Berkeley universities

Valley News Column: Digital learning frees students and faculty


Hybrid education through Zoom and other digital platforms during the COVID-19 outbreak has been both an educational and a disturbing experience for many of us, especially students.

“The uncertainty about the pandemic and the fear of infection are among the main sources of stress for this generation,” reports a national survey conducted by MTV and the AP-NORC Center for Research on Public Affairs. “More than half (of Gen Z respondents) say the pandemic has made it harder to have fun, and almost half feel the same about being happy and maintaining their sanity. Many also report that it has been detrimental to their relationships with friends, physical health, dating life, pursuing hobbies, and other important aspects of being a youngster.

The results confirm our own daily contact with the students.

Nevertheless, many students have started to adjust to the new realities. Today’s freshman, say tech-savvy Jane Digital, can learn a lot on her own. She thinks that for every problem there must be an application, and if not, we can create one.

This DIY mindset, developed during these grueling days of masked classroom teaching and distance learning, has raised new questions about how we teach, what we teach, and why we teach like we do. let’s do it.

Even before the pandemic, online platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy and other internet learning companies increasingly offered routine education.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif called digital learning, especially the massive open online courses known as MOOCs, “the most significant innovation in education since printing.” , which, from the 15th century, freed the European spirit and allowed it to rediscover and recover its Greco-Roman spirit of rational research. Something similar is happening today.

Digital learning platforms have the potential to liberate academia from routine teaching.

But what then to do with the expertise of highly qualified professors when they are relieved of some of the obligations of daily teaching, lectures, quizzes, research work and exams, especially as we are quickly moving into the era of machine learning and artificial intelligence?

This is an opportunity for universities to become think tanks and take responsibility for addressing the difficult questions facing the world, such as: How would mRNA change global health? Can artificial intelligence help us predict and prevent financial meltdowns, racial and civil strife, and the next school shooting? Would AI enrich or diminish humanity?

Break the silo mentality

Answering such questions requires more than super computing power, sophisticated algorithms, or big data. It requires interdisciplinary and collaborative clusters of researchers, scientists, political thinkers and philosophers.

The goal of developing clusters of academics who are unafraid to transgress disciplines and push the boundaries of conventional thinking is to tackle society’s most complex challenges. The disruption of intellectual boundaries is expected to result in disruptive innovations.

To echo the thinking of Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, “Convergence is a vast overhaul of how all … and the liberal arts.”

Over the years, American society has grown more open and tolerant of diversity, despite Trump’s backlash.

But academics still live in intellectual silos, with most of them publishing in journals that very few people read outside of their disciplines. Interdisciplinary clusters aim to break the silo mentality.

Bringing down walls can be difficult, but some have tried. For example, the Berkeley Startup Cluster touted itself as “a resource for innovative businesses and budding entrepreneurs”. This is a collaborative initiative of UC Berkeley, the local Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Association, the Berkeley National Laboratory and the City of Berkeley.

Explore the “possible adjacent”

Such interdisciplinary collaborations in diverse and even unrelated fields lead to the opening of what evolutionary biologist Stuart A. Kauffman has called “the adjacent possible” – the door that opens another door and creates possibilities for new futures. That’s the potential of cluster professors doing collaborative research as the whole world becomes Big Data, which, as Forrest Gump would have said, is like a box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re going to get. “

This is the potential of clusters of professors exploring the “possible adjacent”. A happy coincidence could happen.

A cluster recruitment initiative began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1998, and today the university has 49 clusters ranging from the mundane to the esoteric, from the African diaspora to zebrafish biology. Dartmouth College has nine interdisciplinary academic hubs, including climate change, neural code, globalization, digital humanities, decision science, cybersecurity, cystic fibrosis, healthcare delivery, and computer science, aimed at to “improve Dartmouth’s impact in the world”.

But this raises a question. With millions of research dollars spent on these cluster initiatives, how do you assess them? Without evaluation, interdisciplinary academic clusters could become part of the institution, more interested in their own survival than in innovation and solving big problems.

The way to keep multi-million dollar cluster initiatives productive is to task them specifically, much like the United States tasked the Manhattan Project with producing a nuclear weapon; how John F. Kennedy commissioned NASA to send a man to the moon; and how the Trump administration tasked Operation Warp Speed ​​to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, which was done in eight months.

Universities must do more than teach. They should own global issues.

Narain Batra, from Hartford, is the author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation. He teaches communications, social media and diplomacy at the University of Norwich, where he is a professor.