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Communications of the ACM

Reengineering the University


Universities are due for a radical restructuring. After centuries of evolutionary changes, they are faced with carving out new roles and methods to get there. Today the predominant model is still the combination of traditional teaching and academic research as mapped out by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the last century. The guiding principles of Humboldt's vision of the university are forschung und lehre (research and teaching) and of professors, einsamkeit und freiheit (solitude and freedom). But change is unavoidable and pressure for change is increasing from the public, the media, and political groups. This change is mainly driven by the new technological possibilities and the new learning environments they enable [1].

The university today must be redefined with new concepts. The Internet allows virtual classrooms. Digital libraries provide knowledge repositories. The Web offers up-to-date material for seminar discussions. Computer simulation substitutes for laboratories. Technology is not simply an add-on service as computers or audiovisual were before—it touches the very substance of the university, that is, knowledge development and transfer. A complete reengineering has to take place in order to retain the spirit of the university as an intellectual watering hole.

The crisis in universities is both financial and structural. Most universities around the world are still largely dependent on public financing, but educational funds are drying up due to the general tightening in governmental budgets. In addition, academic research funds are also being cut. Governments frequently question the economic value of academic research. Meanwhile, companies are buying only relevant research and only from the best or the cheapest worldwide. Thus, universities are suffering cuts on two fronts. They must consider restructuring in order to absorb these cuts and reorient their programs.

In addition, universities have great structural difficulties. The number of students has increased tremendously in recent years, due in great measure to social pressures. Students find the environment accommodating. They stay for an extended period of time, compounding the numbers problem. The professors are career academics disillusioned with the general climate and isolated from real changes in the world around them. The role of students and professors in the era of the Information Society needs to be reconsidered.

The structure and status of universities were so designed as to allow a maximum of independence both internally and with respect to outside forces. This situation makes it extremely difficult for universities to effectively implement change. There are already attempts to diminish the universities' independence in order to make them more amenable to change. These attempts are counterproductive because they destroy the spirit of the university.

The academics in computer science and engineering departments are in an especially sensitive position. They understand the new possibilities that IT offers and are subject to intense pressure from private companies that dispense all kinds of educational services. IT has gained a tremendous dimension and they can hardly keep up with the new developments. At the same time they lack resources and a clear mandate to effect the necessary changes. Universities should master their own expertise and encourage their people to embark in new directions. Eventually, universities may have the greatest competition from organizations that operate from their own academic personnel.

This article analyzes the new operating context of universities and proposes a different way for universities to function. In order to discuss the difficulties universities face more concretely, we concentrate on their central role as providers of quality education.

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Universities as Service Providers

If universities are service providers, it is legitimate to ask two questions: Are they providing a quality service? Are they providing it efficiently? Unfortunately, universities can be criticized on both accounts. There are many explanations for this situation. First, in many universities (outside North America) students pay very little in fees. Since they are not participating in the financing of the institution, they are in a very weak position to demand better service. Second, universities and individual professors' classes have too many students. Some universities do not really care if the students are dissatisfied or even if they lose a few. Third, universities in many places have a regional monopoly. Nobody else can give an equivalent degree in that region.

Imagine a service company with a monopolistic market situation, with too many clients paying too little money for its product. All the conditions are there to diminish the quality of the service. It is a miracle some universities manage to provide quality education. Indeed, it has more to do with tradition than their operating environment. We claim the main reason universities do not dispense a high-quality service efficiently is because they do not treat their students as customers.

This situation is changing rapidly. The North American private universities now charge high fees for students and do treat them as customers. Interestingly, they have no problem attracting students based on their quality, reputation, and efficient management. In addition, universities are opening branches directly or in cooperation with local partners in other countries. Based on new teleconferencing possibilities they can offer distance learning services and can place teaching material online.

We are nearing a global competition for the best and the brightest students. This competition will break the regional monopoly of universities. Students will not have to move to other countries. They will be able to obtain internationally accepted degrees from foreign institutions operating locally. They will be paying high fees, and will be treated as customers. We are evolving toward a situation where some universities will go global and become famous while others will be restrained both financially and in scope. In such an environment there is no choice. A university must become global to retain its status and compete for students, professors, and financing.

