The internet and higher education: reclaiming expertise in the digital age

What does it mean for the higher education system to produce knowledge in an age which is increasingly characterised by issues of performativity? What does it mean for academics to produce knowledge in an age where digital media facilitate non-academic knowledge, lay expertise and misinformation?

The so-called end of knowledge phenomenon refers to concerns about knowledge within higher education having lost its status because of “proliferating knowledges that society has now to offer” (Barnett, 2000, p. 411); knowledges which are easily disseminated through digital media. In an “age of supercomplexity”, characterised by the rise of multiple, often competing and contradictory frameworks, significant pressure lies on universities and academics (p. 415). For a few decades now, their status as producers of knowledge has been challenged by private knowledge organisations such as companies specialised, for instance, in researching computer systems and financial services. Not only has such a challenge come with problems of funding, which may be granted to these organisations instead of universities. The higher education system is caught up in a tension between contemplative and performative knowledge.

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While universities have been blamed for providing students with abstract, contemplative knowledge leaving them unprepared to face the world and find employment, performative knowledge is rather about the acquisition of pragmatic competences and problem-solving skills which are necessary in the knowledge economy. Emphasis on this type of knowledge is considerable among knowledge organisations and companies operating outside academic and educational contexts. Universities, on the other hand, have also become increasingly expected to promote performative knowledge. Performativity, however, remains restrictively dictated by economic productivity. While some advocate performative knowledge in the context of active learning by focusing on students’ creative practices of production and collaborations, it remains dubious to what extent such an approach accounts not only for students’ creativity but their critical reflexivity.

Performativity is twofold. In addition to referring to an attribute of knowledge, it prescribes the role of academics as performers complying with standards and expectations aligned with a vision of knowledge as a commodity circulating at a great pace in the digital age. Performativity, in this sense, contributes to pressure targeting academics, undermining, in turn, the quality of research. As Scruton (2015) has emphasised, especially “academics in the West are obliged to publish articles and books if they are to advance in their careers”, which has led to the “proliferation of literature” which is not always meritorious (para. 23).

Digital media, post-truth and (the death of) expertise

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The advent of digital media has brought considerable benefits to academics in relation, for instance, to archiving and disseminating research within and beyond academia. Despite their benefits, the internet and social media have also contributed to a number of challenges, including privacy and copyright issues. Digital media facilitate collective intelligence whereby everyone (who has access to the internet and is digitally literate) can share and collaboratively produce information. Nevertheless, they also contribute to the dissemination of non-academic knowledge and lay expertise which can undermine the status of academic knowledge. Lay expertise is particularly problematic when coupled with misinformation.

The problem of misinformation and fake news “is an outcome of what has been referred to as post-truth – a condition whereby facts and objectivity are overshadowed by personal beliefs and emotions”. While such a problem precedes the internet, the latter multiplies “the possibilities of producing and consuming misinformation”. It is in this context that Nichols (2017) has recently referred to the death of expertise as a phenomenon implying the collapse of public trust in expertise and academic knowledge. Based on the conviction that lay knowledge can be more reliable than academic knowledge, the death of expertise phenomenon is rooted in societal deficiencies including citizens’ alienation from civic, political life as well as the failure of the political system and the media to represent citizens’ concerns. Given experts’ and academics’ role in advising policymakers and contributing to public debates, such a phenomenon has major implications for the functioning of society and democracy.

The online dissemination of multiple non-academic knowledge domains, lay expertise and misinformation can certainly undermine academic knowledge in the digital age. Whereas these challenges should not be overlooked, dismissing the value of academia is far more problematic. Some have argued that “we cannot anymore justify the public investment in universities in the age of globalization and digitization”, whose processes have disrupted the monopoly of higher education in providing and disseminating knowledge. Not only is such a narrative simplistic in that it overlooks benefits which the internet has brought to academia. It is rather dangerous. It strips universities and academics of their responsibility to provide education, knowledge and evidence-based research.

Universities and academics: reclaiming expertise

Wellmon (2017) has argued that while the term universities refers to entire institutions, their “administrative structures [and] organizational processes”, the academy is rather about the “practices, goals and norms related to the creation, cultivation and transmission of knowledge” (para. 27, 28). Insofar as the latter has increasingly been subsumed by the former, we need a higher education system which preserves the role and ethos of the academy, which goes beyond producing and spreading knowledge under the logic of performativity. As implied by the German philosophical concept of Bildung, the academy has a responsibility to cultivate critical reflexivity and ethical codes of behaviour which are necessary to navigate multiple knowledge domains in the digital age. The internet has the potential to benefit research, contributing to knowledge dissemination and sharing in remarkable ways. As it also facilitates lay expertise and misinformation, which can be rather detrimental to the status of academic knowledge, it is by providing evidence-based research, as well as encouraging critical reflexivity and ethical standards, that the academy plays a special role in the fight against post-truth. Academics, on the other hand, need to continue to defend their role not only as educators but as experts. They have a duty to engage, and find better ways to engage, in a dialogue with the public and policymakers.

