The University of the Future

I am reading Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, by Leonard Mlodinow (2001). In a chapter entitled “The Legacy of the Rotten Romans,” Mlodinow writes about Charlemagne attempting to revive the intellectual tradition of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and then moves on through the middle ages, discussing the first universities.

What struck me was this description of a 14th century university:

“The concept of a college campus did not yet exist. Typically, a university had no buildings at all. Students lived in cooperative housing. Professors lectured in rented rooms, rooming houses, churches, even brothels. The classrooms, like the dwellings, were poorly lit and heated. Some universities employed a system that sounds, well, medieval: professors were paid directly by the students. At Bologna, students hired and fired professors, fined them for unexcused absence or tardiness, or for not answering difficult questions. If the lecture was not interesting, going to slow, too fast, or simply not loud enough, they would jeer or throw things.”

Perhaps this is not so medieval after all — perhaps it gives us a sense of the university to come? Will the campus exist? In what form? Will the results of websites like “” be that we will be as accountable to our students as the medieval professor? Will their relationship to us be more direct? Less mediated by an academic administration? As life-long learners, will students pick and choose more freely from an academic menu of sorts — to attain the skills and knowledge they are looking for? One online course here, another there… Perhaps instructors should be fined by their students for being boring, late or not answering questions! This model implies that students will tell us what they need to learn, instead of vice-versa. Hmmm….

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