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Uncertainty in Higher Education



Universities as Knowledge Institutions in the Networked Age


The journal Policy Futures in Education (PFIE) – available online at – will publish a special issue on the impact of information technology and the Internet on universities: to keep and develop their role as knowledge institutions, how should universities reshape in this new environment? Sub-topics, such as open access to scientific literature and distance learning, have an established track of studies and proposals. However, it has not been common so far to aim at an integrated analysis of how universities will and should change to accommodate the changes brought by cyberspace in their specific role of knowledge user, processor, producer and disseminator.

One topic to be addressed is how the process of learning within universities will change because of the Internet and digital devices. For centuries, college student were educated by listening to their professor read aloud selected books taken from the university library (‘lesson’ comes, in fact, from ‘lectio’, Latin for ‘reading session’). Gutenberg changed that by making books cheaper and therefore more amenable to individual ownership and private reading, but the typical university lesson ended up not changing much anyway. Thanks to technology, we are now experiencing, at least potentially, a Renaissance of learning methods: from e-books to podcasts, from virtual worlds classrooms to streaming, from computer-assisted learning to videogames, the avenues of learning have increased dramatically. Are we heading towards purely technology-mediated learning strategies? Is the old Socratic professor-student direct approach completely obsolete? Doesn’t the wider spectrum of approaches offer the opportunity to educate those students who have always been uncomfortable with the traditional approach? What about the impact on lifelong learning?

A second topic is how research will be affected by the Internet. A major potential impact will be on the way research results will be communicated in the future. The scientific paper as a rhetorical device is increasingly under pressure in favour of more flexible, digitally-enabled forms of communication, mostly based on semantic web technologies. How would the decline of the scientific paper affect science? What about the role of search engines in the future of research? Will the Internet enable new forms of evaluation of scientific results? How would that change the centuries-old mechanism of recognition and promotion within the scientific community? Moreover, the transition towards digital knowledge seem to affect trends towards commercialization of knowledge at universities and knowledge institutions, and the impact those trends have on knowledge generation. Additionally, the Internet seem to be increasing the tension between the growing specialization of research activities and the aspiration towards increased interdisciplinarity.

The third topic regards how should universities use cyberspace to best implement their mission with respect to society. In recent years society has been asking universities to do more than simply – albeit crucially – educate students and produce new academic knowledge. The list of new demands include life-long education, open access to scientific papers and educational resources, and encouragement and support for spin-offs and start-ups. But is that it? Of course not. Public education, at all levels, was born with a clear mandate to educate citizens and to increase social mobility, not simply provide students with marketable skills and bookshelves with new scientific journals. Moreover, in our age the increasingly complex problems that we are facing as society, from global warming to water supplies, from the environment to energy issues, from the challenges (and opportunities) presented by bio-genetics and nanotechnology, don’t call for a renewal of the concept of University as Public Institution? In other words, don’t universities – as institutions as well as through their individual researchers – have a duty to engage more frequently in the public sphere, placing their super skills and knowledge at the service of citizens – and their representatives – to allow them to properly deliberate? If so, how? What would be appropriate and what would, instead, constitute a deontological breach of professorial decorum and integrity? If it is indeed important, shouldn’t universities allow/favour internal organizational changes to better implement such social role? How is that social role linked to freedom of research? Is the growing need of universities in many countries to court potential private investors (or governments) affecting it? If so, what could the consequences be for our societies? Doesn’t the Internet offer extraordinary tools to empower the public sphere presence of universities, professors and students, and to help to reduce social and cultural divides?

The special issue builds upon the COMMUNIA 2010 Conference on University and Cyberspace – Reshaping Knowledge Institutions for the Networked Age, held at Turin, 28-30 June 2010.

Submitters can visit the conference site and access material originating from the conference at

Possible issues relating to the above topics include:

– Digital Natives: how will the characteristics of the new generations of students, faculty and staff shape the future of universities?
– The Spatial Infrastructure: physical and virtual spaces for higher education
– The Use of Digital Technology in the Classroom
– Open Access to Scientific Results (papers, data, software)
– Open Educational Resources
– Educational Videogames
– Digital Devices as Platform for Learning
– Non-formal Education via the Internet
– Digital Divide and Higher Education
– Long-term Knowledge Preservation in a Digital Age
– Academic Production and the Knowledge Commons
– Digital and Physical Social Networks
– Intellectual Property and Academic Production
– Physical and Digital Library
– Semantic Web Technologies Applied to Scientific Results and Educational Resources

Papers should be sent as email attachments:

Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2011

All papers submitted will be evaluated using the PFIE’s normal peer review process. Please also see the Journal’s information for authors:


Dr Philippe Aigrain
CEO, Sopinspace
4, passage de la Main d’Or
F-75011 Paris

Professor Juan Carlos De Martin
Co-Director, NEXA Center for Internet & Society
Politecnico di Torino – DAUIN
Corso Duca degli Abruzzi, 24
I-10129 TORINO

Urs Gasser
Executive Director
Berkman Center for Internet & Society
23 Everett Street, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138

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