Unprecedented times call for renewed thinking: What can the universities do to prepare for uncertainty?

It has been over a year since COVID-19 has struck havoc in all our lives.  This force of nature does not hold back on anyone and everyone is susceptible to its wrath. In India the 2nd wave of COVID has just been disastrous and as of May 1st India has 19,164,969 confirmed cases (WHO, 2021). The second wave of COVID-19 unlike its 1st version now is affecting the younger population. 18 to 30 years are becoming casualties to the virus and this is a major cause of concern for universities. 

Universities are spaces of intellectual discourse for all involved, the word  “University” has its origin from Latin “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, which means “community of teachers and scholars” (Encyclopedia, 2021). It is an place where young adults are shaped, and where curiosity meets discussion and debate. Universities are not just mere buildings that house students but an arena to exercise the freedom to explore, learn and make mistakes. Students give life to universities and they are the soul and spirit and without them, universities are just a collection of buildings without life.

The purpose of writing this short blog is to put forth certain ideas that the universities in India need to think as we fight this war on Covid whilst  keeping  the spirit and soul of the university alive and not compromise on the commitment, we have towards our students.

Digital Teaching & Learning

The UGC and every other state higher educational bodies have recommended that the classes should be moved online, so that the teaching activities are not stopped. I am sure most universities are doing there bit to improve their digital infrastructure to aid the demands of effective online teaching.  No more it is adequate enough to have a good digital infrastructure but what is more vital is effective training and support system provided for the teachers and students to teach and learn effectively online. 

Remember this form of teaching and learning is new for most teachers and students and universities need to realize this truism and work towards building  a robust system that can assist in crossing this learning curve.

One suggestion is to create digital teacher and student ambassadors within your universities. There is no shame in asking for help and more so there should be  no shame in learning from colleagues. 

For Teachers : Every department can identify 2 to 3 individuals that have a good grasp of teaching online that can act as facilitators to assist colleagues that are struggling. Regular meetings and the comforting thought of having a  colleague that is available to help will motivate the teachers to explore and learn new ways of teaching.

For Students : Similar to what has been recommended for teachers can be replicated for students as well. 

Constant training and updating on new technology is what is required at this point.  Online teaching is not just about converting university lecture notes to a PowerPoint presentation. It requires a dedicated  effort in Formulating, Synthetizing  and Presenting knowledge in a structured manner that is clear for the students. Moving forward it is vital that every university has a digital curriculum team that becomes a part of BOS ( Board of Studies) assisting teachers in preparing material to be taught online.

In a recent conversation I had with a few faculty colleagues from UK, one aspect of online teaching stood out i.e. –  how for them it is no longer about how to complete the prescribed curriculum online but more about how to make the online class more enjoyable learning experience for the students.

I think this is a vital element that universities authorities need to reinstate and motivate the faculty to start thinking about how to make  classes more effective, interesting and enjoyable experience for the students. 

Gamification, debates, group works etc. are some of the methods that teachers can use to make their classes more interesting.  Finding effective ways to assist digital teaching is just a google search away and each faculty needs to make a conscious effort to include interactive sessions in their teaching process. We should always remember that students are assets of the university and providing an enjoyable learning experience should be the priority of every teacher.  

Now the question that may arise is that; is it only the digital infrastructure that needs to be enhanced moving forward?  And the simple answer is yes, digital infrastructure is important but not just by itself!

The digital infrastructure is just the medium to reach students, but in order to provide a university experience universities should start creating platforms for students to engage with each other. Let me explain on what I mean by this:  As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog a university is a place where curiosity meets discussion and debate. Every session needs to be a conversation and not a lecture and should be interactive and live. Planning sessions with a limited number of students for short durations allowing them to debate and reflect on what is being learnt, should be the aim of every university. 

Students should be made aware that even if it is by means of online, being a part of university community has its own perks. Even though there are a lot of online courses and materials that provides opportunities for students to gain knowledge and offer certifications, in all true earnesty I believe that they are not a substitute to university education. Content that is available on these platforms are generally pre-recorded and dated. It is fine to use it as tools to assist in learning but cannot be substituted to the training programmes that are offered in a university setting.  Uncertainty is something that  all universities should be prepared as we move forward. Just as how the physical infrastructure of a university is being upgraded yearly, a conscious effort should be made by the university to develop their digital infrastructure as well.  COVID pandemic does not seem to stop any time soon and universities need to be equipped to deliver quality education for its students. 

As we pass through these troubling times it is very important to reassure both teachers and students that even though by online means, universities are still open. There might be many difficulties and even pandemics that are ahead of us, but universities have always stood the test of time to serve the society. These unprecedented times are no different, University will evolve and use the digital environment as their classrooms and more importantly bring in the aspect of human interaction to engage with students both in a personal and intellectual level. Don’t be bogged down by the roadblocks COVID has put forth due to the delay in 12th exams / results etc.  Universities will always be ready and open for anyone that is eager to learn and experience student life. Author : Christo Joseph ,FRSA.(PhD)Research Scholar, Lancaster University Director Strategy and Planning, Garden City University.

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