Getting out of the Silos – Two Suggestions

Getting out of the Silos – Two Suggestions

Michel Bénard

How should the university evolve during the next 25 years?

The question is broad and addressing multiple topics such as teaching, research and ultimately the role of the university in our society. Several organizations (for example the Glion Colloquium1 ) have organized workshops and published books based on contributions from presidents and rectors of major universities, therefore my modest contribution to this discussion will only concentrate on two suggestions:

  1. lifelong learning for teaching,
  2. less peer reviews and more context based evaluations for research.

These two suggestions will be biased due to my own experience (a few years in academia at Telecom ParisTech, EPFL and a long career in industry at IBM, HP and Google), and the fields in which I have operated (Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Sales and Corporate Development).

Lifelong learning is today a must for most professionals

Lifelong learning is today a must for most professionals. The online and offline business publications are rich of blogs, papers and discussions underlining the need for professionals to continuously adapt to profound changes in their jobs, and to learn new skills and techniques accordingly.

During the early years of my career (in the 90’s) I used to read at least two books per month, and several papers in journals on technical, business or societal topics. The goal was to learn about new technologies, business skills and societal trends in order to follow or even take a proactive role in the changes happening in my job. In the early 2000’s I added to this routine the browsing and reading of web sites, blogs and online forums.

Since the early 2010’s I have added to my learning tools MOOCs, videos from online teaching channels such as YouTube or TED, and online content from professional learning companies. The authors of all the offline and online content I could learn during the past years have been somehow randomly distributed across universities, businesses, individual practices and private professional organizations. Only occasionally did I meet and use a learning content officially sponsored, produced and organized by a university.

Moving forward I suggest universities should take a more active role in lifelong learning. The interaction between a student and alma mater(s) should not terminate at the day of the graduation ceremony, but rather relentlessly continue during the professional life of the student.

There should even be peak learning periods during which the now professional and former student of the university would be able to refresh his or her skills, learn new topics or even get support for a career change. There are promising efforts made by universities in the direction of lifelong learning. MOOCs and specialized YouTube online channels are good examples, and complement past breakthroughs like the MIT OpenCourseware or the textbook collections published by several major universities. However, it looks like we need a quantum leap from universities in lifelong learning. The associated scaling factor should be addressed by an extensive use of digital and online tools.

Less peer reviews and more context based evaluations for research

Peer reviews have been used extensively for selecting scientific publications for conferences and publications, appointing and promoting faculty in academia, and even in the industry for performance evaluations and career management. There are some advantages in peer reviews, such as its ease to implement, some predictability of its outcomes and the value of its feedback mechanism.

However, there are significant issues with peer reviews:

  • the usual focus within a specialized area, which leads to the establishment of ivory towers for most disciplines;
  • the related inability to integrate a big picture or important contextual information;
  • ultimately the creation of feudalism and as an unintended consequence the building of comfort zones by its major practitioners.

Ironically the recent rise of digitization and online publications have somehow emphasized, rather than mitigated the issues of peer reviews. Digitization has allowed a significant inflation of the number of publications which are submitted for review. This inflation of the number of publications has created congestions for the review processes, leading to an increased specialization of the reviewers, the establishment of stronger borders between disciplines or even between tiny, highly focused sub-disciplines, and ultimately an even larger number of ivory towers.

In today’s and tomorrow’s societies the university has to be able to do more than very specialized research in silos. Societal, environmental or life science problems involve multidisciplinary research which requires the capability for all participants to see the big picture and operate their research in a complex and ambiguous context. Some universities have been developing and operating successful centers of multidisciplinary research, such as CITRIS² at UC Berkeley, or the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs)³. These efforts have to become more frequent, and should lead to situations where the research would be evaluated more so on contextual parameters rather than only specialized peer reviews. In fact, it is often an excellent exercise for a researcher to prepare and give a talk for professionals from other disciplines, as it requires the ability to capture the essence of the researcher’s contribution and to put it in the larger context. This is the basis upon which TED presentations operate. This could be operationalized by posting such presentations on the university and the researchers web sites, and on specific channels of social networks.

Following this trend, the selection of publications for conferences and journals, the appointment and promotion of the faculty, and some other selection processes (for example for funding research) would still include some peer review, but would mitigate it with evaluations made by nonpeers benefiting from a broader perspective. Could you imagine a review panel composed by a few peers, but also by academic participants from other domains, and from public sector, as well as private sector representatives? The establishment of lifelong learning as a key parameter for curriculum and the mitigation of peer reviews should have profound and positive impact on the university. Especially it should allow the university to continue to be a great place to learn, teach and research for the benefit of society.

1 Glion Colloquium. Retrieved from http://www. glion.org/

2 The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). Retrieved from http://citris-uc.org/

3 National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs). Retrieved from http://www.snf.ch/en/ funding/programmes/national-centres-of-competence-in-research-nccr/Pages/default.aspx

Please note that none of the opinions expressed in this article represents any public position of one or several of my previous employers

 

In 2017, after several years of working at Google’s EMEA team as the University Relations Manager, Michel Bénard became a freelance consultant and started advising several academic institutions. In his current position, Michel conducts business analysis and partnership investigations to help generate new business opportunities, and provides knowledge on artificial intelligence. Previously, he held positions at Hewlett-Packard in R&D, Sales, Corporate Development, University Relations and Management. Michel also worked as R&D Engineer at IBM La Gaude, and as the Assistant Professor in Digital Signal Processing iat Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Throughout his career, Michel Bénard has helped establish and grow a global academic network for industrial research initiatives.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu