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From Mesopotamia to Incas and North China to Maya civilisations, learning has historically been discipline led and very focused. The institutions of learning were regarded as repositories of knowledge and wisdom, where people gathered to learn, research, and share new ideas. Knowledge has been stored in books that were bound to shelves in specific libraries. The people in need of knowledge would travel hundreds and thousands of miles to gain access to those resources.

Even from the start of the 21st century, students have flocked to universities as the principal sites of learning. However, online access to virtual libraries and audio/video resources from the most renowned institutions has added another dimension to teaching and learning that must be considered when looking at the role of a future university.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the interactions between students and their learning environment and has made institutions adapt technology at a very fast pace. It can be said that many parts of the traditional model of stand-up teaching have become obsolete overnight and the transition that was meant to be implemented over many years has occurred within a very short span of time.

The new tech savvy generation, equipped with an ‘instant’ knowledge acquisition nature, has made the job of universities harder and more intense. Universities can’t just disseminate bookish knowledge, rather they need to go a step further to satisfy the kinaesthetic needs of this generation and meet the industry requirements at the same time. The culture of learning has changed from intense study to rapid and ultra-relevant acquisition of knowledge and a greater emphasis on application of theory.

Online delivery and learning to learn The first and foremost impact on education is that the theoretical aspects of courses have moved online. These resources can be accessed from around the world and from the comfort of a learner’s environment. This has allowed universities to focus on research, application of knowledge and development of practical skills. Due to convergence between various fields, universities have become facilitators and enablers of exploration in a multi-discipline environment.

With the relative ease of internet facilitated learning and the variety of available tools for this purpose, it has become incumbent on universities to provide a mode of teaching that imparts learning skills. This allows stronger students to advance their knowledge and gives a facility which can benefit the weak as well. Learning to learn is a life-long skill which will benefit the individuals throughout their careers.

There will be a greater emphasis on the development of independent learners who can explore different possibilities and work out new solutions. Universities would provide online mentoring, coaching and direction along with sign posting to relevant resources.

University as a social space The pandemic has also made significant social changes in education. It has challenged the traditional teaching model and has had greater impact on student experience. University buildings are now more apt to become social spaces for people with similar, or even varied interests, where they can collaborate, experiment and benefit from each other. The university infrastructure would provide a greater immersion in the industry experience rather than a place for academic lectures. University resources would be more industry aligned and provide students with invaluable experience which they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

Focus on personal development Top skills of the future revolve around soft skills such as, leadership, time management, team work etc. There would be a greater emphasis on development of these skills along with technical or discipline lead experience acquisition. A combination of guided learning and self-guided learning with the help of elective units can establish a creative environment. Students of the future will be working in a multi-disciplinary environment because of convergence between various fields.

Free flowing off-line online courses Courses need to be redesigned to meet the needs of the learners and provide them sufficient flexibility to engage with other areas of the curriculum. They may opt to choose the number of credits they wish to take during a term, choose the subjects of interest from a multi-discipline offering.

Universities, in collaboration with industry partners would be offering credit bearing and non-credit bearing courses for skills development. These courses can be taken by students at any time, access to resources would be 24/7 and there is no rush to meet the specific deadlines. Students may opt to finish the course early by taking up more credits or slow down the pace and take longer due to lifestyle needs. This will enable fast paced learners to reach the industry more rapidly and gives sufficient time for slow paced ones to adapt and learn.

Industry relationship There would be a greater emphasis on courses designed in partnership with key industry players. Universities can produce bespoke degrees and short courses in collaboration with industry rather than mass producing untailored graduates. The study would turn more into work experience for students rather than a theoretical journey .

With readily available information and resources from multiple channels, education would be more personalised and practical rather than generic and standardized. Universities would benchmark the learning that has taken place within a multi-discipline framework.

Keeping in view the above, the whole HE sector is going through an interesting transition. Universities that would adopt these approaches will immensely do a great favour to their industry ready learners and provide industry ready graduates, resulting in higher employability and entrepreneurship.

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Dr Ajaz Ali

Ajaz Ali, a British Pakistani, holds a MBA from the University of Birmingham and doctorate in computer science from the University of Sunderland.

With over 15 years experience in the UK higher education sector and industry, Ajaz is currently working as academic head of digital technologies at Ravensbourne University London.

He tweets @DrAjazUK


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