The main service a university provides in higher education is teaching students. This knowledge transfer from teachers to students evolved over the centuries. Storytelling and dialog became ex-cathedra lectures in a classroom. Experience gathering in the real world eventually became lab exercises. Storytelling didn't changed very much although the supporting technology went from blackboards to transparencies. Experience gathering in labs is still based on mock-up situations. These activities, however, change dramatically with the advent of interactive multimedia network services. Since both storytelling and experience gathering involve creating content, we look at universities as content providers. Content can be reused, and it can be exported from and imported by universities. Language is less an issue. If the customers (students) want services in Spanish, they will get them. If English is the best language to compete globally, it must be adopted.

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Generating vs. Importing Content

Universities generate content every day through their courses and seminars. Then they throw it away. There is a certain charm with this approach, but it is not cost effective. Universities operate like renaissance quartets based on live performances. But orchestras and musicians have found ways to obtain financial rewards through reusing the content they generate. Universities need to do the same. Content storage and reuse are also important to test and ameliorate performance and to generate an institutional memory. It is frustrating to be in universities where famous people have taught and not have their past "live performances" available.


Universities operate like renaissance quartets based on live performances. But orchestras and musicians have found ways to obtain financial rewards through reusing the content they generate. Universities need to do the same.


Universities as content providers are involved in three functions: production, programming, and distribution. They generate content (production). They package it in courses (programming). They present it to students (distribution). Compare this situation with TV and how it has evolved. TV networks had initially grouped all three functions (production, programming, distribution). Now they realize it is best to separate the functions and treat them independently. Content is bought from production companies in a competitive manner. Packaging is done by the networks. Finally, distribution is done by local operators.

Let us imagine the same evolution of universities as content providers and dispensers. To begin with, universities do not have to produce all their lectures and seminars locally. They can import the best material in the best possible way. This includes not only books, CD-ROMs, and other off-line material, but live lectures and discussions can be imported through the networks from professors or scientists operating elsewhere. In such a situation, there will be a global competition not only of universities but of professors in universities. If a professor signs a contract either individually or through the university, he or she will be able to deliver a lecture or course to another institution without much overhead. Universities, on the other hand, can import content from specialists or distinguished scientists without having to pay them a salary, or give them a permanent position. Hence, they can give a better quality service.

Content can be delivered to groups or individually, off-line or through the networks, at many quality and cost levels. For instance, content can be offered as real-time audio plus transparencies plus still video or low-quality video (based on ISDN), either synchronously or asynchronously to individuals. It can also be offered as high-quality video (based on broadband) to groups gathered at remote sites. Similarily, interaction can be offered at many levels. Interaction can take the form of an email-based service giving a reply within a few hours, or the form of a continual online question/answering chat room. Interaction can be offered asynchronously, live at the end of the lecture, or even preemptively at any point during the lecture.

Packaging knowledge in universities takes place at two levels: The various faculties package courses in programs with degrees; professors package teaching material in courses. In both cases, universities package content very conservatively. Degrees and degree requirements make course programs inflexible and programs reflect the university structure, which is difficult to change. Professors' qualifications, research capabilities, and sometimes positions (chairs) make courses very static. How can universities continue to package knowledge statically when existing knowledge, student interest and generally the world undergoes so much change?

We enter an era where rapid change and flexibility are assets. Companies are becoming agile. Universities are far from agile. They can only adopt to changes by making new units (that is, departments or institutes), but this is impossible under the current financial circumstances. Universities need to respond to changes in student preferences, and we do not mean in terms of what the economy needs. Universities exist to serve students as customers—period. Students may decide a combination of music and computer science, or architecture and religion, is the most intellectually attractive package. Universities should be able to adopt quickly to demands without changing their structures. They should offer attractive and intellectually challenging packages that combine old and new, traditional and modern technology, deep thinking and current trends. We also see great scientific progress is effected in boundary areas between traditional disciplines, for example, biology/informatics, medicine/ physics, or media/communications, among others. The ability to create programs between traditional areas also has great potential not only for education, but for the advancement of science.

The ability to combine local plus imported content from different areas in an attractive program for students is certainly rare today. Universities need a dynamic definition of their programs to fit students' interests. The universities that respond the fastest with the best programs will have a tremendous advantage, especially in life-long learning where the needs of the students evolve with their careers.

