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Universities must innovate to survive

Covid 19 is making us traverse a journey from Synchronous learning mode to Asynchronous learning mode. Adi Shankara lived in early 8th Century and had four disciples Padmapada, Hasta Malaka, Trotakacharya, and Sureshwara. Each was an Institution to himself as was their Master. They proffered the Guru Shishya Parampara, as old as the Vedas and set up monasteries called ‘mathas’ in the ‘Advaita Vedanta’ tradition in all four corners of the country, that have remained the spiritual pillars of Hinduism to this day. Mahabharat happened much earlier, in 3067 BCE and was also important for changing the course of this learning mode among many other leading changes. ‘Ekalavya’, prince of ‘Nishadha’, when rejected as a student by his Master Dronacharya, for societal compulsions that existed then, still learnt Archery, a purely competency-based skill, in a la Distance / Online mode. Can this be the watershed moment in delivery of modern education? Covid 19 will hasten the setting up of Universities of Future. What could they be?

 

A University is a community of teachers and scholars. It must nurture academic freedom. The fundamental tenets of a University must remain the same. A student must explore the spirit of adventure and innovation in a university. Knowledge and learning is the medium. A certificate of attainment may be the fruit one seeks. The Boundary conditions However, have been changing the contours of a traditional university. Some pressure points are the large number of students, inadequate faculty numbers, poor faculty quality, shrinking job opportunities and now the Covid Pandemic. Each pressure point has a unique pressure release mechanism. If, However, there is one way out, addressing most of them, we must use it.

 

Industry leaders have been critical of our universities for not producing work-ready graduates. There is a great amount of stress on research by the universities almost at the expense of good teaching. A disquiet about management practices and remuneration packages awarded to faculty and other office bearers does not help any. Even student loans are a major problem both in terms of sanction and repayments.

 

Our universities are absurdly expensive with outcomes not very attractive nor effective. They have seldom kept pace with either the society or the technology. Even the degree/diploma programs have been far removed from reality. Good collaborated certification programs as a means of upskilling are difficult to come by or are too expensive.

 

Moving forward, in the quest for universities of future, blended learning will have an important role. The future learning will be at least in part through online, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. Remaining brick-and-mortar learning must be supervised along each student’s learning path within a course or subject, which then can provide an integrated learning experience.

 

Industry 4.0 and massive automation requires labour 4.0 to drive its engines. AI, Machine learning, Deep learning, Robotics, Cloud technology, data analytics are the buzz words today. Cyber-physical system (CPS) is all pervasive, where collaborating computational elements control the physical entities. An era of alignment between man and machine that will enable new possibilities on levels that were only depicted in sci-fi films is dawning on us. People will start communicating with machines instead of just operating them, creating a beautiful hybrid of the Internet of People (IoP) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Our universities must be game enough to assimilate and handhold such necessities in future.

 

Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordination with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility are all the new age skills needed in addition to the domain skills. Not every skill is possible to be given within the confines of the universities. Much learning must happen outside the campus as much as happens within the campus. They must be easily accessed through various devices with learning analytics supported big data management, be able to blend online/offline learning, must be sharable in a collaborative spirit, and must be quality assured. Of course, the digital content must be interactive, characteristic, mobile based, global, AR/VR embedded and have an emotional connect. Several global players like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, LinkedIn, EdX and FutureLearn are only spoiling the students and faculty for choices.

 

So, what must Universities of future look like? Blended learning for sure, will form a part of the new paradigm. Several iterations later, we may comfortably be using a 30:70 or 40:60 model of online to offline ratios. A future University must explore different organisational structures that will have different business models, will have cooperative structures enhancing interdisciplinary learning and have new concepts for faculties and departments.

 

The future universities must adopt quality assurance as a way of life, guaranteeing educational services rather than fall back on rankings, ratings and outdated accreditation procedures. The examination offices will have new roles with students opting for flexible degrees, designer degrees or certifications, and even provide opportunities for acceleration in education according to fast innovation cycles.

 

Teaching methods would have to change with new teaching concepts (e.g., flipped classroom) and new teaching infrastructures (e.g., equipment for virtual worlds). Even digital rights management would be extremely important in the evolving new world order in education. Teachers will have to transform from being teachers to guides to mentors. New learning infrastructure e.g., increased computing capacities and AR/VR devices will be in vogue. Virtual labs and next generation labs like Code labs, Pop up studios, Cloud innovation labs, Gaming garage, AR/VR Studios, Makerspace, Innovation/Venture development centers, AI and Robot parks will all be the new kids on the block. Finally, the learning methods also will need to change with focus on massive vs personalised learning taking center stage.

 

Future universities will be places where university and industry will be co-located and collaborate on projects that solve real-world problems. They must drive innovation within their precincts actively applying research that can impact the community. We also must understand that universities have become large multi-product, multi-process and multifunctional businesses. This change has been largely imposed on them because government funding has not been as generous as it was in previous years. Future universities cannot jam-pack their students’ days with work. Future universities must allow time for individual exploration through discussion with others and reading works that broaden the mind and build skills that are useful for a decent living.

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