The Technologist’s View of the University

Let’s start with the following foundational belief, which serves as a postulate.

I believe the University’s higher purpose is to edify individuals and societies. It does so by excelling in knowledge creation and dissemination, and by providing a rich experience to its students and faculty. In today’s world of massified universities, this can only be accomplished with the help of technology.

Let’s unpack this belief.

University’s ultimate purpose is, in the apt words of a past university president, to “uplift the whole people”, which it does through teaching and scholarship. Most universities have a commitment to public good or to a better world. And most universities set student experience as one of the fundamental tenets of their aspiration. Consistent with this aspiration is the principle of excellence, another familiar concept invoked by universities looking to define themselves. This means excelling in their mission of creating and disseminating knowledge, reaching for the highest levels of student experience and elevating the community near and far.

To excel (literally “to rise above the rest”), one could rely on virtues such as determination, discipline and courage. Interestingly, the translation of “excellence” in Greek is “arete”, which also means “virtue”. In this sense, “excellence” conveys the idea of achieving our greatest potential. Carrying on with dedication is one way to go but basing a path forward on heroics is probably not the soundest strategy.

Here, the Greeks had it right. They believed that “techne” (technology and know-how) was the means to elevating humanity above its animalistic origins. This is precisely what the myth of Prometheus recounts. By stealing the gods’ fire, “the assistant of all techne”, and gifting it to humans, he gave them the opportunity to thrive. Now in possession of divine attributes, they had the know-how and technology to draw sustenance from the earth, build shelters and tools, and worship gods. The were able to rise above the rest of creation.

So too, the University can reach excellence, i.e. rise to the lofty ideal defined in its vision by availing itself of technology and technical know-how. This becomes especially clear when considering the scale of the primary group the University serves: its students. At Confederation, a century and a half ago, there were only about 1500 students in 17 universities in Canada, with most institutions having fewer than 100 students. In my own institution, enrolment has more than doubled since the early 2000’s. The University has become larger and more complex than ever. At this scale, heroic dedication alone to individual students will not lead to an elevated student experience, nor allow students to achieve academic excellence. In this context of massification, relying on individual face-to-face interactions is quixotic and will lead to student dissatisfaction.

This is where technology can be leveraged. Certainly, technology cannot fully replace human interaction. That’s a truism. However, the use of technology can lead to much better results than human interaction alone in a context of massification. Process automation, for instance, can handle the many so-called “transactional” processes in which clients receive discrete services following specific requests (e.g. requesting and receiving a transcript). No need for humans in such transactions. Automation not only improves student experience by virtue of it being speedy and mostly error-free, but also frees up faculty and staff to focus their time on higher-value relationship-building interactions. High tech allows for more high touch. Same goes for conversational AI, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things or Customer Relationship Management systems. Responsive technology can personalize and humanize interactions between students and an impersonal institution.

That is why a technologist is a humanist. That is why they/she/he will view technology as inherent to the modern University, insofar as it strives toward excellence in its academic and student-centred mission.

Donald Ipperciel

CIO, York University (@YorkUCIO)