Towards imaginative universities of the future

As a self-appointed pandemic psychologist, I did not want to start this think piece with the C-word. The reality, however, is that hoping for a post COVID-19 world has been occupying many of our imaginations, and I am not immune from that.

With 250 million higher education students having experienced the greatest social experiment of their lives over this past year-and-a-half, it has been firmly established that digital is and will continue to be the new norm for the foreseeable future.

I do wonder, though, if our analogue brains have yet digitised our philosophies and pedagogies in readiness for these new norms, what it might take to develop digital-first pedagogies – beyond synchronous and asynchronous debates – and what first steps are needed to innovate in a digital-first higher education ecosystem?

The words of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti spring to mind when it comes to visualising the future of education. He is quoted as saying in 1966: “... There is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You, yourself, are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything.”

For Krishnamurti, a pioneer of education and a founder of several schools built through his non-profit foundation, education happened everywhere and wasn’t limited to the control and power of a teacher or the confinement of a classroom.

Fast forward to Rahul, a 10-year-old in India, who has been experiencing home schooling since March 2019. He complains of ‘annoying’ parents and siblings and other ‘noises’ in the background.

Surely this child and another 1.5 billion worldwide need a very different kind of digital university when they consider higher education in eight years? His future university is being (re)shaped in our living rooms, gardens and bedrooms right now.

Yet I am not sure that, beyond planning for the immediate physical-socio-economic shifts in our university realities, the collective senior global higher education leadership is considering preparing their university ecosystem for prospective learners of tomorrow like Rahul.

Considerations for university leaders

The pandemic warrants some honest ‘zooming in’ on senior management boardrooms and seizing the opportunity to take education in imaginative new directions.

Here are three ideas for university leaders to consider when it comes to shaping new models of higher learning in future-ready (new) universities of tomorrow:

The Degree versus Experience

The two typical categories in any résumé often work in tandem when shaping one’s career. Thus far, the degree or the qualification is ‘owned’ by the university and the experience section of the résumé is firmly shaped by the employer and employment history.

Is it time to fuse these so that the degree of the future is shaped through the future of work and vice versa? Is a genuine fusion, not just partnerships between universities and employers, long overdue?

We have had some excellent examples like Guild HE in the United Kingdom and Western Governors University from the United States, in this space. Both have developed careers- and outcomes-focused learning models that are also accessible, but perhaps more such models are needed, especially in Asia?

The ‘Practice’ University

Practice is an umbrella term, borrowed from the Mintzbergian school of thought, which argues that we need more managers, not MBAs – that is, practitioners equipped to handle ambiguity and messy real-world problems with intelligence.

A practice university not only mainstreams the conversation about challenge and problem-based learning, but flips this to deliver a context-driven model for learning, not a content-driven one.

The London Interdisciplinary School in the UK is a fine example of such a pedagogic emphasis, where the focus is on solving complex real-life problems around the world through the application of a multidisciplinary lens that blurs the boundaries between the arts, sciences and humanities.

This injection of context, however, raises issues of scalability and requires technology-based solutions that can simulate these contexts for a larger number of learner cohorts simultaneously. Riipen and MindSumo are among many that provide complementary solutions, but the Practice University should be founded on these principles.

Hyper-Personalised Learning

This is easier said than done. Rahul’s context is very different from that of little Tom in the UK or Mary growing up in the US. Every child, every learner, is unique, as are the opportunities and challenges ahead of them.

Perhaps generalised transmission, absorption and application of knowledge as the dominant model for universities require a deep rethink?

I am not suggesting that every university will migrate to this new model, or that it should, but young people growing up in a destabilised world deserve new models of education by which technology, in particular self-learning artificial intelligence, meets the psychological sciences to shape ‘genomic’ learning that is unique to each brain.

Adversity has often been a prerequisite for great innovation. I remain hopeful that proactive steps by university leadership can and will shift the sands of higher education to prepare us more confidently for Rahul’s university of the future.

Until then, Krishnamurti and Van Morrison continue to inspire edupreneurs shaping the future and the university of the future …

Professor Sonal Minocha is chief academic officer and co-CEO of Edvanza.