Consider course material. Books, lecture notes, and transparency sets are all instruments of internal organization for a course. However, they make change more cumbersome. In addition, they imply a serial format for the course. Published papers and the Web provide exciting material, but a constant effort must be made to structure the material since it is not serially organized but more network-like in fashion. New ways of packaging course material will affect program coordination, degrees, and exams. The main purpose for a course is no longer to provide students with a closed set of existing knowledge (soon to be obsolete), but to teach them how to find and correlate knowledge. Students need to participate in seeking relevant material. Facts are not so important as learning processes, scientific values, and artistic taste.

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Global Delivery

To date, universities dispense courses only regionally to their students. The global market, however, offers the possibility for export. Exporting courses offers a good chance for universities to amortize their costs over a higher volume of students. In addition, local students are enriched by the participation of their foreign counterparts. Moreover, the global presence enables the universities to promote their national or regional culture throughout the world. For all these reasons, universities must view their students globally without necessarily forcing them to pass all their learning time in their region. Needless to say, some periods of local and total immersion are needed if only for cultural reasons. They should be an added-value feature without being a prerequisite for any degree or learning experience.

Instruments for the global delivery of teaching content exist and are becoming cheaper by the day. The Internet has reached practically the whole world and the technology provides many potentially useful tools. The only remaining problems are cost and organization. Costs of communication are coming down quickly and the proper organization within the university must be set up. As universities are able to deliver content through correspondence and analog television, they should have no problem with Internet services and digital television.

Despite the increasing role of digital technologies, a university cannot be completely virtual. There is a need for local animators/facilitators who answer questions, organize exams, give feedback, occasionally offer a back-up service, and generally follow up students and deal with their daily problems. Learning is easier as a group activity and some local organization is indispensible. This can be provided by an affiliated university, a local research center, college, or branch. Such a local distribution center does not need to be exclusively affiliated with one university. It can provide seminars that match local needs from different foreign universities. This system also enables third-world countries to concentrate mainly on fields related to their culture and import educational services, which are very expensive to set up.

Here, we introduce as an example a distance learning test between Bonn and Geneva: Two cities in different countries using different languages. Our example illustrates both the potential and several difficulties related to distance learning.

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Bonn-Geneva Distance Learning Tests

For the past three years, a weekly high-bandwidth ATM connection between the University of Geneva and GMD headquarters in Bonn has been used to conduct regular distance-learning sessions. Our goals were to gain experience with high-quality video conferencing technology and to broaden the perspective of course presentations while simplifying the logistics for remote participants. (See sidebar for details.)


Professors are personnel who produce and evolve content. They are needed only to the extent that a university produces content in the area. Their number can be greatly reduced, but they need to be talented both as specialists and as lecturers in order to compete globally.


The course was run using a lecturer/commentator format. At the university site, a regular class of about 20 students met in a classroom where a local lecturer presented the bulk of the course material. The lecturer was familiar with the material and his task was to explain it. An expert commentator, located at the remote site, was responsible for adding depth to the lecturer's presentation. For example, a frequent question might lead to issues beyond the course's material. Here, the commentator would step in and provide added insight. All the material was video archived and a reduced version—audio with still pictures—was put on the Internet.

While the sessions by and large stayed within the lecturer/commentator format, we experimented with several configurations of cameras, microphones, and display systems. In addition, the remote site was equipped with a professional video studio including blue room facilities used to place the commentator in a computer-generated virtual environment (a so-called "virtual set"). This added another dimension to the range of possible configurations and opened many possibilities for introducing course material as elements of a virtual set.

After running the distance learning sessions for six terms, we have identified several common problems as well as determined what methods worked and what was less successful. Although various technical difficulties were encountered, the students, surprisingly, found the experiment exciting and rewarding.

We've observed that because most people are familiar with viewing professionally produced video material, they tend to be rather critical of anything that does not meet those standards. Good picture and audio quality, good lighting, and camerawork, are difficult to achieve unless using professional equipment with professional operators in a studio environment. Amateur productions often look just that. While lower production values can be tolerated for distance learning, it still seems that lower audio and picture quality serve as a source of distraction for the students. This raises the question of how much existing lecturer material can be reused due to its poor quality.

