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PRL Project

Transforming the Academy: Knowledge Formation in the Age of Digital Information

by Robert L. Constable

Computer-mediated knowledge formation will profoundly change every academic discipline and pose fundamental challenges to the mission of the modern research university in teaching the new knowledge, securing sound methods for creating it, directing it to our deepest intellectual concerns, and insuring that we become wiser for it. Digital information, now measured in petabytes, is expanding rapidly; already most of it will never be examined by any human. Computers show us where to look and help us see patterns and extract meaning. How will this way of knowing impact the research university as the Age of Digital Information unfolds? To grasp the magnitude of the changes we face, it is important to realize that knowledge created with computer assistance goes well beyond classical knowledge formation rising from computer processing of digital information resources on a scale that could not be achieved by all peoples of the earth acting in concert using all their cognitive powers. Computers change the scale at which resources can be examined, and they already provide sufficient discriminatory powers that scale and speed compensate for their currently limited intelligence as they draw conclusions, make predictions, and participate in discoveries. The academy is not generally aware of the potential of this transformation, although some computer scientists and computational scientist are. The challenge for society is to assimilate digital knowledge and to improve the human condition by its application. We also seek to understand how it will shape our sense of self, individually and collectively as a society and a culture. In all of these tasks, the universities play an indispensable role for which they must prepare.