I feel privileged to have been teaching and conducting doctoral research in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics; a department which has a solid reputation for research excellence. Not only has engagement in this field allowed me to appreciate benefits and challenges that the internet has brought to the academy. It has been essential to developing a critical approach to understanding the ways in which society is increasingly mediated by digital media. It is such a critical approach that I try to encourage in my students with a view to supporting them in the preparation of their dissertations. I always emphasise how crucial it is to develop one’s own voice in the process of learning and doing research. In doing so, I invite my students to reflect on the ways in which their dissertations not only contribute to academic knowledge but have potential practical implications transcending academia. I find it important to reflect on, and commit myself to, such a dimension in relation to my own work, which is why last year I submitted written evidence to the UK Parliament, contributing to public debate on fake news, democracy and critical digital literacy.

The internet is essential for disseminating research within and beyond academia. At the same time, it facilitates the dissemination of multiple knowledge domains, potentially contributing to forms of performative knowledge, lay expertise and misinformation which threaten the status of academic knowledge and the role of academics as experts. The importance of higher education in producing knowledge in the digital age has certainly not ended. While subject to distrust, expertise still has so much to offer to society and in the fight against post-truth. In fact, the role of academics has never been so crucial.

References

Barnett, R. (2000). University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. Higher Education, 40(4), 409-422.

Nichols, T. (2017). The death of expertise: The campaign against established knowledge and why it matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scruton, R. (2015). The end of the university. In First Things. Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/04/the-end-of-the-university

Wellmon, C. (2017). The university is dead, long live the academy! Reflections on the future of knowledge. In ABC Religion and Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/11/06/4760850.htm

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3 thoughts on “The internet and higher education: reclaiming expertise in the digital age

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  1. You have picked on a timely topic to blog on given how several issues that were raised by experts about Brexit and were rubbished before the referendum are turning out to be reality. Just today, there was a piece in the Guardian by Nesrine Malik about how terms such as elites are being deliberately mischaracterised and wielded as insults to shut down different points of view. This could very easily apply to the discourse around experts and expertise that you have written about.
    However, sometimes experts haven’t been critical or challenged the status quo enough (think about the collusion/ignorance of the establishment on issues such as painkillers, wellness, etc.). And the ability of social media to elevate the anecdotal and superficial (insta-visuals, tweets, memes, likes) possibly sets the scene perfectly for uncritical thinking. As Mr McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message.” Maybe both these factors – experts and the internet – have a greater role than we are willing to concede in killing off knowledge or expertise as we know it. Any thoughts?

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    1. Thank you for your comment and for sharing such an interesting article from the Guardian. It is very dangerous how deliberate misrepresentation can delegitimise the use of terms such as elites, silencing, in turn, criticism. Experts do have a responsibility, as you have rightly pointed out, to be vocal and use their voices to be critical and encourage critical thinking. We should definitely work harder and do a better a job at engaging with the public and disseminating evidence-based research promoting critical reflexivity. A message, though, is never just a reflection of a medium. We need to avoid technological determinism. Misinformation and post-truth transcend the internet. The latter, nevertheless, has undoubtedly an important role to play in the fight against these issues. The internet affords considerable opportunities but is also subject to a number of constraints. Not only is it important to do something about the extent to which the internet and social media play a role in amplifying misinformation and misrepresentation while overshadowing expertise. More importantly, it is imperative that we all develop a sense of civic and ethical responsibility to be accurate and engage with expertise constructively for the wellbeing of our societies and democracies. Such an aspiration clearly requires concerted efforts from everyone and is not something that can be easily achieved through technological fixes.

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  2. Thank you, Franco, for a timely and thought-provoking blog. As a media scholar and LSE100 teacher, I have also had occasion to contemplate the implications of the ‘post-truth’ and ‘anti-expertise’ society we find ourselves in as a teacher, a researcher and member of society.

    LSE100 is the School’s flagship interdisciplinary course, which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to tackle real-world problems and develop their communication, methodological and information skills as they collaborate with peers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. LSE100 gives them the opportunity to broaden their intellectual experience and deepen their critical understanding of their own discipline as they test theories, evidence and ideas from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives.
    In the first module of LSE100 we ask the broad question “Is Democracy in Crisis” and one of the ways in which we unpack this question is by critically examining the notions of post- truth and anti-expertise and whether they pose a risk to democracy.

    As part of this module we engage with Nichols, whom you cite, and with his suggestion that what is required is a renewed social contract between experts and citizens, based on trust, accountability and responsibility. We also watch short, bespoke videos from Nick Anstead and Sonia Livingstone from the Department of Media and Communications. In his video, Anstead makes the point that fake news is not new, however it is exacerbated by the proliferation of information available in circulation thanks to Web2.0 platforms. Both he and Livingstone argue that the solution to the possible, detrimental effects of fake news on our society is better education and individual responsibility. And this of course ties in to the case you make in your blog that academics, as experts and teachers, have a crucial role to play in ensuring that tools for critical thinking and analysis are honed and disseminated. However, this role can only be fully realised if members of society accept the terms of the social contract and are willing to exit their echo chambers and engage with expert information, even when it calls into question firmly held views and beliefs. We also need to acknowledge, as you do, that access to education and information is not equal and therefore the media also have a role to play, a role that is increasingly complex and both affected by and implicated in the changing nature of information dissemination.

    Perhaps this suggests that as scholars and teachers of media and communications, our role is doubled; we must continue to encourage critical thinking while at the same time also critically evaluate the role that media and communications play in discrediting experts and disseminating fake news?

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