Another observation is that all teaching materials must be prepared with consideration of legibility to viewers. Writing on blackboards or overhead transparencies may be clearly visible to classroom participants, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, for remote participants.

Distance learning creates the additional organizational overhead of coordinating the various sites and distributing prepared teaching materials. The Web and other tools can help in this task, but course material still needs to be put online.

The networking and video setup was fairly simple, but audio setup and operation was cumbersome. We had continual problems with audio levels, microphone placement, mixer setups, and feedback, among others. Following the audio path from a microphone to remote speaker, we found there were eight or nine points where audio gain could be adjusted. This, and the fact that the microphones were frequently positioned poorly, caused many difficulties in establishing stable and comfortable audio levels.

Large screens definitely enhance the degree of presence. Using small cameras in front of the large screens helps reduce the problem of loss of eye contact and gives the commentator the impression of sitting in on the class.

Virtual studio systems offer much more presentation flexibility but are also expensive to operate. Until the technology lowers in cost, they will probably be used in situations where content is either aimed at a large audience or will be reused many times.

The lecturer/commentator format seems well suited for distance teaching. Most of the time the students are listening to and watching the lecturer, so there is not the strain of continually watching a talking head. When the commentator does enter the conversation the diversion adds an extra dimension to the course. Furthermore, the dialog between commentator and lecturer adds to the dynamics of the course and helps hold the students' attention. This split also allows reuse of lecturer material or substituting lecturer content with imported video content.

Finally, although the telecommunications costs may be no issue in experimental cases, it can represent an operational problem.

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Future Organization

In distance learning, it is useful to recognize that teaching practices are at the center of any educational service. In essence, every teacher plays three roles: lecturer, commentator, and animator. A lecture usually mixes the three roles in a serial format. The new media services allow many new possibilities. The material can be organized, not serially, but in a network (as the Web). The material can be imported and/or reused. And the service can be provided live, synchronously over the networks, or asynchronously over the networks.

The material of the lecturer role can be imported and reused. There is no need to repeat the same explanations over the years. Nor do we believe that every university has the best interpreters in every subject. The material in the commentator role can be imported (usually from experts), but it is hard to reuse for a long period since it should be current. Finally, the animator role stays intact. It should be provided in live presentations and over the networks synchronously or asynchronously. Of course, a live animator gives the best service. No technology can substitute for human presence.

Educational programs in universities are usually structured in years or semesters for organizational reasons. Programs can now be organized as webs of logically coherent courses purely for pedagogic reasons. Courses can also be organized as webs of logically complete modules—where the modules are, in turn, serial sets of sessions. In this way, teaching material is component- (module-) based and is easier to reuse. A program and all its components needs to be dynamic: programs can change their courses, courses can change their modules, and modules their sessions. In addition, modules can appear within different courses and courses within different programs. Needless to say, the coordination, evaluation, and evolution of all these units is important and can only be properly effected by the use of computers and networks.

Now, consider the needs in personnel and the management structure for these activities. Animators deliver a course based on available material for the lecturer and commentator roles. Many animators are needed, but the activity can be completely outsourced. Each animator gets a contract for the n-times delivery of a course. Whether animators are local is not important. Each course has a course supervisor who defines, evaluates, evolves, and is generally responsible for a course. He or she also supervises all animators giving the course, markets the course, and imports/exports content. Supervisors do not need to be great lecturers or great scientists. Supervisors are usually teaching personnel, a Ph.D. or research experience is not required. They play a scientific journalist role for packaging a course and an administrator role in coordinating its material. They are responsible for the course budget. They can be hired on short-term appointments (2–3 years), renewable. Professors are personnel who produce and evolve content. They are needed only to the extent that a university produces content in the area. Their number can be greatly reduced, but they need to be talented both as specialists and as lecturers in order to compete globally.

