Think Digitally, Act Locally: Universities will Thrive in a Technological Age by Serving and Building Local Communities

Think Digitally, Act Locally: Universities will Thrive in a Technological Age by Serving and Building Local Communities

As technology accelerates the pace of change globally, universities face unprecedented challenges and opportunities, not just to remain relevant, but to address requirements for new aptitudes and literacies. Yet universities’ best opportunities – to thrive institutionally and to play a positive role socially and economically – may well be through engaging vigorously and directly with their local communities.

On the technology front, artificial intelligence (AI) is more likely to increase than to undermine the need for university education. Managed well, AI will augment universities’ basic teaching functions while accelerating the demand for our graduates. Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun has written convincingly on this topic, noting that AI increases the need for what he describes as technology literacy, data literacy and – critical for universities – human literacy. ¹

Aoun’s thesis gains further strength when viewed against the backdrop of Benjamin Bloom’s classic taxonomy of educational objectives. ² AI can make significant contributions in relation to lower-level tasks in Bloom’s cognitive domain: transferring basic knowledge and supplementing comprehension, application and analysis. However, AI is far less capable of replicating or displacing higher-level cognitive pursuits such as evaluation and creation. And in the affective domain, AI is a long way from mastering even basic skills such as showing empathy, forming relationships and building trust.

As a consequence, governments, industries and civil society will necessarily become more reliant upon educational institutions capable of cultivating these higher-level cognitive competencies, and a range of affective aptitudes, as will students preparing for a world in which AI will replace many jobs and complicate others. The recent experience with massive open online courses (MOOCs) taught us that technology has its limits as an educational instrument. We should therefore not be surprised to see more demands upon universities to cultivate aptitudes that exceed AI’s capacities, and that are required to harness and direct those capacities for societal benefit.

There is, however, another array of university strengths and competencies that cannot be replaced by virtual teaching technologies or AI.

“As physically situated learning institutions, universities play a critical role in building and sustaining the economic and social health of the communities they serve”

At the level of teaching and learning, we know that education is an interactive process, best effected in a learning community that provides diverse opportunities for human interaction and social engagement. But universities’ capacities are not limited to turning out well-educated graduates or, for that matter, to undertaking important research. There is more we can do to harness our capabilities as community builders.

Consider the current context: Our communities were once bolstered by dominant domestic industries, anchor institutions that sewed strength into the fabric of society even as they sustained local economies. But globalization has displaced or disrupted many such industries even as fiscal pressures have strained governments’ capacities and depleted civic infrastructure. Universities can play important roles helping to mitigate these trends.

Simon Fraser University came to this realization organically and then strategically. Ours has always been an institution inclined to community betterment, with an activist faculty and a tendency to reach out with programming and resources. That experience taught us that working with – and for – our community partners both makes us a better university and helps to secure our future.

Students who engage directly with communities through co-operative education and service learning receive an enriched and more relevant education. Researchers who engage with communities to address emergent issues gain greater purpose, knowledge and gratification. Even our physical investments – the building of transformative campuses in Vancouver’s inner city and in the suburban community of Surrey – strengthen our overall ability to perform.

We have since worked to identify even more strategically the various instruments that post-secondary institutions can leverage to build social infrastructure. We have found opportunities in the ways we use land and facilities; purchase goods and services; manage and invest funds; steward human resources; and nurture and maintain relationships.

For instance, on the once-isolated Burnaby Mountain site of the original SFU campus, we decided to develop an integrated community, resolving as well to make it a model of sustainable planning and development. In a buildout period of less than 15 years, this new community has resulted in thousands of units of housing, an elementary school, childcare facilities and other social amenities.

In procurement, we sought out Indigenous and other community-based suppliers that are likely to generate local employment and build capacity. As an investor, we have allocated a significant portion of our endowment to sustainable investments. As a convener, we have hosted and provided facilities for important and sometimes difficult conversations on pressing community issues, through programs like SFU Public Square and our Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

In addition to fulfilling our core educational and research mandates, we have assumed responsibility to exercise our full capacities as a community builder, especially at a time when the needs are so great and the sources of social infrastructure in such short supply. And by doing so, we have benefited along with our communities. Not only have our students and faculty gained from enhanced educational experiences and enriched research opportunities, but our institution has won increased recognition and support for all its activities – including our academic and research mission – from individuals, governments and community partners.

The lesson here is simple: While universities stand to reap rewards from advances in AI and other technologies, the ones likely to make the greatest gains over the next twenty years are those that leverage these rewards for the mutual benefit of their communities, as well as of their students and scholars. The SFU experience shows this can be done through programs and partnerships that draw institutions and communities closer together, physically as well as virtually, to increase the interplay of effort and ideas. The most savvy and successful students (and most capable graduates) will be those whose education has provided them significant engagement with and understanding of their communities and future workplaces. The most informed and effective researchers (and most productive innovators) will be those with the closest connections to the populations and enterprises that need their insight and benefit from their expertise.

All of this requires a concerted effort to engage and a willingness to use university resources – including physical infrastructure – as a vector for that engagement.  Universities that are prepared to make this effort will not only improve the quality of the educational experiences they offer their students and the value of the research opportunities they provide their scholars, but will also enhance their standing as community builders and be better able to secure support for all of their endeavours.


¹ Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (The MIT Press, 2017).

² B.S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. (New York: David McKay Co Inc., 1956); D.R. Krathwohl, B.S. Bloom, and B.B. Masia, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook II: Affective Domain. (New York: David McKay Co., 1964).


Andrew Petter is the President and Vice Chancellor of Simon Fraser University and Professor in its School of Public Policy.  Prior to joining SFU in 2010, he was Professor in the Faculty of Law of the University of Victoria where he served as Dean from 2001 to 2008. From 1991 to 2001, Professor Petter served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia and held numerous cabinet portfolios, including Advanced Education, Intergovernmental Relations and Attorney General. Since becoming President, Professor Petter has overseen the development and implementation of a Strategic Vision that seeks to distinguish SFU as a “leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.” In 2018, he was appointed to the Order of Canada in recognition of his commitment and leadership in advancing university-community engagement and higher education throughout the country.


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