Imagine this scene:
A first year biology student in college uses a 3D virtual reality equipment to enter the human digestive system. There, he watches food getting digested in the body. Simultaneously, his classmate simulates different circumstances to watch from up close how a drug from a capsule gets metabolised and heals an injury inside a vein.
Others in class are using simulation and gaming to see how atoms morph into alloys, or how electrons in a liquid get agitated when subjected to thermal radiation. All the students provide instant feedback and offer precise metrics on how much they have understood.
A computer in class that simulates all these visuals also delivers instant tests, determines rubrics, collects feedback and offers assessment scores, even while comparing each student's performance against the set median score for the class. The computer also offers each student new learning pathways to help them meet their learning objectives faster. It rewards better performers with ranks and badges, while suggesting remedials for those who are lagging behind.
This scenario is no figment of the imagination. This is what higher education will really look like by 2025, if we go by today's emerging technologies.
In fact, universities and higher education institutions (HEIs), as we know them today, are all set for a radical overhaul, as technologies continue to impact the way we learn, the way we teach and the way we use the curriculum. Clearly, HEIs which foresee these changes and adapt are all set to lead in the academic race. The rest face elimination.
It will be interesting to watch how Indian higher education wakes up to a possible scenario where a degree is not the motivator, but lifelong learning is...
To understand what exactly is happening in this space and what it will lead to, we need to define a problem statement that all HEIs face today.
First, higher education has in its entire history, never been more costly than it is now. In the US, the education loans aggregate has crossed a trillion dollars, while in India the aggregate is about ₹700 billion from banks alone.
Students and administrators are, meanwhile, realising that traditional job opportunities for the existing curriculum are dwindling. In the last two years, campus recruitment numbers have been declining. Industry recruiters say most campus graduates do not possess higher-order thinking skills, nor do they meet the exacting demands of an increasingly technology-driven industry ecosystem. In fact, recruiters have difficulty in finding people with the latest skill sets in emerging technologies.
Does this mean universities and even the higher education institutions (HEIs) need to invest more in building the capabilities of students? And even if they do, will they see enough return on their investment, in terms of number and quality? How do private HEIs in a regulated system find adequate resources?
No clear answers here. But at least a few aspects are clear.
- The aspirations of India's 130 million youth in the 17–23 year age group are only increasing. They know that a good higher education can help them climb the socioeconomic ladder faster than any other route.
- The Union government's ambitious agenda to take the gross enrolment ratio (the percentage of youth in the relevant age group going to college) from 23.6% now to 30% by 2020, will mean adding several thousand HEIs, or augmenting seats and infrastructure in existing universities.
- This capital expenditure alone will be several lakh crores, not to speak of annual revenue expenditure.
- Will this mean future students have to take on a higher fee burden?
Fortunately, technology can provide a powerful answer to all these questions, including the problem of cost.
So, how will technologies impact Indian HEIs? And can we leverage technology to answer all the questions of quality, quantity, access and social equity?
Trend 1: Online learning is slowly becoming mainstream
More than 90% of India's college and university students crave for a mobile phone and/or an internet connection. The youth use mobile and data connectivity as a staple for information processing, communication, sharing and retrieval of knowledge.
Learners will take more control of the university experience and become the centre for all curriculum-making, pedagogical practices and competence building.
The ludicrous and anachronistic affiliation system has made classroom teaching the weakest link in the Indian higher education system. Weak classroom lectures are too boring for the youth. With inexpensive data connectivity, future students will find new ways to acquire knowledge. Their dependency on books and classroom lectures will come down, even as they seek information, data and new theses from online databases, journals, research articles, e-books, or by directly connecting with industry professionals, scientists and knowledge workers.
Trend 2: Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data will change pedagogy
Education technology writers such as Barbara Kurshan have noted that AI (which helps Facebook suggest friends, powers Siri to answer your queries or helps Google in its driverless cars) can in the next few years create "virtual mentors for learners", assist learners in getting 21st-century workplace skills (such as team work and self-direction); bring about vast amounts of data about individual learners, learner behaviour and provide personal context to them; increase inter-connectedness among classrooms far and wide across the globe; and take learners outside the classroom or make learning a part of life outside class.
Trend 3: Research-based teaching will inform how students experience learning
New technologies will help us challenge traditional paradigms such as class lectures, terms and modes of assessment. They will allow us imagine new ways of learning.
Researchers will offer live and real-time inputs to students and make learning fun and experiential. Peer-based formal and informal networks of students will be able to communicate with each other across the globe and with the teacher(s), giving way for new teaching and learning styles. In other words, university education will be marked by disaggregation of programmes into smaller courses, logically strung together for gaining specific competencies. Learning will happen at any point of the professional careers of students, who will seamlessly switch between work and learning.
Trend 4: Personalisation, customisation and contextualisation in all parts of the learning experience
Higher education of the future will become modularised and courses will be in a new paradigm beyond the three or four credits of today. Each chapter or learning module will become customised to suit different learning styles or even different teaching styles of faculty. And the content can come from different sources to meet the learners' aspirations and needs.
The main driver for students to enrol in higher education programmes will be "how to combat the obsolescence of knowledge and technology?"
Learning will not be confined to classes, but even outside. Students can be virtual apprentices for a researcher or in an industry, with one mentor leading dozens of students to become consummate professionals in the new age.
Trend 5: Degrees may lose their dominant position
As technology obsolescence and demand for new knowledge/new competences gather pace, curricular changes will need to be agile. Or HEIs will start looking for short courses to meet both demands. So the objective of study will not be merely for an ultimate degree. (Already a few multinational employers have said they are not particular about degrees. Rather, they want potential recruits to take up specific competency-based assessments to enter new age jobs).
So, four- year degrees with fixed branches and curriculums, the study of 30 courses across six-month semesters to add up to 160 credits and so on can all become passé. Universities and HEIs will then have to create pathways for youth to move in and out of university as part of a life-long learning cycle, and enable students to add up credits earned over long periods to gain a certificate, diploma or degree. But each course will be centred more on competence and skills than mere bookish knowledge. In essence, learners will take more control of the university experience and become the centre for all curriculum-making, pedagogical practices and competence building.
Thus, the main driver for students to enrol in higher education programmes will be "how to combat the obsolescence of knowledge and technology?"
Four- year degrees with fixed branches and curriculums, the study of 30 courses across six-month semesters to add up to 160 credits and so on can all become passé.
At the same time, HEIs will become acutely aware that what they teach students today has to prepare them for a fuzzier, unforeseeable future—how can we help them become global leaders and professionals in the 2020s and 2030s?
Indeed, it will be interesting to watch how Indian higher education wakes up to this possible scenario—a new disaggregated learning paradigm where a degree is not the motivator, but lifelong learning to keep acquiring new competencies is.
Don't wait for the change. Be the change agents
Rather than wait for this tsunami of change to hit them, Indian HEIs have to become change agents. They need to look at new types of pedagogy. They need to start creating short courses with sharp inputs and measurable results attained through differentiated assessments and tested via real time projects or case studies.
Within themselves, institutions have to train teachers in using technology to disseminate and share new knowledge to students and facilitate students to go beyond textbooks. They must convince students and parents to invest time and effort to learn outside the class. Universities have to build stronger bridges with professionals and industry, and also offer value-adding courses especially in emerging technology areas.
And they must take most important first step: trust the next generation. They need not be policed and disciplined. India's youth are clear about their needs. They want space to learn and enjoy the path of learning.
The authors are founders of Threesixtyone Degree Minds, a research and technology-based, higher education and learning company in Chennai.