I Say to Myself, “What a Wonderful Digital World!”
29.12.2017

- Professor Galazhinskiy, in your opinion, what will be the most important topics to focus on in your blog in 2018?

- I believe there are many such topics, but they all can be combined in one super topic, which is “A Human Being and a Classical University in the Digital Age”.

- Not long ago, TSU considered the topic of “The Classical University at a Non-Classical time” as the pivotal one.

- They do not contradict each other. In a way, “a non-classical time” is a wider term, than “the digital age”. Moreover, the former includes the latter and remains relevant nowadays. But it is clear for most people that digital technologies define the modern non-classical era. That is why “digital” is the term everybody focuses on today.

- Starting last spring, a wave of conferences, forums, and other kinds of events devoted to the issues of the digital age kicked off in Russia.

-It is very easy to explain the interest in the topic: any university, no matter whether it is regional or federal, multidisciplinary or narrow-profile, must build its strategies in the digital context, if it wants to survive in this context. That is why in 2017, research and education forums and conferences started discussing this particular issue. This is the list of topics I found on the first page when I googled the combination “university and the digital age”: Law in the Digital Age; Education and Personal Development in the Digital Age; Researcher 2.0: Professional Transformation in the Digital Age; The Digital Economy; Universities in the Context of Transformations; Library Collections in the Digital Age; Education in the Digital Age; Management in Digital Industry; and Culture, Education, and Science in the Digital Economy Society. This is not the end of the list. In general, Russian business has accepted the idea that nobody will be able to stay outside the changes and transformations and we need to be ready for them.

- How is TSU getting ready for them?

- We have been in the picture for quite a while already. We have established the Institute of the Human of the Digital Age and some other departments that are focused on big data. Those are theme-oriented structures. But it is important that the digital aspect is becoming part of every research and education projects. The most important thing today is to accelerate this process.

As for holding theme forums and conferences, we try to keep up with the trends. In November, TSU became a strategic partner of the 8th International Conference IT-City: the Digital Future.2.jpg

- Was this conference different from the previous ones?

- Yes, and all the speakers admitted it. The Conference used to be more practical and its main target audience was people who worked in the IT or were going to. This time the discussion was held around “digital” issues, current for all spheres of our life, especially the local and state economy.

- You and Natalya Kasperskaya opened the key discussion of the conference, whose theme was “On the Way to the Digital Economy”. What was the main message of your theses? 

- The message was that the main goal of the state programme The Digital Economy is not to digitize the Russian analogue economy, as it is often understood, something like “Let’s digitize everything we have and make the economy digital”. The programme, however, is about changing paradigms that will result in building a new type of economy, based on big data. The combination of big data and disruptive technologies leads to dramatic changes, if not to say an outbreak in all spheres of our life and in relations between all economic agents. Now, universities, government, and business are all in a position of high uncertainty. We have no clear idea of HOW to build this new economy and HOW to prepare specialists for it.  The main obstacle here is the contradiction between the people’s “analogue” thinking and the “digital” essence of the economy we need to build. Nobody is competent enough to do that today. There are no recognized leaders in the sphere; there are just some separate achievements. If we start dealing with all the issues right now, we may find ourselves among the leaders. Digitalization provides us with unique opportunities: we do not need to catch up with anybody to become leaders.

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- Could you be more specific about the problems, connected with digitalization that universities will face in the near future?

- There is a paradox: many digital technologies originated at universities, however, many universities do not have them. For example, the university community has got accustomed to using the term “big data”. Some research teams have even learnt how to accumulate big data.4.jpg

However, the problems of saving, analyzing, and effective using in achieving particular goals (public, industrial, political, or military) and of avoiding risks remain unsolved. 

The protocol of managing big data is getting more and more complicated as its amount is increasing, resulting in the number of false correlations, which are false conclusions on possible cause-and-effect connections between phenomena. Meanwhile, we all are very well aware of how important it is to master managing big data in digital commerce, insurance, transport systems, banking, telecommunication, military, and other spheres of business and public life. Universities need to evaluate their capacities and choose certain disruptive areas to work in. TSU and the InfoWatch headed by Natalya Kasperskaya are going to establish a centre of cybersecurity training. Among some other ideas are  opening the Blockchain Academy, a centre of digital law, a centre of digital creative industries, and many other “digital” bodies. We are expanding our competencies along with leading Russian companies, such as Sberbank and Gazprombank.   

- As we can see, universities have some things to be occupied with in this complicated period…

 - Exactly! They have three issues to deal with: to develop new technologies, to prepare specialists as future users and developers of more advanced technologies, and to train those who can teach those specialists right now. Today, most Russian universities cannot offer a curriculum that responds to the challenges of the digital era. They do not have proper models, theories, and teachers. We all have already gotten aware of how old competencies may interrupt with dealing with the new reality.

