The maturing of digital technology is returning higher education to the age of the School of Athens, when Plato dismissed books as a dangerous disruption to education.
That was the argument made by William Rankin, director of learning at technology giant Apple, who said that it was up to universities to ensure that technology was used to connect students to the world rather than to isolate them from it.
Speaking at the Universia International Presidents’ Meeting in Rio de Janeiro on 29 July, Dr Rankin said that the School of Athens was built on the precept of students “walking through the streets exploring the world around them” without relying on the books whose use, Plato believed, would cause people to “cease to exercise their memories”.
As books went on to transform teaching, Dr Rankin said, they “pulled people out of contact with everyday life. In the age of the medieval university there were town and gown riots, where the schools were seen as enemies of culture by people living nearby.”
There were lessons here for today’s technological revolution, he argued.
“I’m not particularly fond of virtualisation,” Dr Rankin said, because it “extracts people from their context [when] what technology should be doing is inserting people more richly into their context…The university of the future should use technology not to lock us away but to return us to the model of the School of Athens.”
Also speaking at the event, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said that a useful question for universities to ask as they respond to digital disruption is: “What would Steve Jobs [the founder of Apple] do? He would ask: ‘Are we creating rich, meaningful experiences for our students?’.
“It cannot be about the technology, it has to be about the pedagogy,” he added.
“Our role is to give our students the critical thinking skills to interrogate the world they live in and come up with their own view of what the truth is.”