Changing role of universities

The internet is changing the world.

There I said it…

The internet is also changing the way history is consumed – learned, read and recorded . The way I see it is that historians have two choices. We can cross our fingers, shut our eyes and pray the inevitable changes will go our way. Alternatively we can manipulate the change in a way that benefits us all.

Let me give you an example.


These are the bastions of modern historical thought. Yet they are based on an antiquated system that is all ready outdated. Take the example of military history. This is a field of history that sells thousands of books each years. Yet, teaching positions in universities are declining. Why? If people will pay money to read books, surly they will pay money to study the subject!

Universities rely on an elitist approach to historical study. They train historians to examine records accessible only to the privileged. The historian then draws conclusions. These conclusions are debated and the other university historians decide whether they like them or not. The results are presented in papers, printed in journals and published in books. If the general public are lucky these ideas might filter down into a documentary or readable book.

But this system is no longer effective.

The intent has changed it.

The first big shift is in the digitalisation of historical records. Over the past years the process of digitalising records has progressed at an ever increasing pace. Archives all over the world are placing previously inaccessible records onto the internet. Add to this Google’s unstoppable digitalisation of out of “copyright” books and you can see the direction the world is heading. In addition, we are seeing private individuals collecting, collating and digitalising their own records. Records that would otherwise have remained inaccessible.

The second big shift is in communication. The old system of discussion, journals and conferences is quickly becoming redundant. The internet lets people talk and communicate and historians must listen. Ideas can now be floated globally, discussions can be held internationally and conclusions can be drawn universally.

So I am predicting the end of universities?

No – far from it.

I am suggesting that the role of universities is far more important then it has ever been. Democratisation of information brings with it problems. The fact that anyone can access the freely available historical information, leaves the system open to abuse. Those who are able to shout the loudest or emotionally stimulate the most people, will be heard the most often. The role of universities will be to provide an corner stone for debate. The process of thinking will not change, just the way ideas are presented. Historians will need to interact with the world more , they will need to be heard. Blogs, emails, Web pages, MySpace, YouTude etc are all the tools of the new historian.

Finally, I feel the way universities teach history much change.

Here are two examples:

  1. The role of the internet must be taught to all students. In addition, internet technology must become part of the fabric of day to day teaching. Online tutors, blogs, instant messaging are just a few examples.
  2. A new breed of course is needed. As lay-historians become more empowered they will develop a requirement to learn basic research and historical skills. However, these people will be remote and unwilling to join the tradition university system. For this reason, a new short term, user friendly, community based, online teaching environment is required to offer traditional skills in a newly packaged format.

4 Responses to “Changing role of universities”

  1. Airminded · Godwin’s Law; XKCD rules Says:

    […] Law. Not even in a subject on comparative fascism! I think this is a clear example of academia failing to adapt to the new realities of the Internet […]

  2. Gordon_nh Says:

    Check this out!

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