Higher Education comes under the Mighty Hammer of Corona – Part 3

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This three-part series of blog is written by Marcy Newman, PhD & Murli Nagasundaram, PhD of Spruha Higher Educational Counselling Services. They have 57 years of combined experience in the field of higher education as professors based in the United States and as educators based in India.

As the Corona Crisis rages on with no discernible end in sight–save for wishful thinking on the part of some–there is a rising tide of debates and exchanges among colleges, students, parents, and governments on question: Will higher education as we know it, survive intact?

New Architectures for Education, New Opportunities for Indian Institutions

Thus far, Western, especially American, institutions have served as the benchmark for quality and processes, and aptly so: no other nation in the world has established and grown as large a network of top quality institutions that educate students who go on to stellar careers, across all academic disciplines. Even these outstanding institutions, however, are under tremendous pressure due to the pandemic to radically transform in ways as yet unknown. Nearly all agree, however, that whatever new academic architectures emerge out of this period of transformation, technology will be at the core of them all. As global as the pandemic is, so will it be necessary for higher education to be global in spirit as well as processes. And this requires the very extensive use of technology in all possible ways to support, augment and transform learning, as well as deliver it hundreds of millions to whom it has thus far been largely inaccessible.

Online education is a medium completely different from physical classroom education. It is neither feasible, justifiable or sensible to adhere to pre-online academic architectures. We are talking about an entirely new set of raw materials, learning methodologies, engagement protocols and media which will form the building blocks of New Education. We are now on the cusp of the emergence of entirely new learning architectures. Many experiments will be conducted to determine the nature of education possible with technology.

The Big Message of COVID is that the old architecture, which deserved to be pulled down, can no longer serve our purposes in the future. Western nations will adopt educational technologies at great speed to handle many, if not all the processes essential to running academic institutions.  They cannot afford to be caught napping the next time catastrophe strikes. The process of transformation of higher education has already begun, and in as little as five years, higher education will scarcely resemble what we see today.

The opportunity for Indian institutions

The best American and British institutions are going to make it through this crisis, as they have through WWI, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression of the 1930s, WWII and several severe economic downturns. Lesser institutions might not be as fortunate. Students from India and elsewhere that have been accepted into the most reputed institutions might yet choose to enroll in them despite the pandemic. Many students, both in India, and in countries in Asia and Africa might consider it worthwhile holding off on their plans to study in North America or Western Europe until the dust settles (assuming it does). They might also be weighing the pros and cons of spending the large sums charged by Western universities in case they will need to attend classes online indefinitely.

The COVID pandemic of 2020 is a point of inflexion for academic institutions everywhere, but especially so for Indian institutions. Indian higher education has been undergoing a gradual metamorphosis over the past three decades, ever since the economic liberalisation of 1991. Until that point, higher educational institutions were largely run by the Central or State governments.  Many universities that had stellar reputations since before 1947, have, sadly, decayed and deteriorated both in quality and reputation. Happily enough, numerous private institutions have emerged, and in a Darwinian marketplace, several have shot to the top based on the quality of their curriculum and instruction, calibre of students as well as faculty, and the strength of their physical infrastructure and efficiency of processes.

If the pattern of COVID cases holds with India being affected far less than western nations, then this pandemic might well present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Indian institutions to attract students who are undecided about whether to proceed overseas for higher studies.  To make this happen, Indian institutions must examine every possible means of using information technology to support and augment educational and administrative goals.

If Indian institutions go slow on adopting technology, they are in danger of looking like educational dinosaurs in comparison with western institutions in just a few years, obsolete and dysfunctional remnants of a bygone era. Most critically, students graduating from Indian institutions will find themselves at a disadvantage in the marketplace, when compared to students from not only the West, but also from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and other leading Asian nations. National goals very well could be jeopardised.

In addition, by adopting every form of technology that supports academic processes, Indian institutions will likely find that they can much more easily recruit students from a larger geography covering all of Asia, Africa, and perhaps, even Latin America.

Adopting information technology should not mean merely replicating current processes with technology. It would require that institutions rethink and redesign all their processes from the bottom up keeping in mind available technology as well as that coming rapidly down the pike.

Nalanda was at the heart of the global knowledge universe until the 12th century. Indian institutions, collectively, could become a New Nalanda for the Developing World with the intensive as well as extensive use of technology.

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