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The world is round

Date:06 May 2020
Author:Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries

We are looking for solutions to the issues that Dutch universities are currently facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At a meeting of the chairs of the VSNU (Association of Universities in the Netherlands), Martin Paul of Maastricht University mentioned a book title that instantly intrigued me: Jo Caudron’s The World is Round. After all, a few years ago, I had read a book with the opposite title: The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman.

In the book’s preface, Caudron apologizes for not being a scientist. He does jump through all sorts of academic and methodological hoops in order to be taken seriously in his book. And honestly, that is not what matters to me. What matters to me are the ideas that he postulates, which is how every scientific process starts. Wonder.

Caudron predicts that digitization will lead to disruption in many areas of life – including university education. The digital transformation is still underway and will lead to fundamental changes in existing systems, which will also affect the education sector. The relationship between man and machine is becoming increasingly important. Machines and artificial intelligence will become more dominant, leaving more space for human creativity and entrepreneurship. The field of education, currently highly disciplinary, is not yet ready for this.

Caudron claims that digitization is like a hurricane that will affect three societal domains: work, housing and transport. He believes that solutions can be found in ‘urban villages’, small-scale units in which functions like living, working and learning convene. In the past, people lived closely together as well (the world is round). We should restore this way of life – and we can. 

This could also be a solution for the issues that our University is facing. On the one hand, we will increasingly make use of online teaching but, on the other hand, students and lecturers are desperate for face-to-face interaction and contact. At our University, we will have to find the optimal combination of online and in-person teaching.

According to Caudron, the solution lies in the ‘urban village’. This means that we would offer many functions of modern life at a smaller scale. Students would no longer need to travel to the city or campus to attend classes, but would be able to do this digitally from home or elsewhere. This is how we could structure small-scale teaching. At the same time, the use of online teaching means that we wouldn’t lose sight of the international dimension of university education. 

Caudron’s theory implies that we should regard the entire municipality of Groningen as a university. In this scenario, teaching would be offered largely online, but small-scale in-person teaching could still be organized throughout the entire city. I would like to take this idea even further: small-scale group teaching could take place anywhere across the three northern provinces. We would then get to work with universities of applied sciences, public organizations and companies to create an innovative ecosystem that I have referred to in the past as the University of the North.

Jouke de Vries
President of the Board of the University of Groningen
5 May 2020

Jo Caudron, 'The World is Round. An optimistic master plan for the transformation of business and society', Kalmthout, 2019: Pelckmans Pro.