“We all need to understand what digitalisation means”

The University of Helsinki is well on the path to digitalisation, and digital tools are used in many ways in research and teaching. The next step is to discuss what a digital society actually means and what the implications are for us.

China is in the process of implementing a social credit system in which citizens are ranked according to their behaviour. If you drive badly, are late paying your bills or buy too many computer games, your social credit scores will drop. This in turn may affect your prospects on the job market, what hotels you are allowed to stay at and what places of study are open to you.

“How are we to understand China’s actions and their strategies in the area of world trade, if we do not understand how their society functions?” questions Senior Researcher Carl Heath, expert on ICT and learning at RISE Interactive in Sweden. Heath was one of the keynote speakers at the seminar Digitalisation, Future Universities and Society held in September at the University of Helsinki. 

The above example illustrates the potential implications of a digital society. The aim of the seminar was to open a discussion about universities’ role in educating students for a digital world. What skills do students need to learn to be able to work and participate in the development and decision-making of a society increasingly characterised by human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence?

This concerns us all

Carl Heath emphasises the need for educators to understand the implications of a digital society so that they can pass that knowledge on to their students.

“The University of Helsinki should invest in a conscious and continuous educational effort, with as much staff participation as possible. We particularly need to address how to talk about the combination of change and new technology, and our understanding of how this concerns us,” says University Researcher Carl-Gustav Lindén at the Swedish School of Social Science, who organised the seminar.

As an example, Lindén names RISE Interactive in Sweden, who are educating university staff and students in basic concepts such as AI and Big Data.

“We also need to find and educate those who couldn’t care less about digitalisation. The digital leap concerns us all, and if we don’t understand it, we won’t be able to understand society,” Lindén says.

It is important that the universities collaborate with the community in these matters, says Jaakko Kurhila, chief digitalisation officer at the University of Helsinki.

“Universities do not have a corner on knowledge and wisdom, nor do they have a monopoly on education. Universities—the University of Helsinki included—must to an increasing extent interact with society. The education offered by the university must be meaningful and relevant, and it must foster engagement in many directions: with alumni, further education institutions, applicants and partners. Studies and instruction must be flexible in appropriate ways,” Kurhila says.

Ethics and morals must be subjected to scrutiny

Professor Mike Friedrichsen, who recently founded the Berlin University of Digital Sciences (BUDS) in Germany, presented another example of how academia can engage with a digital society. The core idea of BUDS is to build and promote the digital core competences that are required in an increasingly digital society and to continuously, flexibly and dynamically develop its educational offerings in accordance with social and economic requirements.

“BUDS is an unusual and bold attempt to abandon the old and start afresh with a clean slate, and that makes it interesting,” Kurhila says.

“Starting afresh is a tempting idea, because many traditional research universities are burdened with structures that are opposed to change. With a new university, you have the opportunity to implement a digital “disruption” (i.e., disrupt established operating models, ed. note) in one fell swoop. Competition among new education institutions is harsh, however, and the international education business is tough. Traditional universities still have a time-honoured task to promote science and educate people who can continue the work of science.”

“The phenomenon of digitalisation must be addressed in curricula and instruction, especially in the field of social sciences,” says Anna Henning-Lindblom, vice-rector in charge of academic affairs at the Swedish School of Social Science.

Society is becoming increasingly digital, and there are both pros and cons to that. As an example of the pros, Henning-Lindblom mentions the digital systems that are being developed in the field of child protection. When the system as a whole registers several different, apparently unconnected client appointments that concern a specific child, or other signals, the system can alert social workers. The system can react, because it builds a comprehensive picture faster than an individual person can.

“When teaching social sciences, it is important to also consider the ethical aspects of digitalisation and subject it to critical scrutiny,” Henning-Lindblom says.

“It would be interesting to design a course that focuses on the ethical and moral aspects of digital solutions. A high-class programme in the social sciences must keep abreast of digital developments in society.”

Digitalisation, Future Universities and Society seminar

The seminar Digitalisation, Future Universities and Society was organised in September by the Media Lab at the Swedish School of Social Science.

Recordings from the seminar can be viewed here.