Theoretically, a university can import everything. In practice, some professors would be needed for each academic area to create local content for the programs and to provide expertise to the university. They do not necessarily need tenure, but they do need a longer-term appointment (5–6 years), also renewable. Only very few professors in the university are considered leading authorities and project a quality image for the university. In essence, they are the partners (as in legal firms) who are collectively responsible for the academic image and the financial success of the operation. They are the only ones who need tenure. Partners hire professors and admit other partners. They also chair the program coordinating committees overseeing both the evolution and the success of a program.

Our proposal rests on two premises. First, courses are delivered by local animators and coordinated by course supervisors. Second, since most material is reused or imported there is a need for fewer professors. The responsibility for running the university is best concentrated in a few highly talented persons, the partners, and not distributed in committees.

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Concluding Remarks

It may be tempting for universities to consider their current financial situation as temporary and defend the existing structures and roles. The universities can camp on their position, wait for better days, and push for more budgets. Their main argument may be their role as the local bastion of heritage and neutral advisor to the state. But it will be difficult to sustain this position in the long term. Both business and political leaders now think globally. Taxpayers have other preoccupations and other priorities: unemployment, and healthcare, among them. Finally, the prestige of local universities is quickly eroding, since media coverage is monopolized by the famous and the strong worldwide.

We may be entering a new era in education. Rapid change in economic activity and the great progress of science demand life-long learning. Universities were designed to dispense education for a four-year term to captive students. They cannot stay the same and provide a global service for life-long learning.

Universities cannot afford to be all three: production, programming, and distribution centers in all scientific areas. There is too much duplication and too much inefficiency inherent in the system. In the inevitable global competition, universities will be exposed to tremendous pressures. Therefore, they need to choose their roles very carefully and concentrate on what they consider their key sectors.

Universities need to decide the areas for which they will be global content providers. These areas can be where, for political and cultural reasons, the university must provide content. Other areas are where the university considers itself very strong and judges there is a wide demand for that service. Universities need to decide on the areas they will package and coordinate programs. The areas are where the university has some competence and credibility, but feel they cannot compete internationally or they have not the means to keep up with the rapid developments alone. Universities need to decide on the areas where they will be local distributors to deal with local needs. A university may decide to specialize in one of the three functions, or enter into agreements with others to pool their resources. The worst thing a university can do is avoid making choices and allow the market forces to decide. It may wind up in a very defensive position, having to fight to win any role.

Needless to say, the choices of the university will have an immediate effect on its faculty. Before, the best people were concentrated in the best universities. Now, the best people will not even have to move. Their services will be demanded and obtained and they will work for strong and targeted institutions capable of sustaining global competition.

Universities also need to ponder organizational changes which in the long-term will bring them to a better competing stance. Universities can reinforce the status of rectors and deans to streamline their decision procedures. Universities can encourage selected professors on longer-term appointments to produce content and they can reconsider the institution of tenure. Universities can appoint course supervisors on short-term appointments who package courses. Universities can outsource activity to course animators outside the structure of the university but responsible for delivering courses. Course material can be produced and reused and can be imported or exported. Course material can be organized not only in a serial fashion, but also in a network like the Web.

The current developments are not negative. Universities need to explore the chance to take advantage of new technologies. Restructuring will make them more effective in their main mission—providing education. It will also free resources to provide a great learning environment and address cultural issues. Professors can also be freed from the time-consuming task of explaining the same thing year after year. They can concentrate more on quality lecturing and research, and acting as mentors to the students. In this way, universities capable of change will not only reflect on the past, they will continue to shape the future.

We are coming to a crossroads regarding the role universities play in education. Initially, religion was in charge of education. At the time, monasteries and seminaries played the role of higher learning centers. The great expansion of knowledge and the prolongation of learning periods forced a change where education was taken over by the state and the modern day universities were created. Now universities find it difficult to cope with the ongoing explosion of knowledge and the need for life-long learning. If universities cannot respond, there is a chance that education will be taken over by the private sector as a business. That would be unfortunate because universities should be involved in the continuing education of students throughout their careers as the best investment for their own future.

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References

1. Denning, P.J. A new social contract for research. Commun. ACM 40, 2 (Feb. 1997), 132–134.

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Author

Dennis Tsichritzis (dennis.tsichritzis@gmd.de) is chairman of the board at the GMD, the German National Research Center for Information Technology, and a professor of informatics at the University of Geneva.

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©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0600  $5.00

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