improve their abilities in welcoming questions and giving feedback - to students and the rest of the world. Essentially this means rejecting the role of merely being a sender of information, and instead assisting others, who, based on their questions can construct their own knowledge.

  2. to improve their ability to clarify the structures of knowledge. This is the Alpha and Omega of that many-to-many communication which is one of the preconditions for sustainable development. In many-to-many communication, intelligent structures are needed that make it possible to reveal detached facts, contexts and previously undetected interesting networks and communities.

  3. a stronger element inside sciences of the liberal arts' ability to formulate, visualize and concern us with questions

These three challenges are the basis for a powerful renewal and a new application of the schooled scientific eye's ability to hover between the whole and its parts. And, for sure, that is needed for a sustainable development.

Bodil Jönsson