- Now that you have mentioned it, I remember that Dmitry Peskov, one of the ideologists of the programme “Digital Economy” and the Director of the Young Professionals direction at the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, calls these old competencies “toxic”. He insists that the old cohort of professors are not capable of teaching new crosscutting technologies to the youth and that the modern school graduates do not need to enter “old school” universities. They can take online courses from the world best universities and experts and be involved in peer learning. Dmitry Peskov gives examples of how leading companies hire 15- or 16-year-olds without university diplomas on high positions and pay them very good money for their unique competencies required by the digital economy. Is not that a sign that the future of universities as educational institutions is put into question?  5.jpg

- Last century, Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, anticipated the times when young people would teach older people something they know of better. And here we are, living at those times. We cannot deny the obvious: most universities cannot give young people the type of education they want, the education aimed at providing with new crosscutting competencies. I talked a lot about it in the past. This is explained by the fact that those people who develop curriculum and teach at universities do not possess the necessary competencies themselves. That is why the youth goes to learn online. Often, they gain knowledge from their peers who may be even younger than them. The most amazing thing is that it leads to producing innovative goods that change entire industries. This is a global trend.

Their creativity does not have any boundaries, which appears to be good and bad at the same time. For example, there was a hacker attach from three young American college students who wanted to raise money from a super popular online game Minecraft. They developed a virus that damaged the key parts of the global network.

At first, the young geniuses wanted to damage other Minecraft’s servers that competed with theirs in order to6.png attract players to use the hackers’ servers. They anticipated a profit of 100 thousand dollars per month. But the virus turned out to be so powerful that it has already damaged such providers as Amazon, Twitter, the British post service, and the Deutsche Telekom company. Having realized how harmful their virus was, the hackers established their own company that offered protection from their own virus to the Minecraft players and other Internet users. It is hard to imagine how far things could go, if the three were not stopped on time.

- This is a New Year horror! Now it would be great to hear of some positive recent initiative from the creative youth.

- Here is one. At the beginning of December 2017, several TSU students won in Launchbay.Digital, a seven-week student startup competition organized by the GPB Digital. 

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The competition is an innovation hub initiated at the beginning of 2017 by the Gazprom group. Their goal is to create and promote various digital products and services. Our students came with several projects; two of them were awarded as the best. The first project was “Learn to learn”. It is targeted at those who want to learn but do not know how to do that effectively. The software was developed with respect to the specifics of the learners’ cognitive characteristics and it will be useful for those who want to fill the gaps in their knowledge. The other project is called “Good Buyer”. It helps the internet users to shop by calculating more precise size parameters. The latter may be helpful not only for the users, but for the internet shops as well, as it will reduce the number of redeliveries.

- Professor Galazhinskiy, do you think that the TSU students are capable of competing with, let’s say, Stanford or MIT students in developing digital technologies?

- Why not? Somebody once said, “Genius is like a lightning: no one knows whose house it will strike.” Our goal is to recognize it on time and turn the lightning into a shining star.

- But the main question remains: does a university have a future as an educational institution in the digital age? Dmitry Peskov says that by 2035, a university will have become nothing but a technological education platform with a 15-year life cycle.

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- Mister Peskov is one of the most interesting experts and foresight consultants in education. His predictions often come true. By the way, the foresight competency, as the ability to work with the images of the future, will soon become a universal competency required for all managers. However, I think that Dmitry Peskov deliberately provokes (in a good sense) the audience with his predictions in order to make it reflect and argue with him. At least, I definitely have the desire to argue with him. In 2018, I will pay a lot of attention to the issues of a classical university and possible scenarios of its future in my blog. Right now, I can say one thing: I see this future as bright and diverse. 

- Why are you so optimistic?

- Because I believe that a human being will always stay a human being, despite all possible manifestations of transhumanism.

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University as a technological platform may be useful only for cyborgs and robots. For people that would not be enough. All possible consequences of technologization and digitalization have already been described by the international and Russian writers, authors of science fiction novels. You can read  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Issac Asimov’s Profession, Ben Elton’s Blind Faith, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Final Circle of Paradise, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, and some other wonderful novels and short stories about the future.

- Do you believe in what the writers predict?

- Of course, I do! At least, the very best ones. How would it be possible not to believe, if the 20th century showed how many things that were predicted by  Jules Verne became true? In 19th century, he described planes, space ships, television, diving suits, and other fantastic things. In a way, si-fi writers are the foresighters who describe the images of the future.

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- Do you want to say anything to your readers as a New Year wish?

- My dear friends, I want to congratulate you on the New Year! Let’s hope it will bring us closer to that stage of the Digital Age that will allow people to show their talents and open up to the new world. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Mankind is so beautiful! Oh, what a wonderful new world, that has such people in it!”  

The interview with the Rector was conducted by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan