Data – Information – Knowledge Or the future of universities

Discussing the possibilities of OER with some visiting colleagues of UNISA, we started to speculate on the threats and opportunities of universities, given the rise in Moocs and OER. For example, Popenici writes: ”Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change”.

Being all business economists of a kind, the question asked was what the unique offering of universities in the educational spectrum is.

If all information is freely available whether on websites, blogs or wiki’s of individuals, or of educational institutions, could learners not learn by browsing? If all important higher educational institutes provide free education through open educational resources or massive online open courses, why pay some institution to provide the same or even worse education? Some even argue that universities like Stanford and MIT damage their traditional business model by providing Moocs.

So providing data and information is not anymore the prerogative of the universities, although academic research will add to the available knowledge. However, private and semi-public research institutes also do research even when the results are less publicly available. So again, what are the unique offering, the competitive advantage of universities compared to the other suppliers of education, data and information?

One of the answers is that universities, next to research, are best equipped to help the students to process the data and the information which are freely available into knowledge. This can be done by providing a context which gives a meaning to all loosely connected data, or stimulate the student to look for such context themselves. Roughly speaking is education the capability to transfer data into knowledge, which can be translated into actions.

The second activity in which most universities are unique, either through regulations or because of their capabilities, is the possibility to take formal assessments leading to a formal certificate or degree. Most employers still see the formal degree as the proof of competences of the potential employee. This means that the majority of adolescent students and more than one third of adult long life learners see the formal degree as the main object of studying.

Another activity, which I think is unjustly ignored, is the validation of data. In the traditional definitions, data, information and knowledge are distinguished by the level of abstraction being considered (source of the next part is Wikipedia). Data is the lowest level of abstraction, information is the next level, and finally, knowledge is the highest level among all three. Data on its own carries no meaning. For data to become information, it must be interpreted and take on a meaning. Information as a concept bears a diversity of meanings, from everyday usage to technical settings. It is people who collect data and impose patterns on it. The interpretation of the patterns as true and reoccurring, basing your behavior on these patterns can be described as knowledge (not going into the discussion when knowledge becomes wisdom).

So although undoubtedly much data is available, both the traditional degree framework and the fact that people have to make an assessment if the information provided is valid, there will always be a place for educational institutes.