Teachers and the digital university

Digitalisation is changing the job and role of university teachers and researchers. The risk is that this may lead to a gig economy.

The digitalisation of the university sector has recently been discussed from many perspectives. However, the role of teachers and researchers has been largely neglected in this discussion. Digitalisation may have significant repercussions on the position of teachers and researchers. It could, in principle, change the entire structure of the university sector or their job descriptions and roles.

Digitalisation was one of the topics on the agenda of the Nordic university personnel organisations’ conference held in early summer.

The structure of the university sector

The development of the university sector has gone hand in hand with the development of information technology. The number of universities has increased, and there are more universities in the world than ever before.

A brief historical overview illustrates this point. With the invention of printing technology, establishing universities became easier, as books no longer needed to be copied by hand and the books became less expensive. Digitalisation has brought these costs down further and facilitated the distribution of scientific knowledge in real time. This shows in the number of universities.

Digitalisation has also given added competitive edge to small or niche universities. It has made scientific publications and databanks accessible to even the smallest of institutions. University ranking has also become easier in the digital environment. A specialised university excels over large universities in field-specific competition.

In principle, the digitalisation of tuition could bring new earning potential for universities. This also makes it easier for the Open University and other distance- learning providers to operate. World-renowned universities such as Harvard could build their revenue through providing online courses. These business opportunities and online teaching have not, however, changed the structure of the university sector.

The role of teachers and researchers

Digitalisation may, however, change the job and role of university teachers and researchers in two ways. The first is linked with the digitalisation of tuition and the second with the digitalisation of work. The risk in this scenario is a shift towards a gig economy.

Let us look at some real-life examples: The digitalisation of teaching seems to increase personal communication in the teaching process at different times of the day. Since students attending online courses are, after all, human, they will need personal guidance or at least a sense that they are receiving it. Cultural differences appear to increase the need for personal guidance.

This is not, however, the biggest challenge. The digitalisation of teaching may lead to the separation of teaching and research in the long run. Those who have the necessary skills to operate in a digital environment may end up being in charge of digital teaching, while the researchers focus on research. Things could, however, take a turn for the worse. If embarking on a research career depends on a person’s media charisma, which is required in digitalised teaching, universities are in danger of being dumbed down.

The separation of teaching and research or the dumbing down of universities need not be a result of a conscious decision, and could happen as long as the incentives for them to happen exist. The digitalisation of teaching might turn, for example, the provision of teaching into a business and the university a online shopping platform. Some might come up with the idea that incentives should be put in place to enable growth in this type of business. But if the incentives do not encourage robust research, the quality of research will suffer.

The digitalisation of work also has its repercussions. Purely digital online teaching could be organised as Über-like gigs and the work could be split in various ways:

  • The university purchases complete course packages from medial occasional teachers. These teachers acquire their own tools and prepare the courses in their own time.
  • The university does not pay for the time spent on research. These teachers are not supposed to do research.
  • The university places its teaching under global tendering between teachers around the world. Courses taught in English could be bought from countries with lower cost levels.
  • The university purchases gig work from external service providers. What is characteristic of the gig economy is the blurred boundaries between employment and self-employment and the customer’s objective to avoid employer’s responsibilities, taxes and other employer contributions.

This means that the entire nature of university could change. An increase in gig work would be highly detrimental to the workplace as a community. Gig workers teaching digitally sell their courses to universities and students. Acquiring learning materials is essential for gig teachers to be able to provide their services. It is then in the teacher’s interest to keep these materials secure from other teachers and the university. This would impede internal communication within the university.

So what should be done?

There is no avoiding the digitalisation of teaching, because society is changing. Digitalisation can bring major benefits but it can also bring major problems. To avoid the shift to the gig economy, teaching would still be best left to university teachers. University researchers and teachers should hold on to the Humboldtian university model. Digitalising teaching for the sake of digitalisation is not going to improve the standard of universities. Universities should compete with Harvard in the quality of their scientific output, not with online universities in online learning business.

The author is a professor at Hanken School of Economics Vasa and a deputy member of the board of the Finnish Union of University Professors.

Text Petri Mäntysaari

Painetussa lehdessä sivu 40